Social Media and the Production of Historical Knowledge of the Mao Era*
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter explores the influence of social media on the (re)formation of social memory and the production of alternative historical knowledge in Chinese society. It investigates several contested debates on Weibo over historical events and figures in the Mao era, arguing that social media embraces a wide variety of diverse individuals as subjects who contribute to various mnemonic practices, facilitates the crowdsourcing and aggregation of alternative narratives of the past as counter-hegemonic discourse, and cultivates the production of historical knowledge as an easily retrievable and re-activatable process. The chapter concludes that the integration of fragmented, individual memories into historical knowledge and the facilitation of diversified mnemonic practices on Weibo re-construct the maintenance and production of historical knowledge in the long run in contemporary China.
Since memory is actually a very important factor in struggle … if one controls people’s memory, one controls their dynamism.1
In the summer of 2015, Chinese authorities launched a full-scale national propaganda campaign to “rectify the names of the heroes.”2 Key official news organizations, including Xinhua News Agency, China National Radio, People’s Daily (Renmin ribao 人民日報), Guangming Daily (Guangming ribao 光明日報), China Daily, and Global Times, are all engaging in the campaign with a cascade of reports responding to widespread skepticism about the stories of the heroes and growing cynicism towards these stories on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform.3 These events exemplify a relevant, but less investigated topic about the political influence of social media in contemporary China: in addition to facilitating protests in contemporary contentious events,4 social media aids the emergence, dissemination, and dissension of contested historical information. These emergent narratives may (p.62) challenge the authorized knowledge of the past in society and force the authorities to respond to this information.
To fill this gap, this chapter investigates the influence of social media—Weibo 微博 in this case—on the social memory and the production of historical knowledge of the Mao era in contemporary China. More specifically, it looks at how people use Weibo to interrogate the official knowledge of the past, articulate their individual memories, and reconstruct social memory, all of which shape the production of historical knowledge of the Mao era in a society. I first introduce a theoretical framework of social media, social memory, and the production of historical knowledge. Second, I briefly elaborate our methodological issues, and follow this with an overview of selected cases on Weibo—several contested debates over an historical event (i.e., the Great Famine)5 and historical figures in the Mao era, such as Lei Feng 雷鋒, Huang Jiguang 黃繼光, and Qiu Shaoyun 邱少雲, once national role models but now controversial figures on Weibo. Third, I dissect how people use Weibo both to question and satirize the official discourse and knowledge of this event and figures, and to articulate and disseminate alternative historical stories and counter-narratives of the past that the public had previously never been able to know about. I conclude with thoughts on the political influence and implications of Weibo on the (re)construction of social memory and the mechanism of production of historical knowledge in contemporary China.
Social Memory in Social Media: A Research Agenda
Halbwachs in his work On Collective Memory6 establishes a foundational framework for the study of societal remembrance. Collective memory represents a society’s understanding of its past, defines the relationship between the individual and society, and enables a community to preserve its self-image and to transfer it through time. However, as Halbwachs explicates, “collective memory must be distinguished from history.”7 Instead, it is “essentially a reconstruction of the past in the light of the present.”8 In this process, for individuals, memories are de facto a manipulated construction of those who maintain power and status and who supervise the images of the past. More specifically, Halbwachs underlines the key role of the “social frameworks for memory,”9 within which individuals localize, organize, understand, and remember commemorative events in mnemonic landscapes. As Halbwachs argues, “it is to the degree that our individual thought places itself in (p.63) these frameworks and participates in this memory that is it capable of the act of recollection.”10
In the following decades, scholars advanced Halbwachs’s work in various ways, in particular, elucidating the relation between power and the (re)construction of memory. In their seminal review on social memory studies, Olick and Robbins observe the politics of memory contestation and stress that “explicitly past-oriented meaning frameworks are prominent modes of legitimation and explanation.”11 In this sense, the memorial presence of the past becomes both a tool and an object of power that is subject to contestation, appropriation, and transformation at different points in time.
Although the dominant may exert considerable influences on the framing of the memory, as Steiner and Zelizer12 point out, collective memory is a process that is constantly unfolding, changing, and transforming.13 In practice, the process of (re-) shaping collective memory is thereby “dynamic and unexpected.”14 One particularly vibrant area of discussions concerning this kind of memory negotiation and contestation emerges from Foucault’s notion of “counter-memory,” which refers to memories that runs different from, and often counter to, the official (frameworks of) history.15 In particular, counter-memory involves the memorialization—the politics of mnemonic practices—of forgotten, suppressed, or excluded histories as a crucial way of resisting oppression and dominant ideologies.16 Memory contestation thus epitomizes the struggle between the dominant and the subordinate in a society and influences the production of historical knowledge.
Among many factors, Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) play an emerging role in the process of formatting, constructing, and mediating memory and commemorative practices.17 Given its technological assets, such as openness, accessibility, availability, and interactivity, social media not only enables (p.64) but also encourages alternative and counter-historical narratives to emerge and proliferate, giving rise to unofficial versions of history.18 In the case of China, few studies note that digital media, including virtual museums and Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), allow ordinary people to engage in the narrative of localized histories and personal stories about, for instance, memories of the Cultural Revolution (CR).19 As Yang observes, the memory boom facilitated by digital media—in particular, counter-narratives about the CR—leads to “the opening of China’s political spaces.”20
Existing studies, however, keep their focus on weblogs, giving less attention to the emerging role of Weibo in constructing the memorial presence of the past. To fill this gap, this study explores the role of Weibo in (re)shaping social memory in contemporary China. It dissects what kinds of narratives of the past have been articulated and circulated on Weibo. Who has been circulating these narratives? How are these narratives on Weibo different from the official narrative, or the dominant social framework for memory? And how and to what extent do the narratives of the past on Weibo challenge or change the social memory and further affect the production of historical knowledge in the long run in China?
