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Rooms to Experiment: Housing Newlyweds in 1980s China - 14 December 2022

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The Chinese Communist Party’s economic reforms after 1978 inaugurated a ‘new era’ of Chinese socialism that was supposed to bring material prosperity for all. This included a new vision of homes as a space where morally upright citizens would realize the unity of “socialist spiritual and material civilization”.

Large-scale residential building projects slowly brought much-needed new housing for urban residents. Yet apartments were usually allocated by seniority and many young couples had to wait years to obtain their own homes. It was not unusual for four adults to share two-room apartments, and couples who did get separate housing often received a one-room studio.

This arrangement, wherein couples had one room for living, eating, working, and sleeping, was one prominent variety of what was often called the “marriage chamber” (xinhun jushi). It was a much-discussed spatial challenge for architects, state planners, and interior designers who tried to create private spaces following what was increasingly decried as the “ten-year chaos” of the Cultural Revolution.

This talk examines how these rooms for newlyweds became part of the reform experiment: an opportunity to contend with socialist material civilization and, along the way, rework notions of space, privacy, materiality, and gender.

About the speaker

Dr Jennifer Altehenger is Associate Professor of Chinese History and Jessica Rawson Fellow in Modern Asian History at the University of Oxford and Merton College. Her research focuses on the history of modern China, especially that of the People’s Republic of China after 1949.

She is the author of Legal Lessons: Popularizing Laws in the People’s Republic of China, 1949-1989 (Harvard, 2018) and together with Professor Denise Y. Ho she co-edited Material Contradictions in Mao’s China (University Washington Press, 2022).

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