Jennifer Altehenger |  Karl Gerth | Zheng Shengtian

Jennifer Altehenger

‘New China’s Showcase: The China Pavilion at the Leipzig Fairs in East Germany’

Throughout the 1950s, the People’s Republic of China was a regular participant at the international trade fairs held in the old city of Leipzig in the German Democratic Republic. In its own grand pavilion, designed by a team led by the artist Zhang Ding, China exhibited heavy machinery, construction and engineering equipment, electrical appliances, samples of raw materials, metals, agricultural products, textiles, silk, furs, tea, and luxury items such as jade, cloisonné, and ivory carvings. Second in size only to the pavilion of the Soviet Union, the China pavilion was one of the most popular attractions, with queues of people regularly waiting to be granted entry to the hall. But the story of China at Leipzig has not received much attention from historians. This presentation explores successive Chinese exhibitions at the pavilion over the years and shows why the export, exhibition, and consumption of things ‘made in socialist China’ are important parts of the larger story of goods ‘made in China’.

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.

Karl Gerth

‘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. 

Zheng Shengtian

‘Crossing the Pacific: A Hidden History’

From the 1950s until the late 1970s, China chose to engage with the ‘Third World’—countries seen as developing—especially following the definition of its political stance at the Bandung Conference in 1955. China’s exchange with Mexican and Latin American artists is an important example of this engagement, but it has often been overlooked in the mainstream historical narrative.

Dialogues between Mexico and China can be documented as early as the beginning of the twentieth century. After the People’s Republic of China was established, cultural exchange with Latin American countries continued to develop. In the 1950s, Chilean artist José Venturelli lived in Beijing as a representative of the Asia-Pacific Peace Conference. Besides his political responsibility, he was very active in introducing Latin American art to Chinese artists. Mexican artists Xavier Guerrero, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Ignacio Aguirre, and Arturo García Bustos visited China in the following years. In 1956, two major exhibitions of Mexican paintings and prints toured to Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. The works in the exhibitions introduced entirely new styles and ideas, and left a great impact on Chinese artists in the second half of the twentieth century.

This presentation introduces relatively unexplored materials: documentation, research records, and works of art that reveal a fascinating yet hidden chapter of cross-cultural history.

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.