Dr Jennifer Altehenger

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

My research focuses on the history of modern and contemporary China, in particular the history of materials, industrial design and everyday life, the history of law and civic education, and the history of language, information and cultural production.

One of my areas of research has been the historical 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 University Asia Center, 2018) reconsidered the role of laws in Chinese state socialism. Asking not whether laws were successfully implemented but how they were communicated and to what effect, the book examined 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. It showed that educating the general population in laws has been a crucial, if controversial, component of Chinese Communist Party governance throughout most of the decades after 1949. Laws, in other words, are not marginal but central to understanding Chinese statecraft in the twentieth century. I continue to maintain an active interest in the history of socialist law and am working on articles that explore the material culture of laws in socialist China and the history of legal exchanges across the late socialist world.

My current major project focuses on the history of design and industry in China following the end of World War II. Supported by an AHRC leadership fellowship award, I am writing a book - Revolutionary Designs: Furnishing Life in Socialist China - that traces the production, circulation, and consumption of objects of use such as furniture. I am particularly fascinated by the work of factories, design institutes, and small workshops in China's urban coastal and especially interior cities, and also by the role of materials such as engineered woods, metals, plastics, and bamboo. The book reveals some of the diverse histories of everyday practice and uses of objects, and the solutions people found to deal with scarcity, including the rise of DIY, black markets, and repair as well recycling practices. Next to the book, I have written articles and chapters on the history of fibreboard, bamboo objects of use, and the standardization of furniture designs to facilitate productivity of the new socialist man and woman. I am also co-editing two volumes on related topics; one with Dr Denise Y Ho (Yale University) on Material Contradictions in Mao's China, and one with Professor Aaron Moore (University of Edinburgh) on How Maoism Was Made.

My work on the material history of the People's Republic of China has included editing a new digital resource called 'The Mao Era in Objects'. The website is aimed at educators, students, and anyone interested in the history of modern China and can be accessed at https://maoeraobjects.ac.uk. Funded by the AHRC and built by King's College Digital Lab, the website includes more than twenty interactive biographies of famous and more obscure objects of China's Mao period (1949-1976), each written by an expert who has researched the specific object and its history. The website 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.

Teaching

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.

Publications

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

For a complete up-to-date list of Dr Altehenger's publications, see the Faculty of History website.