SEARCH

SEARCH BY CITATION

Keywords:

  • Consumption;
  • China;
  • Sumptuary Laws;
  • Greed;
  • Consumerism

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Greed
  4. Limits on consumption
  5. Sumptuary law in Imperial China
  6. Dressing in Mao's China: A political equivalent of sumptuary law
  7. The consumer revolution in China
  8. Soap and desire
  9. Greed revisited
  10. Conclusion: What to do
  11. References

Until recently, greed was kept in check in China by two forms of nonreligious restriction on consumption, the sumptuary laws of the imperial period and by politically imposed austerity of the collective era. Sumptuary laws in Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) China, enforced Confucian notions of hierarchy, modesty, and restraint and limited the display and spending of the wealthy. In contrast, political and social pressures led the masses in Mao's China to dress virtually alike. Though there were significant, albeit small, variations in clothing among urban residents, the apparent homogeneity in consumption was as much the result of poverty as of political commitment. Post-1979, hyperconsumerism has swept aside all traditional restrictions and reservations on conspicuous display. This is illustrated by the rapid acceptance of foreign brands of shampoo beginning in the 1990s. The discourse of greed and excess focuses on individual motivation, as is common in the thinking of individualizing capitalism. The case of shampoo in China shows that the present push to greater consumption, just like the past restrictions on consumption, is based not on individual motivation or personality, but on the cultural logic of the system itself.

Consumerism is not simply a stage in the development of the capitalist economy, but a particular form of capitalism. Consumer capitalism appeared in its full form between the 1880s and 1920s, when the ability of manufacturing to mass produce changed the problem of industry from production to marketing: how to get consumers to buy more. Although economic development involves an increase in consumption, in consumer capitalism (or simply “consumerism”) consumption takes a primary role in creating personal satisfaction and identity. Fashions and styles change rapidly, and shopping becomes an important activity. Malls become sites of sociability and spiritual fulfillment, often replacing voluntary associations and churches. Perhaps more importantly, consumerism has led to unsustainable levels of resource exploitation. While markets can help balance the competing uses of iron and rare earth metals, markets do not seem able to address problems of deforestation, fish stock depletion, and carbon emissions causing global climate change. This article seeks to examine how consumerism was historically kept in check in Chinese society. It then examines the consumer revolution in China to try to understand what drives it and how it emerged so rapidly. It considers the role of greed in the form of the rapacious individual consumer in what is a complex and global problem.

Greed

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Greed
  4. Limits on consumption
  5. Sumptuary law in Imperial China
  6. Dressing in Mao's China: A political equivalent of sumptuary law
  7. The consumer revolution in China
  8. Soap and desire
  9. Greed revisited
  10. Conclusion: What to do
  11. References

George Lakoff has referred to greed as “the G-word,” a word that is “still not said in polite company” (Tasini, 2009, back cover). For economists, the use of the word is awkward because they have attempted to remove morality from economic discussions since Adam Smith in the 18th century. One of Smith's contributions to economics was to undermine the notion of a “just price” by arguing that the most efficient price was achieved where supply met demand.1 By the logic of neoclassical economics, calling economic behavior—at least legal economic behavior—“greedy” is overly moralistic. This is best illustrated by the famous speech in the movie Wall Street, in which the investment banker Gordon Gekko argues, “Greed is good. Greed is right. Greed works,” as discussed by Oka and Kuijt (Introduction, this volume). This speech is infamous in popular culture as a summary of market fundamentalism, a restatement of the neoclassical economic idea that the best possible good can be achieved by each individual pursuing his or her interests.2 Economists have argued that allowing economic actors to pursue their self-interests brings the most benefits to all, though few have been as direct as Walter Williams (2001) in arguing for “The Virtue of Greed.”3

Greed is most commonly used as a term of attack. It accuses others of claiming too large a share of the economic pie (see Oka & Kuijt, “Greed Is Bad, Neutral, and Good,” this volume). It is thus a political term, as demonstrated by the chapters by Oka and Juijt, Antrosio and Mansfeld-Colloredo, Thampy, and Durrenburger and Gillogly in this volume. Today it is common to hear CEOs accused of greed, and many free market advocates argue that excessive executive compensation is endangering corporate capitalism (e.g., corporate governance scholars John Nofsinger & Kenneth Kim, 2003). Accusations of greed are made not only between labor and management but even among different sections of management. When Lehman Brothers was still a partnership in 1983, its CEO Lewis Glucksman accused senior bankers of greed for demanding a larger share of the firm's profits. Bankers accused Glucksman of “greed for power” for trying to keep a larger share of profits as partnership capital. Traders accused the bankers of greed for angling to sell the firm, converting it from a partnership to a listed company. Bankers said the traders were greedy for taking a larger share in bonuses than they brought in as profits (Auletta, 2001/1986, p. 138). Each group accused the other of greed as a tactic for increasing its share of firm profits, seeking to portray itself as moral and concerned about the good of the group and the other as selfish. The accused typically claimed that higher compensation was simply required by the market, not the result of individual greed but just “reality.”

As other articles in this volume show, greed has a long pedigree as a concept for describing individual acquisitiveness, the character or personality that drives a person to strive more than others consider proper in their society. Individual variation is of minor interest to us anthropologically, however. Greed does vary by individual, but it is the degree to which it is fostered and encouraged or dampened and discouraged by society that anthropologists find of primary interest. All societies seek to control greed in some way, because excessive individual striving undermines solidarity. But all hierarchical and class-based societies condone greed in the sense that they allow and justify vast differences in wealth, be it by claiming that wealth is a divine right or that it is necessary for investment and as an incentive for others to work hard. Weber (1958, p. 172) argued, for example, that according to what he termed the Protestant Ethic, wealth used for investment and further production was good, but if sought for its own sake and used for enjoyment it was evil and amounted to avarice or greed.

Neoclassical economics assumes that individuals have insatiable desires. This assumption makes the concept of greed problematic, however, since if insatiable desires are a given, how is one to identify what is excessive desire or greed? “Desire” is the positive flipside to greed. Individual desire drives acquisition and growth. In general, economists use the term “greed” only for the irrational frenzy of bubbles and binges that periodically beset capitalist markets (e.g., Morris, 1999). The economist's concept of “self-interest” has no moral connotation; in contrast, “greed” implies excess, seeking more than one's needs, although it has no definition, no meaning, even, within neoclassical economics. To mainstream economists, the Invisible Hand should prevent or reign in greed. Indeed, it holds, one cannot be greedy because “excessive” returns should attract competitors and thus reduce the marginal profit to the market level.

In the logic of neoclassical economic theory, therefore, greed cannot exist. Every individual is assumed to have insatiable desires, and pursuing these desires is assumed to bring the greatest benefit to the largest number of people. “Greed,” to economists, is a pre-capitalist, moralizing term that has no basis in the modern world. Only morality or religion can say whether someone is claiming a share of the economy that is “too large.” Short of assuming that everyone is entitled only to an equal share, it is impossible to assign a “fair” share.

One can, however, use the term “greed” at the level of entire societies to describe those that are expansionary and thus are viewed as greedy by their supplanted neighbors. Examples include agriculturalists who supplant foragers and European colonial nations. The term still has a moral meaning in this usage, but only because expansionary polities have clear victims, seemingly making it easier to label them as greedy.

By the same logic, economies that are not environmentally sustainable, that consume so much that they jeopardize future generations' survival, can also be viewed as greedy. It is tempting to point to corporations or CEOs as greedy, but we can move to a sustainable economy only by recognizing that capitalist consumerism is unsustainable and that all of us who enjoy its benefits are also greedy. When we buy cars, fly in airplanes, and buy food at a price that does not include the environmental costs (so-called externalities), we are taking more than our fair share and are therefore greedy.

