Humanizing the past: Exploring the contradictions of material culture in Mao’s China

Yale historian Denise Ho discusses her new co-edited volume on the power of consumer objects to reveal insights into Chinese culture during an era of scarcity.

In today’s world, there’s an unspoken understanding that objects have a meaning, both to the individual and to society. No matter where you are in the world, people recognize that brands and other indicators of consumer culture inform perception.

Yale historian Denise Ho says this was also true for cultures of the past. Regardless of the time and place, she says, even the simplest and most modest of objects have revealed insights into a greater human narrative and material culture.

For her latest book, “Material Contradictions in Mao’s China,” which she co-edited with Oxford’s Jennifer Altehenger, several scholars of Chinese art, cinema, culture and more contribute essays on material culture in China during the Mao era, a period that lasted from 1949 to 1976. During that time, she says, owning certain items, even some foods, could be perceived in very different ways by different people. Indeed, in certain moments the possession of these objects could become quite political.

In an interview with Yale News, Ho discusses the inherent contradiction of the existence of Chinese material culture during an era of scarcity, what it says about the role of markets and consumer objects in the human experience, and what it reveals about those members of society whose stories are often not told.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

In the book, you explore the paradox of material culture during the time of Mao's China. What was this paradox, what does it mean?

Denise Ho: We often think that the Mao era was a time when China was emerging from wartime, when it was still a poor and agrarian country. People have this idea that during this period there wasn't a consumer culture because there weren't things to consume. For example, because it was a time of strict rationing, people might not even have enough cotton to make one set of clothes a year. If you bought a wash basin or a thermos, you were supposed to use it for years. So without consumer culture, how could there possibly be material culture?

But what we found in the process of our research was that, on the contrary, there was a culture of consumption in China during this time. People cared about what they wore. They treasured the things that they had. They aspired to own certain prestigious or useful things, like a sewing machine or a watch or a bicycle.

And it's true that they had fewer of these things. But ironically, the fact that they had fewer of them meant that those things actually meant more. What we do in the book is uncover the different kinds of objects and materials that were part of the everyday landscape of Mao's China and try to explain what they meant to ordinary people.

One of the major themes you cover is how people attribute value to objects, and how objects can become politicized. Can you walk us through that idea in this context?

Ho: In the United States, it means something to drive a Prius, or to shop at Trader Joe's or Whole Foods. It's easy for us to understand how objects have meaning, that objects can “speak” even though they're just things. Something we were interested in investigating was how objects can also take on a political valence.

In China during the socialist era, certain luxury goods — like an imported watch or a gold ring — were seen as luxury goods that were symbols of a foreign, decadent, and capitalist past. The very act of owning them could mark their owner. So there were a lot of people who wouldn't dare wear such things. In my essay for the book, I examine how these outside things — imported goods from Hong Kong or from overseas — entered the Chinese marketplace, how they circulated, and what they meant to people. An object in a care package could represent the concern of a relative overseas, tangible evidence that someone outside is thinking about the recipient. It could also be something crucial for life, such as medicine or high-fat or high-sugar foods at a time when there was serious privation, even famine.

But let's say you were to cook that food that came in the package. Your neighbors might notice and say, “Oh, that person has foreign connections,” and to have overseas ties was suspect. 

When the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, people were denounced for owning these things. This is an example of how objects can have a lot of power — and in this case, negative power. And I think it explains why, at the beginning of this political campaign, many people burned personal possessions, including things that they treasured. They were afraid that someone would say, “Oh, this object shows that you're a counterrevolutionary.”

What lessons do you think this story of Mao's China, especially through the lens of material culture, has for present-day society?

Ho: One of the things that I've tried to do in my longer career is to make China and the Chinese experience explicable to people who may not have any background at all. And I think that material culture is a tangible and universal way of getting people to connect.

Most people have sent or received a care package. So even if they haven't experienced famine, they can imagine what it would be like to wrap up a package because you care about somebody. This isn’t unique to China. You have examples in American history, where in the early 20th century the American Jewish community was sending care packages to Russia and to Eastern Europe. After World War II, Americans were also sending care packages to Europe. That's actually where the phrase “care package” comes from. ['Care' was an acronym for “Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe”].

The lesson for present-day society is that there are universal aspects of human experience to be excavated through history. In the present moment, when U.S.-China relations are at an inflection point, we should be reminded that this is a society like our own. And hopefully this kind of humanizing can work against the fearful narratives about China that are current in our society, including those that have affected our AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander] community. If you can dehumanize people, then it's easier to target them with hate crimes. One of my larger goals in research and teaching is to contextualize and complicate our understanding of China and its people.

What are your some of the things you've learned from delving into a more rarely studied time period and how important is it to go deeper past what the surface level may look like?

Ho: I think the first generation of people who wrote about the Cultural Revolution — the later part of the Mao years from 1966 to 1976 — were people who were intellectuals, and who were writing from the point of view of exile. Their memoirs were about how much they had suffered.  

This is a very important part of the story. But if we just look at urban intellectuals, then we don't know about factory workers. We don't know about people in the countryside. I think part of the current wave of research about the Mao period is trying to illuminate these other aspects of the Chinese experience.

The other important aspect of this research is to uncover what kinds of agency people had during the Mao period. I think you'll find that in any period of history, even very oppressive periods or under authoritarian rule, ordinary people do find a way to live, to try to do what's best for their families, and to have personal relationships. I think that material culture is one way of getting at that.

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