The Little Red Book was the most prominent icon of the Cultural Revolution. It played a key role in mobilizing the populace and heavily influenced contemporary rhetoric. Despite its towering success, with over one billion copies printed, the compilation history of the Little Red Book is full of unexpected twists and turns. From revolutionary weapon to sacred icon, the volume fulfilled multiple functions and presents a fascinating example of how objects may acquire different symbolic meanings in revolutionary politics.
Throughout the collective period, millions of rural Chinese continued to wear handloom cloth, and rural women continued to spend much of their working hours spinning, weaving, and making cloth and clothing. In theory, manual spinning and weaving should have ended after 1949, since every Chinese citizen had access to factory cloth through the rationing system. In actual fact, rural rations fell short of replacement needs, and women worked double shifts to clothe their families. Women’s unrecognized domestic work enabled the state to undersupply the countryside and direct scarce resources to the cities.
The citizens of socialist China were avid readers. Books—and translations of foreign novels in particular—were not just a favorite pastime, but also a means of education and cultural work. Translated books told Chinese readers about the world at large, and especially about the Soviet Union, the PRC’s new partner in foreign affairs. This biography zooms in on a popular edition of a translated Soviet novel, searching for the traces of Sino-Soviet relations, from the PRC’s founding to the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. It aims to excavate the history of reading (foreign) books in socialist China.
Wristwatches were one of the most desired mass-produced industrial products in the Mao era, 1949-76. They began the era as imported luxury items owned only by the wealthy. But they ended the era domestically mass-produced by the millions. On the one hand, they were a symbol of the successful efforts to build Chinese industry, science, and technology. On the other, only a small fraction of a population of some 700 million managed to obtain one. The distribution of these watches was a consequence of a specific economic policy. Sometimes, the state used propaganda to promote watch consumption, such as movies made by the state featuring watches. Other times, the state discouraged any form of consumerism, especially after the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Wristwatches were an everyday symbol of the inequality that the Communist Revolution of 1949 had intended to end but that accompanied industrialization.
Bricks were essential if obdurate components in the physical and figural construction of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)—a building material rooted in China’s civilizational origins yet new and vital to the country’s built environment under Mao. It was a familiar object for some but not all of China’s residents, and it required a certain but not necessarily highly skilled expertise to produce and assemble into architecture. In both its enduring and multivalent practicality and representational agency, the brick is a useful object through which the aspirations and challenges of realizing an everyday socialist modernity in the PRC may be better understood.
As objects of ideology, design, science, economic planning, consumption, and everyday use, chairs and stools can reveal much about politics, society, culture, and daily rhythms during the Mao period and later Reform Era. This biography examines the role of chairs and stools in the transition to socialism and industrial development after 1949. It illustrates how these furniture items were designed, how they became part of the CCP's planning process including the five-year plans, and how design and materiality were shaped by momentous events such as the Great Leap Forward.
Entertainment fiction manuscripts from the Chinese Cultural Revolution are objects that were forbidden at the time as their very existence was against the prevailing ideology, yet they were extremely popular, in particular among young readers. This biography presents this type of fiction as material object by tracing how they were produced and consumed, how both the material objects and the concrete texts were transformed and how these practices anticipated developments in the literary and cultural field commonly associated with the post-Mao era.
By virtue of their unique technical specifications and cultural valences, recorded audio formats bring issues of science and technology, industrial organization, artistic and cultural production, and media interplay to the fore. This biography examines the flexi-disc or flexi and its emergence in the PRC after 1968. It pays particular attention to the ways in which the Chinese flexi was deployed in a manner at odds with global trends: rather than be tied to subscription magazines, the Chinese flexi was the purview of local stations broadcasting over loudspeaker.
Radio was a major way for the Chinese Communist Party to transmit the voice of the central government into family homes and workplaces situated all throughout the country. Villages, schools, industrial enterprises, and government organizations were all outfitted with PA systems, and local radio operators tuned in every day to relay broadcasts from the Central People’s Radio in Beijing, so that everyone was kept on the same ideological wavelength about how to understand the latest political, economic, social, and cultural changes occurring in Mao’s China. In practice, listening to the radio took on a variety of different meanings in people’s everyday lives.
A symbol of the climate of fear and militarisation of everyday life during the Cold War, the air defence shelter left a lasting imprint on Chinese urban landscapes eliciting diverse local social, political and cultural responses. As a means of urban defence, shelters illustrate changing perceptions of foreign threat and its impact on everyday life during the Mao period and the Reform Era, from the rise and fall of the Sino-Soviet alliance to the Sino-American rapprochement. This bio uses the example of a specific type of shelter --the air defence tunnel-- to illustrate how perceptions of foreign threats shaped shelter construction, design and materiality.
Many propaganda images were produced by cultural workers to be experienced on public walls, either as murals or blackboard paintings. In villages and communes, mural and wall images were key visual forms for conveying ideology, popular knowledge, and political campaigns, but peasants also participated in making propaganda as mass art. During the Great Leap Forward, peasants were mobilized through the mass mural campaign in order to demonstrate the creative revolution in the countryside. In order to understand how these images became so pervasive in message and style, this entry describes the production, themes, and major concepts behind wall art.
