The growth of markets and consumerism in China’s post-Mao era of political and economic reform is familiar. The Mao period (1949–1976), by contrast, a time of scarcity, appears to have had little material culture. In reality, people attributed great meaning to materials and objects, often precisely because they were rare, expensive, and difficult to obtain. Material Contradictions in Mao’s China, essays on art, cinema, culture, performance, and more, explores the paradox of material culture under Chinese Communist Party rule and illustrates how central material culture was to social and economic construction of the country and to projections of a socialist utopia within reach of every person, if only they worked hard enough.

In an interview conducted on December 9, 2022, Material Contradictions co-editors Jennifer Altehenger and Denise Ho, in conversation with Philip Tinari, discuss the significance of physical objects during the Mao period.

About the speakers


MARGOT LANDMAN: My name is Margot Landman, and I am deputy vice president for programs at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. I’m pleased to introduce our speakers for today’s interview. Jennifer Altehenger is associate professor of Chinese history, and Jessica Rawson Fellow in Modern Asian History at the University of Oxford and Merton College. She is joining us from the UK.  

Denise Ho is associate professor of 20th century Chinese history at Yale University and a fellow in the National Committee’s Public Intellectual Program. She is in California. Denise and Jen are the co-editors of Material Contradictions in Mao’s China, which has just been published by the University of Washington Press. In fact, I believe that this is the very first event on the new book. We are delighted by that fact.  

We’re also delighted that Phil Tinari, director of UCCA Center for Contemporary Art and Chief Executive of UCCA Group, and also a Public Intellectuals Program Fellow, is joining us from Beijing and will moderate today’s interview. Phil, over to you.  

PHILIP TINARI: Thank you so much. It’s such an honor and a pleasure to be here with Jennifer and Denise on the occasion of the publication of this really impressive and fascinating volume of Material Contradictions in Mao’s China. And since we don’t have so much time, I think we’ll get right into it. I’d like to start by asking Denise just to tell us a bit about the story of this book and how it came together.  

I think one of the really interesting things about it is the way it brings together a group of scholars who share a set of concerns. And I know that’s happened over this period. It’s been a special period, the last few years through the pandemic and such. Could you just tell us about your editorial journey and about the kind of scholarly position that you and this group of writers represent?  

DENISE HO: Thank you so much, Phil, for that question and for moderating us. I’m really thrilled that we get a chance to introduce the book to the world with this panel discussion. So our book started from this common project. We wanted to bring together a network of scholars who are interested in thinking about the Mao years through material culture, through objects, materials and things.

And along the way, we organized several workshops and conferences that brought together this network. Jennifer also had the opportunity to initiate and direct a teaching website called The Mao Era in Objects. And our goal, as you mentioned, was not just to bring together historians—the two of us teach and study modern Chinese history—but to bring together people who are ethnographers, people who are interested in art and architecture, cinema and so on, and bring all of these people together to have this conversation.  

And some of the examples you’ll see in our book’s table of contents include things like everyday objects, food and clothing and objects related to design, building production, things like bamboo, bricks, handicrafts, and even cars. We also look at materials that are that are used in art and culture from film projection materials to dance props. And finally, we are also interested in the circulation and consumption of these objects, including things like commodities that you buy in stores. And also in my work, things that might have come in in alternate channels, smuggled goods and things people brought in their luggage. And how did these goods find their way into the Chinese market? We’re really interested in casting a broad net and thinking about material culture writ large.  

TINARI: Oh, that’s fantastic. And I think it’s a good bridge. I’d love to ask Jennifer just a bit about the intended audience for the book, but also where it fits in kind of larger trends and in historiography today, especially of this focus on materiality and the idea of looking at objects as a way into larger questions.  

JENNIFER ALTEHENGER: Yeah, thank you for the question, Phil and thank you also for hosting us and for giving us this opportunity. I’m actually amazed we’re spanning half the world at this point in terms of timing, and so this is wonderful that this worked out. I think at the beginning, when Denise and I were thinking about how to put this project together, one of the things we were most interested in is [the process of] bringing us together as historians and anthropologists and cultural studies scholars and others, working on material culture in all its facets.  

But then [we wanted] also to have this conversation, which all of us independently were having with colleagues in those fields who work on other countries and on other cultures and in other regions. And we found that when it came to China, very often there was great amount of interest in material culture of modern and contemporary China of the Mao period. But very often people didn’t feel like they had a volume to which they could go and get a first idea of just the diversity of ways of thinking about material culture in Mao’s China.  

