“Fragrant Flowers” and “Poisonous Weeds”: Censoring Personal Readings during the Cultural Revolution, 1966-1976

Peidong Sun

Fudan University, Shanghai, China

This paper explores the dynamic relationship between censorship and readership in the cultural governance of China.  Using previously untapped CCP documents, private archival collections, oral history, personal and work journals, I examine the motivations, mechanisms, impact, and evolution of state censorship on personal readings during the Cultural Revolution.  Specifically, I explore how books that were labelled “fragrant flowers” and “poisonous weeds” evinced the state’s cultural sensibility and its interactions with official censorship. On the one hand, through “singing red and striking black” (changhong dahei 唱红打黑), the system of cultural governance was made both normative and punitive: official censorship and self-censorship induced “political side-taking” (zhengzhi zhandui 政治站队) and “habitual following” (xiguan xing jingen习惯性紧跟) within the society, which in turn normalized political power and transformed censorship into a cultural norm.  On the other hand, a thriving literary underground, as seen in the hoarding of forbidden titles and their partial unbanning since 1970, suggests the limitations of censorship and shows how networks of information percolated through official politics and entered everyday life through reading and writing.


Peidong Sun is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Fudan University, researching history of everyday life in post-1949 China. She was an Edward Teller National Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University from 2017-18, and a Visiting Scholar of the Harvard-Yenching Institute from 2016-17.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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