Limits on consumption

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Greed
  4. Limits on consumption
  5. Sumptuary law in Imperial China
  6. Dressing in Mao's China: A political equivalent of sumptuary law
  7. The consumer revolution in China
  8. Soap and desire
  9. Greed revisited
  10. Conclusion: What to do
  11. References

Legal and social restrictions on consumption are increasingly emerging as topics of serious consideration within public and academic discourse. Global warming has made more people concerned that consumption at the level of the industrialized world is environmentally unsustainable. In addition, rising food and commodity prices have been connected to increasing consumption in India and China, and so have also raised questions about the sustainability of the capitalist world economy. Jared Diamond (2005), for instance, has captured the sense that the modern consumer capitalist system may be unsustainable. Finally, the banking crisis of 2007–2009 has revived the idea that greed is a problem and raised the fear that the excessive profits and consumption of a few may be destroying the economy for the rest of the world.

A number of economists and commentators have proposed that legal limits be placed on greed. The socialist economist Moshe Adler (2010, pp. 194–195), for example, argues for limiting executive pay by law to a multiple of the lowest worker's wage and for setting a maximum share of profits that can go to shareholders. Even mainstream figures like Jack Bogle, founder of Vanguard, have begun to argue that managerial capitalism has created distorted incentives under which CEOs and mutual fund managers can prosper at the expense of shareholders (Bogle, 2005). As Bogle (2009) notes, democratic capitalism has produced greater wealth for more people around the globe, but also excess:

We see the excesses most starkly in the continuing crisis (that is not an extreme description) in our overleveraged, overly speculative banking and investment banking industries, and even in our two enormous government-sponsored (but publicly-owned) mortgage lenders, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, to say nothing of the billion-dollar-plus annual paychecks that top hedge fund managers draw and the obscene (there is no other word for it) compensation paid to the chief executive officers of our nation's publicly held corporations—including failed CEOs, often even as they are being pushed out the door. (pp. 1–2)

Increasingly, even mainstream economists have described the behavior of capitalist CEOs and financiers as greedy.

Laws to limit consumption have existed in many societies through history, and are known as sumptuary laws. A sumptuary law is defined as “a statute, ordinance, or regulation that limits the expenditures that people can make for personal gratification or ostentatious display” (Garner, 2009). As Allan Hunt (1996) notes, a distinctive feature “of sumptuary law is that it always involves some combination of social, economic and moral regulation” (p. 7). These laws have often included the justification that they were necessary to limit greed and excess. In premodern Europe, it was understood that society would be undermined if everyone sought to consume better clothes and food rather than to content themselves with simple products and leave the better products (and economic surplus) for their betters. In general, sumptuary laws were characteristic of ancient states and of Medieval Europe, although Hunt shows that they in fact increased in importance with the rise of modernity and peaked in frequency in the 17th and 18th centuries. This increase in the frequency of such laws reflects attempts by the old feudal order to maintain the old hierarchy and to limit the power of the rising bourgeoisie.

Most scholars have viewed sumptuary laws as doomed to failure, therefore attracting relatively little scholarly interest (Hunt, 1996, p. 8), and yet calls for such laws persist to today. Sumptuary laws largely died out in the late 18th century, but they have continued in modified forms in luxury taxes and in protectionist legislation that seek to discourage or prohibit excessive consumption, especially of foreign goods (Hunt, 2004). Hunt (1996) argues that “sumptuary laws have lived on in the ubiquitous quest for moral regulation that found expression in the social purity and Prohibition movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries and is today alive and well in the contemporary purity movements and projects of moral regulation” (p. 9).

Sumptuary law in Imperial China

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Greed
  4. Limits on consumption
  5. Sumptuary law in Imperial China
  6. Dressing in Mao's China: A political equivalent of sumptuary law
  7. The consumer revolution in China
  8. Soap and desire
  9. Greed revisited
  10. Conclusion: What to do
  11. References

In China, despite contact with Western merchants and products in the 18th and 19th centuries, consumerism was slow to arise for a number of reasons, including the general poverty of the population and that China already produced nearly everything it needed. Wealthy families did buy homes, clothes, and food that reflected opulent lifestyles, but styles changed very slowly and tended to be based on traditional forms (Stearns, 2001, p. 85). Confucian values dampened conspicuous consumption both to protect the social hierarchy and because such display was viewed as extravagant and decadent.4 Sumptuary laws were expressions of these concerns.

Imperial China changed in many important ways over the centuries, but certain characteristics remained constant through much of its history. Chinese society was divided into three major social classes from the Han Dynasty (206 bce to 265 ce) to the end of the Qing in 1911. These classes were the officials, the commoners, and the “mean people” (jianmin). The first of these, officials, had passed various levels of the imperial exams and formed the ruling class. They were accorded privileges and, despite differences in rank, had a sense of themselves as a distinct, superior, and prestigious group and were accorded respect and prestige by others. Once they achieved the status of official, they kept it for life, even after retirement. The status of official, and the sumptuary rights that came with it, extended to an official's wife and parents, and his children and grandchildren were allowed to continue living in his house and to wear garments exclusively designed for family members of officials (Ch'ü, 1961, pp. 152–153). The Confucian system was hierarchical and assumed that the official class would be wealthy. But the pursuit of wealth for itself was considered unbefitting of a gentleman, who should be more concerned with scholarship and social obligations. Spending befitting his rank was expected, but conspicuous spending was disdained (Stearns, 2001, p. 4).

Commoners included scholars (who were potential officials), farmers, artisans, and merchants, in declining order of formal prestige. Among the common people, differences in income and wealth were significant and created additional subclasses, though there was mobility both legally and in practice. Sumptuary laws, however, treated commoners as a group (except for some cases in which artisans and merchants were singled out for specific restrictions).

Mean people referred to slaves, entertainers, prostitutes, government runners, and low-level yamen service personnel, plus some regionally specific groups such as beggars and boatmen (Ch'ü, 1961, pp. 128–130). They were considered ritually polluted, and this pollution was believed to remain for three generations, meaning, for example, that descendants were not eligible to take the imperial exams. The category gradually died out during the Qing Dynasty, but in earlier times members had been required to wear certain head cloths or other articles or colors of clothing to mark them apart (Ch'ü, 1961, pp. 137–138).

Sumptuary laws served to mark the three groups as separate, especially the officials from the commoners. In addition, ranks within the official class were distinguished clearly. The model of an ideal society during the imperial period was one in which everyone followed the proper role and displayed these roles in their attire and behavior. According to Ch'ü (1961), “Different styles of life, corresponding to different statuses, were regarded as prerequisites for maintaining the social and political order; and an administration was judged good or bad according to its success in maintaining these differences” (p. 136). Sumptuary laws in China addressed everything from food to clothing, from home architecture to carriages. High-ranking officials might not be able to afford the luxury to which they were entitled, but a wealthy man could not build a house or use a carriage to which he was not entitled (Ch'ü, 1961, p. 135).

