Chemical Compositions: Industrial Anxiety, Epistemological Uncertainty, and the Question of Authenticity in Modern China

Talk by Eugenia Lean, Columbia University


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Monday, March 03, 2014
12:00 PM - 2:00 PM
Bunche Hall 6275

In the 1930s, leading industrialist and famous romance novel writer, Chen Diexian (1879-1940) compiled and published technological treatises and collectanea on household science, chemistry, medicine, and industrial technology, ostensibly for the general reader.  An examination of the texts reveals how Chen mixed long-standing practices of collecting and compiling knowledge with new forms of industrial and commercial pursuits to popularize and legitimate the incorporation of modern science such as chemistry into daily life and industrial endeavors. In an era when words, texts and things were easily mass produced and often copied and pirated, Chen Diexian’s practices of editing sought to bring order to a world of material and textual abundance by serving to authenticate certain regimes of knowledge and material practice. His texts promoted strategies for readers with which to identify false goods, non-native commodities and the inauthentic, even while seeking to identify certain forms of commerce as patriotic, technology and industry as honorable, and native production and products, virtuous. By focusing on this Chinese case study of a man-of-letters-cum-industrialist, this paper examines how the global phenomenon of producing knowledge about modern science occurred within the specific context of China’s uneven and fraught integration into global commerce in the twentieth century.

Eugenia Lean is an Associate Professor of Modern Chinese history at Columbia University. She is the author of Public Passions: the Trial of Shi Jianqiao and the Rise of Popular Sympathy in Republican China (UC Press 2007), which was awarded the 2007 John K. Fairbank Award from the American Historical Association. She is interested in a broad range of topics in modern Chinese history with a particular focus on the history of science, consumer culture, emotions and gender, and law and media. Her current project, “Manufacturing Modernity in Early Twentieth Century China: Chen Diexian, a Man-of-Letters in an Age of Industrial Capitalism,” examines the cultural, social, and intellectual dimensions of industrialization by focusing on the commercial practices and writings of polymath Chen Diexian, a professional writer/editor, science enthusiast, and pharmaceutical industrialist.

Published: Tuesday, March 04, 2014