Past Event

Vernacular Industrialism in China: Local Innovation and Translated Technologies in the Making of a Cosmetics Empire

December 2, 2020
4:00 PM - 5:00 PM
Online Event

New Books in the Arts & Sciences: Celebrating Recent Work by Eugenia Lean


Eugenia Lean, Professor of Chinese History at Columbia University Deborah Coen, Professor of the History of Science and Medicine at Yale University

Jing Tsu, John M. Schiff Professor of East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale University 

Kavita Sivaramakrishnan, Associate Professor of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University

Wei Shang, Du Family Professor of Chinese Culture at Columbia University

In early twentieth-century China, Chen Diexian (1879–1940) was a maverick entrepreneur—at once a prolific man of letters and captain of industry, a magazine editor and cosmetics magnate. He tinkered with chemistry in his private studio, used local cuttlefish to source magnesium carbonate, and published manufacturing tips in how-to columns. In a rapidly changing society, Chen copied foreign technologies and translated manufacturing processes from abroad to produce adaptations of global commodities that bested foreign brands. Engaging in the worlds of journalism, industry, and commerce, he drew on literati practices associated with late-imperial elites but deployed them in novel ways within a culture of educated tinkering that generated industrial innovation. Through the lens of Chen’s career, Eugenia Lean explores how unlikely individuals devised unconventional, homegrown approaches to industry and science in early twentieth-century China. She contends that Chen’s activities exemplify “vernacular industrialism,” the pursuit of industry and science outside of conventional venues, often involving ad hoc forms of knowledge and material work. Lean shows how vernacular industrialists accessed worldwide circuits of law and science and experimented with local and global processes of manufacturing to navigate, innovate, and compete in global capitalism. In doing so, they presaged the approach that has helped fuel China’s economic ascent in the twenty-first century. Rather than conventional narratives that depict China as belatedly borrowing from Western technology, Vernacular Industrialism in China offers a new understanding of industrialization, going beyond material factors to show the central role of culture and knowledge production in technological and industrial change.

The event will be conducted online via Zoom. Please visit here for more information including how to register for the online event.

This event is co-sponsored by The Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities, the Office of the Divisional Deans in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University.

Contact Information

Athina Fontenot