The Mao Era in Objects
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Bricks (砖)

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.

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Chairs and Stools (椅子和凳子)

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.

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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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Money (钱)

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.

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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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