Now, the other thing that’s come from that is that we realized there’s this wonderful research being done by lots of people, and we wanted to give a few of us a chance to really show this as an edited volume rather than as monographs, because very often edited volumes can really speak for this diversity, can really show something that a monograph and articles on their own cannot. So it was wonderful to do this as a project and as a group. And as Denise said in the course of those conferences, we really got to know each other and talk across disciplines. And I think and hope that the volume really shows this. And so some of the fields to which we were trying to speak was, of course, global and world history, the history of material culture, the anthropology of material culture. Materiality of material culture are such prominent topics for anthropologists and cultural studies scholars, and really anyone working on the postwar world [studies] those themes of, what did people actually have? What sort of consumer cultures grew? How did consumption and material culture look like in state socialist countries across Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, Asia, and other places? 

We were trying to say, we present here the case of China in an attempt to show how it does and does not at times match up. And some of the specialties we thought we were seeing, some of the unique points we thought we were seeing in the case of China—and one of them, just to try this out, is—we have material culture which we take to be objects, and really the entirety of how objects are made, what they’re made of, how they used, and how we see them in everyday life. But then also materiality, which we understood simply to be the interconnection of objects, people, things, bodies and humans. And that in particular, in the case of state socialism, is a really, really interesting thing that’s also theorized at the level of theory and ideology. So humans and things really matter, in other words, to Marxist and Maoist thinking.  

TINARI: There’s this line in the introduction that while the average Chinese person may not have described their environment in materialist terms, these ideas were foundational to the political, social, economic, cultural world that they lived in. I think that’s something that really comes through in each of the perspectives offered. I wanted to turn for a second to this question of this framework of contradictions, which appears in the title and is of course a word that anyone who’s familiar with Mao’s China knows from the famous essay on contradictions.  

There’s another line in the introduction that talks about tensions between materials and makers, people and objects, abundance and scarcity, ideology and practice. How did this framework of contradictions emerge as the way to draw all of these perspectives together? And why is it so convincing?  

HO: Thanks for asking that question. When we started out, the first conference was called Material Culture, not Material Contradictions. And it actually came out through the presentation and discussion of the contributors’ papers that we came up with the idea of contradictions. As you mentioned, there are some contradictions and some tensions that came out that we think about when we think about China in this period, the difference between a city and countryside, between plenty and scarcity, between desire and reality.  

And there are also a number of contradictions that came out that wouldn’t be as immediately obvious. That is between China’s past and its present, between the present and the future, between China and the world. And so we were collectively struck by the number of contradictions that came out through the study of material culture. So I think in terms of the word contradiction, we mean it in two ways.  

The first is to think about historical contradictions—that is, the actual tensions that existed in that period. And then the second is to think about contradictions as something that’s productive, a dialectic. When you think about tensions between, say, desire and reality, it teaches us something new about the Mao era and about the Chinese experience. In the second sense, contradictions is an analytical category, something that produces something else that’s public.  

TINARI: Jennifer’s chapter is called “Bamboo Objects and Socialist Construction.” And she looks at how bamboo has what she calls a hinge material, what you call a hinge material that connects past, present and future. But there’s a lovely moment in your in your chapter where you talk about how the stories about these key bamboo crafts experts that you research are able to narrativize how Chinese socialism facilitated novel modes of production that maximize the abilities of people and materials, fostered skills, and created as well as disseminated technical and design knowledge.  

That’s an awful lot for a piece of bamboo or a set of practices around bamboo to be able to do. And I think it’s illustrative of what most or all of the scholars in the book do. And that’s to draw larger truths from a specific object or set of practices. I would love to just hear a bit about how you came to that topic and what specifically it can tell us about the period.  

ALTEHENGER: Thank you for that question. Phil. As we come to topics, it’s always a curious road, and when you trace it later on, you’re wondering, how exactly did I come up with this? But in my case, it’s connected to a larger book project. I’m currently working on a book about furnishing socialist China, the history of furniture and furnishings. And I start with materials and the obvious one, of course, is wood, but then bamboo is the other very prominent material in my documents and in the stories I trace.  

