Socialist Industrial Design in Mao Era China and After

Lead Research Organisation: King's College London
Department Name: History

Abstract

Historiography on the People's Republic of China before 1978 has so far had little to say about the history of industrial design and its role in state-society relations and everyday life. This reflects popular beliefs about socialist material culture during the first three decades of Chinese Communist Party rule. When asked today, many people inside and outside of China will often respond that the Mao Era was shaped by poverty and material scarcity. This suggests that socialist modernisation - of the kind witnessed during the 1950s and 1960s under European socialist regimes - was of little consequence to the lives of most ordinary citizens. Industrial design, however, mattered even during times of material scarcity and austerity; particularly if we define the term broadly to include not only officially accredited design departments and factory work but also local practices of recycling and reworking existing materials according to industrial design blueprints. Seen in this way, industrial design becomes an important site to examine the connections between China's politics, technology, materials, and the material cultures that surrounded people in their everyday public and private lives.

The project revisits industrial design during the Mao Era and the early Reform Era, from the 1950s into the 1980s. Based on new records from international archives, Party-internal publications, newspaper and periodicals, diaries, photography, technical manuals, memoirs, oral history interviews, and - wherever possible - surviving objects from the era, it brings PRC industrial design and materials into the wider history of post-war design and material culture. Much has been written about "post-Mao" industrial design, yet this project argues that many of the designs, materials, and manufacturing processes developed during the first three decades of CCP rule, then under Chairman Mao, were used to realise the post-Mao reforms. The history of socialist industrial design is central to understanding material culture and industrial design in China today.

The project approaches industrial design from two perspectives: objects and the materials used to produce them. Moving beyond selected and famous socialist consumer products (wristwatch, bicycle, TV, etc), the project looks at vernacular objects of daily use, including chairs, tables, desks, wardrobes, cupboards, sofas, sheets, bedding, crockery, and thermoses. It focuses on four central types of raw and engineered materials: wood, metal, bamboo, and plastics. This approach to PRC industrial design links the social history of these objects and their everyday uses to their contexts of production, circulation, and the broader discussions of raw material provisions, material sciences, mechanisation, materiality, and talk about new aesthetics for a "New China". The project emphasises the role played by a diverse set of individuals and groups who created designs in art institutes, design offices, but also in the workshops of factories often located in the new urban centres of socialist China away from Beijing and Shanghai. It combines this with an exploration of the work of people in government institutions, such as the offices of the Ministry of Light Industry or the Ministry of Forestry, who were in charge of state planning and party-state supervision of object production. It also explores un-institutionalised adaptations and manufacture of industrial blueprints, black market activities, and the connection between material shortages, provisions, and austerity designs.

The project will allow the PI to write a new monograph on PRC industrial design history. Several international workshops will lead to the creation of a new online resource - "The Mao Era in Objects" and to a co-edited publication on Mao Era material culture. The project will further promote dialogue between university academics and museum curators through collaboration with the new Hong Kong Museum M+.

Planned Impact

The project includes several activities that will generate significant impact. These activities will promote public engagement with Mao Era socio-cultural history in museums and in schools. They will also help the PI assume leadership in promoting public engagement with Mao Era history and the history of Chinese socialist design and material culture. These impact activities divide into three clusters:

1. The creation of a new online resource called "The Mao Era in Objects", in collaboration with academic colleagues, school teachers, and museum curators.

The PI will work with the King's Digital Lab and project partners to create a website that encourages engagement with Mao Era history through interactive object biographies. Early career and senior historians will write these object biographies aimed for a general readership, including A-Level teachers and pupils. The object biographies will be accompanied by a wide range of primary sources (images, memoir snippets, newspaper clips, translated archival documents, statistics, etc.) that allow users to engage with the original sources and with the historians' writings and interpretations at the same time. To ensure that this website will have wide and substantial impact, the PI and her collaborators will be advised by a group of school teachers and the curators at Hong Kong's M+ museum. The PI has already worked with the project partner. He will bring together a focus group of school teachers, with experience teaching the A-Level Chinese History option, and will advise on the object biographies, to ensure that they can be used in a classroom setting. The curator team of the new M+ museum in Hong Kong will provide curatorial advice on object selection and interpretation and the museum will also provide access to copyrighted images for the website. These collaborations will ensure that the website meets the needs of a wide range of users, and it will help to disseminate the website as a research and teaching tool, thereby generating substantial impact among a variety of non-academic users.

