Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Jeffrey Schnapp reviews Domestic Spaces in Post-Mao China

Wang Min’anDomestic Spaces in Post-Mao China: On Electronic Household Appliances. Trans. Shaobo Xie. New York: Routledge, 2018. 101 pp.

Review by Jeffrey Schnapp

14 February 2019

The imaginative and playful nonfictional prose sketches known as xiaopin wenfirst flourished in the Ming dynasty but underwent a revival in the 1920s and 1930s as a gentle method of prodding and puncturing triumphalist myths of modernization. Wan Min’an’s Domestic Spaces in Post-Mao China: On Electronic Household Appliances is a distant descendant of the latter enterprise, even if the spirit of his little book is less that of critique than of phenomenology: a phenomenology of everyday life as lived with the everyday companions and supports known as appliances. The terrain that it seeks to chart is summed up in one of the stronger chapters, that devoted to television:

People no longer bother to inspect their residences in accord with their fengshuiknowledge; they have expelled cultural and    mythological meaning from such manufactured domestic spaces, reducing them to neutral, cold machines. Then how can people place various forms of meaning in such mechanized spaces? How to put these spaces back into a symbolic order? [P. 36]

Though the translation isn’t always elegant and the editing feels rushed—this is the case throughout—the questions posed will be familiar to Western design and architectural historians. 

The dream of the modern movement was to substitute traditional residential forms with the house as a “machine for living.” This entailed democratizing access to modern comforts like electricity, heat, running water, and sewage systems. It meant industrializing the production of housing, new construction techniques and materials, and new typologies of domestic space. It implied redesigning modern households around electrical appliances and devices. Rather than “neutral, cold machines” the spaces in question were intended as artful, clean, and efficient, infused not with conventional fengshui but with the fengshui of the machine age. 

But there was trouble in utopia from the start: traditionalists found “machines for living” ascetic; the trades that were supposed to erect them proved resistant to innovation; builders cut corners in the pursuit of reduced costs; architects were quick to adulterate the founding principles of the new architecture to accommodate the whims of clients and patrons. Whether or not the resulting domestic spaces fulfilled their emancipatory promise (or, for that matter, whether or not traditional housing forms ever truly provided nonneutral, warm alternatives—dubitamus), two abiding features of the industrial/postindustrial age seem beyond dispute: urbanization and deracination. Massive migrations to urban areas continue to reshape the world; and they are loosening of the coupling between dwelling, identity, and our sense of place.

Integral to the new logic of domesticity and to the task of forging “forms of meaning” and “symbolic orders” are the commodities like the mechanical-electrical actors with which twenty-first century citizens, be it in China or the West, share their homes: washing machines, refrigerators, radios, televisions, cell phones, computers, and electric lighting systems. Each of these is the object of a chapter in Domestic Spaces in Post-Mao China and the word chapter here signifies a web of meandering musings on the roles into which a given appliance is cast, its specific uses, and interconnections with other appliances and domestic devices. Each appliance is approached, as it were, from the outside: ahistorically and acontextually, without inquiring into the appliance’s distinctive genealogy or its design, engineering, or technical specifications. The practitioner of xiaopin wenhas little interest in peering in under the hood, pulling a circuit board, or popping a housing open, not to mention in picking up a book on the history of appliance design, a work of thing theory, or a technical manual. 

The observations in question run the gamut from the playfully poetic (cellphones transform users into a hero who “has the power to talk to a remote person, to hear sounds coming from far away, to communicate with anyone at any time” [p. 50]) to the insightful (“at a time when the radio was dedicated to serving political power [such as during the Chinese Cultural Revolution of 1966], the sounds of the radio . . . were totally divested of the contingency and privacy of the human voice, even emptied of its desire and gender identity” [p. 29]); to the commonplace (“the cell phone is today’s fetish” [p. 54]; “the moon looks pale in electric light” [p. 81]) to the misleading (“nowadays managers are no longer able to tell whether an employee is doing their job or is using the computer only to serve their own purposes” [p. 59]). There’s nuanced attention to human–machine interactions and to what I would call the “atmospheric effects” of appliances on domesticity, but distinctions can get lost in process (like the one between machines and media devices). And there are miscues, as when one reads that “normally, there is not much room for creative designing to improve the aesthetic features of the bulb as an illuminant” (p. 71)—lighting designers and architects may find this incongruous. I’d add that perhaps Marshall McLuhan (who built the lead chapter of Understanding Media around electric light) might have been a better guide than Martin Heidegger when it comes to shedding light on how “space speaks through light” (p. 74).

In summary, some of the inherent limitations of the vignettes mode emerge in Domestic Spaces in Post-Mao China. But so do some of its strengths (though not ones that, in my opinion, justify the volume’s inclusion in a series dedicated to postcolonial politics), particularly when the argument tracks away from global universals towards Chinese particulars. A washing machine may well be branded Samsung and made in Korea, a cellphone may be designed in California but manufactured by Foxconn in Zhengzhou, but musings on the looming presence of appliances have a way of becoming incisive at the precise junctures in which these generic devices insert themselves into a given sociocultural fabric—in this case, the  one provided by contemporary China. Some of the insertion points will be familiar to nonsinologists. Others, like the extended discussion of the gendering of laundry labor in chapter 1 or of the shifting social value attributed to specific rooms in chapter 8 devoted to “contemporary household spatial production” sketch out topographies of domestic space that are both illuminating and less familiar.