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Release date 02.10.2007
Pages count382
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Book overview

The objective of Frank Dikötter’s book is to challenge perceptions about China’s material culture; specifically, a perpetuated notion that the people of China exhibited a ‘hostility to foreign things’. (22) Dikötter reveals the interconnectivity of Eastern and Western material culture and highlights the dual nature of foreign object appropriation in China. From the outset, it is claimed that foreign items could function as both displays of social status, yet were also present in the daily lives of ordinary people. (1) China’s adoption of things modern occurred due to a re-conceptualisation of spheres perceived to represent modernity during the nineteenth-century, whereby local products came to be considered backward and modern was to be found in Europe.This is not to assert, however, that there was an all-embracing, national acceptance of objects which made their way into China from Europe. Many Conservative elites were resistant to embrace western material culture, and during the first decades of the twentieth-century, ‘foreign’ could be equated with ‘imperialist’: a fusion of ideas which manifested in the rhetoric of economic nationalism. Nevertheless, Dikötter clearly demonstrates how certain objects from Europe came to be associated with material modernity in China.

Perceptions of an unchanging and static nature of Chinese culture and society have been pervasive in academic scholarship throughout the twentieth-century. These notions were expressed in the historiography of China, which claims that it was only through Western Imperial expansion that China encountered, adapted to, then underwent, modernity. By adopting what he refers to as a ‘user centred approach’ Dikötter demonstrates that the acquisition of things modern in China was not exclusively shaped by larger forces of imperialism and globalisation: ‘material modernity was not a set of givens imposed by foreigners but a repertoire of new opportunities, a kit of tools which could be flexibly appropriated in a variety of imaginative ways’. (7) Again going against the grain, Dikötter shows how a new economy created by imperial powers did not make China dependant on importation of industrial products from Europe, but instead provided China’s large manufacturing base with the ability to utilise the newly acquired, raw materials. Far from being subjected to the pressures of global market forces, ideas of materiality and consumption, China’s modern material culture was shaped by a number of factors, including: a robust and diverse system of local production; product function determined through innovative and unconventional usage; appropriation of foreign commodities through the combination of specialised manufacturing roles and a large labour force; and (apart from the wealthy elites) large-scale consumption based on practicality and portability. Through creative and careful analysis Dikötter demonstrates that globalisation did not cause homogeneity of culture in China but in fact, increased cultural diversity. (263)

The bulk of Dikötter’s data is drawn from primary source material. Travel diaries, journals, trade returns, custom reports, sociological surveys, as well as visual sources, are all utilised in order to convey his user centred approach. Dikötter is not principally concerned with commodity production, unless it is specifically related to appropriation and usage. He believes that economic historians who have focused almost exclusively on production, while neglecting how objects are used by consumers, has been detrimental to obtaining a more sophisticated understanding of material culture. According to Dikötter, the way foreign objects were appropriated in China was related their distance from ‘centres of power’. This spatial theory asserts that those who moved within elite networks were the first to be exposed to foreign products and subsequently acquired foreign commodities for reasons of social prestige. It was, however, ultimately those who were distanced from these centres who largely shaped the adoption of non-native objects due to their uninhibited consumption based on price and utility. These differential reasons for consumption are based on what Dikötter refers to as China’s ‘two-tier’ economy. Dikötter expands upon the work of Michel de Certeau who argued that the dominant economic order could be resisted by consumers by appropriating objects and using them in subversive ways. (8) Despite his development of de Certeau’s argument of resistance, Dikötter claims that de Certeau did not place enough of an emphasis on the consumers themselves and his reductionist dichotomy of resistance and oppression is untenable. Michel de Certeau’s emphasises ‘moments, strategies, practices and operations rather than human beings in specific social situations: uses rather than users are invested with the power to generate change’. (8) Perhaps the phrase which most aptly summarises Frank’s argument is that ‘objects do not have lives of their own, but are granted lives by their users.’ (11)

Part one of 'Things Modern' looks at the dissemination of foreign objects through the development of networks which occurred as a result of ‘larger economic and social variables’, but nevertheless, impacted the patterns of consumption and daily life of ordinary people. (110) Dikötter demonstrates how technological advancements changed methods of transportation and the dissemination of commodities, while the usage of cement, electricity, steel, and glass transformed the fabric of the cityscape. Although certain developments such as the railway networks and steam-ships may have been implemented at the behest of political and economic elites for logistical purposes, they were quickly welcomed and utilised by the broader populace as a means of more efficient travel. A prime example of this was remarked upon by a traveller in 1891 who observed that the traffic between Ningbo and Shanghai ‘were mainly ordinary people’. (76)

