Dr Jennifer Altehenger

Jessica Rawson Fellow in Modern Asian History, Associate Professor of Chinese History

I research and teach the history of modern and contemporary China in its global context. Prior to joining the History Faculty and Merton College, I was educated at Cambridge and Heidelberg, spent a year as An Wang Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University's Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, and then taught as Lecturer/Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Chinese History at King's College London.

I am series co-editor of the Cambridge Studies in the History of the People's Republic of China (Cambridge University Press) and Transformations of Modern China (De Gruyter), and serve on the editorial boards of the journals Cultural and Social History and Twentieth Century China. I am also editor of the 'The Mao Era in Objects', a website for anyone interested in the history of modern China as told through interactive biographies of famous and more obscure objects of China's Mao period (1949-1976). The project was funded by an AHRC leadership fellowship award and designed by King's College Digital Lab. At Oxford, I am an affiliate of the Oxford China Centre and co-direct the Oxford Centre for Global History.


One of my areas of research has been the connection between laws, party-state politics, and everyday life in the People's Republic of China after 1949. My book Legal Lessons: Popularizing Laws in the People's Republic of China, 1949-1989 (Harvard, 2018) examines China's history of state-led mass legal education, from the early years of the People's Republic into the first decade of ‘reform and opening’ after Mao Zedong's death in 1976. Asking not whether laws were successfully implemented but how they were communicated and to what effect, the book demonstrates that educating the general population in laws has been a crucial, if controversial, component of Chinese Communist Party governance. Laws, in other words, are central to understanding Chinese socialist statecraft during a period often thought of as 'lawless'.

I now work on the history of design and industry in China after World War II. China today is one of the world's major furniture producers and a global manufacturer of materials used to make everyday objects. The material environments of people living in the UK, Europe, and other regions of the world are entangled with the lives of those working in Chinese design and industry. Yet we know little about the contemporary history that led to China's prominent position in this segment of global manufacturing. With support from the British Academy, Arts and Humanities Research Council, and the Leverhulme Trust, I am completing a new book -- Designing Socialism: Furniture and Mass Production in China -- that traces Chinese furniture design, industry, and trade from the 1940s into the 1990s. It tells the stories of people who helped materialise modern China in urban coastal as well as interior cities: as designers and producers in research institutes, state offices, factories, communes, and individual homes; as traders across the capitalist and socialist world; and as users who altered objects, furnished interiors, and found creative solutions in times of material shortage. As part of this research, I have written on the history of interior design, international trade exhibitions, material sciences, and technical standardization. Together with Dr. Denise Ho (Yale), I edited Material Contradictions in Mao’s China (Washington, 2022) and have completed another volume, How Maoism Was Made, with Prof. Aaron W. Moore (Edinburgh) for the Proceedings of the British Academy/Oxford University Press.


At Merton and the History Faculty, I teach tutorials on ‘Approaches to History’ (the three options ‘Anthropology’, ‘Economics’, and ‘Race’), ‘Disciplines of History’, and on the ‘European and World History’ papers ‘Imperial and Global History, 1750-1930’ and ‘The Global Twentieth Century, 1930-2003’. I further convene and teach the Special Subject ‘Society, Culture, and Politics in Socialist China’, the Further Subject ‘China since 1900’, and co-convene the graduate paper ‘History and Historiography of Modern China’. At graduate level, I have supervised theses on a range of topics relating to the history of modern China, China in the global history of communism, and the Sinophone world.


Legal Lessons: Popularizing Laws in the People’s Republic of China, 1949-1989. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press/Harvard University Asia Center, 2018.

Material Contradictions in Mao’s China, with Denise Y. Ho, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2022.