During the 1930s some Western authors sought to depict China as untouched by the modern world, a place of pagodas, silks and temple bells that was uniquely hostile to change. If they mentioned foreign products they presented them as tawdry goods imposed by unscrupulous foreigners anxious to make large profits out of a gullible populace.
This was far from being the case, argues Frank Dikotter in Things Modern. Cars, trains, trams, steam ships, electric light, macadamized avenues, telephones, radios, gramophones, cameras, sewing machines, thermos flasks, clocks, rubber shoes, wigs, packets of aspirin, soap, fountain pens, matches, umbrellas, glass windows and mirrors - these and more were admired by Chinese of all classes the moment they appeared, and relished for their practicality, fashionableness or effectiveness as status symbols, and frequently all three.
This was incontrovertibly a good thing, Dikotter proclaims. The arrival of these goods represented the first wave of globalization, certainly, but they not only relieved ancient burdens but also gave people choices of how to live, rather than working to eradicate a homogenous and picturesque traditional Chinese world.
The era evoked in this book strikingly anticipates the situation today. Soon East Asia would be leading the way, both designing and manufacturing the computers, cell phones, plasma TV screens and digital cameras that now define what it is to be modern.
Frank Dikotter is a professor both at SOAS and Hong Kong University. He has made his reputation from challenging Marxist orthodoxies on subjects such as drugs, race, eugenics and prisons, arguing in earlier books that opium use in Asia was traditional and largely harmless, that China possessed its own brand of racism, and that, until the communists turned the clock back, prison reform was well under way in China. His specialism is China's republican era (1912-1949), of which modern Taiwan is in some ways the heir, and it is this period he concentrates on once again in this excellent new book, together with the half-century that preceded it.
There's a certain paradox in someone as erudite as Dikotter applying himself to humble everyday objects. Not that he's unaware of the sheer size of his subject. At one point he remarks on what's omitted - weaponry and cloth in particular - while also saying that there were other objects, from chewing-gum to x-ray machines, that could have been included had there been enough space.
There is a theoretical introductory chapter that confronts opposing positions and comes down in favor of the importance of the tangible in Chinese life in all eras. This, combined with a craving for the new, saw foreign goods achieve almost instant popularity. Dikotter also insists on the different ways imported objects were adapted to local uses. Foreign glass mirrors, for instance, were hung outside dwellings to ward off spirits the more effectively. He's also at pains to point out that end-users were nowhere passive agents, mere victims exploited by commercial forces, but intelligent customers exercising choice who incorporated new things, often inventively, into their lifestyles.
He's also at pains to show, as always, that pre-communist China was modernizing fast. Nor was this only happening in Shanghai - the focus, he says, of too much attention from historians. Even cities as remote as Lanzhou in Gansu Province in the 1930s had "libraries, power plants, electric light, flour mills, soap factories, asphalted roads, neon lights, telegraph and telephone installations, and modern schools, colleges, hospitals and hotels." Half of Russian cities in mid-century, by contrast, didn't have a single library.