This section also addresses some of the deficiencies in previous scholarship which have attempted to depict Chinese attitudes toward foreign products. Dikötter believes that the degree to which the late Qing dynasty exhibited an opposition to foreign commodities has been overstated and misrepresented by a particular focus upon the treaty ports of the nineteenth-century, the Boxer Rebellion, and circulation of luxury items. A quantitative comparison between China and Russia, the Ottoman Empire, South America, or Africa with regards to importation of non-native commodities does not provide a reliable indication of China’s rejection or acceptance of foreign objects. Dikötter rightly claims that attitudes towards of foreign objects are discernible only if viewed within the context of local production. He states that within China, a sophisticated, long-distance and large-scale trade network already existed in the early eighteenth-century. (35) The demographic boom which occurred during the second half of the same century provided the impetus for an increase in house-hold enterprises, regional specialisation, internal migration and the expansion of markets. In turn, local businesses responded to the needs of the mass market: low capital products. With the increasing circulation of low tariff foreign objects after the Treaty of Nanjing, producers responded to the needs of the mass market by imitating commodities which were perceived useful or in high-demand. (36)

Of equal importance to consumption was the visibility of modern objects. Dikötter convincingly argues that visibility on both a micro and macro level acted as a vehicle for dissemination of modern objects. Itinerant merchant traders and periodic markets were instrumental in this regard, particularly with the circulation of small, portable items. The rise of modern department stores in Shanghai during the early twentieth-century, which began as a conglomeration of markets, changed both the visibility and availability modern objects. (59) Due to limitations of space, commodities sold in stand-alone retailers were previously kept in storage space at the back of the store. This changed when department stores came to prominence and merchants would proudly display their wares in full view for the prospective consumer.

The appropriation of modern European design was also evident in Chinese architecture. The mixture of traditional and foreign had the potential to alter both the structure itself, as well as the lived experience of the individual. Dikötter asserts that contemporary urban history has focused on ‘examining the forces which produced the new visual landscape’ while neglecting how these changes are ‘lived at the level of everyday life by ordinary people.’ (109) Cities were viewed by elites as a sign of modernisation, and by replacing the physical manifestations of the imperial regime, a representation of power and order (110) The changes in architecture manifested in unexpected ways and are interpreted as both an appropriation of modern style and, due to the rapidity of its adoption and prevalence, evidence of less resistance to change. It is observed that by the 1930s, there existed a mixture of traditional patterns and colours in architecture rooves, while the body of the building was ‘proudly modern’ (112) This architectural phenomena is juxtaposed with the neo-classical architectural styles of eighteenth-century Britain which were used by the middle classes to invoke notions of traditional identity. Dikötter refers to the work of Adrian Forty who argues that in Britain, neo-classical architecture was employed as an ‘antidote to progress’. (113) What was remarkable in China was the notion that ‘novelty failed to bring about resistance’. (113)

Section two of Things Modern investigates ‘how the houses, clothes, and food of individuals were transformed by endless acts of creative appropriation’. (152) An interesting examination of housing in China is presented by looking at changes in permeability which modified notions of privacy. Dikötter perceives the development of housing in China to be a partial result of economic circumstances, whereby flexibility and low expense were the driving factors behind the construction. (156) In a country where labour was in abundance, the preference for low initial cost and ‘high subsequent maintenance’ was a logical choice. (156)With the utilisation of brick, mortar and glass, the well heeled of the twentieth-century were able to fundamentally alter the structure of both private housing and public infrastructure. Apartment flats became increasingly popular after the building boom in Shanghai during the 1920s and 30s. (160) For those who could afford it, the ability to reside in an apartment on their own or with a partner offered unheralded retreat and Dikötter contends that the notion of privacy was altered due to these differing living arrangements. Because privacy was usually ‘associated with the entire family rather than with a single person’ the newfound seclusion offered ‘a place of dissociation of the domestic self from the surrounding social world.’ (161) The appropriation of things modern also had the capacity to alter domestic relations. The widespread usage of portable gas stoves, particularly in the colder regions of Northern China, offered a new form of kinship and sociability for families who would huddle around stove to share stories and meals. (181)

The camera is another commodity which shaped public and private spheres in China. Cameras made their first appearance during the second half of the nineteenth-century, brought from European traders to the treaty ports and acquired by imperial envoys during overseas visits. (242, 243) Although ownership of cameras was confined to the wealthy in the late nineteenth-century, by the 1920s it was common for rural workers to ‘adorn their walls with photographs of family members’ – a mixture of traditional decor and modern invention. (244) Photography studios became increasingly common and could be found in most large cities by the end of the nineteenth-century. (243) Within the studios themselves, Dikötter finds further evidence of the ease with which foreign items were appropriated. Varieties of props were made available in the form of western suits, cups and saucers from Germany and backdrops of either traditional or modern themes which were readily used by customers. (246) Photographs were often modified by consumers who would write Chinese characters on portraits, which gives further testament to Dikötter’s argument of the ease with which old and new could exist side by side. (243) Dikötter also observes that the camera was multivalent: ‘capable both of consolidating established social norms and producing divergent forms of identity’. (243) It could be used as a tool of discipline by photographing employees, while also having the potential to foster a sense of harmony and community. Photographs could also be utilised to indicate social standing and political power, since circulation of large quantities of photos was perceived as a sign of wealth and influence. (249)

There are a multitude of other items covered in Things Modern.I have only outlined the ones that I found particularly interesting. A worthwhile read which challenges a number of historiographical interpretations, Dikötter’s book is a must for anyone interested in the connection between and objections to Chinese material culture and Western modernisation, and conventions surrounding economic imperialism.


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