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New Grant to Digitize the Sounds of China’s Cultural Revolution

Zhao Ma, associate professor of modern Chinese history at Washington University, and Joan Wang, Chinese Studies and East Asian Studies Librarian at Washington University Libraries, were awarded a grant by the McDonnell International Scholars Academy and the Office of the Provost at Washington University as part of its 2022 Global Incubator Seed Grants Fund program. The program awards funds to high-impact research initiatives between WashU faculty and international collaborators.

The award-winning project, “The Sound of Mao’s Last Revolution: Information Technology and Political Communication in Socialist China, 1966-1978,” is a collaboration among researchers at Washington University, Fudan University, China, and the University of Macau. The project attempts to explore the revolutionary soundscape with a focus on the interactions between technology, culture, and politics, and will draw on materials from the Robert S. Elegant Collection at the East Asian Library at WashU.

Tape dated April 14, 1969
An audio tape from the Robert S. Elegant Collection at the East Asian Library.

The Elegant audio collection features 551 reels with more than 400 hours of audio tape recordings of radio broadcasts, interviews, and public events from the Cultural Revolution (1966-71). According to principal investigators Ma and Wang, the decades-old uncatalogued and virtually unknown collection “is one of the largest personal collections of radio tapes on China from the 1960s and 1970s and a treasure trove of materials for scholars seeking to study the dynamic soundscape of the Cultural Revolution.”

Elegant is a renowned author and journalist who had many years of experience as a foreign correspondent in different parts of Asia. He donated the collection to Washington University in 1976, while serving as the Hong Kong bureau chief of Los Angeles Times. Among other materials, the collection includes about forty tapes of interviews that Elegant and his assistants conducted with Chinese refugees who had fled to Hong Kong during the Cultural Revolution —an invaluable record of the impact and legacy of the era as well as a means to understand the production of knowledge about China for Western audiences.

Funds from the $24,880 award will be used to clean and digitize thirty-seven audio tapes of the Elegant Collection and to hire a metadata assistant to transcribe and catalog the materials. These efforts will make it possible for the Elegant Collection to become available for research and pedagogy purposes. The research team will also organize an international conference on the theme of information technology and political communication in modern China, and develop a history/humanities lab course on China’s revolutionary soundscape by utilizing digital and audio resources of the Elegant Collection.

About the East Asian Library

Part of the Washington University Libraries, the East Asian Library supports the teaching, study, and research needs of the Program in East Asian Languages and Cultures and other academic departments, schools, and programs at Washington University.

The library has over 168,271 books and bound serials, including 104,952 volumes in Chinese, 58,611 volumes in Japanese, and 4,708 volumes in Korean, plus extensive collections of microfiche, microfilm, and electronic resources. The library also houses about 800 volumes of rare and special books, manuscripts, and other materials.