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Book Review


Dikötter, Frank. Exotic Commodities: Modern Objects and Everyday Life in China. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. Pp. v + 382. $36.50 (Hardcover)

     Glancing at a magazine or newscast in the United States today, it would be easy to conclude that consumption of foreign goods in China is a recent, and shocking, phenomenon. Journalists are fond of juxtaposing, for example, the "Chinese" bicycle and the "foreign" luxury car as they speak of the battle between "traditional" and "modern" in the post-Mao era. Such a perspective, however, ignores the role that consumption of foreign goods played in pre-1949 China, and perpetuates the myth that Chinese society during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was xenophobic and unreceptive to foreign objects or practices.

     In Exotic Commodities, Frank Dikötter takes aim at that point of view and seeks to demonstrate that late Qing and Republican China (roughly 1850-1949) was in fact characterized by a lively culture of consumption, one in which not just luxury goods but also numerous objects of daily life were imported from  abroad and subsequently adopted and adapted by citizens at all levels of Chinese society. Dikötter argues that while some Chinese consumers might have objected to the incursion of foreign material culture into China, the majority of Chinese were pragmatic in their selection of what to purchase; if a foreign good offered value and quality superior to that of a local good, it would earn consumers' loyalty. To demonstrate this, Dikötter examines "the material landscape of the quotidian in modern China" (p. 156), discussing articles as diverse as pencils, shoes, sugar, and thermos bottles.

     This micro-level analysis of Chinese material culture is both rich and convincing, as Dikötter describes the innumerable, if seemingly minute, ways in which foreign goods spread throughout Chinese society and changed the texture of daily life. While there is an understandable tendency for the story to revolve around China's urban centers--Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou in particular--Dikötter argues that changes in consumption were equally important in the countryside, as rural residents began to acquire, bit by bit, household objects that had foreign origins. Remote towns and villages, then, were not untouched by globalization; in fact, "Globalisation not only transformed the everyday lives of ordinary people beyond the coastal areas, but also led to increased diversity" (p. 218) by providing rural Chinese with an ever-widening array of consumer choices. In the classroom, Dikötter's work should help students question and deepen their understanding of globalization: while they might conceive of globalization as the spread of McDonald's and Nike throughout the contemporary world, Exotic Commodities proposes that the much earlier appearance of toothbrushes or rubber sole shoes, was equally significant.

     Even more important for our understanding of global commerce and exchange is the argument Dikötter puts forth regarding how such goods were transformed in the Chinese context. Dikötter stresses that Chinese consumption was decidedly not passive; foreign goods in China entered a world of "active borrowing, creative bricolage and adaptive imitation" (p. 22), resulting in a "copy culture" (p. 36) where Chinese manufacturers tweaked foreign products to suit local needs and preferences. Globalization, then, did not impose a homogenized or standardized foreign culture on Chinese consumers, but instead offered a range of products and practices that were in turn circulated, domesticated, and recycled (p. 5) throughout Chinese society. Dikötter's rejection of a simple Chinese-versus-foreign binary will likely spark lively classroom debates about the nature of authenticity in the global marketplace. Although Exotic Commodities says little about consumer culture outside China, instructors and students can work together to consider how Dikötter's argument might be applied to other settings, and examine the multiple ways in which foreign commodities are appropriated by local producers and consumers. Reading James L. Watson's Golden Arches East: McDonald's in East Asia in tandem with Exotic Commodities would be a useful choice for instructors seeking a contemporary parallel in their discussion of global consumer culture.

     The narrative of Exotic Commodities is accompanied by almost one hundred photographs and advertisements, many of which are memorable and should assist students in visualizing the flow of goods throughout Chinese society. Dikötter's text also references a significant number of other images, which could be the basis for student presentations: each student might pick a reference and seek out the associated image, then display and analyze it in class, explaining their understanding of its relationship to globalization and material culture.

     Other aspects of Dikötter's work, however, might prove troublesome for readers who lack much background in Chinese history. The absence of a map is a particularly striking oversight, especially in light of Dikötter's effort to tell a story that goes beyond China's major coastal cities. The book is also populated by a large cast of characters whose names will likely be unfamiliar to a general audience, and Dikötter frequently fails to introduce these figures, which could cause confusion (most American readers would probably be unaware that Jiang Jieshi is actually Chiang Kai-shek, for example). These are minor quibbles, however, and can be resolved easily by reading with a good reference source close at hand.

     Exotic Commodities pushes readers to consider globalization in an historical context, and to contemplate the various ways in which material culture is transferred--and transformed--as it moves from one region to another. Frank Dikötter's focus on articles of daily life, and the consumers who occupied China's lower socioeconomic classes, provides readers with a glimpse into an often overlooked facet of global consumer culture. While many writers mark China's entry into the transnational marketplace by the number of Bentleys on the road or the amount of Starbucks coffee imbibed, Dikötter demonstrates that the real story of consumption is driven by the daily choices of millions of ordinary people. Through examining "small incremental changes in the material landscape" (p. 52), Exotic Commodities calls attention to the thriving, but until now little known, consumer sphere in pre-1949 Chinese society. Consumers in that marketplace were not simply xenophobic or nationalistic, as commonly thought, but instead displayed a considerable interest in the ways in which foreign objects could be deployed in the Chinese context. By adopting and adapting non-Chinese goods, they created a uniquely Chinese material culture, one in which globalization did not represent domination, but instead offered a bottomless grab-bag of goods which could then be re-branded and domesticated.


Maura Elizabeth Cunningham
University of California, Irvine


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