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Modern China Lecture Series Featuring Eugenia Lean – The Ideograph and a Cantonese Pun: Linguistic Divergence and Spurious Chinese Marks in Global Capitalism

November 2, 2021 @ 4:00 pm 5:30 pm

Speaker: Eugenia Lean, Professor of History and East Asian Languages and Cultures; Director, Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University

By examining two early legal cases featuring the alleged counterfeiting of Xiangmao Honey Soap, this talk shows how the Chinese language and linguistic practices in Chinese commercial culture often stymied Western manufacturers and import companies’ attempts to pursue and prosecute suspected Chinese copycats. Xiangmao soap was featured in the first ever trademark litigation trial in China held in 1889. In that trial, it became evident that the emerging global trademark regime was premised on an Orientalist understanding of the Chinese character as ideograph. A second case in 1919 that also featured the alleged counterfeiting of the Xiangmao brand then reveals how the homophonic nature of Chinese and the issue of dialect were often the basis of wordplay and punning in Chinese trademarks, and that international trademark law was unable to accommodate these practices. The key legal premise that an offending trademark rested on its function to deceive the public prevented the system from recognizing (and thus, successfully prosecuting) marks that while likely to have been emulative, turned precisely on a knowing audience, willing to purchase the “counterfeit” because of the witty pun or wordplay at work. Both bring to the fore how the emerging trademark regime was premised on romance languages and failed to appreciate the complexity of both the Chinese language and the nature of the Chinese consumer market. Hardly marks that purposefully deceived in acts of “passing off,” so-called “spurious” marks aided (and arguably abetted) knowledgeable and appreciative consumers in their wily acts of consumption and were part of a larger market of rogue knock-offs in China that eluded the emerging trademark regime in the early twentieth-century and that continue to elude the global IP today.

Eugenia Lean received her BA from Stanford University (1990), and her MA (1996) and PhD (2001) from UCLA. She is interested in a broad range of topics in late imperial and modern Chinese history with a particular focus on the history of science and industry, mass media, consumer culture, affect studies and gender, as well as law and urban society. She is also interested in issues of historiography and critical theory in the study of East Asia. 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 prize for the best book in modern East Asian history, given by the American Historical Association.

Professor Lean’s second book, Vernacular Industrialism in China: Local Innovation and Translated Technologies in theMaking of a Cosmetics Empire, 1900-1940 (Columbia University Press, 2020), examines the manufacturing, commercial and cultural activities of maverick industrialist Chen Diexian (1879-1940). It illustrates how lettered men of early twentieth century China engaged in “vernacular industrialism,” the pursuit of industry and science outside of conventional venues that drew on the process of experimentation with both local and global practices of manufacturing and was marked by heterogeneous, often ad hoc forms of knowledge and material work.

Presented via Zoom

Also streaming on YouTube


November 2, 2021
4:00 pm – 5:30 pm
Event Category:


Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies

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