And something that struck me is that we’re very familiar with having models, as in people and models populate the entirety of the Mao era. And after, of course, they are so important to the way Mao was and works and to the way people experienced everyday life in Mao’s China, being told, well, there are these models who have done this and this, and this is what you can emulate, and this is what the future could look like if we have more of these models and if people get inspired by these models. And I was struck by the fact that there are objects that can work this way, but also materials. If you think about steel, for instance, steel very much is a material that has become associated in very different ways, obviously not just positive ways with the way in which the Mao era was narrated and with the way in which the Mao era was experienced.  

But then there are also other materials, and bamboo was one of them. And what struck me is that when you look at sort of the aspect of furnishings, there is plastic, this bamboo, there’s wood, and they all tell slightly different stories. And so I thought, well, let’s take a look at bamboo, since bamboo is such a material classically associated with China. And as I started looking into this, there were all these stories about bamboo craftsman and what they could do, essentially what they could do to unlock a material’s potential. And then within these stories, there were these contradictions.  

I tell the story of one bamboo craftsman who, on the one hand, manages to persevere through the difficult times of the first half of the 20th century and then essentially is liberated in his craft after 1949. And he becomes a model laborer for being able to have bamboo, a cheap bamboo, behave the way that a really expensive wood would, essentially unlocking the potential of everybody having a furniture that was previously reserved for the rich. And at the same time, there’s this inherent contradiction that actually that sort of work and reality brought this bamboo craftsman out of the countryside. There’s this push and pull between rural and urban, between what bamboo can and cannot do, and between the fact that bamboo constantly for people in everyday life is a material they tend to have to fall back to when they are experiencing hardship and when there’s very little other otherwise in terms of materials. Thinking about how that actually that push and pull works was what fascinated me.  

TINARI: Exactly. If we want to go back to contradictions, one was that handicrafts were difficult to mechanize, and the other was that people continued to associate bamboo with scarcity rather than abundance. And one thing that I think is really remarkable about this volume is the way that the chapters build on each other.  

And I think there’s sort of a narrative going on just in the in the way one moves through the book. At the risk of some kind of a spoiler, we go from your chapter on bamboo and socialist construction to this really wonderful chapter by Cole Roskam about bricks. And you just mentioned steel, and bricks are kind of the anti-steel because they can be made through a set of fairly typical practices in different places, and they have this sort of proletarian character to them. But they also end up functioning as something of a palimpsest, and taking on different properties, different times.  

Then we go on to Christine Ho’s chapter about design and handicraft, which really talks about how design knowledge was sort of formalized, particularly through the foundation of a university, the Central Academy of Arts and Crafts, to teach that. And then into Emily Wilcox’s chapter “Dance Props and the Rural Imaginary,” which really is quite poetic. I mean, it involves her own experiences as a dancer, but there’s these great anecdotal moments that really draw out larger truths. I think about when she talks about being in a rehearsal and the dancers [being] unable to conceive of performing without their props, and then on to all kinds of ideas about these props as mediums kind of connecting these urban dancers with the rural scenes they’re supposed to be enacting.  

And then we get to the chapter about mobile projection units, which I’m sure we’ll come back to. Then we get to Denise’s chapter, which is really remarkable because it’s the one that’s explicitly transnational in a way. And Denise is talking about packages that were mailed from family elsewhere in the Chinese diaspora to their relatives inside of China during various difficult moments. And it comes down to all kinds of really specific things about how the postal service worked and taxation and duties, and then finally to sort of what these objects meant to the people who received them and how they were sometimes even reverential to use them and what kind of roles they performed. I’d love to hear from Denise about your essay and where that came from and maybe where it fits into your larger body of scholarship as well. That would be interesting.  

HO: Thank you so much. It’s part of a larger book that I’m working on now called Cross-Border Relations: A Grassroots History of Hong Kong and China. And I think the research itself comes out of a number of different starting points.  

But one of the starting points is actually something my students used to ask me about teaching when I would teach lectures on the Great Leap Forward. And the question was, did people outside of China know? And the example that I would give was this mailing of packages from the diaspora. And in my essay, I concentrate on Hong Kong—Chinese people living outside of China mailing packages into China. And one of the things to know is that after 1949, there was no more parcel post service. You couldn’t mail big packages into China anymore. Instead, there was this system devised, actually a number of different systems, of two-pound packages. So as a resident of Hong Kong, you could put together a care package of two pounds, and they were primarily filled with things like food and medicine, and you could have it delivered to your relatives in mainland China.  

