What happened to Chinese consumer culture after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949? Consumerism and communism seemed antithetical to contemporary Chinese leaders and observers. And Chinese consumerism changed dramatically. Yet even as imported consumer goods largely disappeared and industry was nationalized, Chinese leaders remained ambivalent about consumer culture. Consumerism of the pre-communist era was rarely completely vilified, and in China and throughout the socialist world, earlier forms of consumerism persisted, often despite explicit government attempts to end or limit them and, surprisingly, sometimes with government support. Exploring the persistence of consumerism through advertising, shopping, and the history of the most sought after consumer goods thus helps reveal hidden dimensions of Chinese life during the socialist era and explain the consumer culture of the postsocialist era.
Karl Gerth is the Hwei-Chih and Julia Hsiu Chair in Chinese Studies and Professor of History at UC San Diego.