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Modern China Lecture Series Featuring Jennifer Altehenger – When Folding Chairs Became Bestsellers: The Revolutionary Roots of China’s Furniture Exports

Speaker: Jennifer Altehenger, Jessica Rawson Fellow in Modern Asian History, Associate Professor of Chinese History, Merton College, Oxford

The People’s Republic of China is one of the world’s leading furniture producers, and international media frequently report on its furniture exports. Descriptions of how goods from China came to furnish homes and workplaces across the world tend to start with the economic reforms of the 1980s. When they take a longer historical view, they often gloss over the Mao era (1949-ca. 1976). This gap severs furniture exports from their revolutionary contexts and legacies. After 1949, Chinese factories shipped wardrobes, chairs, cupboards, tables, and other items to the Soviet Union, Australia, Eastern and Western Europe, the Middle East, and many parts of Asia including Hong Kong. Most of the factories that produced export furniture after 1978 were established between the 1940s and 1960s, their designers trained in state academies, and their workers apprenticed in the socialist workplace of factories and cooperatives. Notable designs, such as the Beijing Northern Suburb Timber Mill’s metal folding chair, date to the 1960s and became bestsellers in the early 1970s. In this talk I explore stories from this world of furniture exports in Mao’s China: how design, production, and trade worked; who participated, benefited, or lost out; and how these developments laid the foundation for the PRC to become a global producer both of cheap and high-quality furniture.

Also available on Zoom. Register at: https://harvard.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_dpZ2dC97SnGbyUrQPoBpzw


September 19, 2023
4:00 pm – 5:30 pm
Event Category:


Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies


CGIS Knafel K262

1737 Cambridge Street
Cambridge, MA 02138 United States

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