Framed by the Archive: Maoist Revolution and the Case of Merchant Zha, 1949‒1952

The formal establishment of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing on October 10, 1949 heralded the arrival of what the Chinese Communist Party proudly called ‘New China.’ But what did the establishment of New China look like at the grassroots level? This talk moves the focus of inquiry to Poyang, an overwhelmingly rural county far from Beijing. Using rare archival sources from the Poyang Public Security Bureau, Prof. DeMare brings to life the story of Merchant Zha, a hapless businessman who struggled to navigate the transition from Nationalist to Communist rule. The tale of Merchant Zha, at first glance a historical nobody, sheds new light on critical moments during the first years of the People’s Republic. Through Merchant Zha’s many failures, readers are introduced to the incompetence of the Nationalists, regime change with the arrival of the Communists, bandit uprisings, and land reform. Merchant Zha’s experiences also highlight the Communists’ unique legal system, which put his very life in jeopardy. Prof. DeMare will also highlight how our understanding of these years of revolutionary upheaval are deeply complicated by the limitations of archival materials.

Prof. Brian DeMare teaches at Tulane University in the historic city of New Orleans.