The Mao Era in Objects

Ouverture, fin janvier 2020, du site Mao era in objects, dirigé par Jennifer Altehenger (Université d’Oxford). Interactif, le site présente, de manière non exhaustive et sous forme d’essais biographiques, une vingtaine d’objets produits, utilisés et commentés durant la période maoïste (1949 à 1976).

Objects were of crucial importance during the Mao Era. Think of the famous Little Red Book, propaganda posters or colorful Mao badges. These have become synonymous with life in China after the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949. Besides such well-known examples, there were of course many more objects that profoundly shaped how people experienced the first three decades of Chinese Communist Party governance, including enamel washbasins, furniture, radios, wristwatches, bicycles, money, textiles, many different kinds of print publications, and much more.

Each of these objects has a story to tell: of its design and manufacture, use and reuse, of people owning, wanting, or discarding it. Objects can thus offer an exciting lens onto the social, cultural, economic and political history of this period. Fortunately, the historian has many primary sources to work with. There are the objects themselves, to be found in museums, people’s workplaces, and homes and – in the case of buildings – in public spaces. Objects have, moreover, left textual, visual and aural traces in other sources, from paintings, posters, and photography to newspapers, magazines, memoirs, literature, song and dance scripts, video and audio recordings, and all sorts of ephemera. An object we study can also be a source that tells us something about another object, as in the case of print publications or documentaries. No matter how we study objects, they help us discover experiences of the past that move beyond histories of so-called « great men » and major political narratives.

Our website introduces twenty-four different objects that were made, used, talked and written about during the Mao Era. Some of these are famous, others less so. Some are large decorative objects, others solely intended for everyday use. Some might seem a more obvious object to examine than others. Visitors will find that some of the more famous objects associated with the era — bicycles, ration coupons, chopsticks, pens, to name a few — are currently not represented here. While biographies of these objects may follow in future, the website does not aim to present a comprehensive history or function as an object encyclopaedia. Contributors each write about their object from a different vantage point, variously focusing more on its making, representation, circulation, and use. The result is a selection of readings and interpretations that reflect contributors’ individual expertise and research interests.

Every object biography thus takes visitors on a new journey through the Mao Era. Each object is accompanied by a set of primary sources that can be explored in conjunction with the particular object biography. We invite visitors to examine sources for themselves, to discover more about the kind of materials historians of China use to study the past, and to find new ways of combining different sources. Many objects have timelines and maps that allow visitors to explore developments and changes over time and across different places. Moreover, all the individual timelines and maps have been merged into an aggregated timeline and map for the entire project that can be accessed via the « Menu » link.

The website is at once a small exhibition, a teaching resource, and a compact edited volume of writings. We hope it will therefore appeal to many different visitors. If you are a visitor interested in learning more about any aspect of the Mao Era, we encourage you to open one biography that looks interesting and then use the « Related Objects » tab in individual biographies (top right corner) to continue your journey. If you are an educator working at a school or university, we hope you will find the combination of biographies and primary sources useful in the classroom. We have, moreover, designed the website as a resource that can be assigned to students as they learn about this period in modern Chinese history. Please see our separate section « Information for users » for more on this topic. While this section has been tailored to UK teachers, we anticipate that much of the information will also be relevant to educators working in other countries and educational systems. If you are a scholar studying modern China, the history of state socialism or another related field, we hope that these essays might offer a few fresh perspectives on the period and make for an enjoyable read. If you are wondering where to begin, we recommend you start your journey by reading Michael Schoenhals’ autobiographical essay « Objects that mattered », an evocative account of the power of objects that paints a vivid picture of China just at the end of the Mao Era.

Consulter le site : http://maoeraobjects.ac.uk

Monique Abud

Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine, EHESS, Paris, France

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