One of the things we think about with material culture studies is what do things teach us that words cannot? And one of the really interesting things about this phenomenon of the two-pound small packages was that you weren’t allowed to include a letter. You could include an inventory saying, oh, this has a bag of sugar or a can of fish, but you couldn’t actually express words.  

Here, we have a way of thinking about Chinese history during this period. I’m looking at the late 1950s, early 1960s, the time when China was experiencing a serious privation, in some places famine. How were people in the diaspora able to communicate with things with their relatives and friends in the mainland? Along the way, you have the circulation of goods from outside of China appearing in not only Chinese families, but also Chinese markets, because overseas Chinese had an extra quota and so people brought in extra things that would work their way into the Chinese economy.  

The story I’m telling here is, where did these outside things come from? How did they appear in the Chinese landscape of material things? And what do they mean to people? I think for the ordinary person, this meant a connection to family. Outside, it meant a critical lifeline of food and medicine during a period of privation. There could be a political context or valence behind it, because you were seen as having overseas connections. And so ultimately, I’m interested in the kinds of stories, the propaganda that came from this material outside, and how did it maybe speak back to official propaganda during that period?  

TINARI: Yeah, I think it really brings home how these objects can speak with all kinds of ambiguities embedded and on different registers, sort of at the same time. And then it’s interesting as we go from there into Laurence Coderre’s essay, which is about representations of excess or of the plentiful.  

And that’s an interesting one to me, too, because it’s the one that doesn’t actually focus on objects per se, but on representations of objects in the media. And then onward to Madeleine Dong’s piece about food and restaurants and where the agricultural meets the urban through places like Dong Lai Shun or Liu Biju.  

And then we go actually into the countryside with Jacob Eyferth’s piece about the discrepancies between rural and urban standards of living. And that was a really revelatory one for me and I’m sure for a lot of readers, just because in a way it is easy when you’re writing about material culture to focus on the urban. And it’s important to remember that there was not one material culture of Mao’s China. There were actually at least two and actually many, many more. How did that kind of diversity of material cultures come out in the conversations that led to this book, and how did you see it as the editors in the submissions and chapters that you ultimately shaped?  

HO: Thank you for bringing up this question of diversity, because I was thinking about this as well in terms of the main takeaways of the book that I learned so much about—different parts of China, and especially about the countryside, which is not something I historically focused on, the level of scarcity that’s evident. And Jacob’s study of cotton in the rural countryside, the fact that an ordinary person’s ration wasn’t enough even to make a suit of clothing, the existence of so little oil that you would use an [eye] dropper to just add a little bit of oil on to boiled vegetables. It really hit home to me how little I know about so many other places in China.  

I think that we have this diverse experience that comes out not only in that chapter, but, let’s say, the chapter about the third front. How do we have this creation of a unit in the rural countryside that has aspects of the urban and aspects of the rural? And how do these people travel between the urban and the rural in the process of participating in a third front project? I think that it really hit home to me many aspects of China’s diversity in this period.  

I also wanted to bring out the aspect of the political campaign. What I think that this volume does is it brings out how ordinary people experienced campaigns through material culture. The example of the Beijing food production is a good one here in Madeleine Dong’s contribution. And in this case, the campaign is a socialist transformation. The nationalization of businesses like a pickle company or a hotpot restaurant, how did economic policies, let’s say different incentives for producing vegetables or different incentives for working at a restaurant or working at a pickle company, how did these transform the taste of food? By making certain vegetables much more plentiful or other vegetables scarce, how did the incentives of work [affect life]? For example, apprentices didn’t want to learn to be experts or makers because there was no incentive to do so, or there was no incentive to stir ingredients around the clock anymore. How did this really change the taste of food for ordinary people? And so just to step back again, I think one way we can understand how ordinary people in the Mao period experience life through political campaigns is to look at their material lives.  

ALTEHENGER: I think the dimension I would add to the two that Denise just gave is also the fact that all of the chapters, I think, really speak to the experience of making and making do and just how closely the two were actually connected throughout. I think, for instance, Eyferth’s chapter makes very clear that the countryside is better understood in terms of non-commodities and things. And he takes us away from the focus that many postwar histories globally have on consumer culture and what you can buy and what you can purchase and what gets made and what the circulation and the circuits are of these products. And he says, well actually, we need to take a step back because first of all, most people in the countryside couldn’t actually purchase things and didn’t purchase things.  