In order to understand why so many ordinary people supported communism in China, it is necessary to look at personal records like diaries. Increasing literacy through education greatly aided the Party’s efforts to conduct ‘thought work’, enact mass mobilisation campaigns across China, and generally bring about social change through its orthodox political ideology and practices. Although surveyed diary writing can be thought of as a form of cultural work, it was also a tool used by authors to learn about Chinese communism and their place in the new society.
The history of Chinese typewriting is one of experiments, prototypes, failures, and successes in the century-long quest to solve a complex design puzzle: How to fit thousands of characters on a desktop device? The history of Chinese typewriting is also a unique lens through which to examine the broader histories of Chinese mass mobilisation, science and technology, literacy, women, industry, and cultural work.
Dance was an important part of revolutionary art and culture in China during the Mao period, both as everyday entertainment and to promote Maoist culture internationally. Like other aspects of cultural work, dance had specific ideological and political meanings. Through their use of dance movements, costumes, and props, dancers conveyed new ideas about Chinese society, including ideas about national identity and ethnic groups, views about women, and the nature of Sino-Soviet relations. This biography examines the material culture of Mao era dance through the lens of dance props—objects dancers manipulated in their performances to convey new ideas on stage.
As objects impacting both daily life and economic well-being of the rural population, agricultural tools were a central concern to farmers since the imperial era. During both the Mao era and the Reform era their technological improvement stood high on the political agenda. Orienting themselves to foreign models and native innovations these tools were expected to contribute to economic growth by raising agricultural productivity. This biography introduces a number of agricultural tools used during the Mao era that were shaped by social and political forces on both the central and the local level.
Architecture often has a political meaning. Think of Buckingham Palace, the White House, the Kremlin, or the local government offices such as city hall or town councils. Public spaces in cities such as parks and squares also have political meanings. This biography examines the Great Hall of the People, one of the most important political buildings in China. It describes how the building was planned and constructed during the Great Leap Forward, discusses how the architectural style and the interior symbolized the power, ideology and policies of the Chinese Communist Party, and describes some of what goes on inside.
Revolutions often produce new types of art and culture, and often the most effective forms are those that can be worn, allowing supporters to literally embody the revolution. In China, Chairman Mao badges, small pins featuring Mao’s visage, were produced as early as the revolutionary period, but they became a truly nationwide phenomenon during the Cultural Revolution, when they were worn by young Red Guards as demonstrations of their devotion to Mao. They remain present in Reform Era China, where they have entered private collections, thus entering a very different world from that which they were originally designed for.
Political socialization of children begins very young in China. In addition to school classes and textbooks, youth organizations and other group activities, children participate in patriotic learning through officially produced mass media. Children’s magazines were very important in the early years of the People’s Republic, as film, radio and television were not very accessible, especially in rural areas. Magazines promoted communist ideology, specific policies and campaigns, as well as literacy and general knowledge. Publishing in China was nationalized and centralized during the 1950s, ensuring that officially approved messages were disseminated for mass mobilization.
Washbasins were an important utilitarian item in Mao era China. In the absence of indoor plumbing, homes and offices used enamel basins for washing up. Called “face-washing basin” in Chinese (xi lian pen 洗臉盆), washbasins can be thought of as all-purpose sinks. An essential item in every home, in the Mao era washbasins became a vehicle for social and political messaging.
Big-Character-Posters served as forms of propaganda throughout the Mao era, and were especially prominent during the Cultural Revolution. This biography examines the history and legacy of the big-character-poster, especially the ways they were used by individuals to spread ideology and serve as a form of mass mobilisation. From Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution to students during the Umbrella Movement, big-character-posters are often seen as a bottom-up form of protest. However, oral histories and memoirs reveal that the process of writing them was more complicated, sometimes top-down and sometimes collectively authored.
Films are objects whose production requires resources, labor and technology, and whose distribution requires infrastructure. Films also present other objects on the screen. Documentary images, in particular, are supposed to tell truths about the physical and historical world we live in. This biography discusses the substantial resources committed to filmmaking by the young PRC: in one example, the People’s Liberation Army re-enacted four major battles in the Chinese Civil War for the camera. Why was there a perceived need for re-enactment, and what it might tell us about the society where the film was produced?
In the early twentieth century, when the Communists gained territory, they set up revolutionary base areas (also known as soviets), and issued new coins and notes, using whatever expertise, supplies and technology were available. Like coins and banknotes all over the world, these played an important role in economic and financial life, and were also instrumental in conveying images of the new political authority. Since 1949, all regular banknotes in the People’s Republic of China have been issued by the People’s Bank of China, and the designs of the notes reflect the concerns of the Communist Party of China.
The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) is inextricably bound up with images of uncountable numbers of propaganda posters, and Red Guards. Poster production reached a climax during the period, turning the event into a media spectacle. Mao Zedong’s image graced millions if not billions of these posters, dominating all aspects of life. After Mao’s death in 1976, his veneration came to a halt. However, the new leadership realized that doing away with Mao was impossible. Over the years, posters have been replaced by television and online propaganda. With Mao’s likeness gracing Chinese banknotes, 'Grandpa Mao' now has become a sought-after commodity.
Architecture is not just an 'object', but also a 'space' inhabited by objects and people. Architecture itself as well as the related objects can reveal much about ideology, politics, knowledge, culture and people's life during the Mao period. Beijing International Club was a significant diplomatic building built in the Cultural Revolution after China improved its foreign relations with the West. This biography illustrates how the building was designed and used and how the artworks in it reflected the political struggles of the time.