Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China

March 30, 2007

Round up

A quick round up of interesting things caught floating about in the blogosphere recently.

Exhibition of twentieth-century Chinese toys (from Jottings From the Granite Studio)

During the Japanese invasion of the 1930s, war-related toys such as fighter planes, tanks and soldiers dominated production,. Later on, toys were often used as a propaganda tool. This was especially true during the Cultural Revolution.

“Beside Mao-suit-clad dolls, you can find cars with political slogans, and building block cubes with propaganda scenes on them,” said Man Wing Sing, a Chinese antique toy collector. Among the toys made in the ’60s, the most valuable in the museum’s collection is the “Liberate Taiwan” game.

Chan, who has done extensive research on the subject, points to a distinctive change in style for toys pre- and post-1949, when the People’s Republic of China was established. “Before the 1950s, the toy designs are very influenced by Europeans, but after, the toys have a more Oriental feel to their patterns and design,” he noted.

Manufacturers started incorporating more modern technology in the ’50s, using battery-operated controls, magnetic control, sound and light controls. (From the International Herald Tribune article that the writer of ‘Jottings’ – himself a China studies PhD himself – links to.)

Jottings also links to Sinocidal’s bitingly satirical timeline of Chinese history. I particularly the appreciate the verity behind this entry:

1949: After years of civil war, Japanese invasion, and national humiliation, a giant poster of Mao gains control of China. The giant poster wields power through an army of smaller, photocopied, versions of itself, and promises to rid all China of stamps featuring Queen Victoria and placards of Chiang Kai-Shek. The giant poster of Mao is head of the Chinese Communist Party, which at the time was the biggest, and probably the best, Communist Party in the whole world.

Jeremiah writing at The Peking Duck asks whether the kitschy use of Mao’s image is morally and ethically justifiable (I particularly like the last sentence from this extract; ‘Can you de-fang a tyrant by turning him into kitsch?’ sounds like the title of a great thesis chapter to me!):

The CCP came up with the rather neat figure of 70% correct and 30% incorrect. But how does one split a canvas 70/30? Does this mean it is okay to wear a silkscreened Mao t-shirt 70% of the time? Does it mean the next time I’m at Panjiayuan Market in Beijing, I should ask for a 30% discount on a Mao cigarette lighter that plays “Dong Fang Hong” when it lights? Can you de-fang a tyrant by turning him into kitsch or does that trivialize the horrors he perpetrated?

Finally, a review of a contemporary detective novel, the theme of which deals with China in transition, written by a Chinese author and now available in translation here (that should please those commentators complaining about the lack of non-victim/non-culture clash Chinese fiction available in English).

More interesting snippets soon…

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