A Historian’s Look at China’s Early Entrepreneurism

Exploring a new form of industry-building in early modern China, Director of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute Eugenia Lean traces maverick entrepreneur Chen Diexian's unconventional route to cosmetic manufacturing.

Ariana King
April 15, 2020

In her new book, Vernacular Industrialism in China: Local Innovation and Translated Technologies in the Making of a Cosmetics Empire, 1900-1940, Professor Eugenia Lean reveals how romance novelist Chen Diexian (1879-1940), best known for his contribution to the Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies genre of fiction, became a cosmetics magnate in the early 20th century during China’s age of industrialization.

Q. What inspired you to write this book?

A. I’m a historian of modern China with an interest in the early 20th century when China moved from the late imperial period into the modern era. This period has traditionally been viewed as a time of transition, if not failure, because the republic eventually fell to the rise of the Communist party. I’ve been very keen on reevaluating that assessment.

My first book, Public Passions, was a study of a sensational assassination case that took place in the 1930s: A woman avenged her father by killing a warlord, which engendered a tremendous public reaction and uproar in the news media. The book allowed me to explore issues of political participation during the 1930s, a vibrant period.

My new book similarly examines how China transitions—or experiences transition in this time frame—through the story of an individual, Chen Diexian, initially a traditionally schooled elite who then became a “patriotic captain of industry.”

Q. You coined the term “vernacular industrialism” in your book. What does it mean?

A. China was quite weak after the 1911 revolution. The republic had failed, and there was internecine warfare amid a strong imperialist presence. A lot of foreign economic actors were on the ground in China, taking advantage of the access to Chinese markets and manufacturing opportunities. It was not a particularly conducive moment for building Chinese industry, as there was little state support.

In this inhospitable environment, Chinese manufacturers turned to developing Xiao gong yi (小工艺)—light manufacturing in Chinese—to bolster native production. I was inspired by this notion of a do-it-yourself ethos at the core of these light manufacturing endeavors. The term “vernacular industrialism” describes the innovative, localist-nativist approach to industry-building by people like Chen.

book cover showing a cosmetics case with yellow background and text overlay

Q. Why did you focus on Chen Diexian? 

A. Chen Diexian was a typical ‘xiao gong yi’ entrepreneur with his Butterfly Brand cosmetics. He initially caught my eye because he’s renowned for his romance novels—wonderful, melodramatic stories about love in the early 20th century known as Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies fiction. Readers were meant to weep along with him as he narrated his sappy stories.

Then one day I was in the library looking at a magazine from the 1910s called Women’s World, and saw a curious column, “Warehouse for Cosmetic Production,” which promoted household production of cosmetics for genteel Chinese women. As I read further and realized Chen was the editor behind this column, I decided that his life would provide an interesting window into better understanding what new urban elites such as him were doing during that time; what opportunities were emerging in newly commercial cities like Shanghai for men and women, who were being exposed to new forms of knowledge and gender norms. 

Most recognized for his iconic Butterfly Brand tooth powder that could double as a face powder, Chen was the mastermind behind this ingenious cosmetic product that was easy to manufacture. In inventing new products, he would first find the formulas, often from abroad, then localize them by using Chinese sources.

Q. Are there vernacular industrialists in the West similar to Chen?

A. Hugo Gernsback, a 20th-century American science-fiction writer who published journals like The Electrical Experimenter and Radio News. Chen and Gernsback both utilized their position as magazine editors to share widely technological information and exhort their readers to tinker.

Gernsback promoted amateurism as a way to get around the emerging intellectual property practices of large U.S. corporations claiming ownership of ideas. Chen similarly advocated the use of so-called “common knowledge” by circulating information adapted from overseas branded formulas, enabling nativist Chinese manufacturers to effectively build Chinese industry by circumventing the emerging global intellectual property regime.        

Q. What are some of the present-day implications of this book?

A. In the book’s conclusion, I liken aspects of vernacular industrialism to present day practices of shanzhai. Originally literary in nature, referring to the mountain strongholds in which rogue heroes pursued extralegal justice, shanzhai is now translated as "knockoff" or "local imitation," often linked to the culture of underground factories in manufacturing hubs like Shenzhen that deliver local adaptations of global brand products.

Shanzhai manufacturing has helped fuel China’s rapid ascent as a 21st-century economic superpower; both shanzhai and China’s ascent have, in turn, generated considerable global anxiety. At the core of this unease is the sense that China does not play by the rules and engages in rogue manufacturing and industrial espionage.

While copying and trade theft occur worldwide, China has been identified as the most egregious offender in the production of fakes. In China though, copying is not necessarily unethical and is viewed as innovative. Chen Diexian’s vernacular industrial practices provide an insight into shanzhai practices and why they are not always understood historically in China to be devious or unethical.

Q. Have you been inspired to do any tinkering of your own?

A. I have never been a tinkerer of gadgets per se, but I am a big cook. Studying Chen Diexian has made me become more attentive to when and how I might tinker with recipes to improve and adapt them to my own taste and in my own kitchen with whatever I have on hand. These practices of innovating are what many of us do in our daily lives, and constitute a basic part of what it means to be human.

The more mundane but crucial acts of tinkering should be valued insofar as they help unveil the conceits that lie behind entrenched notions of individual genius and creativity. These are associated with revolutionary leaps of invention that have long been heralded as the basis of “true” creativity, and continue until today to undergird how we define “ownership” over ideas and knowledge in contemporary conversations about intellectual property.

Q. What historical figures would you have as your Sunday dim sum guests?

A. I would certainly want to invite Chen Diexian. Also, Shi Jianqiao, the woman featured in my first book, Public Passions. I have spent so much time getting to know them through research that I would like to meet them in real life to see if they live up to what I have learned!

Other figures who might round out the table include Roxie Hart, a fictional character featured in the 1926 play, Chicago, who kills her lover and turns her trial into a media sensation in order to be acquitted. She is fictional, though based on a real female murderer. I prefer to invite Roxie rather than her real-life counterpart, as Roxie is far more skilled in manipulating the mass media to her advantage in her court trial, which is exactly what Shi Jianqiao did almost 10 years later in China. The two would have a lot to talk about—though I’d have to translate!