Some sumptuary laws in China were similar to those in Europe. Both areas had laws specifying which elite classes were allowed to wear specific types of fur and what types of bird they could use for falconry (Hunt, 1996, p. 23). The biggest difference between Chinese and European sumptuary legislation was their greater scale and scope in China:

Whilst in Europe dress, and to a lesser extent food, were the primary targets, in China sumptuary law addressed almost every aspect of the style of life, prescribing standards for food, clothing, architecture, furnishings, domestic animals, attendants, boats, carriages, utensils, hats, clothing, houses, carriages, and, after death, coffins, funeral clothes and graves. Architectural regulation was most precise. Not only was the size of houses, in particular the number and size of courtyards, prescribed by rank, but so also were the proportions of archways, doors, and other entrances, and many other details of their decoration (for example, the use of tiles with animal motifs), and the style of entrances and gates, including such matters as use of lances at gates, bird's head door-knockers. (Hunt, 1996, p. 86)

Obedience to sumptuary laws waxed and waned. In the late Qing, for example, laws relating to imperial crests and colors may have been followed strictly, but laws forbidding commoners from using silk or cloth umbrellas (in contrast to umbrellas covered with oil paper) were among the many sumptuary laws that were disregarded (Gray, 1974, pp. 375–376).

Sumptuary laws suffer from an inherent contradiction in that by making certain items of food or clothing forbidden to some people and permitted only to a few, those items become even more prestigious and desirable (Hunt, 1996, pp. 102–103). Sumptuary laws were possible in Imperial China because most people accepted a hierarchical social order. (It is clear, however, that not everyone accepted the natural superiority of the dominant classes or there would not have been a need for sumptuary laws [Hunt, 1996, p. 104].) The Chinese social order allowed for some mobility, and small farmers could hope to improve their economic and social standing over their lifetime. Wealthy merchants and landlords could educate sons in the hope of their passing the imperial exams. The mandarinate was selected by merit, a surprisingly achievement-based system for a pre-industrial society. Nonetheless, the social order was hierarchical; the Mandarin elite were set apart, and ranks within the elite were clearly marked. Only in such a society could sumptuary laws persist.

Chinese sumptuary laws were designed principally to make everyone's status clear. An underlying assumption was that common people should be temperate in their wants and accept their place in the social order. Status was to be primarily determined by achievement in the imperial exams. Wealth itself was not officially recognized as a source of status, though in practice it did provide status. Confucians did not despise or reject wealth, only the pursuit of wealth for its own sake. Wealth allowed one to enjoy leisure and the arts and so was good. But pursuing wealth itself, as merchants did, was considered demeaning. Sumptuary laws thus sought both to maintain the dominance of the Mandarins as well as to regulate their behavior so as to maintain order and to prevent ruinous material competition among them, since the laws provided clear guidelines on what they could and could not own.

In more egalitarian modern societies, sumptuary laws are less feasible. Commercialization allows anyone with money to buy luxuries, and fashion pushes the limits of sumptuary laws to the point that such laws are widely ignored. Laws that define food or clothing as prestigious make these products become especially tempting, and commercial profit tempts merchants to make them available to many who might not be legally entitled to them. One way of resolving the contradiction that sumptuary laws make luxuries even more attractive has been for the laws to apply to all, that is, to limit everyone's consumption. We see this approach in luxury taxes, but also in the common dress of Puritans and of Mao's China.

Dressing in Mao's China: A political equivalent of sumptuary law

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Greed
  4. Limits on consumption
  5. Sumptuary law in Imperial China
  6. Dressing in Mao's China: A political equivalent of sumptuary law
  7. The consumer revolution in China
  8. Soap and desire
  9. Greed revisited
  10. Conclusion: What to do
  11. References

Political and social pressures led the masses in Mao's China to dress virtually alike. Though there were significant, albeit small, variations in clothing among urban residents, the apparent homogeneity in consumption was due not to legal rules but to political commitment to a socialist ethos that valued austerity, simplicity, and functionality, and to the fear of being labeled politically deviant.

The “Mao suit” emerged from the same impulse and logic as imperial sumptuary laws. In 1929, the Nationalist government, then headed by Chiang Kai-shek, sought to control clothing by passing a regulation “stipulating that the Sun Yat-sen suit was to be worn as official dress for civil servants” (Roberts, 1997, p. 18), and this suit became very common. The Sun Yat-sen suit was intended to be modern and egalitarian, yet different from the Western suit. It was a modification of Japanese school and cadet uniforms, which themselves were based on German uniforms, and was part of the militarization of civilian dress during the late Qing and early Republican periods (Finnane, 2008, pp. 75–77). It became commonly worn in the 1940s by Nationalist Party members and civil servants, and was what both Mao and Chiang were wearing when they met and posed for pictures in Chungking in 1945.

In 1949, at the time of China's “Liberation,” the population of coastal cities included a wealthy minority in which the men wore Western suits and leather shoes and the women wore qipao (literally “Manchu Banner robe,” a gown with a Mandarin collar and splits on the sides, also known by its Cantonese name, cheongsam) and high heels. Following 1949, however, these styles came to be viewed as “bourgeois” and colonial and were quickly abandoned. In most of the interior of China, “people still wore traditional long robes and mandarin jackets” (Hua, 2004, p. 95), which were viewed as traditional or “feudal” by the more politically aware. On October 1, 1949, when Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China atop Tiananmen Gate, among the several hundred political leaders (except the few non-Chinese Communist Party [CCP] dignitaries) all the men wore Sun Yat-sen suits (zhongshan zhuang) or People's Liberation Army uniforms and the women blue or mustard-colored Lenin suits. Any styles that were regarded as examples of the old “feudal society” were quickly abandoned in favor of newer revolutionary styles based on the clothes of farmers and workers.

What is known as the Mao suit in the West became the standard attire of the PRC from the mid-1950s on. It became the national dress and in Chinese was known as “the uniform,” zhifu. It differed from the Sun Yat-sen suit in having an open-neck collar, hidden pockets rather than patch pockets, and no button on the flap covering the top of the pocket (Garrett, 2007, p. 219; Roberts, 1997, pp. 22–32). The colors of all clothes were predominantly blue and gray, though city women sometimes used flower-patterned cotton cloth in the inside lining of their jackets (Hua, 2004, pp. 95–97). The zhifu was worn by men and women, year round (by adding or removing layers underneath), and by people of all ranks. The green cotton uniform was intended for the People's Liberation Army, though it became common civilian clothing during the Cultural Revolution. The blue version was meant for workers and peasants.5 Civilian cadres wore a gray uniform, with the style varying only slightly (with more pockets for higher-level cadres) and the material clearly indicating the rank of the wearer (Roberts, 1997, pp. 22–23). The uniform remained the national dress until Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang was shown on national television on October 21, 1984 chairing the Third Plenary Session of the 12th Central Committee in the Great Hall of the People wearing a dark blue Western-style suit (Sang, 1997, p. 43). The sight of the CCP leader wearing a Western suit caused a sensation that people still remember today.

Though the zhifu uniform symbolized frugality and egalitarianism, it still communicated style and fashion, but the rules of fashion were based on politics. Women in the 1950s often wore what was known as a “Lenin suit,” a double-breasted pantsuit with a straight collar and a belt. This style was inspired by the Soviet Union's styles, but Soviet women wore skirts while Chinese women wore it with pants. This suit symbolized agricultural and industrial work and thus national renaissance (Chen, 2009, pp. 21–22; Hua, 2004, p. 97). It became common among female cadres until the Sino-Soviet split in the late 1950s, after which it was viewed as politically inappropriate, and disappeared. During the Cultural Revolution, mustard-green military uniforms were the rage. Young people sought to look like soldiers, and military clothing was highly desired, but since uniforms were hard to obtain, many made their own, something that was made easier when in 1965 the People's Liberation Army removed all rank insignia from uniforms (Finnane, 2008, pp. 235–237).