This study employs a multiple-case study design21 to look into the acts of memorialization on Weibo; in particular, how Weibo articulates (the query about) the narrative of the past and the ways in which it shapes social memory through these acts. Sampled cases were drawn from contestations of historical events and figures in the Mao era, including debates over the Great Famine22 and over historical figures such as Lei Feng, Dong Cunrui 董存瑞, Huang Jiguang, and Qiu Shaoyun, who were once national role models or national martyrs but are now controversial figures on Weibo.23
(p.65) I present data collected through participant observation and immersion24 in the cases on Sina Weibo, the most popular social media platform in China with more than five hundred million users, or over one-third of the Chinese population. This methodology can be described as ethnography in virtual worlds. I also gathered the tweets and postings by doing keyword searches (including Zhibo Lin 林治波, “Da Jihuang” 大饑荒 [great famine], “Sannian Ziran Zaihai” 三年自然災害 [three years of natural disasters], and “Sannian Jingji Kunnan” 三年經濟困難 [three years of economic difficulty] in the case of the Great Famine and the names of the figures in the remaining cases) on Sina Weibo. The tweet corpus included 354 tweets after the cleanup (e.g., removing spam tweets such as advertisements and other unrelated tweets) from a total of 428 tweets. I also collected information from publications and media reports about the debates on the cases as objects of analysis.25
I then conducted an analysis of data from Weibo and traditional media. Two native Chinese speakers read the tweets, looked for core themes, categorized them, and highlighted key phrases and statements to identify explanations that would respond to the research questions and that helped us develop new insights. We did not develop a systematic representation of the codes and calculate their frequency. While there was not an explicit test of intercoder reliability for assuring consistency of content interpretation26 and the frequency of the thematic elements given the inductive nature of this study, there was broad agreement with regard to the discussions that were found. I also integrated our field notes into the analysis.
After data collection, an explanation-building approach and a cross-case synthesis27 were employed to dissect various mnemonic practices on Weibo through which people engaged with narratives of the past. The cases highlight issues of special relevance for an understanding of the long-term influence of Weibo on social memory, beyond a simple realization of sporadic contentious possibility.
The cases include the debates covering two types of historical narratives, memories, and descriptions of the past: one focuses on a historical topic such as the Great Famine.28 The other discusses historical figures. In general, the debate demonstrates a distinct disjunction and disarticulation between individual narratives and memories and the authorized narratives and frameworks of the past.
The debate over the Great Famine
The debate over the Great Famine on Weibo was triggered by Lin Zhibo, the head of the Gansu Province branch of the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Using his verified account stating his affiliation and with over 230,000 Weibo followers, on April 29, 2012, Lin questioned reports that the Great Famine death toll, between 1960 and 1962, reached into the multimillions. He asserted that this number was a conspiracy “to defile Chairman Mao by utilizing the exaggerated slander of millions of people dying of starvation.”29
Lin’s tweet quickly ignited outrage among Weibo users, with strong criticism directed towards his denial of the starvation and deaths of millions in the early 1960s. The tweet was retweeted over 7,000 times within the four hours after it was first published, with the original tweet receiving more than 5,000 comments, most of which were scorching critiques. Weibo users also started to explore and distribute various kinds of historical materials that demonstrated conclusively that millions of deaths occurred in the early 1960s due to the famine, which has long been a politically taboo topic in China.30 These materials included, among others, previously hard-to-access CCP archives and documents, rarely seen government statistics, banned or censored academic works, documentary films, and long-forgotten personal memoirs, stories, and shared memories about that period.31 The various mnemonic activities related to the exploration of the Great Famine on Weibo articulated a contrapuntal memory of the period against the official one that never admitted that the famine actually happened, which fundamentally contributed to the process of recognition and reconstruction of the social memory of the famine. (p.67) For instance, an online survey after the debate, with over 12,000 Weibo users participating, showed that seven out of ten participants believed the conclusion that thirty million people—or even more—starved to death over the three-year period of 1959 through 1962, which is quite a bit more than the official narrative, which reported that about ten million died.32 In this process, the term the “Great Famine,” which calls for reflection upon the famine as a political calamity that was “born [out] of the system of totalitarianism,”33 is gradually taking the place of the ones favored by the authorities that attribute millions of deaths by starvation to either natural disasters or the Soviet Union’s treachery.34
The debates over historical figures on Weibo
The debates over historical figures on Weibo include doubts over their actual existence or details of their biographies, accusations that these heroes were actually corrupt and profligate, and cynicism toward the official narratives of their heroism. The debate over Lei Feng—an iconic Mao-era soldier who exemplified unswerving devotion to communist ideology and fanatic loyalty to the leader of the CCP35—fermented on Weibo at the beginning of March 2012, around the time that the government commemorated Lei Feng with the annual “Learn From Lei Feng Day,” on March 5, a holiday initiated by Mao Zedong in 1962.36 The government’s effort to exalt and resuscitate the unconditional self-sacrifice and obedient patriotism of Lei Feng, however, evoked unprecedented controversy, criticism, incredulity, and cynicism toward the authenticity of the historical story of Lei Feng on Weibo.37 More specifically, some expressed their skepticism about the authenticity of his diaries that contain unsupported details about how he helped people and expressed his great spirit. For instance, many questioned how it was possible that Lei Feng, who was “nearly illiterate,” could have composed voluminous diaries with literary flourish and flawless language.38 Others doubted the authenticity of pictures shot by professional photographers of Lei Feng in the act of doing good deeds, even though he was at the time still an obscure soldier.39
