The Mao Era in Objects
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Agricultural Tools (农具)

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.

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Air Defence Shelter (防空洞)

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.

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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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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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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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