No government edicts or formal sumptuary laws forced the wearing of revolutionary styles (Hua, 2004, p. 95; Steele & Major, 1999, p. 57). Still, throughout the collective era (1949–1979), various political movements enforced the proletarian and peasant style of dress. Many authors note that there was still some variety of clothing in the 1950s until the Anti-Rightist Campaign (1957) and the Great Leap Forward (1958–1961) created an ideological fervor that made most people afraid to wear nonproletarian styles. On the other hand, the lack of differentiation in clothing was notable even before 1957; in January 1956, the Youth Daily urged young women not to dress so gloomily and gray (HC360.com, 2009). A cartoon in the March 11, 1956 issue of the Changjiang Ribao satirized the uniformity of dress by drawing six persons, male and female, young and old, all dressed similarly in Sun Yat-sen suits for men and Lenin suits for women (see Finnane, 2008, p. 207). In the 1960s, there was a high degree of conformity even before the Cultural Revolution. In May 1964, a tailor shop on Shanghai's Nanking Road refused to narrow the pant legs for a customer, claiming that it would be too revealing of the butt and that a socialist enterprise could not sell a product that damaged social fashion (Chen, 2009, p. 70).6 During the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), any traditional or Western dress was viewed as one of the “Four Olds” (old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits). According to Sang (1997), Red Guard

“search and destroy” activities were conducted “to promote proletarianism and eliminate bourgeois ideology.” Pedestrians found wearing bourgeois clothes were waylaid on the street and had their clothes cut to shreds on the spot. Others suspected of hiding “feudalist and capitalist black goods” had their homes ransacked and their clothes confiscated or destroyed. (p. 43; see also Steele & Major, 1999, pp. 59–61)

There was even a term for clothes that did not follow the political orthodoxy: “bizarre outfits and strange clothes” (qizhuang yifu). In December 1966, during the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards held an exhibition in the former Soviet Union Exhibition Centre showing over two million “outlandish outfits” captured in the previous four months from Beijing residents. “Only army uniforms, modified Sun Yat-sen suits and work uniforms (zhifu)” remained as acceptable clothes (Sang, 1997, p. 43).

Desire and fashion in political campaigns

During the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese were derided by some in the West as “blue ants,” while others imagined that China had “shed the shackles of fashion and overturned the cult of personal appearance” (Steele & Major, 1999, p. 62). Neither view was correct. While the Mao suit was intended to be classless and appeared to outsiders to be uniform, it had important variations that indicated rank. These differences were introduced in the early 1950s, when officials were paid not in cash but received goods from the government, including clothing. The suits' material differed for each rank, with coarse cloth for the lowest officials, polyester drill for middle-ranking cadres, and wool for the top leaders. The number of pockets also varied, with the top cadres having four covered patch pockets instead of just the lower ones. Higher-level cadres had better-fitting uniforms at the same time that the mass-produced and poorly fitting military-style uniforms emphasized socialist values of equality of sex and rank. Paradoxically, then, a uniform that symbolized egalitarianism also indicated rank, at least to those who knew how to read it.

Also striking is that while all China was wearing drab and baggy clothes, clothing in propaganda showed style and color. The costumes in the “model revolutionary ballets” promoted by Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, featured women in uniforms modified to “become a stylish ensemble of tight-fitting shorts and closely tailored tunics” (Steele & Major, 1999, p. 61). Peasants, students, and workers in posters were often shown wearing colorful jackets. Steele and Major (1999, pp. 61–62) explain this disparity as due to the posters' intention to represent an idealized world that was close to being realized. In the new society just around the corner, the posters suggested, “colorful clothing will be untainted by individualism, purged of the cult of appearances, cleansed of the stain of fashion; it will be colorful in the bright colors of revolutionary purity” (Steele & Major, 1999, p. 62).

This apparent homogeneity in consumption was as much the result of the failure of the state industrial system as it was of political commitment. Cloth was limited in quantity and came primarily in a few solid colors, particularly blue, gray, and green and plain white for shirts. Despite the simplified needs of the collective-era public, the state was unable to provide light industrial goods (what we can anachronistically call consumer goods). The state took over the production of all yarn and textiles in 1951, and the National Cotton Produce Company had a monopoly over the cotton industry, from the purchase of raw cotton to the manufacturing of clothes (Sang, 1997, pp. 42–43). By early 1961, Beijing residents had to use ration coupons to obtain all cotton products (Sang, 1997, p. 43). It bears remembering that the CCP's claim to legitimacy came not from producing more goods for consumers, but from eliminating poverty and destitution. As a result, peasant frugality was extended to the entire country. There are varying reports on how much cloth each person was entitled to annually, but they are all low: 4.5 m according to Chen (2009, p. 67) and one of my informants in Foshan, 2.5 m of cloth and 500 g of cotton according to Sang (1997, p. 43). Clothes also needed to be used for many years, leading to the expression “New three years, old three years, repair for another three years” and the well-known complaints of younger siblings that they never could wear new clothes because families could only afford to give them hand-me-downs (Chen, 2009, p. 66).

Despite the political pressures of the Cultural Revolution and the fanaticism of the Red Guards, styles still emerged, both promoting “Red” orthodoxy and resisting or ignoring it. Orthodox Red styles were austere and considered more in keeping with socialist principles. The popular Mao suit and cap and the military uniform were considered both patriotic and proletarian. Patches were viewed as more in keeping with the austere socialist style, and it became popular to have patches on clothes. As Garret (2007) notes, “Photographs of Mao wearing worn clothing were used extensively as a propaganda tool to foster nostalgic feelings of heroic deeds and the achievements of earlier times” (p. 218). Before the reforms of 1978, young women would modify their pants by boiling the deep blue cloth to make the cloth fade in color and then putting square patches of nonfaded blue cloth on the knees and derrière, which was considered both beautiful and durable (Chen, 2009, p. 108). Patches on the elbows and on the shoulder, the latter suggesting that the clothes had been worn out from excessive work using a carrying pole, were popular in Foshan.

In addition to these “Red” styles, there were also tendencies that subverted and resisted the Red orthodoxy. There are many stories of people getting into trouble, even losing their jobs, because of the way their recut blouses showed a narrow waist and shapely figure. Even during the height of the Cultural Revolution, youth in cities like Shanghai made slight differences in their clothing, such as the shape of their lapels, which they felt made them more fashionable and sophisticated. Even in these extreme times, the desire for fashion could still be found.

The frugal and functional clothing of Maoist China was in part inspired by political idealism, but was also imposed by political propaganda and terror. The press repeated government calls to “combat self-interest” (e.g., People's Daily's, 1967). Western observers at the time believed a “New Man” was being created, and though this view has been thoroughly repudiated, it bears remembering that aside from the horrible excesses of the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution, the collective period did offer an alternative economic and political system. Although it was not able to grow and to produce enough for China's population, it transformed the society in many ways. And the consumer revolution that came after was, in many ways, a reaction to the limitations and constraints of the collective period.

The consumer revolution in China

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Greed
  4. Limits on consumption
  5. Sumptuary law in Imperial China
  6. Dressing in Mao's China: A political equivalent of sumptuary law
  7. The consumer revolution in China
  8. Soap and desire
  9. Greed revisited
  10. Conclusion: What to do
  11. References

Consumer spending in China has grown dramatically since the reforms of 1978. Economic growth since 1979 is estimated to have averaged close to 10% per annum, compared to 6% before 1978 (Hu & Khan, 1997, p. 1), which is often noted as the fastest ever in world history, bringing more people out of poverty than any previous period of time. This has been done by ending central planning, making state-owned enterprises compete on the world market, inviting foreign investment, and allowing rural residents to move to cities and industrial zones for work. These policies, sometimes called the “Beijing model,” allow free enterprise and follow the neoliberal ideology but maintain strong state leadership and political control to ensure stability and labor quiescence. Most Chinese feel the system has worked well; each year, incomes rise and consumer choices are greater and more attainable. Today China's consumers have wide choices in clothing and are also buying expensive items such as homes and autos. China's automobile market is now the largest in the world.

