The “Walmart syndrome” refers to the technical, economic, and social processes behind a consumption pattern shifting from a limited number of high-quality goods to a huge volume of low-cost goods, when demand for the product increases. Although the Walmart syndrome would never be possible without mass production and convenient international transportation in our modern context, similar shifts of consumption pattern and their impacts may have occurred in different contexts throughout human history. This study examines the long-term record of painted pottery as an economic and social valuable in the Majiayao Culture (ca. 5300-4000 BP) of the upper Yellow River in northwestern China. Painted pottery vessels of the early and middle phases of the Majiayao Culture are recognized as exquisite works of art without parallel in all painted pottery vessels made in northern China across 6000 years. When demand reached its peak in the late phase of the Majiayao Culture, however, the quality significantly declined. At a critical threshold, the quality of the vessels ultimately was not considered as important as was their quantity. This case study provides a unique opportunity to learn how a specific material product gained prominence and underwent a series of changes in its technical manufacture, economic role, and social value over a broad region and 1300-year sequence. With its detailed material record and clear chronological dimension, the Majiayao case provides new insight into our interpretation of human behavior behind the modern Walmart syndrome.
Ling-yu Hung is an assistant professor in the Departments of Anthropology/East Asian Languages and Cultures, Indiana University, Bloomington. Her research focuses on the development of social complexity in prehistoric mainland China and Taiwan. Her dissertation, entitled “pottery production, mortuary practice, and social complexity in the Majiayao Culture, NW China (ca. 5300-4000 BP)”, investigates the dynamic social and economic relationship among village-scale communities in Neolithic northwestern China.