(p.68) Among others, Ren Zhiqiang 任志強, a property developer and a Weibo celebrity40 with over 35 million Weibo followers, argued that
as a tamed tool for class struggle, the image of Lei Feng has been established to meet the needs of the Cultural Revolution. After turning all citizens into screws that can be willfully placed anywhere,41 there is no need for democracy, human rights, or freedom [in China]. [March 12, 2012]42
Ren’s tweet was forwarded over 27,000 times within 24 hours, with over 10,000 comments, most of which echoed his argument and backed it up with Weibo users’ own reflections upon “the ridiculous brainwashing stories” from “the wretched propaganda campaigns” in their memories, such as the one about Lei Feng.43
Meanwhile, public cynicism proliferated towards the authorities’ effort to “authenticate” Lei Feng and his life’s tales.44 For instance, after Zhang Jun 張峻, a retired military photographer who produced over two hundred images of Lei Feng, died of a heart attack while speaking out against suspicions about the authenticity of Lei Feng’s stories and photos—“I will die on the spot if I have had half-a-word lie!”—Weibo users noted satirically that “Zhang finally paid the price after he was a liar his whole life (about Lei Feng’s story).”45 Although the authorities launched a national campaign to combat the widespread controversy and cynicism regarding Lei Feng’s story, the debate continues on Weibo as an increasing number of suspicions of the official narrative spring up. Along with the debate, more and more Weibo users are refusing to regard Lei Feng as an unquestionable role model as in the official narrative of commemoration.
Similar to the incredulity over the authenticity of Lei Feng’s stories, skepticism has raged on Weibo about the truth of the tales of several historical figures, such as Huang Jihuang, who hurled himself against an enemy machine gun to block its fire, Qiu Shaoyun, who chose to burn to death to protect his unit’s location, and Dong (p.69) Cunrui, who sacrificed his life with his left hand lifting a package of explosives under an enemy’s bunker until it detonated.46 Some challenged the idea that Qiu’s ability to remain silent while burning to death defies their understanding of human physiology. Others argued that Huang’s story was fabricated because it was impossible to block bullets fired by a strafing machine gun using one’s body. For Dong Cunrui, Weibo users believed the improbable heroic deed was pure imagination because nobody saw it. This doubt and questioning of historical heroes’ authenticity snowballed on Weibo, despite the government’s effort to “authenticate the historical stories of these heroes” by large-scale propaganda campaigns.
Findings and Discussions
In the debates over this particular historical event and these public figures, Weibo provides a platform for individuals to participate in narrating the past in different ways. Abundant historical materials that were previously either unavailable to the public or banned from publication due to the censorship—in particular, individual memories and experiences that have been unknown to people up to now—finally came to light as the debate evolved. As counter- and alternative frameworks for social memories, the articulation, dissemination, and aggregation of these materials emerge, develop, and proliferate on Weibo very quickly, with enormous influence on society. These frameworks argue against, query, or satirize the official, orthodox frameworks for historical narratives, further generating and superimposing new historical knowledge. The archiving and storage of these materials on Weibo also allows them to be easily retrieved and reactivated. In this way, Weibo cultivates the dynamics of social remembering as a crowdsourcing, continuous, accumulating, and latent process, which shapes the commemoration of historical issues in Chinese society in the long run.
The engagement of individuals into the practice of narrating the past
With the development of digital technologies, the emergence of weblogs allows witnesses of historical events to share their memories without depending on mass communication.47 Different from digital media such as weblogs or BBS, social media further open up opportunities for individuals to engage in narrating the past via various mnemonic practices.48
In China, sites dedicated to the maintenance and (re)production of the historical past, such as educational institutions, museums, and mass media, were once monopolized by the party-state. This allowed the authorities to claim to speak (p.70) about the past in the voice of the nation, while leaving the ordinary person almost no space to speak up without accepting and following the official frameworks for memory. In the cases we have presented here, however, a large number of individuals have involved themselves in various mnemonic practices of the historical issues on Weibo. More specifically, the participants in the debates include not only those who previously monopolized or had access to the narrative of the past, such as the government and its controlled mass media (via their verified Weibo accounts), but also people from all walks of life, whether they experienced these historical events or not. For instance, in the case of the Great Famine, both Weibo celebrities49 and ordinary users joined the debate by articulating, commenting, and distributing narratives, stories, memoirs, and numbers over the historical period to a wider scope.
Most importantly, this process characterizes the emergence and recognition of the individual narrative, memoir, and memory of the past, be it from a Weibo celebrity or from an ordinary person. For instance,
@Kai-fu Lee 李開復: In 1960, my grandma died of hunger. Both my uncle and his two kids passed away in those years. [Although I am] not sure if the reason was starvation, but their deaths definitely had something to do with the environment of that time. [17:53, April 29, 2012]
@Z Chunlei @Z 春雷 [Weibo nickname]: I was born in the 1980s, so I did not have any experience with the famine. However, my mother who was born in the 1950s often told me stories of starvation during that period [from 1959 to 1961] … The most impressive one is that a beggar begged my grandma for something to eat, which my grandma refused. The beggar kept on walking for less than 500 meters and then died at the entrance of the village.
