Chinese Medicine Men: Consumer Culture in China and Southeast Asia

Article excerpt

Chinese Medicine Men: Consumer Culture in China and Southeast Asia, by Sherman Cochran. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006. x + 242 pp. US$45.00/£29.95/euro1.50 (hardcover).

In Chinese Medicine Men: Consumer Culture in China and Southeast Asia, Sherman Cochran examines the interrelated processes of globalization and localization, and the rise of Chinese consumer culture. Through detailed histories of early-20th-century Chinese entrepreneurs, he critiques analyses of globalization that focus solely on the impact of Western-based corporations on non-Western consumers, showing instead how Chinese entrepreneurs operated "beyond the frontiers of globalization", evaded political boundaries, localized goods and facilitated cultural homogenization. He relates how aspects of "the West" and Chinese culture were locally defined, (re)invented, appropriated and modified, as these cultural mediators promoted their businesses and products. In doing so, he shifts attention from the political or intellectual spheres to individual agents as the primary loci for change, and away from Western history as the exclusive context for globalization in early 20th century China.

Cochran first describes the Yue family, owners of a famous traditional Chinese medicine shop named Tongren Tang. Although the Yues enforced family tradition by prohibiting members from opening additional Tongren Tang branches, they also modified it by allowing the creation of "Olde Yue Family Shoppes". Yue Daren was thus able to establish a chain of stores, following Tongren Tang's lead in using specific traditions to foster the impression that his stores were local and family-operated. Because consumers were already familiar with his remedies, Yue' s problem was primarily one of supply. Cochran shows how he was able to reject Western-style advertising in favor of a more traditional image, while simultaneously embracing a Western organizational form (the chain store).

On the other hand, Chinese proprietors of Western drugstores, such as Huang Chujiu, used print advertising to educate Chinese consumers about their unfamiliar "new medicine". In doing so, they combined elements of Chinese culture with Western ideas and promotional techniques. For example, although Huang's drugstore and drug packaging appeared Western, the medicine itself was Chinese; he employed local artists and writers to produce advertising featuring representations of "the West" in Chinese-language media. Huang was thus able to open a mass market by distributing advertisements through a nationwide marketing hierarchy, appealing to the exotic Occident while rendering his products intelligible by retaining familiar Chinese medical notions.

As further illustration of early-20th-century Chinese entrepreneurs' ability to reach a mass market across macroregional borders, Cochran describes Xiang Songmao's business activities. Like Huang, Xiang created a hierarchical marketing system for his "Western" goods to appeal to China's urban élite. While localizing each level to some extent, Xiang directed this process closely from his headquarters through centralized control and careful appointment of managers from his native place. Without direct involvement, his products and advertisements were appropriated by shop owners of independently owned affiliates to suit their own needs. Although conceding that this entrepreneur's control was not total, Cochran uses this example to counter the scholarly tendency to focus on the educated, cosmopolitan élite as the sole facilitators of localization. …