China's new consumers have several motivations, from the functional (e.g., physical comfort and a better life) to the social (e.g., expressing identity and conspicuous display). China in 2011 was estimated to have a “middle-class” elite of 250 million, 1 million of whom were active luxury-brand product buyers who collectively spent US$7 billion per year. At the same time, 230 million migrant workers have left rural areas for urban and industrial jobs, many of whom are men or couples who leave their children behind in the village. They earn and consume more and improve their family's economic position, but at considerable personal cost. Most live very frugally and are not generally part of China's consumer revolution.

China has rapidly gone from a socialist system that focused on production (but not on the consumer) to a state-led capitalist system that, like other capitalist economies, produces more than it can consume. Although as recently as the 1980s, China saw widespread shortages of consumer products that could only be overcome with guanxi connections, by the late 1990s, marketing was necessary for any consumer products company that wished to sell its goods and remain competitive.

Soap and desire

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Greed
  4. Limits on consumption
  5. Sumptuary law in Imperial China
  6. Dressing in Mao's China: A political equivalent of sumptuary law
  7. The consumer revolution in China
  8. Soap and desire
  9. Greed revisited
  10. Conclusion: What to do
  11. References

One of the first and more revealing mass consumer products in China was shampoo, which has been available to consumers only since the reform era.7 Chinese consumers have taken to foreign brands of shampoo with alacrity. Workers in the early 2000s were willing to buy foreign brands of shampoo that cost up to 10% of a month's wages for a 100 ml bottle. Shampoo was prominently stacked at the entrances of department stores and supermarkets to attract customers to the store and to encourage them to buy. Given that shampoos are mostly alike in their ability to clean hair, and that one cannot know what brand of shampoo others are using, the success of foreign brands of shampoo in making their products essential to Chinese consumers is surprising. Using shampoo is viewed as “modern” in post-reform China, and consumers who cannot afford to buy a car or other expensive appliances can participate in modernity by using shampoo. The case of shampoo is thus a good example of the rampant consumerism of post-Mao China and helps reveal the dynamics of consumer capitalism.

China's history is sobering for critics of capitalism. The collective system was unable to produce enough to satisfy demand, and even soap was in short supply and rationed with coupons. Given that the technology of soap and shampoo is very simple and the raw materials are not difficult to obtain or produce, the failure of state-owned factories to produce enough soap is indicative of a basic weakness of the collective “state capitalist” system. At the same time, consumer capitalism—the system that has replaced it—produces in excess and needs marketing and near-constant “innovation” to fuel desire and continue growing. If the old system left the Chinese with unfulfilled desires, the new system creates insatiable desires, and possibly an unsustainable world economy.

History of soap and shampoo in China

Shampoo is a rather new invention, and humans had cleaned their hair with other products such as alkali rinses for centuries before shampoo was invented in the 1930s. Shampoo became popular in the West in the 1950s but was not sold in China before the reforms of 1979. In the 1980s, many domestic shampoo brands emerged. Most famous, perhaps, is the Bee and Flower brand (Fenghua) made in Shanghai. One of my informants remembered how in about 1982 her husband had gone to Shanghai for a business trip and brought her back two bottles, explaining to her how to use the shampoo to wash her hair and then the conditioner to make her hair shiny. Bee and Flower brand shampoo and conditioner are still sold (it represents 2% of the shampoo market), but only at supermarkets where older people shop, and they are placed on the bottom shelf, out of the way. One department store manager said that they have it only for the old people who would otherwise complain and that it does not sell very well because it is not promoted. The few loyal customers will buy it no matter where they put it, she said.

In 1987, Procter and Gamble (P&G) began producing Head & Shoulders shampoo in a joint venture plant near Guangzhou, China, and it quickly became popular and very profitable. With advertising that made consumers aware of dandruff and told them their shampoo was effective against it, P&G was able to make Head & Shoulders China's best-selling shampoo in three years. P&G has since added two more brands, Rejoice and Pantene, both antidandruff, and clever advertising has brought them huge success, with the three brands taking a 57% market share in a 1995 survey of three cities, even though they cost three times more than local brands (Kahn, 1995). Unilever also set up joint ventures in Shanghai just a year after P&G's entry into the market, and both have been successful in China, though it is difficult to determine the actual profitability of their China operations. In 2003, Nielsen estimated that P&G's shampoo brands controlled 29.2% of the Chinese market and Unilever brands 6.1% (by volume; it would be higher by value because multinationals' brands are more expensive).

Marketing

Soap and shampoo are typical fast-moving consumer goods, which means they are marketing-intensive products. In 1999, P&G spent $250 million per year in advertising in China (Flagg, 1999) on revenues of $1 billion (Tuinstra, 2000) from brands like Head & Shoulders, Vidal Sasoon, Safeguard, and Tide. P&G's success has come thanks to heavy marketing, including advertising, wide distribution, and free samples.

In developed countries, soaps and shampoos are all basically of good quality (Consumer Reports, 2001). In China, however, the P&G and Unilever soaps and shampoos were initially better than many Chinese brands. For example, some Chinese shampoos are too harsh and strip all the oil on the hair, leaving it feeling stiff and rough. Some producers use surfactants (detergents) that do not produce enough foam or formulas that are too runny, producing shampoos that do not feel good to consumers. It is therefore not surprising that many consumers prefer the foreign brands.

Because the chemistry of manufacturing soap and shampoo is quite simple and very well known, the barrier to entry is very low, which in part explains why there are hundreds of shampoo brands in China. Most of the materials that go into soaps and shampoos are also relatively inexpensive. The most expensive ingredients in most soaps and shampoos are the essential oils. Locally made products will have less expensive essential oils, and some may have strong unpleasant smells.

Nevertheless, we found that very few consumers actually could tell the difference between the brands. Sophisticated young urban consumers claim they can detect a fake shampoo by its smell, by how watery it is, or by the look of the bottle. Less knowledgeable consumers and most rural informants admit that they cannot be sure they are buying the real thing. In other words, though there is some difference between brands, most consumers cannot tell the difference between “good” and “bad” shampoos.

As a result, many families told us that they bought their shampoo in department stores and supermarkets when they went window-shopping in the town on weekends. They assumed that large stores receive a reliable supply from the manufacturer and fear they will mistakenly buy fake shampoo if they buy from neighborhood shops. This partially explains why department stores and supermarkets have large shampoo displays at their entrances: consumers buy shampoo from vendors they can trust. They also buy shampoo on visits to supermarkets because ads have made shampoo a symbol of modern life, and shampoo is a products rural and working class consumers can afford when many other advertised luxuries are out of their reach.

The appeals of advertisements

P&G can be said to have introduced modern advertising to socialist China. Its ads were far more sophisticated than previous ads in their technical quality and in their use of aspirational themes. Even though interviewees often denied being influenced by advertising, many admitted that they bought advertised brands because they saw them as the “popular brands.”

Among the several themes used by P&G ads, the most obvious is the emphasis on beauty, especially feminine beauty; in contrast to socialist images of women workers with short hair or hair tied in braids, soap and shampoo ads focus on women with long, flowing black hair. Earlier images of glistening (even oily) hair have been replaced by dry, bouncy hair as an ideal of beauty.

Another theme is the notion of prosperity and affluence. Many of the beautiful women are placed in domestic settings of great affluence. The woman is usually portrayed as the homemaker, especially taking care of the family's child. Large TVs, picture windows, white furniture, and yards with lawns (the latter virtually unheard of in China) are common images in commercials.