@Bei Dafei @被打飛 [Weibo nickname]: My parents’ hometown is located in the northern part of Suzhou city. I called them and asked whether there were people who died of hunger during the Great Famine. My father said that one hungry cousin came to visit his neighbor for something to eat. However, the neighbor did not have extra food to give him. After a few days, the cousin died of hunger. My mother said that quite a few children ate too much potherb and were poisoned to death, including the little daughter of her high school headmaster.50
The tweets embody the point that Weibo users—no matter if they are a celebrity or an ordinary person—and their family members, including those that experienced the Great Famine period but had never shared their experiences, stories, and memories with others as they did not have Weibo accounts or due to the lack of internet access, joined the debate, directly or indirectly, as individuals by speaking out about their personal memories. These individual historical narratives introduce (p.71) concrete human beings and their experiences of suffering into the commemoration of the past, a perspective that has been largely missing from existing narratives and memories of the past.51
Similar incidents have occurred in the debates over historical figures, during which Weibo has offered unprecedented opportunities for individuals to question, criticize, or satirize the official historical narratives. This process consequently breaks the regime’s monopoly on the access to narratives of the past by acknowledging and integrating individuals’ remembrances and mnemonic practices into the recollection of the past, and by introducing and accumulating alternative and counter-frameworks of memory against the official one.
The establishment of counter- and alternative frameworks for memories
The debates on Weibo engender the articulation, accumulation, and proliferation of alternative and counter-historical narratives about the historical period and figures through crowdsourcing, with Weibo users voluntarily involving themselves in different kinds of mnemonic practices through various media texts.
More specifically, Weibo allows its users to post and distribute information in various modes, such as text, photos, music, short videos, or a combination of multimodal contents. It is also possible to embed long-form content and links from other websites into the tweet. Tweets on Weibo, therefore, become content-rich, descriptive, and vivid. Many of the historical archives and documentaries that were previously unavailable to the public have now been presented on Weibo and exposed to the public for the first time.
For instance, in the case of the Great Famine, historical materials, including the CCP’s documents and archives,52 books that had been censored by the government,53 and overseas documentaries that people rarely encountered before, have recently been tweeted and diffused to a wide audience to testify to the existence of the famine.
Among them, one of the most prominent materials includes stories from Tombstone: An Account of Chinese Famine in the 1960s (Mubei: Zhongguo liushi niandai dajihuang jishi 墓碑——中國六十年代大饑荒紀實), hereafter Tombstone.54 Uncovering a series of colossal tragedies, including instances of cannibalism, and the continued systematic efforts of the CCP to cover up the history of the Great Famine, Tombstone has been banned in the Chinese mainland. Nevertheless, its (p.72) influence has snowballed in debates over the Great Famine on Weibo, after people quoted it or referred to the stories in it. For instance,
@Huoshan Baiyang @火山白楊 [Weibo nickname, verified as a journalist from Xinhua News Agency]: I was born in the mid-1970s … so I did not have any experience with the famine deaths in the 1960s. But my elders told me quite a few stories, and I also read Yang Jisheng’s Tombstone. I believed in what they said. [4:52, April 30, 2012]
Similarly, in the debates over historical figures, Weibo users dug up and further tweeted lesser-known texts, a majority of which had never appeared or been circulated in the media before. For instance, the image of Lei Feng on a motorcycle in front of Tiananmen Square immediately attracted extraordinary attention and distribution on Weibo, as the official narrative never associates Lei Feng with the concept of “luxury”—having a motorcycle in 1960s.
Most importantly, the accumulation of these historical materials entails a fundamentally different narrative of the historical period and figures from this time than those provided by the dominating official discourse as the prescribed, authorized social framework of memory. Criticism and cynicism towards the official, orthodox—and previously hegemonic—framework accordingly emerged, and were widely diffused.
