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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