A third theme of the ads is science and modernity. Many commercials offer pseudo-scientific explanations of why that brand is good for the hair. After the science lesson is over and the dryness or dandruff is solved, the model is portrayed in modern settings. Often the setting in the advertisements is glamorous and modern, such as a movie set (for actor spokespersons) or office, and unusually lit (either very brightly or with spotlights and shadows). Thus, they associate shampoo with not just cleanliness but with beauty, affluence, and modernity.

Modernity is one of the key ingredients that consumers seek through soap and shampoo, as demonstrated by how avidly consumers take up any innovation that is portrayed as more “modern.” For example, shower gel has rapidly replaced bar soap as the preferred body cleanser in China. Many people in Shanghai, especially university students, use gel because they think it is more modern; several informants told me that they assumed that all Americans and Europeans use body gel and that China was just catching up with the West. Similarly, middle-class urbanites, including men, have taken to using facial soaps and creams (ximiannai), and many informants were surprised when I said this was not standard in the United States. They assumed this was part of scientific and modern grooming.

Thus, we can say that in each bar of soap and bottle of shampoo, consumers are seeking not only beauty, but the prosperity and modernity of consumer society. Changes in consumers' practices and tastes that took 120 years in the United States and Europe have taken place in 20 years in China, but the meaning of soap is different in China. Instead of simply being a way to clean the body and make hair beautiful, Chinese consumers buy soap, gel, and shampoo to participate in modernity and to live in affluence—in at least one corner of their life. This image of shampoo as modernity has been shaped by commercials.

Contemporary consumerist modernity is very different from earlier visions of what it meant to be modern. The generation of Chinese women who came of age in the 1950s and early 1960s, for example, viewed modernity as involving liberation, including gender equality, incorruptibility, and sacrifice in collective work for the good of the nation (Rofel, 1999, pp. 128–137). The cohort of women who came of age from about 1964 and during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) had a more antagonistic view toward the state and viewed class status, party bureaucracy, and connections (guanxi) as obstacles to modernity (Rofel, 1999, p. 175). Like the first socialist cohort, they also believed in an egalitarian and prosperous future and accepted an austere present for the sake of the future, but showed resistance against managerial authority. The post-reform generation, on the other hand, has focused much more on individual self-fulfillment, on family, and on gendered identities. Femininity has been recast as “natural,” something that Maoism had unnaturally sought to suppress (Rofel, 1999, p. 218).

Desire

Shampoo and toilette soaps are among the most obvious improvements in the lives of Chinese. Products that were nonexistent, in the case of shampoo, and scarce and of poor quality, in the case of soap, have for many become inexpensive daily necessities. While it may seem that there should be a more rational way to distribute soap and shampoo than the wasteful consumer culture system of advertising and marketing, the system that China had before 1978 failed. Chinese consumers thus tend to view the current system as not only a great improvement, but as modern and scientific.

The new consumer culture urges people to buy soap and shampoo and to use more of it by washing hair daily; it does this by creating brands and linking them to dreams. Soap and shampoo commercials create the idea that by using the product, one can be as beautiful, successful, modern, and happy as the people in the commercials. To make a profit in the competitive market of fast-moving consumer goods, companies are forced to either apply the model of heavy advertising to create brand awareness or cut corners, creating cheap imitations of big brands. Both involve tremendous waste: one in marketing, the other in bad products.

An alternative “third way” is illustrated by Bee and Flower, the early Chinese brand mentioned above. Bee and Flower makes a good product but does not advertise it. A manager of Bee and Flower explained that their brand did not make enough money to allow them to advertise. If they borrowed money to mount a marketing campaign and the campaign did not succeed in raising sales, they would be ruined. They could not afford to take the chance. They were, at the time, selling a shampoo and conditioner that was widely recognized as of good quality at less than a quarter of the price of P&G products. In fact, their conditioner had become a surprising favorite of many young urbanites who used it with P&G's “2-in-1” shampoos because they did not believe that the “2-in-1” products really did condition the hair. But because Bee and Flower did not do marketing and did not pay for shelf space in supermarkets and department stores, its products were placed on the bottom shelf in stores. Though its owners had been quick to adopt the technology and develop a Chinese brand, they had been slow to understand consumer capitalism and the importance of marketing. In manufacturing terms, they made a fine product and were profitable. But they were pushed out of the market by marketers who knew how to create desire. The result is a wasteful system, driven by—distorted by—created desire.

Greed revisited

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Greed
  4. Limits on consumption
  5. Sumptuary law in Imperial China
  6. Dressing in Mao's China: A political equivalent of sumptuary law
  7. The consumer revolution in China
  8. Soap and desire
  9. Greed revisited
  10. Conclusion: What to do
  11. References

Greed is impossible to define in economics, yet every religious tradition recognizes it and warns against it. Although some critics of neoclassical economics attempt to argue against the notion that humans are self-interested, it is better to acknowledge that desire and self-interest are part of the human condition. But nowhere are these emotions viewed as natural and allowed to operate unchecked—except in modern consumer capitalism. In all other societies, individual desires have been checked by social norms and rules and by cultural values.

We have examined two forms of nonreligious restrictions on consumption in China, the sumptuary laws of the imperial period and the dominance of the austere Mao suit of the collective period. Both experiences have implications for any attempt to impose controls on consumerism. Sumptuary laws reflected a Confucian disdain for waste and excess but were primarily concerned with maintaining the social hierarchy. It is difficult to say how well enforced the sumptuary laws were; we have evidence that some were not much enforced by the end of the Qing, but we also know that Qing China was very slow to adopt Western consumer culture, in part because of the Confucian spirit behind sumptuary laws. Such laws assume a society that is static and accepts hierarchy as natural and are not feasible in modern democratic societies.

We also examined how restrictions on clothing emerged during the collective era in Mao's China. Though no laws were passed forcing people to wear Mao suits, political pressures led to widespread uniformity of clothing by 1956, before even the first of the severe political movements—the Anti-Rightist movement of 1957—attacked supposed enemies of the state. In later years, fear of criticism led most Chinese to wear politically appropriate clothes. Colors were few anyway, but the young in particular internalized the values of the Cultural Revolution and sought to wear military green to show their patriotism. Colored and patterned cloth was available, but was only used for bedspreads or baby clothes, since they were considered politically inappropriate for adults.

The post-1979 hyperconsumerism has swept aside all traditional restrictions and reservations on conspicuous display. Today China is one of the largest and fastest growing markets for brand-name luxury goods. Those who have wealth are not afraid to flaunt it. The Communist Party's elimination of the traditional elite has removed the class that would have put brakes on conspicuous consumption now that markets have returned. Conspicuous consumption, which a Confucian-influenced class might view as greed, is instead now viewed as enjoying modernity. The rise of shampoo, a minor consumer product, helps us understand how consumer desire is created. Although it is used in private and no one can tell what brand people use, consumers are willing to pay more for brand-name shampoos because they have been educated by frequent commercials that clean, bouncy hair is beautiful and modern. Visits to supermarkets and department stores to see the most recent consumer products frequently became occasions to buy shampoo, which is an affordable piece of modernity.

