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On Difficult New Terms: the business of lexicography in Mao Era China

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)622-661
Number of pages40
Issue number3
Early online date3 May 2017
Accepted/In press11 Feb 2016
E-pub ahead of print3 May 2017
PublishedMay 2017


King's Authors


Entries in Mao Era reference works today serve as windows into the world of words and meanings of a bygone era. Dictionaries and encyclopaedias, though, did not speak with one voice, even under Communist Party control. Lexicography and the question of who would get to publish on and explain the meaning of the ‘new terms’ and ‘new knowledge’ of ‘New China’ were subject to constant debates. Lexicographers, editors, and publishers specialized in the business of setting up categories and, together with readers and state censors, they policed them. Following on their heels, this article examines four moments in Mao Era lexicography, ranging from the early years of transition to Chinese Communist Party rule to the height of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Internal reports and letter exchanges on the production and circulation of single-volume encyclopaedic dictionaries show who contributed to encyclopaedic work, how it was controlled, and why control and censorship were often far from simple. Taking lexicography seriously as a component of the socialist information economy after 1949 sheds light on complex processes of knowledge transmission that defy simple models of socialist state propaganda.

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