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Students at Beijing City International School Conduct Oral History Interviews

By Mark Lombardo

As part of our study of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, my students recently conducted research projects focusing on an aspect of this period that piqued their interest.
Many chose to conduct oral history interviews. In this methodology, which is used by both professional historians as well as popular authors such as Stephen Ambrose (Band of Brothers), the researcher conducts interviews with people having lived through or experienced the topic of study.
I found that the students who conducted oral history interviews about the Cultural Revolution were enthusiastic, passionate, and highly engaged in their projects. They put hours of work into their research and were justifiably proud of their results.
Mao’s revolution, which lasted from 1966 until his death in 1976, was a rich subject for this sort of inquiry. Under the inspiration of the Great Helmsman, people, especially the young, attacked the “Four Olds”: old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. The chaos that followed decimated the economy, resulted in the destruction of countless cultural artifacts, and disrupted millions of lives.
Before conducting their interviews, students developed an overarching research question. Many were particularly interested in how the Cultural Revolution affected education. One student wanted to find out about how people coped with the chaos, while another was interested in how opinions of the revolution vary according to the respondent’s age.
Next, they identified people having lived through this period and who were likely to have experienced these events in a significant way. For my Chinese students, possible interviewees included parents, grandparents, aunts, or uncles. Not all of those interviewed were family members, however. One of the American students, for example, interviewed the CEO of her father’s company.
The next step in the process was to develop a list of interview questions. Although students were urged to write a series of specific questions, they were also advised to deviate from the list when they felt doing so would allow them to follow promising lines of inquiry based on participant responses.
One student casually asked her informant, Mr. Li, how he traveled from his home to the village where he was sent as punishment for his bourgeois background. Mr. Li launched into a fascinating narrative about how he had traveled for three days, first by steam train, “which seemed to stop every fifteen minutes,” then by rickety bus, by cart, and finally on foot to reach his final destination in a remote part of Shandong Province. Further questioning revealed the appalling conditions faced by villagers during this era. “I ate sweet potatoes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the ten years I lived in that village and can’t stand the smell of them now.”
With their subjects’ permission, most students made video recordings of the interviews. They then used this footage to create their final products, which varied from short documentaries to feature articles to essays. When interviewed by the teacher after turning in their projects, the students all agreed that they enjoyed the interviewing process and that it was “much more interesting than reading a book.” Other students stated that the process made them feel closer to their family members.
Another result of the interviewing process was that students’ academic skills improved significantly, particularly in regard to thinking critically. As a history teacher, I was delighted by the students’ realizations that any historical source, including a first-person account of events that occurred over forty years ago, has its limitations. Although such narratives can be very engaging, personal accounts are highly subjective and biased and must be cross-referenced with other accounts before valid conclusions can be drawn. Such insights are the hallmark of critical thinking, which is the goal of any high school curriculum.
Students also learned a great deal on a personal level. For example, they were all surprised that so many of their interviewees regard the Cultural Revolution positively. Despite the great hardships they experienced, people who lived through this period often look back on it nostalgically. My students, most of whom come from privileged backgrounds, definitely learned about the resilience of the human spirit and the importance of persevering in the face of obstacles.
Mark Lombardo taught History and Humanities at Beijing City International School from 2008 to 2014. He currently teaches at Stonehill International School In Bangalore, India. Follow on Twitter (Mark Joseph Lombardo @mrklmbrd).

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