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 possible foreign threats shaped shelter construction, design and materiality.

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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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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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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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Murals (壁画)

Many propaganda images were produced by cultural workers to be experienced on public walls, either as murals or blackboard paintings. In villages and communes, mural and wall images were key visual forms for conveying ideology, popular knowledge, and political campaigns, but peasants also participated in making propaganda as mass art. During the Great Leap Forward, peasants were mobilized through the mass mural campaign in order to demonstrate the creative revolution in the countryside. In order to understand how these images became so pervasive in message and style, this entry describes the production, themes, and major concepts behind wall art.

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Radio (收音机)

Radio was a major way for the Chinese Communist Party to transmit the voice of the central government into family homes and workplaces situated all throughout the country. Villages, schools, industrial enterprises, and government organizations were all outfitted with PA systems, and local radio operators tuned in every day to relay broadcasts from the Central People’s Radio in Beijing, so that everyone was kept on the same ideological wavelength about how to understand the latest political, economic, social, and cultural changes occurring in Mao’s China. In practice, listening to the radio took on a variety of different meanings in people’s everyday lives.

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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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