For instance, the historical materials and archives crowdsourced by Weibo users about the Great Famine not only highlight the enormous number of thirty million as the population that suffered from starvation during the period of 1959 to 1962, but also excoriate both the CCP’s mistaken policy and the practice of holding back the truth about these mistakes made by the authorities. These narratives are significantly different from the official discourse and the dominant memorial framework of the period, which, according to either the official chronicle of the CCP55 or historical textbooks,56 never used the term “The Great Famine.” Instead, in describing this period as the “Three Years of Economic Difficulty” or the “Three Years of Natural Disasters,” the official narrative of the historical period between 1959 and 1961 attributes the fact that around ten million population were wiped out by starvation to a series of unavoidable natural disasters and the Soviet Union’s “perfidious” withdrawal of experts and technicians from China and its request for payment for its industrial hardware, which exacerbated an already difficult situation and sped up the loss of population.57
(p.73) However, a totally different narrative of the period has been established on Weibo, with its users speaking up and accumulating counter- and alternative narratives of the period against the official framework. For one thing, people aggregated alternative stories, memoirs, and memories either from their own experiences or from their family to testify to the actual existence of the famine, which had been denied by the authorities and questioned by Lin’s tweet. These stories and memories, previously largely unknown to the public, had thereby been a relevant part of the proof of the famine and became known to more people. For instance,
@Lu Gongmin @盧公民 [Weibo nickname]: Between 1958 and 1960, my great-grandmother, seven people in my grandparents’ generation, my aunt and my uncle, a total of ten people, starved to death, one by one, in Tongwei County, Gansu Province. [10:09, May 1, 2012]
@Coding worker Zhao Ye @碼農趙野 [Weibo nickname, verified as a journalist]: Just ended a call with my father, who mentioned that during the Great Famine period in 1960s … there were over one hundred people who died in our village … in Caohu Village, Anhui Province … @Lin Zhibo If Director Lin is interested, I can bring you to my hometown and carry out some interviews. People there aged sixty or older all have similar memories [of the Great Famine] during that period. [23:23, May 1, 2012]
Alternative historical narratives also came from memoirs of Party cadres. For instance, @Qinglou Zhishang @青樓直上 (Weibo nickname) quoted the memoir by a veteran cadre Li Lei, the then-secretary of the party committee in Linxia state, Gansu Province, in which Li revealed that “588 people ate 337 human bodies in ten communes in Linxia city” during the Great Famine.58
Moreover, Weibo users collected different materials to argue against the death toll in the dominant framework of memory, which only admitted that around ten million of the population starved to death.59 For instance, with over two million Weibo followers, economist Mao Yushi 茅于軾 proposed his way of accounting for the death toll and estimated that the number would be thirty-six million [19:56, April 30, 2012]. Historical scholar Lei Yi 雷頤, who has over 270,000 followers, introduced two published works—demographer Cao Shuji’s article and Dutch historian Frank Dikötter’s book—which estimated that the death toll was either 32.5 million (Cao) or 45 million (Dikötter) [9:19, May 1, 2012]. Ordinary Weibo users also offered statistics they read from academic and historical documents and demonstrated their opinions about the death toll. Xiyue Jianglang 西嶽江郎 (Weibo nickname), for instance, presented the numbers raised by American Sinologist Basil Ashton and Ansley J. Coale, former chair of the Population Association of America. (p.74) According to his tweet, Ashton estimated that there were around “thirty million excess deaths and about thirty-three million lost or postponed births,” while Coale believed the death toll to be closer to twenty-seven million. As more and more Weibo users participated in searching, posting, and forwarding various historical materials, they further aggregate into alternative and counter-frameworks. Such frameworks not only greatly challenge the authorities’ framework for memory by shaping the online debate, but also establish the concept of the Great Famine, which gradually replaced the “Three Years of Economic Difficulty” and the “Three Years of Natural Disasters” terms in later online surveys.
Apart from the emergence of alternative and counter-frameworks, doubt and cynicism over the established historical narrative also force authorities to revise official narratives of the figures or to admit to shallow propaganda efforts in those years. In the case of Lei Feng, authorities modified their narrative, albeit not fundamentally, of Lei as a god-like ideal after the photo of him riding on a motorcycle in front of Tian’anmen went viral and drew criticism on Weibo.60 Instead, they acknowledged that Lei Feng was also a fashionable young man, and accordingly he “did almost all the fashionable things of his day,” such as “wearing a fashionable leather jacket” and “riding on a borrowed motorcycle” to take a photo—all of which would have been considered to be luxury items at the time. In the face of doubts over the authenticity of Lei Feng’s impossibly squeaky-clean photos, the authorities admitted for the first time that some of these photos had been posed shots (bupai 補拍), instead of candid photos as they had previously asserted.61 In short, the authorities’ framework of historical narratives underwent gradual transformation in the face of alternative and counter-narratives and historical materials on Weibo. In this sense, Weibo entails a long-term influence on social remembrance and the framework for memory by facilitating the integration of newly emerging, crowdsourced information from diversified subjects into the production of historical knowledge.
The changing mechanism of the production of historical knowledge
The debate over the narrative of the past on Weibo, including the involvement of individuals that speak up about their memories, experiences, doubts, criticisms, and sense of cynicism toward the official historical narrative and the emergence of counter- and alternative frameworks against the once-monopolized official framework for memory, crystallizes a crucial influence of social media on society and politics in contemporary China. While social media such as Weibo empowers people to organize contentious activities in contemporary contested events, it also allows (p.75) them to engage in various mnemonic practices, through which people (re)construct social memory and further shape the production of historical knowledge in the society. More specifically, social media entails the transformation of the mechanism of the production of historical knowledge from the following three perspectives.
First, social media invites individuals into the production of the knowledge of the past by expanding opportunities for them to join in various kinds of mnemonic practices. With social media, individuals, with or without alternative memories that differ from the official story, are able to act as active subjects of history and memory in commemorative activities—in our study, they speak up about previously unknown or lesser known memories and experiences, share alternative and counter-narratives, or question and challenge the authenticity of official stories. New knowledge of the past emerges and is disseminated in this process, which consequently challenges, if not ends, the monopoly of the memory production mechanism held by the authorities.
