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Worlds of Reading in China’s long 1970s: Reading and Writing during the Cultural Revolution

(Conducted by Jun.-Prof. Dr. Lena Henningsen 2015-2019)


“Worlds of Reading in China’s long 1970s: Reading and Writing during the Cultural Revolution” analyzed intellectual processes and practices during China’s long 1970s. It analysed popular fictional and non-fictional texts between late 1968 and the early 1980s. Some of these texts were published as part of the official publication system, whereas others circulated unofficially or even illegally. The project focused on both the texts and the practices of their production, circulation and consumption as well as on their respective impact on contemporary readers and on later intellectual and literary developments. The texts – especially those that circulated illegally among the sent-down youth (as hand copied manuscripts, 文革手抄本, or as copies meant for internal circulation) – are understood and analyzed both as intellectual and material resource.

This project pursued four aims. First, it aimed at understanding concrete practices of reading and their meaning(s). Second, it examined in how far these practices as well as the respective texts continued earlier practices and texts and anticipate later ones. Third, it analyzed in how far fictional and non-fictional texts allowed for new intellectual, social and personal developments that are commonly associated with the reform period that officially started after the Cultural Revolution. Fourth, this project was situated within the larger discussion about China’s long 1970s. After all, a closer scrutiny of the intellectual debates and the contents of influential texts reveals that breaks and ruptures in the transition from revolution to reform are in fact less apparent than they appear to be on first glance.

To examine concrete reading acts, we collaboratively built a database in which we collected data from autobiographical accounts of the Cultural Revolution decade in which individuals reflect upon their readings and the significance these had for them. This database will go online soon.


Research output:

In May 2017, we organized the conference

Reading Intellectual and Literary Change during China’s long 1970s

Speakers at this conference were Timothy Cheek (keynote), Lorenz Bichler, Puck Engman, Emily Graf, Lena Henningsen, Rui Kunze, Damian Mandzunowski, Barbara Mittler, Daniel Leese, Tabea Mühlbach, Duncan Paterson, Elisabeth Schleep, Oliver Schulz and Peidong Sun contributed to the programme which can be found here.

A database on reading during China’s long 1970s will go live soon.

Results of the research project were presented at conferences. Major publications are:

Henningsen, Lena: “Kosmopolitisches Lesen: Weltliteratur während der chinesischen Kulturrevolution”, in: Lamping, Dieter [ed.]: Vergleichende Weltliteraturen, Stuttgart: Metzler, to appear in 2019.

Henningsen, Lena: “Literature of the Cultural Revolution”, in: Gu, Ming Dong [ed.]: Routledge Handbook of Modern Chinese Literature, Oxon: Routledge, 2019, 423-434.

Henningsen, Lena: “Von Spionen, Revolutionären und Kämpfern für die Gerechtigkeit in illegaler Unterhaltungsliteratur aus der Zeit der Kulturrevolution“, in: Polfuß, Jonas, Kerstin Storm [ed.]: Recht und Gerechtigkeit in China, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2017, 177-194.

Henningsen, Lena: “Jenseits der Propaganda: Illegales Lesen und Schreiben in China aus intertextueller und interkultureller Perspektive”, in: Nova Acta Leopoldina NF, no. 414, 2017, 123-141.

Henningsen, Lena: “What Is a Reader? Participation and Intertextuality in Hand-Copied Entertainment Fiction from the Chinese Cultural Revolution”, in: Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, Vol.29 no.2, fall 2017, 109-158.

Henningsen, Lena: “Crime, Love, and Science: Continuity and Change in Hand-copied Entertainment Fiction (shouchaoben) from the Cultural Revolution“, in: Berg, Daria, Giorgio Strafella [eds.]: Transforming Book Culture in China, 1600-2016 (Kodex: Yearbook of the International Society for Book Science), Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2016, 101-119.


The project was conducted by

Lena Henningsen (PI)

Damian Mandzunowski, Duncan Paterson, Oliver Schulz (research staff)

Xiayin Dang, Mira Grünwald, Wenxin Huang, Chia-yi Wu (research assistants)


The project has received generous funding from the Ministry of Science and the Arts (Baden-Württemberg), from Freiburg University and from the Young Academy .




Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg
Institut für Sinologie
Werthmannstraße 12
D-79098 Freiburg i. Br.

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