Dialectics of Waste: Recycling Campaigns in Socialist China, 1949-1978

Nov 21 12:00–1:30pm
Common Room, 2 Divinity Ave., Cambridge, MA

Weilin Pan (Assistant Professor, Institute of China Studies, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences; HYI Visiting Scholar, 2019-20)
Chair/discussant: Elizabeth Perry (Henry Rosovsky Professor of Government, Harvard University; Director, Harvard-Yenching Institute)

Co-sponsored by the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies

This talk will examine how the national system of China’s waste recovery and recycling took shape through the mass movements during the heydays of the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Waste recovery and recycling gained political weight after Mao’s idea of “comprehensive usage” (zonghe liyong) had become the guiding ideology of China’s rapid industrialization. It was not only a matter of production and productivity, but also a matter of dialectical materialism. The usable and the useless were perceived as a unity of opposites. In a “scientific”/ideal scenario, the use value can be unceasingly resurrected as long as human endeavor implies. I will argue that the idea and practice of waste recovery and recycling in that period showcased the revolutionary romanticism of the relationship between people and state, as well as people and nature. It is a socialist legacy that speaks to our contemporary concerns about sustainability and pollution control in post-reform urban China.