City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Modular mass production in China

Written in



Circa 210 BC, in the Terracotta Army 兵馬俑

“Scholars of this material generally subscribe that the use of a system of ‘module and mass production’ accounts for the diversity. The phrase was coined by the German art historian Lothar Ledderose in 2000, when he used it as the subtitle of his book, which had an image of the Terracotta Army on its cover and contained a compelling thesis about the distinctive nature of creativity in China. Most commentators have picked up on the mass-produced nature of the figures; a display case in the exhibition shows a modern reconstruction in little clay figures of the production line. It is modelled in the style of the Socialist Realist sculpture that was used in Mao’s day to generate such vast agitprop dioramas of life-size figures as Rent Collection Courtyard (portraying the ways of pre-1949 ‘evil landlords’) or Wrath of the Serfs (portraying the ‘evil ways’ of the pre-1949 Tibetan monastic establishment). The point is not just mass production but the mass production of modular forms – three types of plinth, two types of leg set, eight types of torso and so on – which can be combined and recombined and combined again into a simulacrum of diversity. This is not so much mass production in the sense of the Industrial Revolution as in the sense in which it is deployed by Starbucks, where everyone can think they are getting just what they want.”

“Ledderose’s analysis of module and mass production in Chinese culture extends across a range of phenomena, one of them being the Chinese script, where again a relatively small number of modules can be combined to generate forms running into tens of thousands. The contemporary artist Xu Bing used the same principles to generate thousands of unreadable characters in A Book from the Sky of 1987-91.”

From ‘At the British Museum’, Craig Clunas, London Review of Books.




3 responses to “Modular mass production in China”

  1. mitchell Avatar

    “Simulacrum of diversity” – great. How does this relate to the (computational) diversity of form in the Birds Nest or Water Cube, or to the emerging mass customisation paradigm? Perhaps also a simulacrum but the modularity is now a more subtle generative machine (post-industrial). I just posted some thoughts on the opening ceremony that touches on these ideas. Brilliant blog, btw.


  2. Bryan Norwood Avatar

    Maybe Baudrillard is right, Once the simulacrum becomes so complex and advanced, truth to a “real” doesn’t matter any more. Once customization reaches a certain level, it is no longer dissimulating (lying about what it actually is). Dissimulation becomes simulation (not a copy or image of the real, there is no longer a real). Modularity can actually become diverse when it reaches a high enough level of complexity.


  3. Fred Scharmen Avatar

    Totally fascinating. See also Deleuze’s piece on mass customization and infinite modulation of the social regime in ‘Postscript on the Society of Control’


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