Second, social media offer a platform to aggregate individual mnemonic narratives and practices into alternative and counter-frameworks of the past. These frameworks not only challenge the hegemonic, official framework, but also encourage further participation of ordinary people in the process of social remembering. Alternative and counter-memories of the past serve as a political means—and, in some case, facilitate political challenges—against the dominant power and its ideologically constructed history. In practice, as more and more social media users join the process of crowdsourcing and distribution, the accumulation of these memories and frameworks aggregate previously isolated, fragmented, or unorganized individual stories and experiences against the official framework, making participants recognize that they are not a minority with (officially) unrecognized memories in a society. This accordingly encourages more people to stand up and speak up about their alternative memories and experiences. Moreover, as soon as these alternative and counter-memories, discourses, and frameworks are diffused on social media, to ban or delete them completely becomes impossible, which allows more people to read different voices from the official one and further join the discussion and participate in these mnemonic practices.
Third, by storing and archiving historical materials, including the debate, in a digitally networked sphere, social media make them easily retrievable with the potential to be reactivated. More specifically, people can easily search, retrieve, revisit, and reflect upon the material. In addition, the easy retrievability embeds the possibility to reactivate the process of narrating the past any time by reengaging people into the production of historical narratives.62 In this way, the commemoration of the past is being continually produced, accessed, and updated. To summarize, (p.76) Weibo cultivates the dynamics of social remembering as a crowdsourcing, continuous, accumulating, and latent process, which shapes the commemoration of historical issues in Chinese society in the long run.
The growing ubiquity of digital media has facilitated changes in political culture and power structure around the world. This chapter looks at the use of social media in the production of (alternative) historical knowledge and the (re)formation of social memory in contemporary China. It takes several contested debates over historical events and figures in the Mao era on Weibo as cases to understand how social media enable individuals to articulate and accumulate their experiences and memories, question and interrogate the established framework for memory, and shape social memory in contemporary China. This study shows that social media embrace wide and diversified subjects to engage in the production of historical knowledge and facilitate the dissemination of alternative frameworks of memory as counter-hegemonic discourse. The integration of fragmented, individual experiences and memories into the general historical knowledge and the facilitation of diversified mnemonic practices accordingly constructs the social memory of the society and facilitates long-term social and cultural changes in contemporary China.
The author deeply appreciates Hui Zhao’s help in data collection and thanks Sebastian Veg and the two anonymous reviewers for their comments which helped to improve the manuscript.
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(*) This chapter is a revision of the paper “Who Speaks for the Past? Social Media, Social Memory, and the Production of Historical Knowledge in Contemporary China,” The International Journal of Communication 12 (2018): 1675–95.
(1.) Michel Foucault, “Film and Popular Memory,” Edinburgh Magazine 2 (1977): 22.
(2.) Guanghui Ni, “We and the Heroes Are Together,” People’s Daily, July 27, 2015, 6.
(3.) For instance, “Xinhuashe Tuichu ‘Wei Yingxiong Zhengming’ Xilie Baodao Yinfa Qianglie Fanxiang” 新華社推出《為英雄正名》系列報道引發強烈反響 [“The series of reports on ‘rectification of heroes’ by Xinhua News Agency evoke a strong response,”], Xinhua, July 7, 2015, last modified May 20, 2017, http://news.xin-huanet.com/politics/2015-06/23/c_1115700082.htm. “War heroes under fire,” Global Times, May 13, 2015, last modified May 22, 2017, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/921505.shtml. “Making Fun of War Martyr Online Lands Internet User in Court,” China Daily, July 9, 2015, last modified May 22, 2017, http://europe.chinadaily.com.cn/2015-07/09/content_21238079.htm.
(4.) For instance, Ronggui Huang and Xiaoyi Sun, “Weibo Network, Information Diffusion and Implications for Collective Action in China,” Information, Communication & Society 17 (2014): 86–104. Jingrong Tong and Landong Zuo, “Weibo Communication and Government Legitimacy in China,” Information, Communication & Society 17 (2014): 66–85.
(5.) For more information, see Jisheng Yang, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962, trans. Stacy Mosher and Jian Guo (New York: Macmillan, 2012).
(6.) Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, trans. Lewis A. Coser (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
(8.) Lewis A. Coser, “Introduction: Maurice Halbwachs 1877–1945,” in On Collective Memory, ed. Maurice Halbwachs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 34, emphasis added.
(11.) Jeffrey K. Olick and Joyce Robbins, “Social Memory Studies: From ‘Collective Memory’ to the Historical Sociology of Mnemonic Practices,” Annual Review of Sociology 24 (1998): 108.
(12.) Linda Steiner and Barbie Zelizer, “Competing Memories,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 12 (1995): 218–19.
(13.) Also see Iwona Irwin Zarecka, Frames of Remembrance: The Dynamics of Collective Memory (New York: Transaction Publishers, 1994).
(15.) Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980).
(16.) For instance, see Daphne Berdahl, “‘(N)Ostalgie’ for the Present: Memory, Longing, and East German Things,” Ethnos 64 (1999): 192–211. Jens Brockmeier, “Remembering and Forgetting: Narrative as Cultural Memory,” Culture & Psychology 8 (2002): 15–43. Anthony L. Brown, “Counter-Memory and Race: An Examination of African American Scholars’ Challenges to Early Twentieth Century K-12 Historical Discourses,” The Journal of Negro Education 79 (2010): 54–65. Richard S. Esbenshade, “Remembering to Forget: Memory, History, National Identity in Postwar East-Central Europe,” Representations 49 (1995): 72–96.
