Socialist Industrial Design in Mao Era China and After

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: History Faculty


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.


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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