Interview: Eugenia Lean on her new book “Vernacular Industrialism in China”

April 14, 2020

Early 20th-century romance novelist Chen Diexian (1879-1940) is best remembered today for his contribution to the “Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies” genre of fiction. But Chen’s literary background served him far beyond the sale of books, propelling his endeavors as a magazine editor and cosmetics magnate in the age of industrialization.

In her new book, Vernacular Industrialism in China, Eugenia Lean reveals Chen’s unconventional route to entrepreneurship and the path he helped pave for a new form of industry-building in China at the turn of the 20th century. Lean argues that Chen’s “Do-It-Yourself ethos” and maverick approach to manufacturing—tinkering with recipes and emulating foreign technologies to strengthen local industry—exemplify a previously unexplored approach to innovation of the time, which she calls “vernacular industrialism.”

“Past scholars have tended to portray men like Chen as being mired in texts, mired in textual knowledge and Confucianism and not able to think about the pragmatic forms of knowledge that were necessary for modern industrialization,” says Lean. “What I’m finding with Chen is that he was, in fact, highly able to leverage his classical education, his literary background to find success in industry and commerce.”

She added, “Chen Diexian and others like him were actually active brokers in managing new information and new forms of technology that were circulating into China.”

In an interview with WEAI, Eugenia Lean discusses the rise of Chen Diexian, emulation and innovation, and vernacular industrialism in China. Watch the video below.

Interview: Eugenia Lean on her new book "Vernacular Industrialism in China"

Eugenia Lean is Director of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and Professor of History at Columbia University. Her new book, Vernacular Industrialism in China: Local Innovation and Translated Technologies in the Making of a Cosmetics Empire, 1900-1940, is available now from Columbia University Press.

Visit the following links for more insight into the world of Vernacular Industrialism:

Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine “Recipes for the Inner Chamber: Vernacular Manufacturing in Early 20th Century China.

History News Network blog entry: “‘Rogue’ Manufacturing in China: Past and Present.”

New books in History, Economics, Politics, Philosophy, Anthropology, and Sociology (HEPPAS) blog: “Vernacular Industrialism in China.

The Page 99 Test: “Vernacular Industrialism in China.”


Asia Society’s China File Interview