2. Cooperation with M+ Museum in Hong Kong and with other museums to develop a network of academics and curators working on Mao Era industrial design

This cluster of activities will build on existing dialogue between the PI and curators at the M+ museum. The PI will work with the M+ curator team to develop and organize a workshop, to take place in Hong Kong in 2018, on curating Mao Era collections. Workshop participants will include museum curators and academic historians. The workshop will inform the object biographies for the above website. It will further give participants an opportunity to explore the substantial holdings of M+ museum in Hong Kong (which will not become available until the museum opening in 2019 and after). And it will provide an opportunity for the M+ curator team to have newest research on Mao Era material culture inform their curatorial activities as they are assembling one of the world's most substantial collections of Mao Era design. The findings of this project will therefore generate significant impact by informing curatorial practice and generating several collaborative outputs, including the website and an edited volume as well as a series of presentations and talks.

3. Public media engagement

This cluster will achieve impact by popularizing the project findings in non-academic publications. This PI will seek opportunities to raise awareness for the online resource "The Mao Era in Objects" through shorter articles on the social history of Mao Era design and material culture and its relevance to understanding everyday life in China and the role of Maoism today. This will help establish the PI as a leader in public engagement in Mao Era history. The PI will receive support from the project mentor and her department, which has an extensive and successful track record of generating impact.

Publications

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Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
AH/R000174/1 01/04/2018 31/08/2019 £188,582
AH/R000174/2 Transfer AH/R000174/1 01/09/2019 30/06/2020 £40,744
 
Description ArtAsiaPacific article on M+Matters event 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A media report resulting from the M+ matters public event at the Hong Kong Asia Society on 5 July 2019.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://artasiapacific.com/Blog/MPlusMattersTalkRecapHiddenHistoriesOfTheMaoEra
 
Description London workshop "Material contradictions in Mao's China" 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This was the second academic workshop the PI co-organised with Dr Denise Ho (Yale University). This workshop was hosted by King's College London. It brought together an international group of ca. 20 scholars for two days to discuss material culture during the Mao period and the edited volume as well as website "The Mao Era in Objects" to which participants will contibute.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://2019mcmc2.home.blog/
 
Description M+ matters, Hong Kong Asia Society, public evening event 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A public evening event that took place on 5 July 2018 at the Hong Kong Asia Society. It was part of M+ museum's "M+ matters series" and the public component of our three day collaborative event "Post-1949 visual and material culture in China" involving museum curators and historians. The event was well attended, and reported on in local media.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.e-flux.com/announcements/203850/m-matters-post-1949-visual-and-material-culture-in-china...
 
Description Public presentation at M+Matters event, Hong Kong Asia Society 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The PI gave a public talk as part of the M+ Matters evening event "Post-1949 Visual and Material Culture in China" at the Hong Kong Asia Society on 5 July 2019.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.e-flux.com/announcements/203850/m-matters-post-1949-visual-and-material-culture-in-china...
 
Description Workshop "Post-1949 visual and material culture in China", M+ museum, Hong Kong 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A workshop organised in cooperation with Ms Shirley Surya and Ms Jennifer Wong of M+ Museum in Hong Kong and Dr Denise Ho (Yale University). The workshop took place from 3 to 5 July 2018. A group of people - including historians of China and curators whose work focuses on Asian and especially Chinese modern design - met for two days in Hong Kong to discuss newest research in Mao era visual and material culture, and to discuss strategies for curating collections in this field. Participants included historians and curators from Europe, the US, Hong Kong and mainland China. Most of the workshop was a closed event, but there was a public event on the second evening at the Hong Kong Asia Society (see separate entry).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.e-flux.com/announcements/203850/m-matters-post-1949-visual-and-material-culture-in-china...
 
Description Workshop with educators to discuss development of the website "The Mao Era in Objects" 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact This was a workshop with two internal and five external participants to discuss the online resource "The Mao Era in Objects" that will be developed as part of the fellowship. The two internal participants were the PI and one of the developers from the King's Digital Lab. The five external participants included two heads and one deputy head of history from London schools and two representatives from two national exam boards. During the one day workshop, we discussed the first drafts of object biographies that participating scholars submitted a few weeks earlier, the website layout and functionality, and further steps for website development as well as strategies for national dissemination once the website is completed.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Yale University Workshop, "Material Culture in Mao's China", 14-15 September 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact This was the first academic workshop the PI co-organised with Dr Denise Ho at the Council on East Asian Studies, Yale University. It was generously funded by the Council on East Asian Studies and brought together an international group of ca. 20 scholars for two days for the first conference on the history of material culture during the Mao period. The workshop was well received and will be followed up by a workshop in London in 2019.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://ceas.yale.edu/material-culture-and-maos-china