Dr Jennifer Altehenger

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

My research focuses on the history of modern and contemporary China, in particular the history of materials and industrial design in Chinese politics and everyday life, the history of law, propaganda and information under Communist Party governance, and the history of political language and cultural production. I am interested in local and national perspectives, and I also strive to situate China within broader international and transnational contexts.

One of my main areas of research is the historical connection between laws, party-state politics, and everyday life in the People's Republic of China. My first book titled Legal Lessons: Popularizing Laws in the People's Republic of China, 1949-1989 (Harvard University Asia Center, 2018) rethinks the role of laws in Chinese state socialism, demonstrating how state-led mass legal education became a crucial if controversial component of governance after 1949 and again after Mao Zedong's death in 1976. Following publication of the book, I continue to maintain an interest in the history of socialist law and am currently working on several articles that examine the materiality of law under Communist regimes and legal exchanges across the late socialist world.

My next major project focuses on the history of materials, industrialisation, and design in twentieth century China, with an emphasis on the People's Republic. Supported by an AHRC leadership fellowship award (AH/R000174/1, from 2018 to early 2020), I am writing a book (tentatively titled Material Maoism: a history of everyday industrial design in China) that explores production, circulation, and consumption of everyday objects of use such as furniture, lighting, and plastic goods. I am particularly fascinated by the work of factories, design institutes, and small workshops in China's urban coastal but especially interior cities, and also by the role of materials such as engineered woods, metals, plastics, and bamboo. The book hopes to shed further light on some of the diverse histories of everyday practice and uses of objects, and the creative solutions people found to deal with scarcity, including the rise of DIY, black markets, and repair as well recycling practices. Such an approach will contribute to complicating existing notions of material development during China's socialist period and bring China into the wider history of post-war material history. As part of this, I am preparing shorter pieces on fibreboard during the Great Leap Forward, the socialist lives of bamboo, and the standardization of ‘ergonomic’ designs to facilitate productivity of the new socialist man and woman. I am also co-editing a volume with Dr Denise Ho (Yale University) on material contradictions in Mao's China.

My work on the material history of the People's Republic of China has included the creation of a new digital resource called 'The Mao Era in Objects' aimed at educators, students, and anyone interested in the history of modern China. It can be accessed at https://maoeraobjects.ac.uk. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council UK and built by King's College Digital Lab, the website offers more than twenty interactive biographies of famous and more obscure objects of China's Mao period (1949-1976), and also includes a range of primary sources from photos and propaganda posters to translated newspaper articles, memoirs, videos and other materials. Please do get in touch if you have any questions about the resource.


I teach the Further Subject 'China since 1900' and contribute the MSt course 'History and Historiography of Modern China'. I offer tutorials for 'Imperial and Global History, 1750-1930' and 'The Global Twentieth Century'. At graduate level, I have supervised dissertations and theses on a great range of topics relating to the history of modern China and especially the history of the People's Republic of China. I would be particularly interested to hear from students who would like to pursue research in the socio-cultural, material, and legal history of modern China.


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

‘Industrial and Chinese: Exhibiting Mao’s China at the Leipzig Trade Fairs’ (forthcoming in the Journal of Contemporary History).

‘Dictionaries in China Post-1949’. In Literary Information in China: A History, edited by Jack Chen, Christopher Nugent, et al., Columbia University Press (forthcoming).

‘Sozialistische Möbelkultur: Das Pekinger Sägewerk und die Ausstellung zur umfassenden Holzverabeitung, 1959’. In Vom Wesen der Dinge: Realitäten und Konzeptionen des Materiellen in der chinesischen Kultur, edited by Grete Schönebeck and Philip Grimberg. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz (forthcoming).

‘On Difficult New Terms: the Business of Lexicography in Mao Era China’. Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 51, No. 3 (May 2017): 622-661.

‘Chinese Lanterns at Leipzig: Looking into the Local Archives of the Former German Democratic Republic’. PRC History Review, Vol. 2, No. 3 (June 2017): 3-5.

‘China’s Cultural Revolution’, Modern History Review, Vol. 19, No. 4 (Apr 2017).

‘Between State and Service Industry: Group Weddings in Socialist Shanghai, 1949-1956’. Twentieth-Century China, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Jan 2015): 48-68.

‘Simplified Legal Knowledge in the Early PRC: Explaining and Publishing the Marriage Law’. In Chinese Law: Knowledge, Practice, and Transformation, 1530s-1950s, edited by Li Chen and Madeleine Zelin. Leiden: Brill, 2015, 342-366.

‘Social Imperialism and Mao’s Three Worlds: Deng Xiaoping’s Speech to the U.N. General Assembly, 1974’. In Revolutionary Moments: Reading Revolutionary Texts, edited by Rachel Hammersley. London: Bloomsbury, 2015, 175-182.

‘A Socialist Satire: Manhua Magazine and Political Cartoon Production in the PRC, 1950-1960’. Frontiers of History in China, Vol. 8, No. 1 (2013): 78−103.

‘Comic Travels: Disney Publishing in the People’s Republic of China’. In Asian Popular Culture: The Global (Dis-)Connection edited by Anthony Fung. London: Routledge, 2013, 59-75.

‘Kopieren für die Revolution: Die Cartoon Reproduktionskampagne in der VR China, 1950-1952’. In Tradition? Variation? Plagiat? Motive und ihre Adaption in China, edited by Lena Henningsen and Martin Hofmann. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2013, 295-308.

‘The Transcultural Travels of Trends: An Introductory Essay’. With Laila Abu-er-Rub and Sebastian Gehrig, Transcultural Studies, Vol. 2 (2011): 140-163.