AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 546

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Session 546: Marking Authenticity, Authenticating the Copy: Vexed Matters of Ownership in Late Imperial and Modern China

Organizer: Eugenia Y. Lean, Columbia University, USA

Discussant: Frank Dikotter, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

A pressing issue informing global commerce today is the perceived violation of intellectual property rights and widespread “counterfeiting” by Chinese manufacturers. While critics point to substantial losses of revenue resulting from rampant duplication, also at stake are divergent notions of ownership, authenticity, and marking and copying. This panel contextualizes this situation from a historical perspective. Spanning the late Ming to the turn of the twenty-first century, the papers historicize notions of authenticity, cultures of copying, the authenticity of marks, and the nature of ownership under shifting regimes of commerce, law, and technology. They inquire into the politics behind determining what is authentic, what is a copy, what gets owned, and what constitutes a mark. Rusk explores how the reign mark changed from a sign of imperial manufacture to a fetishized sign in the connoisseur culture of the late Ming. Lawrence investigates how modern technologies of mechanical reproduction unexpectedly changed how the authenticity of a seal album was evaluated. Lean uses trademark infringement cases involving Chinese copycat soap companies to shed light on early twentieth-century global debates over the authority of a trademark, the authenticity of ownership, and the true meaning of law. Heinrich examines how contemporary “Amazing Human Body” exhibits generate unease over their originality, the ownership of the technology behind them, and the authenticity of the Chinese bodies themselves. Frank Dikötter, whose work has explored copy practices in modern Chinese history, will serve as discussant.

Making a Mark: Imperial Production and the Culture of the Duplicate
Bruce Rusk, University of British Columbia, Canada

This paper traces the system of reign marks on manufactured goods from its inception in imperial household production in the early Ming dynasty to its cooption in the realm of collectors, counterfeiters, and copyists in the late Ming and through the Qing. Although the marks themselves are well known, the semiotics of these brief statements have never been analyzed and their origins remain unclear. I argue that the wording of the marks sprang from new modes of imperial identity in the Ming, filtered through two distinct idioms. The first idiom drew on longstanding patterns of supervision of state manufactures, including luxury goods but also widely-disseminated objects such as coins. The second, almost as old, came from expressions of Buddhist charity. These origins were quickly forgotten or obscured, however, and the marks took on a life of their own as classifiers of the goods that were marked with them: porcelain, most famously, but also lacquerware, metalwork, silk, and other handicrafts. The marks so dominated the connoisseur's imaginary of imperial production since the late Ming that they were applied to classes of objects that had never possessed them, sometimes with anachronistic marks from earlier dynasties. This mechanism of imperial control thus became a tool of the forger, who could recreate, re-imagine, and of course sell the material traces of this desirable past.

Authentically Obsolete: Uses of Seal Script in Republican China
Elizabeth H. Lawrence, Ball State University, USA

Concepts of authenticity are informed by disciplinary divisions. Standards of authentic visual reproduction, for instance, will vary from an academic publication recording ancient artifacts to an art album presenting the creative works of a named author. But in imperial China, the disciplinary divides institutionalized by modern universities did not exist. This paper charts the rise of new conceptual and institutional categories, including art and archeology, in Republican China, taking as a case study the modern uses of the inscribed seal and its most common script form,zhuanshu, or seal script. I examine the standards of authenticity of this one genre of things in the age that first saw seals reconfigured as objects of art and science. At stake in presentations of the seal, from scholarly treatises to instructional manuals and visual albums, was the status of the ancient past in modern life, the skills and dispositions necessary to engage in scholarship, the comparative value of intellectual work and work done with the hands, and the relationship between originals and copies. Also implicitly or explicitly underlying the publications I examine is the question of what makes the seal a trustworthy mark of authenticity in contemporary life. Those who viewed seals as an object to be studied and those who promoted the seal's aesthetic value had a common foil: the perhaps counter-intuitive proliferation of seals as customary marks of ownership and authentication in an age of mass production, new legal regimes, and a visual culture that often privileged iconic representations over obscure, even “obsolete,” material signs.

Audacious Fraud or Masterful Imitation? Ownership, Authenticity, and Chinese Copycats in an Early Twentieth-Century Regime of Trademarks
Eugenia Y. Lean, Columbia University, USA

From 1934-1935, an international tussle arose over the proper use of trademarks in the fiercely competitive toiletry markets of Chinese treaty-ports. Acting on behalf of Unilever and Burroughs, Wellcome and Co., the British Foreign Office put pressure on the Nationalist government to stop local copycat soap and toiletry companies from what they saw to be the unlawful use of popular British brand names of “Lux” and “Hazeline Snow. “ By examining correspondence to and from the British Foreign Office and the Nationalist regime’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, this paper will explore not merely how these trademark infringement cases became entangled in international diplomacy, but also how they were part of a transnational debate over ownership, authenticity and copying. In a global consumer market of near-identical mass-produced commodities such as soap, trademarks became increasingly important in marking one brand from another. Accordingly, copying trademarks became a highly lucrative endeavor. Vibrant Chinese copying of British trademarks exposed the limitations of an evolving global regime of trademark regulation, prompting Western corporations and their governments to pursue more stringently the institutionalization, as well as naturalization of a far-reaching disciplinary system. In turn, Chinese copycat companies, their lawyers, and officials of the Nationalist government used these infringement cases to shape the parameters of this worldwide regime, negotiating with British pharmaceuticals and the Foreign Office over what was meant by authentic ownership, raising the issue of the place of fakes in global commerce, and casting doubt on the authenticity and authority of British interpretations of trademark law.

Authenticity and Chinese Identity in the Bodyworlds Exhibits and Beyond
Larissa Heinrich, University of California, San Diego, USA

Questions of authenticity inform the immensely successful Body Worlds exhibits -- travelling exhibits of plastinated human bodies in a quasi-anatomical displays -- on all levels, from the structural (who owns the copyright to the plastination technology: the German originator of the exhibits, or the Chinese scientist who adapted the original manufacturing facilities in Dalian to produce a highly successful series of "copycat" exhibits?) to the historical (though the shows and their technology claim to be completely original, in fact there are a number of critical historical precedents for global exhibits of Chinese bodies). Even the authenticity of the bodies themselves -- often "sourced" in China-- is vexed as layer upon layer of anatomical, legal, and ethical conventions obscure their origins from curious viewers. This paper will address the question of authenticity on each of these levels, drawing distinctions between the "original" and the "copycat" exhibits; outlining the copyright wars that occurred around exhibits in Taiwan in 2004; and untangling the question of representation of Chinese identity in exhibits whose marketing strategies emphasize the universal "real" human over the particular of individual identity.