The Mao Era in Objects
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Beijing International Club (北京国际俱乐部)

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.

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Borrowed Books (借书)

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.

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Children’s Magazines (儿童杂志)

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.

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Chinese Typewriters (中文打字机)

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.

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Dance Props (舞蹈道具)

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.

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Documentary Film (纪录片)

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?

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Flexi-Disc (薄膜唱片)

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.

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Great Hall Of The People (人民大会堂)

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.

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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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Little Red Book (红宝书) / Quotations from Chairman Mao (毛主席语录)

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.

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Mao Posters (毛泽东画像)

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.

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Murals (壁画)

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.

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Personal Diaries (日记)

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.

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Radio (收音机)

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.

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