Fibrous Utopia: Furniture, Materials, and Design in the Early People’s Republic of China
This presentation explores the history of furniture design during the period of high Maoism in China, from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. Discussions about how to create furniture for life under socialism were closely linked to the search for materials that were affordable and easy to produce on a large scale. In state timber mills across the country, timber experts, engineers, and carpenters experimented with the production of artificial boards (renzaoban), including plywood, particle board, and fibreboard. Exhibitions showed furniture made from such boards. During the Great Leap Forward, experiments with the production of artificial boards were taken to the local level as counties were mobilised to make boards and furniture from local fibres, combining grassroots and expert techniques. The story of wood furniture production during this time gives fresh insights into post-1949 material culture and refocuses our attention on objects and materials that were part of how people experienced socialism at the time, but that have been largely forgotten or taken for granted in historiography.
Jennifer Altehenger is Lecturer in Contemporary Chinese History at King’s College London. Her research explores the cultural, political, legal, and material history of modern China. She is the author of Legal Lessons: Popularizing Laws in the People's Republic of China, 1949–1989 (Harvard University Press, 2018), a study of law propaganda and the dissemination of legal knowledge in socialist China. She has also published on the history of propaganda production, information, lexicography, political satire, and on communist China’s links to other socialist countries before 1989. Funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council Leadership Fellowship, her current work examines the history of industrial design in China after 1949, including China’s participation in international trade fairs and exchanges among designers, architects, and state officials.
Troubling Things: Navigating the Pitfalls of Cultural Revolution Memorabilia
The recent increased attention to the visual and material culture of the Mao era (1949–1976) is both welcome and necessary in affording new vantage points on the lived experience of the period. In my own work, I have attempted to get beyond the strident rhetoric of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) by turning to things, to flexi-disc records, wall-hanging mirrors, porcelain figurines, and more. A dearth of institutionally held, curated collections of such items has led me to the world of Cultural Revolution memorabilia. This is not without its methodological risks. As I have argued elsewhere, the twenty-first-century circulation and amateur collection of such memorabilia is an important lens through which to understand the evolving legacy of the past in the present. For those of us interested in the past per se, however, this world of counterfeits and sketchy information poses particular challenges. These challenges—and some strategies for dealing with them—are the subject of this talk.
Laurence Coderre is Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies at New York University. She received her PhD in Chinese from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2015. She was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Michigan’s Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies in 2015–2016. Her research, which focuses on Chinese socialist and post-socialist cultural production, has appeared in the Journal of Material Culture, Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, and the Journal of Chinese Cinemas, in addition to several edited volumes. An article on conceptualising the commodity form under Mao is forthcoming in Comparative Studies of Society and History. Her work has been supported by the Social Science Research Council, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Fulbright-Hays Program. She is currently completing a book manuscript on media, materiality, and the commodity form in the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
Everyday Desirables: What Wristwatches, Sewing Machines, and Bicycles Can Tell Us about Mao-Era China
What did Chinese people want in the Mao era, and what do the efforts of the Chinese state to control these desires explain about this era? After 1949, specific products, especially imported consumer goods, became harder to obtain. There were many things one might want but would not be able to acquire legally. The state tried to quash the desire for some products by defining them as ‘bourgeois’ or ‘feudal’, and to redirect desires—both new and pre-existing—towards products manufactured in China. This talk addresses the PRC efforts to shape consumer desire though a history of the ‘three big-ticket items’ (san da jian, or ‘three bigs’). A wristwatch, a sewing machine, and a bicycle were major consumer goods sought by urban and rural households across China during the Mao era, and were eventually manufactured in China. A history of the expanding production, circulation, and social lives of these products helps explain the spread of the ‘bourgeois’ consumerism that the Mao-era state attempted to replace.
Karl Gerth is Professor of History and Hwei-chih and Julia Hsiu Endowed Chair in Chinese Studies at the University of California, San Diego. His most recent book, As China Goes, So Goes the World: How Chinese Consumers Are Transforming Everything (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010) explores whether Chinese consumers can rescue the economy without creating even deeper global problems. He is also the author of China Made: Consumer Culture and the Creation of the Nation (Harvard University Press, 2003). Currently, he is completing a book that investigates the survival of consumerism in China’s urban centres following the establishment of the communist state in 1949.
Transnational Imagery in Revolutionary Art and Its Collecting
The visual culture of international communism shares many messages, motifs, and stylistic features. Certain symbols were adopted by all communist movements, and the Soviet Union was the source for many early designs in Mongolia, China, North Korea, and Eastern Europe. In the 1950s and 1960s, China’s poster art influenced other revolutionary societies, implicitly or through exact copies. Today, most important poster collections—in museums, universities, and private hands—are focused on single countries. This poses a challenge for research into design influence in graphic art, which must by its very nature cross borders. This talk explores transnational imagery and iconography in communist posters, with examples from a wide range of collections, and also addresses the nature of current collecting practices.
