fb-pixel Skip to main content
IDEAS

The underground zines that kept self-expression alive in Mao’s China

Brave and dedicated authors subverted repression during the Cultural Revolution.

A propaganda poster featuring a Chinese typist.
A propaganda poster featuring a Chinese typist.The Thomas S. Mullaney East Asian Information Technology History Collection, Stanford University

China, 1972. Change is afoot: The United Nations has recognized Beijing as the nation’s official capital, and Ping-Pong diplomacy has prepared the ground for President Richard Nixon’s visit to the People’s Republic. The alternately giddy and violent days of the Red Guards are a memory, and Mao Zedong, rounding 30 years in office, is slowing down, showing his age.

Yet many 1950s-era institutions and restrictions — holdovers from the 1949 Communist revolution — remain in place. This is perhaps nowhere more true than in the realms of publishing, print journalism, and radio and television broadcasting, which are more centrally controlled than at any earlier point in China’s post-imperial history. There is no free press; nothing is printed, broadcast, or published without official state registration and approval. It is an atmosphere of foment and fear. The regime has forcibly relocated millions of people and created order with execution lists and extrajudicial murder.

Advertisement



These are, then, conditions ripe for an underground press. Despite Beijing’s tight control of the printed word and its dissemination, a new and diffuse network of underground printers — low-tech, affordable, remarkably flexible, and incredibly hard to police — springs up. Equipped with nothing more than Chinese typewriters, mimeograph machines, and stencil duplicators, underground publishers mass-produce an untold quantity of materials for a vast and diverse readership.

I spent the better part of 15 years collecting these once illegal magazines, newspapers, and books — as well as equipment used to create them, and I have since donated the trove — the world’s largest — to Stanford University.

A brochure for the Flying Eagle stencil duplicating machine, c. 1970s.
A brochure for the Flying Eagle stencil duplicating machine, c. 1970s.Thomas S. Mullaney East Asian Information Technology History Collection, Stanford University

Radical machines

China’s underground press printed magazines, newspapers, and even book-length publications. Dayinben — “typed and mimeographed editions” — constitute a distinct species of Chinese book, standing alongside woodblock prints, lithographic books, and letterpress books.

For those who did not have access to a Chinese typewriter, the mimeograph made it possible to create completely hand-drawn books, magazines, and newspapers. A newsletter featuring a stencil drawing of Mao is a good example of a publication drawn entirely by hand and reproduced many times over for distribution.

Advertisement



All told, China’s underground zines were so numerous that the term for them survived into the computer age: No longer “typed and mimeographed,” dayin now means “to print out,” as with a laser printer. In the old days, in spite of being low-tech, underground press print runs could be as high as 1,000 copies — the typical first-run printing of most university presses today.

Music, poetry, literature, and science

A self-published Red Guard newspaper, c. 1967.
A self-published Red Guard newspaper, c. 1967.Thomas S. Mullaney East Asian Information Technology History Collection, Stanford University

Underground didn’t necessarily mean anti-Party or anti-state. In one typed-and-mimeographed zine from 1968, a self-identified Red Guard reproduced Mao’s poetry, releasing the edition in time for International Workers’ Day. In an even more profound act of devotion, members of the “Yunnan University Mao Zedong-ism Artillery Regiment Foreign Language Division Propaganda Group” transcribed Mao’s speeches from 1957 and 1958. At more than 280,000 characters, with page after page dense with text, this work would have taken between 100 and 200 hours — or four to eight full days — to type.

The underground press gave an outlet to other poets, writers, and creators, leading to a flourishing of self-expression. This included songbooks and musical scores. Music notation is notoriously difficult to print using movable type technologies, given the many different kinds of notes and symbols, but it lent itself to the underground methods. One could type lyrics using a Chinese typewriter and use a combination of a hard-tipped writing tool and straightedges to create the music staves, notes, and musical symbols (legato, fortissimo, etc.).

Advertisement



A self-produced textbook on traditional Chinese medicine, c. 1970s.
A self-produced textbook on traditional Chinese medicine, c. 1970s.Thomas S. Mullaney East Asian Information Technology History Collection, Stanford University

The low-cost underground techniques were also a boon to scientists and engineers who might not otherwise have found a publisher able to justify the expense of printing such hyperspecialized titles as “Discussion on Transverse Cracks in Reinforced Concrete in Single-Story Industrial Workshops” (c. 1963), “Collection of Technical Standards for Paper Industry Products” (1972), and “Fluid Mechanics and Fluid Machinery” (1975). Such niche publishing continued into the post-Mao era, which began in 1976.

In similar fashion, textbook and manual authors turned to the underground press to produce their works on such topics as traditional Chinese medicine. Besides the low cost, the underground press also appealed because of its flexibility. An author could easily merge text, tables, and complex diagrams on the same page. Doing so using traditional techniques was both expensive and technically challenging. In this regard, China’s underground publishing network was central to the dissemination of knowledge about science, technology, engineering, medicine, and the arts during the Mao era and beyond.

The Party and the underground press: an uneasy relationship

Jinggangshan newspaper, c. 1967.
Jinggangshan newspaper, c. 1967.Thomas S. Mullaney East Asian Information Technology History Collection, Stanford University

The Communist state itself turned to underground presses when the demands of mass mobilization campaigns outpaced Chinese clerks’ and typists’ ability to produce the economic reports and tracts used in work-unit “study sessions” across the country. So heavy was the burden on Chinese typists that some work units resorted to outsourcing jobs to unofficial “type-and-copy shops” — dazi tengxieshe.

Advertisement



But there was tension. The Chinese Communists tacitly accepted the existence of the underground press even as they knew the same shops they patronized were producing subversive materials. So the Chinese Communist state developed special forensic techniques to identify which stencil tools and mimeograph machines were used to produce which documents. By analyzing the unique crosshatch patterns left over from the stencil-making process — in effect, a unique “fingerprint” — state authorities would try to identify an illegal publication’s origins. Akin to “typewriter forensics” in the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, where analysts studied slight variations in the output of different typewriters, this method gave Chinese Communist authorities a limited capacity to identify authors and bring them to heel.

The zines that emerged during this period — unique, colorful, painstakingly created — were born of necessity and created at great personal risk, and they remind us of the power of personal expression. And the tradition continues: In today’s Hong Kong, epicenter of so much upheaval, rebellion, and digital surveillance, young people have revived the art of the zine, breathing new life into an old means of subversion.

Thomas S. Mullaney is professor of Chinese history at Stanford University and author of “The Chinese Typewriter.” Follow him on Twitter @tsmullaney and on TikTok @modernchinesehistory.