The Mao Era in Objects
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Big-character Poster (大字报)

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.

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Handwritten Entertainment Fiction (手抄本)

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.

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Mao Badges (毛主席像章)

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.

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Wristwatches (手表)

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.

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