Mary Ginsberg is an international banker turned art historian, specialising in Soviet and pan-Asian political art. She writes and lectures on propaganda, comparative communism, and curatorial practice. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Russian Studies and Chinese Studies from Yale University, a Master of Arts degree in International Affairs from Columbia University, and, later in her career, a Master of Arts degree in the History of Art and Archaeology from SOAS, University of London. She curated the exhibition The Art of Influence: Asian Propaganda at the British Museum in 2013 and authored the accompanying catalogue, and is the editor and author of Communist Posters (Reaktion Books, 2017). She is currently a Visiting Academic at the British Museum, researching revolutionary prints, posters, and ephemera.
New Exhibitions in New China: Display, Objects, and Class
When China’s Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966, Red Guards created exhibitions of material confiscated during ‘house searches’. Where did this practice come from and what was it used for? This talk examines the ‘new exhibitions’ of Maoist China, from the Socialist Education Movement to the Cultural Revolution. Part of the research for the recent book Curating Revolution: Politics on Display in Mao’s China (Cambridge University Press, 2017), these case studies reveal how the display of personal possessions linked material culture and class in the Mao era. The presentation also argues that this culture of exhibitions taught ordinary people how to participate in political campaigns.
Denise Y. Ho is Assistant Professor of twentieth-century Chinese history at Yale University. She is a historian of modern China, with a particular focus on the social and cultural history of the Mao period (1949–1976). She is the author of Curating Revolution: Politics on Display in Mao’s China (Cambridge University Press, 2017). Her articles have appeared in The China Quarterly and Modern China, and she has written book chapters for Red Legacies in China: Cultural Afterlives of the Communist Revolution (Harvard University Press, 2016), The Oxford Handbook of History and Material Culture (Oxford University Press, forthcoming), and The Afterlives of Chinese Communism (Australian National University Press, forthcoming). She is currently a fellow in the Public Intellectuals Program of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.
The Capriccio of the Ming Tombs Reservoir: What Was Cinema in Maoist China?
In this talk, I take The Capriccio of the Ming Tombs Reservoir (1958), a hybrid film combining historical drama, musical, documentary, and science fiction, as a point of departure to discuss some of the prominent features of cinema of the Great Leap Forward (1958–1960) and, more broadly, during the Mao era. What was cinema understood to be during this time? How were film production and reception organised? What kinds of relationships did cinema form with other media, such as photography, theatre, painting, and design? And how did Mao-era films transform conventional genres and create new ones? This film tells the story of artists visiting the construction site of a reservoir outside Beijing, built in record time during the Great Leap Forward. By situating the film alongside other works from the period, highlighting the film’s reflexivity across media, and connecting it to its pre-1949 precedents and its resonance in post-socialist cinema, this presentation reflects on the role of cinema and media in China’s revolutionary century.
Ying Qian is an Assistant Professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University whose work focuses on Chinese cinema, visual culture, and media studies. Her research interests include film and media theories and practices, documentary cinema, and global histories and imaginaries of revolution and (post)socialism. Her work has been published in various journals and edited volumes, including The New Left Review, China Perspectives, and the Oxford Handbook of Chinese Cinemas (Oxford University Press, 2013), and she is currently completing a book entitled Visionary Realities: Documentary Cinema in Revolutionary China. She received her PhD from Harvard University, and has worked as a filmmaker, critic, and film programmer.
The Design System in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, 1960–1980
Soviet design started to develop at an industrial scale in the second half of the twentieth century. In April 1962, the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union issued a decree ‘on improving the quality of products of machine building and cultural and household goods through the introduction of methods of artistic construction’. Soon after, a network of research institutes was established across the country. Each was subordinate to a certain ministry and was responsible for the development and implementation of art and design projects in a single region. At the same time, special art and design bureaus and design departments were created at significant industrial enterprises. By the end of the 1970s, every sphere of industry had an organisation responsible for the aesthetic quality of its products. This presentation provides a historical survey of the design history of the Soviet Union from 1960 to 1980. While the Soviet Union’s design system had no analogues in the West, many connections can be drawn with the development of design in China.
The Moscow Design Museum: The Way from Ideas to Real Projects
The Moscow Design Museum (MDM) was founded in 2012 and is the first cultural institution in Russia dedicated to design. The museum’s founders see their main objectives as popularising national design at home and abroad, collecting and preserving Russian design heritage, and introducing the Russian public to the best examples and main schools of international design. Thus far, the MDM has organised exhibitions dedicated to Russian design history that travel around Russia and abroad. The museum’s collection of Russian design continues to grow. It is principally comprised of graphic, industrial, and fashion design, as well as the archives of influential designers and interviews with Soviet and Russian designers, from 1917 until 2018. The MDM organises seminars with leading European and Russian designers and design historians, and produces documentaries on design.
