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The Form of Forms: Tables, Information, and Nonsense in the Maoist Dossier

Thursday Lecture Series

dateNovember 7, 2019 timeThursday, 12:15pm EST location The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room, Columbia University
  • Audience open exclusively to Columbia faculty, students, and invited guests
  • All others interested in attending, please email SOF/Heyman at [email protected].
Document with Chinese script and correction pasted over some words

Beginning around 1945, the Chinese Communist Party drastically redesigned its dossier files. Replacing what had once been a collection of narrative evaluations and epistolary reports, the Party adopted a slew of new bureaucratic forms and templates. The new forms reorganized information on persons of interest into neat fields of questions and answers with headers, labels, and tables, all locked into the graphic device of the rectangular grid. The production of these new dossier templates was part of a broader process of formalization in the 1940s that transformed the paper instruments of bureaucratic work. These formal changes established a new and unmistakable visual style for Chinese paperwork that persists in official documents to this day. At the same time, the shift to fixed templates carried important implications for practices of information-collection and surveillance conducted through the dossier. Biographical facts and political histories of cadres and enemies alike had to be abstracted, simplified, and reconfigured to fit the parameters of grid-lined fields. In this talk, I revisit several examples of party personnel forms to show that even as these new forms were not inherently more efficient in capturing information, they served to communicate technocratic regularity as a distinct visual aesthetic.