Selling Modernity

Professor Tani Barlow presented an overview of her research on Chinese advertising at the turn of the century.

PROVO, UT (Oct. 11)—“What kind of philosophies,” asked guest lecturer Tani Barlow, “are buried in things that are meant to be garbage, that are meant to be tossed away?” Professor Barlow, Director of the Chao Center for Asian Studies at Rice University, has spent years studying advertisements that appeared in Chinese journals and newspapers between the years 1890 and 1937. “Advertisements, designed by people in the time period and trying to sell a better way of life to their target audiences, reflect the fashions and trends of the time. Barlow explained, “Advertising is an area that we can study and dig deep into and will give us [an idea] for what people imagined was going to be their modern way of life.”

In order to sell foreign-made and mass-produced consumer goods, it was up to the advertising agencies to convince consumers the commodity being advertised was modern and had the power to enhance the consumer’s life. The benefit in this is that ads give historians like Barlow a better idea of what people at that time thought that enhanced life looked like. “Ads are encrypted, so they are little teeny designs that help us to understand how people saw things,” Barlow said.

During the years that Barlow’s research spans, China was in political and social upheaval at the same time the Mandarin language was undergoing change through modernization. Barlow referenced the chaotic nature of Chinese life and thought during that period when she noted, “Life changed increasingly rapidly as many of the basic institutions of everyday life collapsed or were destroyed.” Amidst this transiency, the Chinese at the turn of the century were exposed to change in almost every area of life.

Barlow showed an image of an ad for Shell Oil that depicted a car driving through a public park. This was a highly progressive scene for two reasons: cars were not yet standard as necessary for families to own, and the concept of public parks was unknown until parks came to China with communism. “When you have cars in parks,” Barlow said, “that’s a super big modernist flash, because then you have people actually going into the so-called public space and enjoying it as individual people, another novel idea.”

Advertising also sent subtle messages about new styles and ways of life to the Chinese. One ad, selling insecticide, put two images of a woman at home next to each other. In the first image, Barlow explains, “This [woman’s] . . . door opens onto the street, so she is an old-fashioned person.” She has a shapeless dress and is cleaning with only hot water. However, in the second image, the woman with the insecticide is inside a bedroom with a vanity, accessories, and electrical appliances. ‘She’s got high-heeled shoes, natural feet. She has a bob . . . she’s wearing lipstick,” Barlow pointed out. The image teaches that private space with modern comforts is the ideal lifestyle and also that using the insecticide “is hygienically . . . better.” The message is that, “if you use this commodity, you will look like this or you will feel like this.”

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Advertising did not leave men out in this regard. In order to sell machine-rolled cigarettes to high-society Chinese men, who had a tradition of smoking tobacco and opium from a pipe, cigarette companies played on their desire to garner respect and distinction from their peers. Barlow explained, “You have to make him seem special if he buys this commodity . . . it will mean that he has more special qualities than other men like him.”

At that time, the global nature of the emerging modern era was a source of excitement and fascination, and China was no exception. One ad selling chemical fertilizer had almost to do with fertilizer itself. It featured a woman dressed in an internationally fashionable style of coat with cuffs made of fur, probably from Siberia, Barlow said, and a French designer broach. This immediately gives the impression of high fashion, wealth and status and connects it to the fertilizer the ad is trying to sell.

Barlow claimed that, “when the advertising culture took hold, the relationship that was established pictorially was between women and commodities.” Hence, women were featured prominently in ads that at first glance might not have anything to do with them. Barlow said, “The overall idea is, ‘buy something’ and it doesn’t matter what it is.” One possible explanation for this trend is that, as Barlow explained, “people associated pleasure with their mother or their sister or their wife and so it was natural that consumers would want to see a . . . beautiful woman advertising the product.”

This decision came along with the tendency to make products seem “modern” in a variety of ways. Advertisements got less conservative, became more outlandish, and promoted “modern” social conventions, such as the ability of an unrelated man and woman to shake hands – this was promoted and encouraged by a company selling hand care products.  Advertisements mentioned things like Mussolini and fascism; most consumers did not know anything about either, but they knew enough to know it was modern. It is this craze for all things modern that Barlow found to be a central focus in Chinese advertising of the period, and that reflects the change in Chinese culture and society during the period.

–Olivia Madsen (BA French language, ’17)

Olivia covers events for the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages. She is a senior pursuing a degree in French language with a minor in writing and rhetoric.


Photos courtesy of the National Library of Medicine and