Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

Travel Report: Tom Hoy, China

April 16, 2014

Tom Hoy, a Master's student in History, received a Graduate International Research Travel Award to further his research in China. His report:

In early 1974 a group of workers at Shanghai’s Number Five docks pasted up a big character poster asking the question “are workers to be masters of the docks or slaves to work quotas?” Coming as it was in the waning years of China’s decade long Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976), such a question was of more than just rhetorical interest. But even the dockworkers themselves were surprised when, just a few days later, their complaint was given nationwide publicity and overnight they became revolutionary models in the vanguard in of new political movement.

During the Cultural Revolution Shanghai was the powerbase of political radicals in Maoist China, a position that workers had helped win in the tumultuous days of 1966 and 1967. However, little research has been done on the events in Shanghai later in the decade and even less on the experiences of ordinary workers at that time. What then were the dockworkers really saying in 1974? Was it really all about politics or did they have other aspirations and frustrations? I want to go beyond the well crafted headlines of the official press to hear the voices of the dockworkers themselves.

I have broke my research in Shanghai into two stages: the first one to meet local academics, search the archives, and to locate former workers; and the second one to conduct extensive interviews with former dockworkers. I completed the first stage in the summer of 2013. Research into the Cultural Revolution is still opening up in China but I was able to meet two of the top four Shanghai based-academics in the field. They in turn introduced me to collections of unofficial documents at Fudan University and official documents at the Shanghai Municipal Archive. Those documents, however, were quite disappointing: those at the university were mostly from an earlier period while those for my period in the archives were mostly not yet accessible. Nevertheless, full copies of the official newspaper from that period were available in easy to use digital format at the Shanghai Municipal Library and they helped my put together a storyline of the official version of events.

My biggest breakthrough last summer was being able to meet a former Red Guard who, in 1968, had been sent—along with thousands of other students, female as well as male—to work on the docks. Through him, I was able to meet and interview two other student workers. On my next trip I will follow up with many more of their fellow dockworkers. In addition, I plan to meet with the two local academics whom I missed last year and follow up on leads to interview former workers who were working in other industries to give me a basis for comparison. 

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