“Each dossier is the life history, as it were, of a person living under socialism,” said Chris Chang. He was talking about his research on the dossier system in China during the Mao Zedong era, from 1949 through 1976. He has now spent the better part of a decade searching out and studying these historical documents, and the research has taken him all over China, connecting him with researchers, librarians, archivists, and document collectors. He’s now back at his PhD program at Columbia University to complete his dissertation. Chang took a break from writing to join the Research Matters editors at the SSRC offices in Brooklyn to talk about what he’s working on and his experience as an SSRC fellow (DPDF 2013; IDRF 2014).

Behind the scenes of our interview with Chris Chang at the SSRC office in Brooklyn, NY.

In the Mao era, the newly founded People’s Republic of China kept detailed records on nearly all of its citizens. Contents of these dossiers range from the mundane to the political to the intimate; combing through them, Chang has encountered employment histories, personal statements, records of political behavior, and even love letters. Taken together, they provide a window into the day-to-day lives of citizens living under a burgeoning surveillance state. By looking through that window, Chang is gaining important insights into the creation of the dossiers themselves and what that process reveals about the intersection of society and the state.

Chang’s interest in Chinese history came to him relatively late. “I sort of backed into China studies,” he said. Visiting his ancestral hometown of Nantong after college, he found himself in the midst of a society undergoing a rapid transformation: “It’s something you could see by walking down the street and seeing the juxtaposition of bun stalls and street-food vendors with gigantic malls that were going up right next to them. It felt like you could see the wheels of society turning . . . the pace of change and also the way the people were responding to economic development was very palpable.” As Chang buried himself in journalistic and academic sources to learn more about Chinese politics and history, he came to realize that graduate school offered the best option to explore the complex questions raised by his stay in the country.

When Chang saw the call for applications for the DPDF Critical Approaches to Human Rights research field, he knew fitting his project into the designated framework would be “a stretch.” “I was one of two participants working historically on the recent past; my sources were textual and archival; and none of my historical subjects explicitly mentioned the term ‘human rights.’” Looking back, though, he has come to see this sense of being an “outlier” in the program as a benefit rather than a weakness, a perspective he began to develop when he and the other eleven members of his cohort—graduate students in anthropology, sociology, geography, and other fields—gathered in Minnesota in the spring of 2013 for their first workshop. There, they shared their projects, bibliographies, and methodologies. “I was completely aware that I was stepping out of my field a little bit more than the other participants,” he says, “and that’s probably the best thing I could have done for myself.”

After the spring DPDF workshop, Chang traveled to China again for his exploratory research. But he maintained a close connection with his cohort. His DPDF research field directors, “Amy [Ross] and Chandra [Lekha Sriram], decided that we should have pen pals over the summer,” he recalled. Chang was paired with Azita Ranjbar, who was embarking on her own research trip to Iran. “She’s a feminist geographer, she’s finishing her PhD at Penn State, and, in addition to being an incredible scholar, she’s one of the most interesting people I know,” he said of Ranjbar. The two bonded over the similar resistance they encountered at their research sites—finding official documents in a country that kept a strict hold on its historical narrative proved difficult for Chang, and Ranjbar faced even more obstacles in Iran—and their correspondence provided “an incredible amount of intellectual but also emotional support during a process of research which oftentimes is very lonely and very self-isolating by design.”

Beijing Book Market
Panjiayuan (Beijing) Sunday Book Market at Dawn. Photo by Chris Chang.

By the time Chang returned from his DPDF research, he says, “I felt that I was in a very strong position to write up a prospectus and chart out a full year of fieldwork,” and when he received funding from the IDRF program for a year of dissertation research in China beginning in the fall of 2014, he felt confident about his proposal. But “the realities on the ground have a way of subverting your expectations.” He’d take lengthy bus rides or red-eye flights only to be turned away by sympathetic but unyielding archivists: “Oftentimes you’ll arrive at the archive and have archivists who want to help you—who think that there’s merit to your project—but feel that their hands are tied.”

Perhaps most challenging was that, in the two years between Chang’s exploratory summer research with his DPDF and his IDRF research, one of the main archives Chang had intended to use as a research site tightened access restrictions. “A number of files that I had been counting on were pulled back from ‘open access’ to ‘restricted.’ After that, I found it much more difficult than I had anticipated to track similarity and continuity between different local sites.”

Chang received guidance from other scholars facing the same obstacles. “I had to look for alternative ways to find historical sources that would speak to my topic,” he shared. With the aid of scholars, research librarians, archivists, and document collectors, Chang learned to utilize what are known in the field as “grassroots” sources. Grassroots sources are “archival documents that, since the 1990s, have been discarded in China due to overcrowding in Chinese archives and appeared in secondary book and paper markets.” By combining these findings with his work in official archives, Chang gradually accumulated a fruitful source base.

As Chang acclimated to the realities of archival research in China and its political sensitivities, he was also coming to terms with the limits of source material he was able to acquire. At first, he looked to his primary sources for “a more authentic or unmediated voice of everyday people living in socialist China” but eventually concluded that was “just impossible.” The window into the lives of socialist subjects presented by the dossiers proved more fractured than he had initially hoped. And the documents that seemed at first glance to be unmediated—autobiographies, personal history statements, confessions, self-criticisms—were in fact permeated by politics. “The types of political materials that are contained in the dossier are all performative,” Chang said—that is, they are the product of citizens performing for government officials to avoid negative political labels, and bureaucrats performing for their superiors to prove their worth.

Instead of seeing a dead end, Chang found the performative nature of these historical documents evoked new—and more interesting—lines of inquiry. As part of an effort to “perform knowledge” for higher-ups, bureaucratic investigators collected an overabundance of social information. This process produced dossiers inadvertently rich with the “minutiae of everyday life.” Chang read detailed accounts of “how much things cost, how long it took to get places, what familial relations or relationships between individuals and organizations would have been like.” While fascinating to researchers today, this wealth of detail actually impeded the government’s pursuit of total surveillance in the Mao era. Chang suggests, “The same anxiety that produced the dossier system also led to a kind of information overload or information glut, which paralyzed bureaucratic and administrative functions at critical times.” The quest for surveillance was thwarted by the excess of data.

Work unit files. Photo by Chris Chang.

Over the course of his IDRF research, it became clear to Chang that his project “was not just about petitions and appeals—it was concerned with bureaucracy, investigative practices, and the afterlives of files and paper.” His focus shifted to the ways in which “political and social projects . . . are activated through oftentimes unexpected, mundane, and marginal ways of doing things—like paperwork, organization, writing, filing, and classification.” With this realization, his collection of materials, vast and fragmented, started to come together. His dissertation, entitled “Communist Miscellany: The Paperwork of Revolution,” is as much about the process of creating the dossiers as it is about the lives of the subjects contained in them. “I’m trying to narrow in on a particular place where state and society intersected in a very tangible and empirical way,” he said.

As he writes his dissertation, Chang now finds himself immersed in the literature of his own field of modern Chinese history. But he credits the interdisciplinary nature of his SSRC fellowships—and the relationships he formed with interdisciplinary scholars through them—with teaching him how to go about “answering that very daunting ‘so what?’ question, which is something that I think in our own disciplinary and methodological contexts we can afford to sometimes put off or leave unexplained.”