The Stuff of International Relations, and Why It Matters: Things, People, and the China Pavilion at the Leipzig Fairs

Speaker: Professor Jennifer Altehenger, Oxford

Between 1951 and 1965, the People's Republic of China regularly exhibited at the international trade fairs in the East German city of Leipzig. One of the major attractions of the fairs, China's grand pavilion was second in size only to the pavilion of the Soviet Union. This talk examines the planning and execution of China's exhibitions, illustrating how the young Communist regime displayed its goods and political system abroad and how citizens of other socialist and capitalist countries experienced China through objects, materials, images, and narratives. Because the People's Republic of China was a new revolutionary state of enormous political and economic significance and yet also a state that other socialist regimes deemed too poorly developed to transit to socialism, these exhibitions were the site of constant negotiations and tension between Chinese and East German organizers and other local decision-makers and participants. Communist China's engagement with the fairs thus sheds fresh light on China's international activities after 1949 and on the local history of the Sino-Soviet split. It is, moreover, a reminder of just how significant materiality was to China's connections with the wider world; from grand gifts and major export goods to more obscure quotidian objects and things that, albeit often overlooked, substantially shaped Sino-foreign interactions, collaborations, misunderstandings, and disagreements.


Jennifer Altehenger is Associate Professor of Chinese History at the University of Oxford and Jessica Rawson Fellow in Modern Asian History at Merton College. Her 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. She is interested in local and national perspectives, and tries to situate China within broader international and transnational contexts.