The Maoist Legacy Project presents the Zhongfa Directory

Download the Zhongfa Directory v.1.0


Introduction by Puck Engman and Yueran Tian


In the massive paper flow connecting the bureaucratic network that is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the documents identified with the two characters “中发” (zhongfa), or “issued by the Center,” are the most authoritative. Yet, despite their unrivaled status within Chinese administrative communication, our knowledge about the drafting, content, distribution, and implementation of these Central Documents (CDs) remains unsystematic.

The Maoist Legacy Project is taking a step towards remedying this issue by making public the Zhongfa Directory; a compilation of information we have collected on the CDs: titles, document numbers, dates of approval, issuing unit, classification, and attachments.[1]

The Zhongfa Directory expands upon two earlier attempts to systematize our knowledge about these key documents.

The first such attempt was made in 1978 by Kenneth Lieberthal, with the assistance of James Tong and Sai-cheung Yeung. An annex to his Central Documents and Politburo Politics in China contained partial information of 201 CDs issued between February 1966 and October 1977.

Fifteen years later, Michael Schoenhals expanded this list significantly by compiling a database with records of 457 CDs issued between May 1966 and April 1969.   

The Maoist Legacy Project’s Zhongfa Directory currently contains 2881 records of CDs issued between March 1954 and November 1986. By making this new resource freely available to the scholarly community we hope to contribute to the knowledge of how the central authorities in Beijing attempted to influence events in the localities through the dissemination of information.

By inviting the research community to make use of this directory, we hope that others will help us make improvements by pointing out potential inconsistencies and filling in the remaining blanks. What we are presenting here is therefore only the first version of the directory, which will be expanded upon in the future.

Zhongfa (1978) no. 71
On this document we can see the typical header in red that identifies this document as a "Central Document." Directly below is the issue code, which tells the reader that this is document no. 71 of the 1978 zhongfa series. The separator marked with a red star is followed by the title of the document itself. The standard title "CCP Central Notice" used here reveals little of the document subject: the reversal of the Cultural Revolution verdict on the Wuhan Incident.
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What is a Central Document?

The Zhongfa Directory begins in 1954 because this is the first year for which CDs appear in numbered sequence, as the CCP fundamentally reorganized its bureaucratic system. The only reliable method to distinguish CDs from the multitude of speeches and texts produced by the leadership in Beijing is by determining whether or not a document was included in the zhongfa series.[2]

As a rule, the sequence starts anew each calendar year with Zhongfa no. 1. However, the first document is often dated to the year before. Zhongfa (1957) no. 1, for example, is actually dated to 30 December 1956. The reason for this is that the date of a document does not tell us when it was issued, but only when the most senior signatory approved or commented on it. As a consequence, a document with a certain document number may appear chronologically out of order because it has a later approval date than documents that follow in the zhongfa sequence.[3]

Moreover, the zhongfa numbering practices are not entirely consistent. In 1954, for unknown reasons, the sequence restarts in October. In February 1957, the documents are suddenly ordered according to the sexagenary cycle. The months are designated by one of the earthly branches and the number sequence recommences each month. The top secret CD issued on 20 May 1957, containing instructions on strengthening party control over the Anti-Rightist Movement, was thus given the code 辰 (chen) no. 42. This experiment did not last long; by January 1958 the practice was discontinued.[4] Yet other experiments continued as a seemingly more dynamic headline in semi-cursive script was introduced and flourished between late 1958 and early 1959.

Figure 1 Although CDs in the zhongfa series are generally issued in the name of “the Center” (zhongyang) or “CCP Center” (zhonggong zhongyang; zhonggong), this is not always the case. In this chart (follow image link for full view), the central organs that signed off on the documents, individually or collectively, are ordered by color. What the chart does not show is that the CCP Center frequently used the CDs to transmit and comment on reports coming from national and local party units as well as various government bodies.[5]

It would be wrong to assume that CDs contain only orders and directives. To be sure, these documents do fulfill an important function in the CCP’s opaque rule-by-decree as a channel to communicate regulations directly to concerned party and state units without making them public. But a great number of CDs actually contain little in terms of direct instructions and are rather used to circulate reference materials, such as speeches, statistics, and the occasional evidence of disgraced party leaders’ crimes. In this sense, the CDs constitute a privileged channel of communication that provide local party units with information believed to be necessary for them to effectively exercise their leadership.[6]    

Distribution and classification

The General Office of the CCP Central Committee is responsible for issuing and printing the CDs. However, it would be highly impractical to rely on the General Office in Beijing to print and disseminate all copies of a document intended for wider distribution. To relieve the pressure on the General Office, regulations call on provincial offices to reprint and distribute CDs destined for the county level or below.[7] Some print runs are in the hundreds of thousands or even millions of copies. For example, the CCP Hubei Provincial Committee Office alone printed 170 000 copies of Zhongfa (1975) no. 5, which contained instructions on political theory from Chairman Mao.

