World History Seminar
"The Chinese Copycat and the Making of Modern Capitalism"
Eugenia Y. Lean
Associate Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Columbia University
Global structures of corporate ownership we take for granted today are not only relatively recent in origin, but emerged in controversies over branding and counterfeiting that were from the beginning entangled with resentments about imperialism and foreign control over sectors of local economies. By examining the circulation and adaptation of manufacturing recipes and trademarks of pharmaceutical commodities in China and beyond, this paper explores how China came to be known as the quintessential global “counterfeiter.” A range of Chinese actors borrowed and copied popular trademarks such as that of Burroughs, Wellcome and Company’s Hazeline Snow Vanishing Cream. They were not alone. Copiers around the world, including those in BW&C’s own backyard, did so. And yet, the savvy and deft nature of Chinese copiers, along with prevailing Orientalist assumptions in Europe of Chinese corruption and shadiness, prompted British pharmaceuticals to render Chinese actors as particularly unethical and audacious. By doing so, they sought to clamp down on copying not only in far-flung markets, but also in their own backyards. Finally, this paper does not see Chinese copycats as uniquely venal or unethical perpetrators of fraud; nor were they simply innocent victims of the disciplining efforts of British and multinational pharmaceutical and imperialist governments. Rather, Chinese copycats, merchants and officials were active participants in a global dialogue over what constituted ownership, copying and property and their actions helped shape (if often through acts of resistance or defiance) the parameters of emerging legal mechanisms of control central to modern capitalism.