AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 459

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Session 459: Everyday Maoism:material culture and everyday life in 1950s China

Organizer: Antonia Finnane, University of Melbourne, China

Chair: Joanna Waley-Cohen, New York University Shanghai, USA

Discussant: Joanna Waley-Cohen, New York University Shanghai, USA

Studies of Chinese society in the 1950s have shown the abiding interest of observers in a range of national or state-level processes, involving political organization, policy development, and economic change in the twin contexts of the Cold War and the expansion of the socialist bloc. What was the relationship between these large-scale developments and the micro-processes of everyday life? A useful point of departure for responding to this question is provided by Sheila Fitzpatrick’s Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times (1999). Focusing on Russia in the 1930s, Fitzpatrick examined “everyday interactions that in some way involved the state.” What was “extraordinary” about these times, in her judgment, was the very number of such interactions, or in other words, the expansiveness of the state in the domain of everyday life. The study of everyday life in 1950s China reveals a like expansiveness. Through the examination of the production, trade, consumption, and aesthetic and discursive treatments of material goods, the papers in this panel explore and reflect on everyday life in Chinese society in a decade of political change. On the road from New Democracy through the “antis” campaigns and socialist transformation to the Great Leap Forward, individuals in China encountered the state in multiple different material forms. The degree to which they were the willing executioners of state-designed policies in the realm of material culture is among the questions prompted by this panel.

Consumers under Communism: The Fate of Bourgeois Material Culture after 1949
Karl Gerth, University of California, San Diego, USA

This paper explores the changing meaning of Chinese mass material culture through the interaction of two ideologies in direct competition in the 1950s: consumerism and communism. In the first half of the twentieth century, a distinctive consumer culture in urban China formed with the introduction of thousands of new consumer goods, the proliferation of discussions about such goods, and the reorientation of social life around them. This new culture included nationalistic and anti-imperialist strains that were often in direct opposition to the actual consumption patterns of Chinese. Consumption on everyday objects thus became a politicized act that called into question—and even sanctioned attacks against—“unpatriotic” consumers who knowingly or even unwittingly bought imports. How did social attitudes, political policies, and individual practices centered around this material culture change in the decade after the Communist victory in 1949, when “foreign products” (yanghuo), especially those from capitalist countries, were largely removed from the market and the Communists could finally impose nationalistic consumption not only in the usual ways—through tariffs, exchange controls, and outright bans—but through state-sanctioned mass campaigns? The paper examines how the Party promoted hostility toward consumption in general and the lifestyles based on the consumption of these new mass goods in particular, paving the way for the formal abolition of the capitalist class four years later.

Serving New China: 1950’s Consumer Ceramics and Enamel Ware
Alfreda Murck, Independent Scholar, USA

During the 1950’s, the décor on ceramics and white enamel ware in the People’s Republic of China resumed a practice of displaying positive political messages. This paper will explore the décor and the organization of the relevant work units during the 1950s. Cooperatives (hezuo she) were established from private kilns and small factories. A few years later, most were reconstituted as Joint State Private Enterprises (gongsi heying). Eventually the process of public ownership was pushed further with State-owned Enterprises (guo ying). These organizational policies can be tracked in the seals on the bottom of porcelain ceramics (especially those from Jingdezhen), and on enamel wash basins, trays and mugs. Through the seals and slogans we can document political movements as well as the introduction of simplified characters. The optimistic images celebrate peace, advertise the exceptional opportunities for those living in New China such as visiting imperial gardens and becoming a female pilot, and admonish consumers to increase production.

Mao and Food Culture: the Quotidian as Statecraft in Chinese Politics
Hanchao Lu, Georgia Institute of Technology, USA

Over his long career as a Communist revolutionary, Mao frequently used food as a metaphor to convey political views and impart critical and often provocative messages to the masses. At the time when his power and charisma constituted a personality cult unprecedented in Chinese history, Mao’s personal food preferences and his comments on food-related subjects were transferable to government policymaking and affected the lives of millions of people. Mao’s remarks on food also added new expressions to everyday Chinese discourse and lexicon and enriched the Chinese popular culture that tends to politicize the cosumption of food and the craft of food preparation. This paper explores Mao’s usage of food as metaphor, gesture, and contrivance for political purposes in the 1950s and beyond. While Mao ingeniously uses the quotidian as statecraft, an aspect of Maoism seldom examined in academia, ordinary Chinese creatively exercised his “supreme instructions” for local or grassroots purposes. This two-way street, so to speak, reflects as much the pervasive nature of Mao’s regime in daily life as the wisdom of wangling and getting on in the revolution of the ordinary people.

Tailor shops in 1950s Beijing: small business and the loss of small freedoms
Antonia Finnane, University of Melbourne, China

It is no news to say of China in the Mao years that the small freedoms one might assume of everyday life were eroded, but in circumstances where official histories of the 1950s cheerfully celebrate the achievements of the decade without reckoning the costs, the point is worth documenting. This preliminary survey of small shops in 1950s, based on records from the Beijing Industry and Commerce Bureau, shows a cityscape, a workforce, and a material culture in the process of change. The focus on tailor shops permits insights into a realm of culture, clothing, that is both definitively everyday and tells us much about social values and practices. I have elsewhere argued that the ubiquity of the cadre suit and the Lenin suit in the 1950s was due to the popularity of these styles. When we look at what tailor shops were licensed to produced, however, we can see that the supply of clothing even early in this decade was restricted to certain styles. Although there were no laws controlling what people wore, the command economy produced its own restrictions. The case studies presented show a narrowing of choices in entrepreneurial activity and loss of autonomy in commercial practices. The evidence from these files suggests that shopkeepers all over Beijing were asking, “what can I call my shop? What can I sell in my shop?”, at least as long as they were still able to employ the term, “my shop”.