Alexandra Sankova is the Director and a co-founder of the Moscow Design Museum, which was established in 2012 with the mission to collect, preserve, and promote the design heritage of Russia. The exhibitions she co-curated at the museum include Soviet Design 1950–1980 (2017), Packaging Design. Made in Russia (2013), and Discovering Utopia: Lost Archives of Soviet Design (2016), which received the Utopia Medal at the London Design Biennale 2016. She founded the non-profit organisation New Graphics and was Senior Advisor for Cultural Affairs at the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Moscow. She is the author of 23 (IndexMarket, 2010), a collection of interviews with Russia’s pre-eminent designers, and a co-author of Designed in the USSR: 1950–1989 (Phaidon, 2018), and was a producer of the documentary History of Russian Design (2018). Sankova received her Master of Arts degree in Graphic Design from Stroganov Moscow State University of Arts and Industry.
Design from the Planned-Economy Period in China, 1949–1979
Design following the establishment of the PRC had three main purposes: developing international trade, building a national image, and improving the daily life of the people. In its first decades, the nation initiated its efforts at large-scale industrialisation and infrastructure building based on the foundation of industrial production from the Republican period and support from the Soviet Union. This presentation begins by contextualising the beginnings of industrial design in China, addressing the influence of Western modernist design theory in the 1930s and 1940s. Through case studies of design materials, including industrial products, packaging, and advertising posters, it charts the evolution of the theory, principles, and classification of design during the planned-economy period. It closes by addressing the collection strategy, research initiatives, and future directions of the China Industrial Design Museum.
Shen Yu is the founder of the China Industrial Design Museum. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Engineering from the School of Design at Jiangnan University, and his current research focuses on modern design history and culture in China. He previously held the positions of Associate Professor at the School of Art, Design and Media at East China University of Science and Technology; Secretary General of Shanghai Design Creativity Centre; and Associate Secretary General of China Industrial Design Association. He has published over thirty papers, including ‘Rise of Chinese Brands’ (Zhuangshi 269, no. 9 (2015)). He is the author of the series A Genealogy of Industrial Design in China (Dalian University of Technology Press, 2017–present), Historiography of China’s Modern Design Theory (Shanghai People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, 2017), and Chinese Industrial Design Collection File from 1949–1979 (Shanghai People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, 2014).
Western Influence on Chinese Architecture in the Mao Era (1949–1976)
This research examines Western influence on Chinese architecture in the Mao era (1949–1976), which culminated in the late Mao period (1969–1976). Developments in architecture in the Mao era is entangled with continuous reference to foreign architecture, although the sources of foreign influence varied across time. Soviet and East European influence was dominant in the 1950s, while the so-called Third World architecture attracted more intellectual attention in the early 1960s. In the 1970s, following the political turmoil of the late 1960s, specific lines of Western modernism were absorbed or revalued by Chinese architects and adapted for a political purpose to express ‘Chineseness’. Notably, the architectural influence of the West in the Mao era extended beyond the design of iconic buildings to include the design of furniture, everyday objects, and building products.
Song Ke is Assistant Professor at the School of Architecture, Harbin Institute of Technology (Shenzhen). His research is centred on the architectural history of modern China, with a focus on the period after 1949. He has published several papers, including ‘Architecture at a Political Turning Point: Diplomatic Buildings in 1970s Beijing’ (ABE Journal: Architecture beyond Europe) and ‘The Architectural Influence of the United States in Mao’s China (1949–1976)’ (Fabrications). He received his PhD from the University of Melbourne in 2017. He has taught design and theory at the University of Melbourne and has worked as an architectural designer at CPG Corporation (Singapore), TeamMinus (Beijing), and Lab Architects (Melbourne).
Luopai and Depai: Alternative Models for Chinese Art in the 1960s
The mainstream view of Chinese art history in the twentieth century is based on the East-West dichotomy of the Cold War, with two opposing sides: capitalist modernism and socialist realism. Historians have scarcely acknowledged alternative approaches outside the dominant Soviet realism, especially approaches from the Eastern Bloc now recognised as ‘socialist modernism’.
Post-1949, some Chinese students were sent to East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Poland to study art. They returned to China in the 1960s and became influential faculty members at art schools. A style introduced from East Germany at this time was called depai (German School). Romanian artist Eugen Popa was invited to the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (now the China Academy of Art) in Hangzhou in 1960, and taught there for two years. The influence of his modernist style spread across China and was given the popular name luopai (Romanian School).
This presentation explores how Chinese artists reconciled a modernist approach with their understanding of socialism, through the influence of Eastern European art.
Zheng Shengtian is an artist, scholar, and curator based in Vancouver. Before 1990, he worked at the China Academy of Art as Professor and Chair of the Oil Painting Department. He was a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota and San Diego State University, Secretary of the Annie Wong Art Foundation, and Founding Board Director of Centre A. Currently, he is the Managing Editor of Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, Adjunct Director of the Institute of Asian Art at the Vancouver Art Gallery, and a trustee of Asia Art Archive in America. Zheng has organised and curated numerous exhibitions and events, and has frequently contributed to periodicals and catalogues. In 2013, Zheng Shengtian: Selected Writing on Art was published in four volumes. In 2011, he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award for curatorial work by the Vancouver Biennale. He received an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Emily Carr University of Art + Design in 2013.