(17.) For instance, see Ekaterina Haskins, “Between Archive and Participation: Public Memory in a Digital Age,” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 37 (2007): 401–22. Aaron Hess, “In Digital Remembrance: Vernacular Memory and the Rhetorical Construction of Web Memorials,” Media, Culture & Society 29 (2007): 812–30. Mordechai Neiger, Oren Meyers, and Eyal Zandberg, On Media Memory (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). José van Dijck, Mediated Memories in the Digital Age (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007).
(18.) For instance, see Michelle A. Amazeen, “The Politics of Memory: Contesting the ‘Convention Night’ Version of This Historic Day,” Media, Culture & Society 36 (2014): 679–90. Christian Pentzold and Vivien Sommer, “Digital Networked Media and Social Memory,” Aurora. Revista de Arte, Mídia e Política 10 (2011): 72–85. Anna Reading, “Digital Interactivity in Public Memory Institutions,” Media, Culture & Society 25 (2003): 67–85.
(19.) Guobin Yang, “A Portrait of Martyr Jiang Qing: The Chinese Cultural Revolution on the Internet,” in Re-envisioning the Chinese Revolution: The Politics and Poetics of Collective Memories in Reform China, ed. Ching-Kwan Lee and Guobin Yang (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), 287–316. Lan Yang, “Memory and Revisionism: The Cultural Revolution on the Internet,” in Memories of 1968: International Perspectives, ed. Ingo Cornils and Sarah Waters (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010), 249–79. Junhua Zhang, “China’s Social Memory in a Digitalized World‐Assessing the Country’s Narratives in Blogs,” Journal of Historical Sociology 25 (2012): 275–97.
(20.) Guobin Yang, “Days of Old Are Not Puffs of Smoke: Three Hypotheses on Collective Memories of the Cultural Revolution,” China Review 5 (2005): 33.
(21.) Robert K. Yin, Case Study Research: Design and Methods (London: Sage, 2009).
(22.) Hui Zhao and Jun Liu, “Social Media and Collective Remembrance: The Debate Over China’s Great Famine on Weibo,” China Perspectives 1 (2015): 41–48.
(23.) For instance, see Siqi Cao, “Mainstream Media Hit Back at Defamation of War Heroes,” Global Times, April 22, 2015, accessed May 22, 2017, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/918056.shtml . Daguang Li, “War Heroes Should Never Be Insulted,” China Daily, April 28, 2015, accessed May 22, 2017, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/opinion/2015-04/28/content_20565221.htm. “State Media Play Good Cop/Bad Cop to Wrest PLA Reform Narrative,” Want China Times, April 30, 2015, last modified May 22, 2017, http://www.wantchinatimes.com/news-subclass-cnt.aspx?id=20150430000135&cid=1101 (no longer accessible).
(24.) Tom Boellstorff et al., Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), Chapter Five.
(25.) For instance, Cao, “Defamation of War Heroes,” China Daily, “Doubts over Heroes’ Authenticity Grow with Widening Internet Access,” China Daily, July 9, 2015, accessed May 20, 2017, http://m.chinadaily.com.cn/en/2015-07/09/content_21229059.htm. Li, “War Heroes Should Never Be Insulted,” Meng Liu, “Iconoclasm Controversy Leads Some to Realize Their Spirit is Still Needed,” Global Times, February 23, 2015, accessed May 22, 2017, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/697129.shtml.
(26.) Matthew Lombard, Jennifer Snyder‐Duch, and Cheryl Campanella Bracken, “Content Analysis in Mass Communication: Assessment and Reporting of Intercoder Reliability,” Human Communication Research 28 (2002): 587–604.
(29.) Lin’s tweet read: “Some people, to defile Chairman Mao, use the exaggerated slander of tens of millions of people dying of starvation between 1960 and 1962. And thus someone visited many of the villages in Henan and Anhui that were hardest-hit by the famine in those years, and the situation was nothing like what people slander it as. The locals had only heard of people dying of starvation, but had not personally witnessed any such deaths, and very few people can be directly confirmed to have starved to death” [14:17, April 29, 2012]; see also, “Numbers and the Great Famine,” last modified August 20, 2014, http://www.thechinastory.org/archive/china-time/.
(30.) Tania Branigan, “China’s Great Famine: The True Story,” The Guardian, January 1, 2013, accessed May 22, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jan/01/china-great-famine-book-tombstone.
(31.) For instance , “Denial from People’s Daily Branch Head Ignited Fury and Discussions,” last modified May 20, 2017, http://offbeatchina.com/denial-from-peoples-daily-branch-head-ignited-furious-discussion-of-the-great-famine.
(33.) Jonathan Mirsky, “Unnatural Disaster,” New York Times, December 11, 2012, BR22.
(34.) Renmin Jiaoyu Chubanshe Lishishi 人民教育出版社歷史室 [The History Section of People’s Education Press], Zhongguo Jinxiandaishi (Xiace) 中國近代現代史（下冊） [A modern and contemporary history of China (volume II) (Beijing: Renmin Jiaoyu Chubanshe, 2003), 109–10.
(35.) China Daily, “Lei Feng: Changing Role Models In China,” China Daily, March 10, 2011, accessed May 20, 2017, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2011-03/10/content_12150057.htm.
(38.) For instance, see the tweet by He Weifang 賀衛方, a law professor with over 1.7 million Weibo followers, “Lei Feng Diary,” 2 March 2012, http://www.weibo.com/1216766752/y80ZEoBSs?mod=weibotime&type=comment#_rnd1448010608477.
