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Eugenia Y. Lean
Columbia University (New York, NY 10027-7922)
A Chinese Man-of-Letters in an Age of Industrial Capitalism: Chen Diexian (1879-1940)

Research and writing leading to publication of a book on Chinese novelist, industrialist, and entrepreneur Chen Diexan (1879-1940).

By examining the early 20th-century endeavors of Chen Diexian, a novelist, amateur chemist, and manufacturer of toothpowder, this project shows how unlikely actors like Chen pursued industry and science in China in unconventional ways. Before the rise of modern expertise and formal professions, Chen tinkered with cuttlefish to make toothpowder, emulated foreign technologies while pursuing domestic copycats, and published manufacturing formulas as “common knowledge” in newspapers. Even as he drew from global circuits of chemistry and emerging international property rights law, Chen’s pursuits constituted a “vernacular industrialism” that was homegrown and informal and became part of the patriotic National Products Movement and the basis of Chinese success in challenging foreign competitors in pharmaceutical markets in East and Southeast Asia. Chen’s story reveals how Chinese actors were hardly “lagging” behind or mere “copycats,” but were able to navigate, innovate and compete in modern global capitalism.

Project fields:
East Asian History; East Asian Studies; History of Science


Research Programs

$25,200 (approved)
$25,200 (awarded)

Grant period:
1/1/2018 – 6/30/2018