University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia
The sewing machine was a milestone in the lives of people in China in the second half of the twentieth century and is a familiar point of reference in memoirs of that time. Stories about sewing machines appear in autobiographical works, in print or digital form, often in the form of tales of female and/or filial piety, in which the daughter or son pays tribute to the mother. In the scholarly literature on family formation in late twentieth-century China, the sewing machine often makes a brief appearance in the role of dowry gift. This might be part of the direct dowry, provided by the bride’s family, or indirect dowry, provided by the groom’s family as a betrothal gift but actually meant for the newly married couple. Based on archival and biographical materials, this paper shows that as a dowry item (direct or indirect), the sewing machine actually makes a rather late appearance in China, but that it figured significantly in family relationships before that time.
Professor Antonia Finnane is an historian of China, with interests in urban society, fashion and gender. She is the author of Speaking of Yangzhou: A Chinese City, 1500-1800 (Harvard University Asia Center 2004) and Changing Clothes in China: Fashion, History, Nation (Columbia University Press 2008). She is currently writing a book about making clothes in Mao’s China.