Saturday, April 4, 2020

Eugenia Lean's "Vernacular Industrialism in China"

Eugenia Lean (林郁沁) is a scholar of modern Chinese history, history of science, technology and industry, and affect studies. She received her BA from Stanford (1990) and her MA and PhD (1996, 2001) from the University of California, Los Angeles. Before joining the Columbia faculty in 2002, she taught at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

She is the author of Public Passions: The Trial of Shi Jianqiao and the Rise of Popular Sympathy in Republican China (2007), she examines a sensational crime of female passion to document the political role of sentiment in the making of a critical urban public.

Lean applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Vernacular Industrialism in China: Local Innovation and Translated Technologies in the Making of a Cosmetics Empire, 1900–1940, and reported the following:
One of the main goals of page 99 in Vernacular Industrialism in China is to historicize recipes for manufacturing cosmetics in domestic quarters that appeared in women’s magazines in 1915 China. Even though these early-twentieth-century recipes employed unprecedented chemical language, called upon reader/practitioners to utilize modern scientific apparatus, and argued for modernizing manufacturing processes, the understanding of chemical reactions and rich manufacturing practices had a much longer history. Page 99 illustrates this history by quoting from the eighteenth-century Chinese novel, Dream of the Red Chamber. With few extant historical sources about domestic production of cosmetics from the early modern era, the study uses a literary source. To be sure, while a fictional text does not directly reflect social reality, it can be suggestive of vibrant domestic production and knowledge of chemical processes as authors of late imperial Chinese fiction often drew from daily encyclopedias sold to householders that include such knowledge as they wrote their novels.

An excerpt of the discussion on page 99, reads as follows:
The novel describes in detail how cosmetics are to be made, and this information coincides with encyclopedias from the period that include such manufacturing know-how. In chapter 44, Baoyu comforts the character Patience after she is caught in a lovers’ squabble between her mistress, her mistress’s husband, and his lover. …To console her Baoyu offers to make up her face. He insists on using the best makeup available in the residence and on sitting her at a dressing table, and he explains how the various powders are made in order to demonstrate their purity and quality.

Pinching off one of these novel powder-containers, [Baoyu] handed it to Patience.
“There you are. This isn’t ceruse, it’s a powder made by crushing the seeds of garden-jalap and mixing them with perfume.”

Patience emptied the contents of the tiny phial on her palm. All the qualities required by the most expert perfumers were there: lightness, whiteness with just the faintest tinge or rosiness, and fragrance.…

“This is made from safflower, the same as ordinary rouge,” Baoyu explained to her, “only the stuff they sell in the shops is impure and its color is inferior. This is made by squeezing the juice from the best quality safflower, carefully extracting all the impurities, mixing it with rose water, and then further purifying it…
Baoyu’s explanation of extracting impurities, mixing in rose water and further purifying the rouge follows (step-by-step) instructions on how to make rouge that appear in a seventeenth-century compendium on industrial technologies titled The Works of Heaven and the Inception of Things. Recipes that appear in 1915 women’s journals, the main concern of the chapter in which page 99 appears, echo the The Works of Heaven entry as well.

As a history of technology and industry in modern China, Vernacular Industrialism in China examines unconventional, ad hoc and curious forms of manufacturing and engagement with science in the early twentieth century. In an era when conditions for industry building were bleak and state support was scarce, some of this unexpected engagement led to the building of nativist industry. Some assumed other social and cultural functions including the formation of taste or the fostering of patriotic sentiment in an era of a buy- and manufacture-native goods campaign. As science and industry were not yet formally established, those who were curious often sought knowledge about industry and related sciences such as chemistry in unlikely sources, including how-to columns and even fiction and poetry. They drew from translated recipes and from domestic materia medica and manufacturing traditions. Some, including the main figure featured in the book, maverick industrialist Chen Diexian (1879-1940), tinkered with unconventional materials to source raw material locally, translated recipes to copy and adapt foreign technologies with the goal of “improvement” (rather than inventing anew), and shared brand formulas, domestic and international, as “common knowledge” needed for building nativist industry in newspapers. This kind of unusual yet resourceful, “do-it-yourself” approach toward building industry presages some of the manufacturing activities that have fueled China’s ascent as an economic powerhouse today.

With its focus on a fictional text from an earlier period, page 99 provides historical context for the modern period, but does not completely convey the multi-faceted nature of vernacular industrialism that is explored in the full study. Yet, the page does exhibit the sensibility of the book. With its examination of an unexpected source – a classical novel – as a means to understand practices of making and producing, page 99 reflects the unconventional approach the study takes overall – one that examines the seemingly frivolous, ad hoc practices and forms of knowledge production that were nonetheless often crucial in the making of modern industry in China.
Visit Eugenia Lean's website.

--Marshal Zeringue