Scholars of Mao-era history adopt a wide range of approaches to the selection and treatment of source material. Some scholars regard published sources as propaganda, and therefore as biased and unreliable. For many, archival sources are the gold standard; others question the reliability even of the archive and favor materials that escaped the filtering fingers of the state to be found in flea markets or garbage piles. Avoiding the false choice of either accepting sources as received wisdom or dismissing them as biased, the author argues that how scholars read their sources is more important than which they keep and which they throw away. She advocates for a layered approach that accounts for contexts of production and circulation, and further emphasizes the need to make this process of reading sources visible in our writing. A critical, layered reading of three unlikely sources demonstrates the myriad possibilities for analysis that combines the empirical, the discursive, and the self-reflexive.

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