Although documents in the zhongfa series may contain publicly available information (e.g. party communiqués) and be partially or fully reproduced in the party press, they are intended for internal (内部 neibu) circulation only. The documents themselves often specify if and how the information contained within them should be communicated to the general public. In some cases, local newspapers are encouraged to summarize the main points of a document and in others the contents can be communicated orally by cadres in their dealings with the public.

Still, many CDs are classified as state secrets. The People’s Republic of China recognizes three levels of state secrets: confidential (秘密 mimi), secret (机密 jimi), and top secret (绝密 juemi).[8] The level of classification correlates to the range of circulation. Top secret documents cannot be copied or reprinted, nor should they be included in reference volumes for internal use. In 1985, the General Office stipulated that only a few copies of CDs with a “higher degree of secrecy” should be printed for use by high-level party leaders.[9] More recent regulations further stipulate that top secret documents should be returned to the General Office after consultation.[10]

Sometimes the level of classification seems to have been chosen to denote a certain political sensitivity rather than restrict access. Such was probably the case of the attachment to Zhongfa (1972) no. 25 – an investigatory report denouncing Chen Boda as a “Guomindang-anti-communist-Trotskyist-renegade-tewu-revisionist element” – which was labeled “top secret” but was printed in two million copies by the General Office.[11]

Figure 2 This chart shows which grade of classification was used for the CDs at different points in time. In some years, it seems to have been common practice to classify CDs as “confidential” or “secret,” in other periods the majority lacked formal classification. We can note two peaks of “top secret” documents, one in the summer of 1957, during the Anti-Rightist Movement, and the other triggered by the “Lin Biao Incident” in September 1971.[12]

State of knowledge

Despite an improvement in archival access over the past two decades, there are still significant gaps in our knowledge of central party functions. Not least with regards to the conditions and content of internal party and government communication.

In 1978, Kenneth Lieberthal introduced his study with a warning that the remaining “grey areas” were “uncomfortably large” and that he had therefore been forced to draw his preliminary conclusions based on evidence that had occasionally been “more suggestive than definitive.”[13] Fifteen years later, Michael Schoenhals was able to significantly expand and partially revise Lieberthal’s work, but he nonetheless found it necessary to stress that his database of CDs from the Cultural Revolution period was still “incomplete.”

Using the sources and tools available to us today, we have been able to compile a more thorough directory than these two earlier ones. We are still far from presenting anything close to a “complete” index, but with time and help from the research community, we hope that the Zhongfa Directory can gradually expand in this direction. Here we can only make a small, first step toward this goal by attempting to asses our current state of ignorance.

Lieberthal’s concern with the “grey areas” was warranted when he completed his study almost forty years ago. What is disconcerting is that, while our understanding of how the party functioned has since improved through new contributions that have widened the scope of inquiry beyond elite politics, there has been little concerted effort to close this empirical gap. And yet, despite the lack of new data, once preliminary conclusions have become common knowledge.[14] How can we avoid drawing the wrong conclusions from what is still an incomplete set of data? How can we account for what remains unknown concerning party organization and communication?

The chart below shows one way of gauging the extent of our current ignorance. By comparing the highest number in the annual sequence of CDs to the number of records in our directory, we can get an approximate idea of where the greatest blanks are.[15]

Figure 3 The highest number in each annual zhongfa sequence as compared with the annual sum of records in the Zhongfa Directory.

Based on our current data, it becomes clear that some periods are much better known than others. For instance, the current version of the Zhongfa Directory contains an average of 93 percent of the annual CD titles total for the period 1974 to 1986. For the years 1967 to 1972, however, this drops to 59 percent.[16] As the chart shows, the real mountain of ignorance looms over the period from 1957 to 1966, when the annual CD total ranges from over 600 to over 1 000 of which the directory only covers an average of 19 percent. Of an estimated 10 000 documents issued between 1954 and 1986, over 8 000 are from this ten-year period.

The reason that so many of these documents are missing from our current sources is most certainly not that they were all top secret documents dealing with some particularly sensitive topics; we may even assume that the great majority of these documents consists of routine communication. But even if few among the unaccounted for CDs would merit much attention in their own right, they may, in the aggregate, give us a better understanding of the priorities of the CCP Center and how its communication with the rest of the party organization evolved over time.