Thus, sumptuary law controlled greed, but only because it was part of a Confucian context that valued hierarchy, devalued merchants and the pursuit of profit for its own sake, and disdained striving that would contradict the appropriate social ranking. The political environment of the collective era pushed Chinese to maintain austere and simple clothes, but the idealism that inspired these simple styles was also accompanied by political terror. Nearly all Chinese, even those nostalgic for the certainties, egalitarianism, and idealism of the 1960s, are unwilling to go back to the political repression and conformity of that era. In most people's minds, the inability of the collective period to provide consumer products and the need to use ration coupons for soap testify to the failure of the system. Today's hyperconsumerism is in part in response to the privations and lack of choice of that era, as well as to the growth in income and the new spirit expressed in Deng Xiaoping's famous but apocryphal quotation, “To be rich is glorious.”8

Consumerism is in some ways a form of individual freedom and does allow individuals to express their identity, as argued by some of consumerism's defenders (see Twitchell, 1999). We have seen how in transgressing Imperial China's sumptuary laws and stretching the boundaries of what was permissible in Mao's China, individuals were trying to express their individuality, beauty, and sexuality as well as status. But seeing contemporary consumerism as simply free choice is sociologically naïve, since consumption is shaped by our economic and social system. Defenders of consumerism typically ignore its ecological costs (see Twitchell, 1999, 2002). There is considerable evidence that consumerism, especially in its more frenzied forms, is also a way many compensate for their alienation. Boring factory work paid more than work as a traditional skilled artisan, but did not have the social prestige or status and support of traditional craft or guild membership. New and vivid clothing could compensate for the loss of traditional status and demonstrate achievement in this new type of work (Stearns, 2001, p. 31). This has been especially important for people living among strangers in the city, where one is more likely to judge and be judged on appearances.

Without the social and cultural constraints of tradition, consumption in China has a much higher element of conspicuous consumption than in the West. Indeed, while Europeans often find Americans crass consumers and resist American-style advertising and marketing, Americans in turn often find Chinese consumption patterns surprisingly driven by brand consciousness and conspicuous consumption. The nouveaux riches in the United States have more influence on fashion and consumption levels because they are less restrained by the “old money” elite than in Europe since this “blueblood” elite is much smaller. In Asia, however, not only have the old elites in many cases been swept aside by previous revolutions, but rapid economic growth makes everyone with money part of the nouveau riche and spurs them to consume to display their identity and cultural competence.

Many observers have noted that voluntary measures against consumerism are not likely to have a major impact. Many endorse voluntary measures mostly to educate the public and to publicize environmental issues. It should be clear that limiting consumption through social and political measures such as those that were used in China is not acceptable.

Conclusion: What to do

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Greed
  4. Limits on consumption
  5. Sumptuary law in Imperial China
  6. Dressing in Mao's China: A political equivalent of sumptuary law
  7. The consumer revolution in China
  8. Soap and desire
  9. Greed revisited
  10. Conclusion: What to do
  11. References

Although compulsorily curtailing consumption is not acceptable, neither is doing nothing. Jared Diamond (2005, pp. 358–377) has detailed the environmental challenges China is facing. While the critiques of Diamond's book (see McAnany & Yoffee, 2010b) raise serious doubts about whether humans in Easter Island, Greenland, the Maya rainforest and other areas actually caused an environmental disaster and whether it is correct to view their societies as having “collapsed,” they do not question the danger facing the environment and humanity today, a danger that has been increasingly apparent and known to humans over the past decades (McAnany & Yoffee, 2010a, p. 15). In China, pollution, erosion, water shortages, drought, and other environmental problems are already recognized as undermining the nation's development and that the nation must develop an alternative to the highly energy-dependent development model of the West because of its population size and density (Nair, 2011, p. 76). Thus, while 1980s' and 1990s' development was based on the assumption of an automobile society,9 China's recent emphasis on highways and cars is shifting to more sustainable alternatives, including high-speed trains and mass transit, and even toward rehabilitating the image of the bicycle, which had been viewed as an embarrassing symbol of backwardness rather than of sustainable development (see, e.g., the NGO Bike Guangzhou at bikegz.com).

Despite obvious signs of global warming, it is difficult to bring about change in people's desires and behavior. Many in the developed world choose to doubt the evidence, very likely because action would require them to consume less. International conferences like the Copenhagen Climate Conference have ended in failure; politicians from nearly all countries find it difficult to agree to an image of the future that would involve less consumption. Restrictions on China's growth are impossible. Not only is China not willing to agree to consumption levels lower than those in the developed world, but the growth of its consumer economy is essential to the government's legitimacy.10 Many are aware of the strange disconnect of economists asking Chinese consumers to consume more to “save the world economy” when increasing consumption is destroying the environment. American consumers have hollowed out their economy by spending excessively, causing a speculative bubble and government budget deficits. This is in addition to a trade deficit that now sees China own $1.2 trillion of U.S. debt. At the same time that Americans are being told they have to save more (and consume less), Chinese consumers are being urged through media to consume more. Yet, if Chinese consume more, the carbon emissions and other impacts on resources are going to be environmentally disastrous for China and the entire planet.

Expecting individual action to solve environmental problems is not practical. For example, the “life-cycle analysis” approach advocated by Daniel Goleman (2009), which provides more information to consumers and expects them to use it to make environmentally sound choices, is unlikely to put a dent in consumption when millions of new consumers are being added each year and the model of consumption is still the developed world. At best, such approaches help educate consumers of the costs of their consumption, but information alone does not change behavior.

Equilibrium models of neoclassical economics do not help us understand how to address shortages or scarcity of many resources. In the case of fish, for example, depletion of a species raises its price, rewarding those who continue to capture the scarce fish and providing an incentive for fishermen, especially for poachers, to continue catching and depleting the stock (Clover, 2004; Pauly, 2009). Such perverse results make bad situations worse and show that we cannot rely on markets to regulate supplies of all products.

The popular discourse of greed and excess focuses on individual motivation, as is common in the thinking of individualistic capitalism (and the disciplines of psychology and economics that provide much of its ideological support). I have argued that modern consumerism, like past restrictions on consumption, is based not on individual motivation or personality, but on the cultural logic of the system itself.

Though we cannot expect the market to solve the environmental crisis, governments can use the market to shift toward resource conservation and more sustainable development. Because of Asia's high population density and high levels of pollution, many of the necessary changes are likely to develop there. Specifically, governments need to see that resources are limited, that they must be husbanded for future generations, and that by repricing them (e.g., via taxes), they can lead to sustainable societies and economies (Nair, 2011, p. 119). Such taxes are likely to be impossible in the United States, for example, where taxes are anathema, but taxes on gasoline are common in the rest of the world (residents of Hong Kong have long paid US$8 per gallon, of which 40% is a government tax). China's strong state is beginning to take steps to redirect development in more sustainable directions. Asian societies that are more collective and are familiar with state leadership in the economy may have an easier time adapting. It remains to be seen whether the frontier individualism, libertarianism, and market fundamentalism that is common in the United States will allow Americans to choose to survive or to fail.

Notes
  1. 1

    The premodern critique of luxury and greed was first weakened when Bernard Mandeville (1670–1733) presented the paradox that “private vices are public benefits,” arguing that the pursuit of luxury was not a vice but the engine of the economy that kept the poor employed and created growth.

  2. 2

    Often forgotten is that in the movie, Gekko is using this rhetoric to hide his deceitful and illegal activities. Surprisingly, the movie is widely seen as endorsing this economic ideology, and few see it as a challenge to the idea that greed is natural and even good for society.

  3. 3

    Not all economists have argued for the benefits of greed; Palmer (2012), in a volume intended to promote free-market principles and underwritten by the Templeton Foundation, argues that Adam Smith emphasized the importance of institutions to channel selfish motivations.

  4. 4

    An exception helps support this broad generalization. Wu (2005) has demonstrated an “atmosphere of extravagance” in Qing Dynasty Taiwan due to the greater wealth of the island, which was incorporated into the empire only in 1683. Taiwan residents had more disposable income because of lower food prices and the island's economic development. Taiwan was a frontier area with weaker state control and fewer degree-holders who would otherwise have exerted cultural pressure on the merchants who sought to imitate the styles of the degree-holding elite.

