Things Modern: Material Culture and Everyday Life in China

By Holm, David | The China Journal, July 2008 | Go to article overview

Things Modern: Material Culture and Everyday Life in China


Holm, David, The China Journal


Things Modern: Material Culture and Everyday Life in China, by Frank Dikötter. London: Hurst & Company, 2007. xvi + 382 pp. £25.00 (hardcover).

This book is a refreshing and beautifully illustrated look at the culture of material objects in late imperial and early modern China. At first glance, it is the many photographic illustrations that catch the eye, many of them quite startling and depicting long-forgotten aspects of what China once looked like. The book serves as an immediately accessible reminder that China's modernization has a long pedigree, and that the dramatic changes during the Mao Zedong years and the more recent reform decades transformed and built on an earlier base of modern infrastructure, city-building, modernist enthusiasm and material acquisitiveness.

The book is refreshing because it puts to one side the programmatic "whither China" questions of mainstream élite discourse in both Chinese and Western China Studies, in order to look at material culture in its own terms. The focus is on the things themselves (modern things), and secondarily on people's reflections on things and the way they were incorporated into everyday life. So we have chapters on transport (steamships, highways, rickshaws, bicycles, cars, buses, bus stations and aviation), modern cityscapes (architecture, parks, factories, schools, offices), modern utilities (electricity supply, telephone and water), private houses (new building materials, glass, locks and security, interior design, lighting and kerosene), clothing (cotton, leather shoes, scents and perfumes, wristwatches and jewelry), food (new eating styles, restaurants, pubs and bars) and sights and sounds (photography, magic lanterns, moving pictures, gramophones and radio). The range is quite wide, and in each case the author tells us when and where the crucial innovations and technologies reached China, how they were adopted and adapted, how they were seen and discussed, and how they were disseminated.

Some of these stories are quite simply stunning. I hadn't realized before that an "Aviation Week" was organized for the Nanjing Exhibition as early as 1910 (p. 104), or that the first airplanes were brought back to China from England in 1911; that the first Chinese pilots started training in 1913, and that the first airmail and passenger service was established by May 1920 (between Beijing and Tianjin). In one technological domain after another, Dikötter shows us that, far from being slow or reluctant participants in the onward march of modern technology in the early 20th century, the Chinese were actively and enthusiastically engaged. Often the lag between scientific discoveries overseas and their adoption in China was measured in months, rather than years or decades. Indeed, the author's argument is that in many ways there was less effective resistance to change and modernization in China than in countries like England.

This story will be new to many readers, including scholars and postgraduate students brought up on an older discourse according to which the Chinese were late and reluctant participants in the global modernization drive. The major theme of the book, however, is of such importance that the book deserves much wider currency, not least among the general public and the business community. It is attractively written and presented, in large format and on quality paper, and there is no reason that it should not have a wide readership as a serious coffee-table book. It will also be useful as a resource book for schools. Students wishing to explore the history of electricity supply in China, for example, would find all the basic facts about the adoption and development of the technology as well as information that would lead them to further readings.

The range of technologies covered, though wide, is not all-inclusive. While there is much coverage given to the pleasures of private acquisition and "buying things", a somewhat surprising omission is the development of the economic wherewithal, modern currencies and everything that goes with them (banknotes, coins, banks, bank accounts, credit, financial instruments). …

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