Theses Doctoral

Communist Miscellany: The Paperwork of Revolution

Chang, Jian Ming Chris

“Communist Miscellany” is a history of file-keeping and bureaucratic paperwork in Maoist China, examined through the institution of individual dossiers on Chinese subjects known as dang’an. Drawing upon an original sourcebase of deaccessioned archival dossiers, the project explores how the party-state bureaucracy fashioned an archive of Maoist society through scrupulous routines of investigative, clerical, and material labor.
In Maoist China, one of the primary responsibilities of local bureaucratic units was to compile detailed individualized dossiers on party members, cadres, workers and students under their jurisdiction. The dossier constituted a master record of a subject's social identity, probing issues of class status, personal background, family relationships, political activities and attitudes. Broadly instituted in the 1950s on the basis of the Soviet model, the stated purpose of the dossier system was to inform staffing decisions for personnel management in the planned economy. However, in the Mao era, the dossier was widely deployed as a surveillance instrument, producing a living archive of “political and historical problems” among the people. For ordinary citizens, materials gathered through the dossier were the basis of crucial class labels and the grounds for political advancement. The paper-bound practices of the dossier informed the generic presentation of identity and evidence while supplying material for everyday political acts.
This study of the dossier system engages current debates on bureaucratic culture, social surveillance, and archive in the PRC. A project of immense ambition, the dossier system straddled the imperatives of permanent revolution and socialist state-building to transcribe a record of Chinese society in the Maoist image. The continuous expansion of the dossier system over the Mao era gave rise to elaborate routines of file-keeping and paperwork as well as unexpected consequences of the bureaucratic will to knowledge. The bureaucratic tendency toward overaccumulation and excess in the production of dossier materials exposes the political and epistemic insecurities that drove social surveillance. The practical demands of the dossier system strained the ability of local bureaucrats to keep pace with requests for intelligence, shaping an approach to file-keeping that conceived its own distinctive forms of knowledge and incapacity.

Geographic Areas


  • thumnail for Chang_columbia_0054D_14899.pdf Chang_columbia_0054D_14899.pdf application/pdf 15 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Lean, Eugenia Y.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 7, 2018