  5. 5

    The association of blue cotton as the cloth of the masses dates back to the Qing Dynasty sumptuary laws (see Gray, 1974 [1878], p. 368).

  6. 6

    Note that in this case, the tailor was behaving in accordance with tradition: Ch'ü (1961, p. 151) writes that in Imperial China, “The artisan or tailor who made articles for a commoner to which his status did not entitle him was punished with fifty strokes, unless the former reported the case to the authorities before it was discovered.”

  7. 7

    The research was fully supported by a grant from the Research Grants Council (RGC) of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (“Selling Soap to China: Global Consumerism and the Sources of Desire” Project no. CUHK4348/01H). Interviews were conducted in nine communities with 25 families in each community. Communities were selected in urban working-class neighborhoods in Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Nanning and in rural villages in Zhejiang, Guangdong, and Guangxi.

  8. 8

    He actually said that “To become rich is not an offence” (zhifu bushi zuiguo), which is much milder.

  9. 9

    Shenzhen's wide roads and highways are reputedly based on those of Houston, Texas, as a result of Deng Xiaoping's trip there in 1979, when Shenzhen was being planned. I have no evidence for this, but the two cities have been sister cities since 1986.

  10. 10

    Latham (2002) argues it is not the ability to provide consumer goods that keeps people politically docile but the idea of transition, that things will be better: “It is not so much consumption that works as a social palliative but the notion of transition itself” (p. 231).

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Greed
  4. Limits on consumption
  5. Sumptuary law in Imperial China
  6. Dressing in Mao's China: A political equivalent of sumptuary law
  7. The consumer revolution in China
  8. Soap and desire
  9. Greed revisited
  10. Conclusion: What to do
  11. References
  • Adler, M. (2010). Economics for the rest of us: Debunking the science that makes life dismal. New York: New Press.
  • Auletta, K. (2001/1986). Greed and glory on wall street: The fall of the house of Lehman. New York: Overlook Press.
  • Bogle, J. C. (2005). The battle for the soul of capitalism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Bogle, J. C. (2009). Enough: True measures of money, business, and life. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
  • Chen, Y. (Ed.). (2009). image image60image Zhongguo shenghuo jiyi: jianguo 60 nian minsheng wangshi (Memories of life in China: Events in people's livelihood over the past 60 years). Beijing: Zhongguo qing gong ye chu ban she image (China Light Industry Publishers).
  • Ch'ü, T.-t. (1961). Law and society in traditional China. Paris, France: Mouton.
  • Clover, C. (2004). The end of the line: How overfishing is changing the world and what we eat. London, UK: Ebury.
  • Consumer Reports. (2001). Coming clean on bath soap, October, 32–33.
  • Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse: How societies choose to fail or survive. London, UK: Penguin.
  • Finnane, A. (2008). Changing clothes in China: Fashion, modernity, nation. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Flagg, M. (1999). Procter & Gamble may change buyer of ad space in Chinese market. Wall Street Journal, August 27.
  • Garner, B. A. (Ed.). (2009). Sumptuary law. In Black's law dictionary (Vol. 9th ed.). Retrieved from: Westlaw Online.
  • Garrett, V. M. (2007). Chinese dress: From the Qing Dynasty to the present. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle.
  • Goleman, D. (2009). Ecological intelligence: How knowing the hidden impacts of what we buy can change everything. New York: Broadway Books.
  • Gray, J. H. 1974 [1878]. China: A history of the laws, manners, and customs of the people. New York: AMS Press.
  • HC360.com. (2009). image “20:image 50 image: image” (Clothing of the 50s of the 20th century: Overalls and Bulaji). Retrieved from http://info.cloth.hc360.com/2009/09/07113494725-7.shtml
  • Hu, Z., & Khan, M. S. (1997). Why is China growing so fast? Washington, DC: International Monetary Fund.
  • Hua, M. (2004). Chinese clothing. (Y. Hong & Z. Lei, Trans.). Beijing, China: China International Press.
  • Hunt, A. (1996). Governance of the consuming passions: A history of sumptuary law. New York: St. Martin's.
  • Hunt, A. (2004). Sumptuary laws. In J. Dewald (Ed.), Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the early modern world. New York: Scribner & Sons. Retrieved from www.encyclopedia.com/topic/sumptuary_laws.aspx
  • Kahn, J. (1995). Cleaning up: P&G viewed China as a national market and is conquering it. Wall Street Journal.
  • Latham, K. (2002). Rethinking Chinese consumption. In C. M. Hann (Ed.), Postsocialism: Ideals, ideologies and practices in Eurasia (pp. 217237). London, UK: Routledge.
  • McAnany, P. A., & Yoffee, N. (2010a). Why we question collapse. In P. A. McAnany & N. Yoffee (Eds.), Questioning collapse: Human resilience, ecological vulnerability, and the aftermath of empire (pp. 115). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • McAnany, P. A., & Yoffee, N. (Eds.). (2010b). Questioning collapse: Human resilience, ecological vulnerability, and the aftermath of empire. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Morris, C. R. (1999). Money, greed, and risk: Why financial crises and crashes happen. New York: Times Business.
  • Nair, C. (2011). Consumptionomics: Asia's role in reshaping capitalism and saving the planet. Singapore: Wiley & Sons.
  • Nofsinger, J. R., & Kim, K. (2003). Infectious greed: Restoring confidence in America's companies. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall/Financial Times.
  • Palmer, T. G. (2012). Adam Smith and the myth of greed. In T. G. Palmer (Ed.), The morality of capitalism: What your professors won't tell you. Ottawa, IL: Jameson Books.
  • Pauly, D. (2009). Aquacalypse now: The end of fish. New Republic, September 28. Retrieved from http://www.tnr.com/article/environment-energy/aquacalypse-now
  • People's Daily. (1967). “Combat self-interest, criticize and repudiate revisionism” is the fundamental principle of the great proletarian cultural revolution. In D. Milton et al. (Eds.), 1974, People's China (pp. 358361). Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.
  • Roberts, C. (1997). The way of dress. In C. Roberts (Ed.), Evolution and revolution: Chinese dress 1700s-1990s (pp. 1225). Sydney, Australia: Powerhouse Publishing, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.
  • Rofel, L. (1999). Other modernities: Gendered yearnings in China after socialism. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Sang, Y. (1997). From rags to revolution: Behind the seams of social change. In C. Roberts (Ed.), Evolution and revolution: Chinese dress 1700s–1990s (pp. 4051). Sydney, Australia: Powerhouse Publishing, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.
  • Stearns, P. N. (2001). Consumerism in world history: The global transformation of desire. London, UK: Routledge.
  • Steele, V., & Major, J. S. (1999). China chic: East meets West. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Tasini, J. (2009). The audacity of greed: Free markets, corporate thieves, and the looting of America. New York: Ig Publishing.
  • Tuinstra, F. (2000). Shampoo wars: Why America's P&G is way ahead of Europe's Unilever in China. Asiaweek, 26(2). Retrieved from http://cgi.cnn.com/ ASIANOW/asiaweek/magazine/2000/0121/biz.shampoowars.html
  • Twitchell, J. B. (1999). Lead us into temptation: The triumph of American materialism. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Twitchell, J. B. (2002). Living it up: Our love affair with luxury. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Weber, M. (1958). The protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism (T. Parsons, Trans.). New York: Scribner's.
  • Williams, W. (2001). The virtue of greed. Capitalism Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.capitalismmagazine.com/culture/69-the-virtue-of-greed.html
  • Wu, C.-h. (2005). image (The atmosphere of extravagance in Qing Taiwan). (image Taiwan Historical Research), 12(2), 3574.