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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Reading From Below: Alternative Literacies, Citizenship, and Community in Modern China
2: Reading for the Nation: The CC Clique’s Nationwide Reading Campaign in 1930s China
Thursday, March 25, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China
In Spring 1935, amid economic and sovereign crises, the CC Clique of the Chinese Nationalist Party launched a nationwide reading campaign in twenty-five provinces and cities. Over a five months period, the campaign aimed not only to improve popular literacy, but also to develop what Chen Lifu and Wu Tiecheng called “minzhi” —a “collective intelligence” to apply and manipulate one’s skills and knowledge for the survival of the Chinese nation. This paper focuses on both the intellectual thought and actual campaign practices to explore how the CC clique educators at once encouraged and problematized the everyday experiences of reading books and learning new skills among skilled workers, engineers, local government clerks and high school students. The campaign leaders argued that Euro-American and Japanese masses had successfully developed their respective national intelligence. In contrast, the Chinese people fell behind, and this absence of a collective intelligence was the root cause of the national crisis. While the campaign leaders made every effort to describe and give meaning to ordinary workers’ reading and learning practices, the documents show local reactions were either passive or tactical. This contrast suggests the failure of the campaign and further indicates innate problems when the CC Clique attempted to both enlighten and discipline the everyday practices of the popular masses. This paper opens a critical inquiry into popular literacy by demonstrating and explicating unstudied conceptualizations of reading practices in the semi-colonized context of 1930s China.