Periodizing modern China

Socialism is the transitional phase from capitalism to capitalism

—satirical Chinese saying, ca. 2010

In my book I stress the importance of fieldwork on the modern period, not just attempting to imagine the distant past. Talking of the modern period (p.141),

Just as historians document ritual change throughout the medieval and late imperial periods, we find constant adaptation in the years before and after the Communist revolution of 1949. Similarly, a detailed account of over three decades of ritual practice since the liberalizing reforms of the early 1980s reveals continuing changes.

Chinese peasants have a different conception of time from the periodization we find in official history. Li Manshan described his wedding in 1971 as “after the end of the Cultural Revolution”; “land reform” is often used to mean the privatization around 1980; and now when people mention “liberation” they often mean after the end of the commune system in the 1980s. Now that the Maoist era is a rather distant memory, it may seem like a blip in the long sweep of history—but it has left deep scars.

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