China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
This paper discusses political and social changes in 1970s China through the lens of wrist watches. Despite political instability and economic stagnation, consumer durables like wrist watches became must-haves for urban Chinese youths in the early 1970s. Under the banner of “make revolution and promote production”, Shanghai watchmakers developed new products such as diamond wrist watches, women’s watches, and electronic watches, while the Bureau of Commerce actively imported Swiss stainless watches for cadres throughout the 1970s. Among young consumers nationwide, new brands of wrist watches not only became a necessity in an increasingly industrialized working environment but also a marker of identity, taste, and power in an age of limited individual expression. The bid to acquire such desiderata induced new saving habits and the exercise of informal and institutional powers. How did a “proletariat” consumer culture built around wrist watches reflect new power dynamics and define emergent class distinctions in urban China? By examining government archives, magazines, and oral sources related to production, distribution, and consumption of wrist watches in Shanghai and elsewhere, this paper seeks to show how dynamics between revolutionary politics, industrialization, and China’s gradual opening in the 1970s facilitated the formation of a consumer culture that articulates individual identity and social distinctions through wrist watches.