(39.) For instance, the tweet by Pu Zhiqiang 浦志強, a well-known human rights lawyer, underlined that “one of the biggest lies of the last 60 years is Lei Feng. He hoodwinked me for two decades, actively pandering to his promoters, his diaries a collective creation. A monthly allowance of seven or eight yuan and he’s making 100-yuan donations—either that’s fiction or there’s corruption involved. Back then 30 million died from starvation, people my age might have taken a single photograph, and yet when he’s up late at night studying Mao with a flashlight, there are people taking pictures! He left thousands of photos behind! Beijing police, if you want to arrest hidden forces, go arrest the hidden forces behind Lei Feng” [12:03:17, June 8, 2013].
(40.) Weibo users with millions of followers on Weibo.
(41.) Lei Feng wrote in his dairy: “I will be a screw that never rusts. Wherever the Party chooses to place me, I will shine.”
(42.) The original tweet by Ren has been censored later, one of the retweeted post (October 10, 2014) can be seen here: http://www.weibo.com/1975447693/Bss4lEzio?type=comment#_rnd1448011800859.
(43.) For instance, Qin Zhihui 秦志暉, a Weibo celebrity with the nickname Qin Huohuo 秦火火, deemed Lei Feng to be corrupt and profligate, as he “spent 90 yuan on his clothes while his soldiers’ salary was only 6 yuan.” Qin was arrested later by the police for “making rumors slanderous to the image of Lei Feng.” See Neil Thomas, “China’s two Greatest Internet Rumor Mongers and ‘Black PR’ Philanderers Arrested,” last modified May 22, 2017, http://www.danwei.com/chinas-two-greatest-internet-rumor-mongers-and-black-pr-philanderers-arrested/.
(45.) See, for instance, tweet by Shiguang Huangfeishi 時光荒廢師 [Time waster], May 27, 2015, http://www.weibo.com/1928820545/CjHey4wMr?type=comment#_rnd1447532222577.
(48.) Emily Keightley and Philip Schlesinger, “Digital Media—Social Memory: Remembering in Digitally Networked Times,” Media, Culture & Society 36 (2014): 745–47.
(49.) Such as Yu Jianrong 于建嶸, a professor from Chinese Academy of Social Sciences with 1.8 million Weibo followers, and Kai-Fu Lee, a Taiwanese IT entrepreneur with over 51 million Weibo followers.
(50.) For more tweets and discussions, see Manzi Xue 薛蠻子, “Wangji Lishi Dengyu Beipan” “忘記歷史等於背叛” [Forgetting history is a betrayal!], May 1, 2012, http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_78ebb6ad01015p9j.html (no longer available).
(52.) For instance, the copy of “the special report” by the central patrol group reporting that over 1,700 people died of starvation in Zhao Temple group in Anhui Province from the winter of 1959 to the summer of 1960, see the tweet by Feng Yan 嚴鋒, April 29, 2012, http://www.weibo.com/1687198333/ygSubmNrk#_rnd1408465965414.
(53.) For instance, see Frank Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–1962 (New York: Walker & Co., 2010). Jisheng Yang, Mubei (Hong Kong: Cosmos, 2008).
(55.) Zhonggong Zhongyang Dangshi Yanjiushi 中共中央黨史研究室 [The Central Party History Research Office], Zhongguo Gongchangdang Lishi (Di’erjuan) 中國共産黨歷史（第二卷） [History of the Chinese Communist Party (volume II, 1949–1978)] (Beijing: Zhonggong dangshi chubanshe), 2011.
(56.) Renmin Jiaoyu Chubanshe Lishishi 人民教育出版社歷史室 [The History Section of People’s Education Press], Zhongguo Jinxiandaishi (Xiace) 中國近代現代史（下冊） [A modern and contemporary history of China (volume II)], 109.
(57.) Renmin Jiaoyu Chubanshe Lishishi 人民教育出版社歷史室 [The History Section of People’s Education Press], Zhongguo Jinxiandaishi (Xiace) 中國近代現代史（下冊） [A modern and contemporary history of China (volume II)], 109–10.
(58.) See more discussions, for instance, the tweet by Xinjing Ziranhao 昕靜自然好 [Silence is gold], May 1, 2012, http://www.weibo.com/1782415244/yhbGrztXs#_rnd1408436255362.
(59.) Zhonggong Zhongyang Dangshi Yanjiushi 中共中央黨史研究室 [The Central Party History Research Office], Zhongguo Gongchangdang Lishi (Di’erjuan) 中國共産黨歷史（第二卷） [History of the Chinese Communist Party (volume II, 1949–1978)], 368–69.
(60.) China Daily, “Doubts over Heroes’ Authenticity.”
(61.) Jiang Wang, “Lishishang de Leifeng: Bupai yu Baipai Beihou de Zhenshi” 歷史上的雷鋒：補拍與擺拍背後的真實 [“Lei Feng in history: The truth behind posed shots afterward and make-up shots,” March 5, 2014, http://image.fengniao.com/437/4376199.html?from=bdshare#0-tsina-1-52604-397232819ff9a47a7b7e80a40613cfe1.
(62.) For instance, the debate over the Great Famine has been raised again in 2014, after Lanzhou University in northwest China appointed Lin Zhibo as the dean of its journalism school. Weibo users immediately recalled the debate and voiced strong criticism towards Lin, centering on his denial of the existence of the Great Famine and the deaths in that part of Chinese history.