Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China

March 16, 2007

CultRev Retro Chic

I’ve recently come across just a couple of examples (of many, I’m sure) of websites (here and here) which purport to sell genuine artefacts from the Cultural Revolution. 

Now, indeed, some of these may be the real deal, but as large quantities of this material were collected and destroyed by the Chinese state after Mao’s death (see Schrift, Biography of a Chairman Mao Badge) and the arrest of the Gang of Four, it seems more likely that much is being produced to cater for an increasing demand for CultRev stuff.  As early as 2000, I was told by a curator of a museum which had actively been collecting Mao memorabilia and CultRev material culture, that it had become prohibitively expensive.  And I was told by a curator at another museum that a recently published price guide to CultRev artefacts predominantly (perhaps inadvertently) features reproductions itself.  Not only do these examples reflect the growing demand for CultRev stuff from (western?) private collectors, it is kind of reminiscent of the Sinomania that gave birth to chinoiserie in the eighteenth century, which was – at least to begin with – produced to slake the fashionable demand for ‘Oriental’ exotica.  To date, revolutionary China hasn’t made much of an impact in popular cultural contexts*, i.e. images of Mao are not ubiquitous as Che, or even as frequently referenced as Soviet Russia (I’m thinking of the Tescos advert from a couple of years ago, which I can’t – unfortunately – find on Youtube), – dynastic China, or even contemporary ‘capitalist’ China is evoked – but at some point interest in the Cultural Revolution is going to tip over from the ‘cult’ sector into the popular consciousness and I wonder what might be the catalyst? 

* off the top of my head I can only think of a handful of examples, most notably the current advert for the V05 hair styling range.

But, talking of revolutionary China and popular culture, with a dash of commie kitsch, my Chicago-based friend who shall remain nameless (but she knows who she is!) sent me this (Me modelling hat) from China Town in New York, which arrived this morning.

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1 Comment »

  1. N.B. This is a slightly rubbish, shorter North American version of the V05 advert currently being shown on British TV, but you get the idea…

    Comment by amyjaneb — March 16, 2007 @ 9:51 pm


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