Society and Politics in Communist China since 1949

Tutor: Jon Howlett

Module type: Explorations

Module Code: HIS00076I

In 1949 the Chinese Communist Party established the People’s Republic of China: the next sixty years were a tumultuous period of experimentation, revolution and transformation. In the last decade, the study of Communist China has flourished as scholars have begun to reappraise the social and political history of this period. In this course, students will explore the history and historiography of this exciting emerging field with a particular focus on the changing relations between people and the state.

We begin by seeking to understand what life was like in China before 1949 and how this motivated radical reformers. Our second seminar focuses on one of the most important issues in contemporary Chinese historiography: why do many historians still think it is appropriate to produce Mao Zedong-focused 'great man history' in the Chinese context when such approaches have long been abandoned elsewhere? What is the alternative? Having established why a reappraisal of China’s social and political history is necessary, we go from here to examine the ways in which the Chinese Communist Party consolidated their hold over this enormous and diverse country and especially how they faced the problem of transforming the old society, a battle fought most visibly in decadent Shanghai. We then move on to explore the troubled history of the Party’s utopian misadventures: the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution and their consequences for ordinary people.

We conclude with seminars focusing on the extraordinary changes that have taken place in China over the last three decades of ‘Reform and Opening Up’ since 1978, as well as using the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 as a case study to reflect on the limits of political reform. Today, China is one of the world’s economic superpowers, in the future it will only become more important. How can historians begin to understand the impacts of Communist policy on ordinary people since 1949 and what can this tell us about society and politics in China today?

Please note: No prior knowledge of Chinese history or of the Chinese language is required for this course.

Seminars will likely cover the following areas:

  1. Introduction and China before 1949
  2. The Great Helmsman: rethinking Mao Zedong and new approaches to Chinese history 
  3. Regime consolidation the early 1950s
  4. The Transformation of Shanghai
  5. Utopianism: the Great Leap Forward
  6. The Cultural Revolution I: Smash the Four Olds!
  7. The Cultural Revolution II: Bombard the Headquarters!
  8. From Reform to Tiananmen: to get rich is glorious
  9. Historical perspectives on Communist China today: the Chinese Dream

Group project work will consist of further study of one aspect of the history of Communist China, using a collection of primary sources creatively to offer insights on an historical issue or debate. 


For more information, please visit the module catalogue.