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  • Chinese Medicine Men: Consumer Culture in China and Southeast Asia
  • Dong Shen (bio)
Cochran Sherman . Chinese Medicine Men: Consumer Culture in China and Southeast Asia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006. x, 242 pp. Hardcover $45.00, Isbn 0-674-02161-4.

While many authors have looked at consumer culture, Cochran deviates from the norm and examines the topic from a unique perspective. His study focuses on consumer culture in China and Southeast Asia, with specific reference to the pharmaceutical industry during the 1880s through the 1950s. In examining this particular industry in this particular era, Cochran challenges other scholars, such as Skinner, Hamashita, Eastman, Coble, and Bergere, and presents his unique vision of when, where, and how consumer culture started in Chinese history.

There are seven chapters included in this book, which can be grouped into three main categories. The first category includes only chapter 1, which serves as an introduction of the book with major highlights and main themes identified by Cochran. In particular, the four themes are (1) the frontiers of long-distance trade, (2) the evasion of political barriers, (3) the process of localization, and (4) the extent of homogenization. Cochran identifies these four themes from his research on five companies that are presented in the next five chapters. As a result, the next five chapters, from 2 to 6, form the second category. Each chapter in this category is an in-depth case study examining one specific pharmaceutical company. Chapter 2 introduces one of the oldest traditional Chinese drug stores, called Tongren Tang. Chapters 3 and 4 focus on two Chinese owners of Western-style drug stores: the Great China-France Drugstore (Zhongfa Da Yaofang) and Great Five Continents Drugstores (Wuzhou Da Yaofang). Then in chapters 5 and 6, another two Chinese owners of Western-style drugstores are examined: New Asia Pharmaceutical Company (Xinya Zhiyao Chang) and Aw Boon Haw's enterprise. All of these five case studies are presented in a chronological sequence. The third category includes the last chapter, chapter 7, which discusses the significant contributions brought by this book to the consumer culture in China and Southeast Asia from three different levels: (1) institutions from the top down, (2) consumers from the bottom up, and (3) brokers in between.

The first and most obvious contribution of this book is the in-depth examination of five major pharmaceutical companies/stores in recent Chinese history from the 1880s to the 1950s. Cochran provides ample historic and archival information including photos, maps, and statistical data to demonstrate where, when, who, how, and why each of the five companies started and developed. One strength of the book is Cochran's ability to set his case studies in a proper historical context. He carefully develops each case study in relationship to the greater historical threads. By putting each case study in its own specific historic moments, he clearly shows the connection between the cases and recent Chinese history. [End Page 401]

There is much research on recent Chinese history. However, most of such studies focus on the history itself. This book chooses one particular industry and explores Chinese history through the lens of this industry, which brings a unique perspective to historical literature. Generally, the pharmaceutical industry in recent Chinese history has been overlooked while other industries, such as textile and apparel industries, seem to dominate. The five in-depth case studies make a significant contribution to both consumer culture and the pharmaceutical industry.

Cochran does not limit his book to examining those pharmaceutical companies individually. He goes further to combine them together and takes a new angle to explore consumer culture in China through the historic connection across all five companies. By doing this, he has brought the second contribution to the consumer culture literature, that is, he has shown how each of the companies interacted and influenced one another over time.

Through the perspective offered by his unique approach, Cochran has made a series of interesting and unexpected findings. Generally, when consumer culture is discussed, both scholars and the public often tend to believe that Chinese consumer culture did not start until the 1980s after the open-door policy initiated in 1978. By...