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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Handloom Cloth (土布) from Zhouzhi, Shaanxi Province (周至)

Throughout the collective period, millions of rural Chinese continued to wear handloom cloth, and rural women continued to spend much of their working hours spinning, weaving, and making cloth and clothing. In theory, manual spinning and weaving should have ended after 1949, since every Chinese citizen had access to factory cloth through the rationing system. In actual fact, rural rations fell short of replacement needs, and women worked double shifts to clothe their families. Women’s unrecognized domestic work enabled the state to undersupply the countryside and direct scarce resources to the cities.

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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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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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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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