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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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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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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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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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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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 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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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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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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