The Mao Era in Objects
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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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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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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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Washbasin (洗脸盆)

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.

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