A proper understanding of party communication is fundamental to any analysis of the organizational configuration and capacity of the CCP.  This introductory note to the Zhongfa Directory suggests that we sorely need further research on this subject and it prompts at least two major questions. First, how can we make sense of the peak of CDs issued between the late 1957 and 1966? Second, what sources will allow us to bridge the gap between the available data and the data that we now know we are missing?

We hope that the Zhongfa Directory can be a point of departure for answering these and many other questions.

The Zhongfa Directory will be part of the Maoist Legacy Database, which will be made available in the near future with further context, full-text content, and commentary.

The Zhongfa Directory v.1.0 may be downloaded here.


[1] The Zhongfa Directory has been developed as part of The Maoist Legacy Project’s compilation of a scholarly database on how the CCP dealt with the legacies of the Maoist past. The project is funded by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Program (FP7/2007-2013) / ERC grant agreement n° 336202. We would like to extend our gratitude to Michael Schoenhals for making his An Incomplete Data Base of CCP Central Documents from the Cultural Revolution (Unpublished draft) (Stockholm: Center for Pacific Asia Studies at Stockholm University, 1993) available.

[2] The directory contains 57 incomplete entries without document numbers. They are included because the compilers of the directory consider that it is likely that they were part of the zhongfa series, despite the source not providing any document number. Included in the directory is, for instance, the CCP Center transmission of a Bo Yibo speech signed on 2 January 1963, which has the same date as Zhongfa (1963) no.1 and precedes Zhongfa (1963) no. 6, which was signed the day after.

[3] Michael Schoenhals. CCP Central Documents from the Cultural Revolution: Index to an Incomplete Data Base. Working Paper 32 (Stockholm: Center for Pacific Asia Studies at Stockholm University, 1993), p. vii. Our introduction borrows heavily from this paper.

[4] ibid., p. vi.

[5] The designation used to refer to documents in the zhongfa series changed over time. In the early 1950s the document header read “Central Document” (中央文件 zhongyang wenjian). In 1956, this was substituted by “CCP Central Document” (中共中央文件 Zhonggong zhongyang wenjian), which has since been the standard, irrespective of what the signatory may be.

[6] Cf. Kenneth Lieberthal with the assistance of James Tong and Sai-cheung Yeung. Central Documents and Politburo Politics in China. Michigan Papers in Chinese Studies 33 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, 1978), pp. 6-8.

[7] See “中共中央中央文革关于中央文件阅读范围、翻印、分发问题的通知” [CCP Center and Central Cultural Revolution Group Notice on Issues related to the Scope of Readership, Reprinting, and Distribution of Central Document] (Zhongfa [1968] no. 2); “中共中央办公厅关于中央文件印发、阅读和管理的办法” [CCP Central Committee General Office Procedures Related to the Printing, Reading, and Administration of Central Documents] (10 June 1985). 

[8] See the Law for the Protection of State Secrets (保守国家秘密法) and the Regulations for the Implementation of the Law for the Protection of State Secrets (保守国家秘密法条例).

[9] “中共中央办公厅关于中央文件印发、阅读和管理的办法”.

[10] “宁夏回族自治区党委办公厅关于加强中央文件发布阅读和管理工作的实施细则” [CCP Ningxia Hui Autonomous Regional Committee Office Detailed Implementation Rules Related to Strengthening the Work on Issuing, Reading, and Administering Central Documents] (Ningdangban [2005] no. 25).

[11] In some cases the attachment to a CD is classified while the document itself (usually a short introduction or instructions on circulation) is not. The Zhongfa Directory does not reflect this distinction, the record is listed according to the higher level of classification.

[12] Among our sources, only the National Defence University index systematically notes classification grades. To avoid distortions, this chart is based on records from this source alone. For more information on the sources used in the compilation of the Zhongfa Directory, see the “Note on sources” in the download package.

[13] Lieberthal, op. cit., p. 4.

[14] Michael Schoenhals “Is the Cultural Revolution Really Necessary” in Werner Draghun and David Goodman (eds.) China’s Communist Revolutions: Fifty Years of the People’s Republic of China (Routledge: 2002), pp. 159-176.

[15] Any hypothetical change in numbering practice is unlikely to have affected these figures. We have controlled for any inconsistencies by comparing the sum of the highest numbers each month with the highest number per year. For the year 1954, the highest number given here is equal to the highest number for the sequence ending in September plus the highest number in December. For 1957, the highest annual number corresponds to the sum of the highest number in each monthly sequence.

[16] The numbers from 1973 are misleading because the last numbered document for which we have any record is from August 20.