And secondly, when we move away from looking at just what you can get or cannot get that’s readily made, you start looking at what people actually do and what they do with things and how they transform things and how they make a lot out of, maybe, little—very, very often in the countryside, little. And then in the cities, what they make out of things, because what they might want to buy is just not available. And if you look at all the chapters, there’s making in every single one of them, and so I think that really is a nice thread throughout that shows us actually how people thought about, what do we have and what can we change and how can we actually transform our own lives?  

HO: Another way to think about making is to think about agency. Looking at China from the outside, we wonder about the agency of the ordinary person. And I think the study of material culture also shows how people had agency, whether it’s making do with ordinary things as Jennifer mentioned, or in my example, how ordinary people were able to receive things from outside and then use them.  

One other example that I loved from Jie Li’s chapter on film projectionists is how the film projectionists who carry film projection materials—from the scrolls to electricity generators—to the countryside, and then show them in the open air, how they were also able to interpret and have agency in showing the films. Because they weren’t just projecting the films, they were also performing, they were speaking and they were incorporating music, they were using bamboo clappers. And one moment that I love in that piece is the moment of projecting a film, and it’s a foreign film, and there are some intimate scenes that normally somebody wouldn’t show in China. But the film projectionist does the right thing. She covers the lens, but then the fingers open a crack so that people actually do have access to that foreign film. But she’s also done her job. To me, that was a wonderful moment to show how this use of material culture allowed people to have access to broader culture and to the visual culture of cinema and media.  

ALTEHENGER: And the other examples, if you think about it, there’s also Emily’s chapter where she shows that dancers are making their own props and there are these guidelines. And I think guidebooks turn up quite a bit throughout explaining to people how you actually make your own things, how you go about it. It’s essentially a DIY guide to your own props, to working with bamboo, to making bricks. These DIY guides keep popping up throughout the chapters, and it’s a really nice indicator for the way knowledge was meant to be spread so that people would be actually able and empowered to make these things themselves.  

TINARI: And when we get to the very end of the book, the afterword, which is written by Jonathan Bach, talks about the uncanny. And it’s kind of a wonderful way to end this whole series of meditations, just going into a sort of psychological terrain to think about what this means. I was curious, as editors, where that leaves you at the end of this journey. Maybe you could just tell us a little bit about how the book ends with this this kind of investigation of the psychological and talking about materiality and the uncanny.  

ALTEHENGER: I think we were both excited that Jonathan agreed to write the afterword because of course Jonathan has worked on East Germany and he’s worked on China. He’s one of those rare, wonderful scholars who really works across different countries with very different, but then also comparable, experiences. He said he could take a more theoretical approach and actually think through how all of the examples really draw out specific points about that ideological world of Marxism and Maoism at the time, but then also how that relates to other theoretical questions that scholars have asked about materiality of material culture. 

And this is where the uncanny came in. Where does this leave us at the end of the volume? It leaves us, first of all, with a much more complex picture of material culture [and] materiality than I think we had in earlier years. Hopefully, it is a contribution that really shows just how many facets of material culture there were in the Mao period, often a period thought of as having little material culture to speak of. One of the points the introduction makes is that just because you don’t have a lot of things doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of material culture. And also, it helps us to think about, where do we really go from here in the post-Soviet periods in the reform era? What actually happens when we suddenly have an explosion of material culture for many people? And how are these three decades since the 1950s remembered? How are they understood? Is there a nostalgia for certain items? Is there not? And how do things play a role in how the Mao era is remembered?  

TINARI: I think that’s a wonderful place to leave us, reminding us as you both said so eloquently at the beginning, how people attributed great meaning to materials and objects precisely because they were rare and difficult to obtain. And I think through this book, we all come to a much, much more interesting, nuanced, gritty, particular understanding of what daily life might have been like and how that related to the way people understood themselves and their place in this society and this historical moment. So thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure talking with both of you. And I hope lots of people are able to read and learn from this book.  

HO: Thank you so much, Phil, and thank you to the National Committee.  

LANDMAN: Thank all three of you. As Phil just said, I really hope this whets the appetite of the viewers and listeners to this conversation. It’s a fascinating book. I’d also like to thank the National Committee staff members behind the scenes who’ve made today’s interview possible. We hope those who have tuned in found the interview interesting and informative and that you will join us for future National Committee programing. Thanks again and goodbye.  

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.