April 2014

Counter-Revolutionary Cacography: Samples from Shanghai (1972)



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Lin Biao env

Before the invention of Email and in an age when typewriters were few and far in between, Chinese wrote letters by hand. Letters from the People to Chairman Mao and his comrades-in-arms were handwritten, as were letters to the authorities from anonymous malcontents belonging to the “social foundation of counter-revolution.” What this Document of the Month is meant to throw light on are letters of the latter kind and what the Communist Party did in order to identify their alienated authors. Non-native historians with rudimentary paleographic skills be forewarned: called for here is rather more than just good grades in Chinese Calligraphy 101! You are invited to a frustrating exercise in aesthetic appreciation and political guesswork: what does it say? And what does it mean? Courtesy of the Yangpu District Public Security-Procuratorate-Courts Leading Group,
this 13-page collection contains photographic reproductions of letters and sample snippets from miscellaneous communications in writing, all of them supposedly “counter-revolutionary.” At the time, we must assume, it was circulated locally and examined to see if someone just might be able to say “I know who wrote this!”


I have seen, but do not own, a far bigger and impressive 1959 collection of what the then Shanghai municipal Bureau of Public Security called “reactionary and counter-revolutionary” letters. The present item, I picked up for ten Yuan on Fangbang Middle Road in Shanghai some fifteen years ago. The envelope in the image above is from Beijing, where a reproduction of it was circulated in 1967 during an inquiry into an obscure “reactionary” entity called the 马克思主义卫道总部.