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The underground zines that maintained self-expression in Mao’s China

By on June 6, 2021 0

These are therefore ripe conditions for an underground press. Despite Beijing’s tight control over print and its distribution, a diffuse new network of underground printers – low-tech, affordable, remarkably flexible, and incredibly difficult to control – is emerging. Equipped with nothing more than Chinese typewriters, handouts, and stencil duplicators, the underground publishers mass-produce an untold amount of material for a vast and diverse readership.

I spent most of 15 years collecting these once illegal magazines, newspapers and books, and the equipment used to create them, and have since donated the treasure – the largest in the world – at Stanford University.

A brochure for the Flying Eagle stencil duplicating machine, c. 1970s.Thomas S. Mullaney Collection of East Asian Information Technology History, Stanford University

Radical machines

The Chinese underground press printed magazines, newspapers and even book-type publications. Dayinben – “Typewritten and Mimeographed Editions” – constitute a distinct species of Chinese book, alongside woodcuts, lithographic books and typographic books.

For those without access to a Chinese typewriter, the handout made it possible to create entirely hand-drawn books, magazines, and newspapers. A newsletter featuring a stenciled drawing of Mao is a good example of a publication that is completely hand drawn and reproduced several times for distribution.

All in all, China’s underground zines were so plentiful that the term for them has survived the computer age: more “typed and mimeographed”, day now means “print”, as with a laser printer. Formerly, in despite being low tech, runs from underground presses could reach 1,000 copies – the typical first run impression of most college presses today.

Music, poetry, literature and science

A self-published Red Guard newspaper, c.  1967.
A self-published Red Guard newspaper, c. 1967.Thomas S. Mullaney Collection of East Asian Information Technology History, Stanford University

Underground did not necessarily mean anti-Party or anti-state. In a typed and mimeographed 1968 zine, a self-identified Red Guard reproduced Mao’s poetry, releasing the edition in time for International Workers’ Day. In an even deeper act of devotion, members of the “Propaganda Group of the Foreign Languages ​​Division of the Mao Zedong-ism Artillery Regiment of Yunnan University” transcribed Mao’s speeches from 1957 and 1958. At over 280,000 characters, page after page of dense text, this job would have taken between 100 and 200 hours – or four to eight full days – to type.

The underground press provided an outlet for other poets, writers and creators, leading to a flourishing of self-expression. This included songbooks and sheet music. Music notation is notoriously difficult to print using movable type technologies, given the many different types of notes and symbols, but it lent itself to underground methods. You could type lyrics using a Chinese typewriter and use a combination of a hard-point writing tool and rulers to create the music staves, notes, and musical symbols (legato, fortissimo , etc.).

A self-produced textbook on traditional Chinese medicine, c.  1970s.
A self-produced textbook on traditional Chinese medicine, c. 1970s.Thomas S. Mullaney Collection of East Asian Information Technology History, Stanford University

Low-cost underground techniques were also a boon to scientists and engineers who might not otherwise have found a publisher capable of justifying the expense of printing hyperspecialized titles like “Discussion on Transverse Cracks in Reinforced Concrete in Single -Story Industrial Workshops ”(c 1963),“ Collection of Technical Standards for Paper Industry Products ”(1972) and“ Fluid Mechanics and Fluid Machines ”(1975). Such a niche publication continued into the post-Mao era, which began in 1976.

Likewise, textbook and textbook writers have turned to the underground press to produce their books on subjects such as traditional Chinese medicine. In addition to its low cost, the underground press also impresses with its flexibility. An author could easily merge complex text, tables and diagrams on the same page. Doing it using traditional techniques was both expensive and technically difficult. In this regard, China’s underground publishing network was central to the dissemination of knowledge about science, technology, engineering, medicine, and the arts during the Mao era and beyond.

The Party and the underground press: a difficult relationship

Jinggangshan Journal, c.  1967.
Jinggangshan Journal, c. 1967.Thomas S. Mullaney Collection of East Asian Information Technology History, Stanford University

The Communist state itself turned to underground presses when the demands of mass mobilization campaigns exceeded the ability of Chinese employees and typists to produce the economic reports and leaflets used in the “study sessions.” work units across the country. The burden on Chinese typists was so heavy that some work units resorted to outsourcing work to unofficial “typing and copying shops” – dazi tengxieshe.

But there were tensions. The Chinese Communists tacitly accepted the existence of the underground press even though they knew the same stores they frequented produced subversive materials. Thus, the Chinese Communist State developed special forensic techniques to identify which stencil tools and handout machines were used to produce which documents. By analyzing the unique hatch patterns left by the stencil-making process – indeed, a unique “fingerprint” – state authorities would try to identify the origins of an illegal publication. Similar to the “typewriter methodology” in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, where analysts studied slight variations in the production of different typewriters, this method gave the Chinese Communist authorities limited capacity. to identify the perpetrators and bring them into line.

The fanzines that emerged during this time – unique, colorful, painstakingly created – were born of necessity and created at great personal risk, and they remind us of the power of personal expression. And the tradition continues: in today’s Hong Kong, the epicenter of so much upheaval, rebellion and digital surveillance, young people have resuscitated the art of the fanzine, breathing new life into an ancient means of subversion.

Thomas S. Mullaney is professor of Chinese history at Stanford University and author of “The Chinese Typewriter”. Follow him on twitter @tsmullaney and on TikTok @modernchinesehistory.

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