In the late 1960s, student protests broke out throughout much of the world, and while Britain’s anti-Vietnam protestors and China’s Red Guards were clearly radically different, these movements at times shared inspirations, aspirations, and aesthetics. Within Western popular media, Mao’s China was portrayed as a danger to world peace, but at the same time, for some on the counter-cultural left, the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) contained ideas worthy of exploration. Moreover, because of Britain’s continued colonial possession of Hong Kong, Britain had a specific interest in ongoing events in China, and information was highly sought after. Thus, the objects that China exported—propaganda posters, paintings, Mao badges, periodicals, ceramics, etc.—became a crucial avenue through which China was known at this time, and interest in them crossed the political divide.
Collecting the Revolution uses the objects that the Chinese government sent abroad and that visitors brought back with them to open up the stories of diplomats, journalists, activists, students, and others and how they imagined, engaged with, and later remembered Mao’s China through its objects. It chronicles the story of how these objects were later incorporated into the collections of some of Britain’s most prominent museums, thus allowing later generations to continue to engage with one of the most controversial and important periods of China’s recent history.
Emily R. Williams is an assistant professor in the department of China Studies at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, Suzhou, where she teaches on modern Chinese history and society. Her research focuses on the art and material culture of the Maoist period, its legacies in contemporary China, and the collection of this material in China and the United Kingdom.
Part One – Shaping Impressions: Britain and Cultural Revolution Culture
Part Two – Transnational Collecting and Exhibiting
Conclusion: Legacies of Engagements with Cultural Revolution Objects
Williams’s original and meticulous research of the Cultural Revolution objects in the United Kingdom offers us a unique angle to understand both the Global Sixties and the UK-Sino relations during and after the Cold War. Embodying the many political fantasies and aspirations of the British left of the time, these objects continue to compel us to ask what China means to the West now amidst the formation of a new Cold War. An invaluable contribution to the studies of Global Maoism.
Focusing on the travels of Mao-era objects and the people who collected them, Emily R. Williams offers a new perspective into the British fascination with the Cultural Revolution and shows how the engagement with China was not only political and intellectual but also affective and aesthetic. Clearly written and brilliantly argued, Collecting the Revolution is an original and insightful contribution to our understanding of Global Maoism.
How did Chairman Mao’s badges, propaganda posters, paintings, papercuts, and porcelains end up in personal collections and museums in Britain? This fascinating study brings to life the international itineraries and multifarious meanings of Cultural Revolution art and artifacts that traveled from China to Britain via exhibitions, diplomats, students, antique dealers, museums, and the internet, providing illuminating reflections on how material objects could serve as sources of knowledge and memory.
9/9/21, Choice: This book was included in a feature highlighting forthcoming Asian and Asian American Studies titles.