Readings on material culture studies?

Dan Du's picture

Dear all,

I'm compling a reading list on material culture studies in the field of Chinese history for my students in the fall. Has anyone come across any interesting articles or book chapters that examine modern Chinese history (Ming dynasty to present) through the lens of objects or landscape, especially those are easy for undergraduates to understand?

Thanks in advance for any information,



Hello! Here are my favorites on the subject, by excellent writers:

Craig Clunas, Fruitful Sites (1996) – on Ming garden culture.
Craig Clunas, Superfluous Things (1991) – material culture in early modern China.
Timothy Brook, Confusions of Pleasure (1998) – history of the Ming era, with a heavy emphasis on the material culture.
Antonia Finnane, Changing Clothes in China (2008) – the fashion angle.
Frank Dikötter, Exotic Commodities (2006) – material culture of the 19th century onward.

Best regards,


I might suggest my web-publication, "Background to the Great Leap Forward in Iron and Steel: The Traditional Chinese iron industry and its modern fate," August 2011.
It starts with the late Ming, but really concerns the period from late Qing to 1958, with some technical detail, but emphasis on economic and political factors.
Also available in Chinese translation, if that should be of interest:
钢铁生产大跃进的背景 — 中国传统制铁业及其现代命运, March 2013.
There is more of relevance to Chinese material culture on my web-site,
Don Wagner

Dear Dan,

Regarding your query for readings in material culture, I have two methodologically-oriented pieces that may be of interest to your students.

The first is the chapter "Walking a production chain: An interdisciplinary approach to the history of things" in the recently released Fieldwork in Modern Chinese History: A Research Guide, edited by Kiely and DuBois (Routledge 2019)

Production encompasses a large and diverse field of history and one that can benefit immensely from fieldwork. Many of the historical sources about production—reports, records, and statistics about how and by whom things were made, shipped, sold, and purchased—themselves derive from fieldwork. Using examples from the author’s research on a variety of cattle industries, this chapter examines how to follow a historical production chain. This perspective uncovers the mechanics and social context of production as an object moves from raw commodity to finished good and reveals the human networks that underlie commerce and finance.

The second is a hort piece that I prepared for the online teaching site "World History Connected" ( exploring how to use McDonald's to teach/study world history. This piece is largely China-based and even alludes to Yan Yunxiang's famous book chapter about McDonald's in 1990s Beijing. It isn't up yet, but a draft version is available here if you would like to have a look. When the piece does go up, it will be open access, and who doesn't like that?

So not exactly objets d'art, but some pretty meaningful material culture nonetheless.

Best wishes,





Not a China specialist book, but let me put in a plug for my colleague Beverly Lemire's book Global Trade and the Transformation of Consumer Cultures: The Material World Remade, c. 1500-1820 (Cambridge University Press, 2018). It is an ambitious attempt to synthesize what we know about global flows of material goods and expertise, with attention to dynamics of power and gender. She has engaged a lot with China scholarship and scholars, including some of the ones named in this thread. Well worth a look.

You could look at Jennifer Althenger's work on domestic furniture, design and bamboo during the Mao era. I don't have the details to hand but it is interesting work

Another name is Paul Betts, an Oxford historian who has done wonderful work on material culture in Eastern Europe, in East Germany in particular and has links with the Wende Museum in LA.

Chinese culture and material culture today can no longer be studied without reference to the massive current Chinese campaign of destroying Uyghur and other ethnic minority material culture and heritage, in Xinjiang (East Turkestan), China. There is a large and growing literature on this; it was last described here:

This is a campaign that targets for destruction every material sign of ethnic pride or identity, from household items and ethnic home interior design, to the contents of public places of worship and sacred sites, which are themselves bulldozed, all crimes of course, carried out in the spirit of Chinese ultranationalism, a k a fascism.

Also, I'd like to suggest my study of how so-called sent-down youth in China use memorabilia from their 'cultural revolution' hardship to build museums and try to carve out a space of privilege in today's society (a route which is closed to the millions of victims of direct persecution in Mao's time, who are not allowed to build any museums, or to memorialize):
"Bury Me With My Comrades: Memorializing Mao's Sent-Down Youth." Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, Volume 16, Issue 14, Number 4 (July 15, 2018).

has anyone mentioned Rudolf P. Hommel, _China at work: An illustrated record of the primitive industries of China's masses, whose life is toil, and thus an account of Chinese civilization_ (1937, reprinted by MIT Press in 1970)? Beautiful and thoughtful account of the "how" of daily life, with lots of photographs.

Thank you all for sharing. These sources and ideas are greatly helpful.


As a follow-up on the sources I cited on the destruction of the material heritage of the Uyghur people in China, I just wanted to add a piece that is VERY teachable, written by an architecture scholar:  

The Case of Turpan, China: How to Destroy a Culture.
By Don Hanlon, Emeritus Professor of Architecture, UW-Milwaukee. American Geographical Society Library. Oct 3, 2019; Updated Oct 4, 2019.

There are many other things, see my previous post (  ) - among the most stunning examples is the destruction of the traditional, ingenious "supa" heated floor (or in Chinese, "kang"), which Uyghur people are currently being asked to destroy themselves, in their own homes, along with any other Uyghur cultural interior design.
I don't find an academic article that has been written on this subject yet, but see:  

Uyghurs from the Tarim, to Junggar, to Turpan-Hami Basins are being told to destroy their supa (土炕) because they are outdated, unhygienic, and not conducive for studying. [ Image x 3 ]
Timothy Grose, @GroseTimothy. 5:37 PM · Aug 30, 2019
This ex-PLA guy in #Uyghur home breaking supa into beds.
UyghurTikTok, @UygursOnTikTok. 12:38 PM · Aug 30, 2019

Also, for overviews of the destruction, other tthan he sources I already cited, one can also see this earlier report from the Uyghur Human Rights Project, "Extracting Cultural Resources: the Exploitation and Criminalization of Uyghur Cultural Heritage." June 12, 2018.

Best wishes for your class.