Asian History Essays

East Asian Consumer History in the 20th Century

Twentieth century seems to be a key period for east asian countries since during that times, major east asian countries like China, Japan and South Korea were experiencing transition from pre-modern to modern society or from pre-war to post-war country. As experiencers of the transition, consumers in those countries also helped to constitute part of the history. As a result, there have already been many studies on this topic from the perspective of economy, culture, business, and politics. In terms of studies in English, there are not as many studies on China and South Korea as those on Japan. However, based on the existing ones, one can still get a general idea as what topics have been covered by current studies and how various scholars have examined consumer history in these three countries during the twentieth century.

Therefore, based on 22 scholars’ work, this paper examines how they approach the different aspects of east asian consumer history. In the first part, to better understand what their arguments are, their works are categorized under four topics which include politics and nationalism behind consumerism, westernization and east asian consumers, modernity, and female consumers. Under each topic, scholars’ main arguments are reviewed to see if there are any conflicting or complementary opinions. The second part of this paper will look at if there is a new direction for future studies on the east asian consumers.

Politics and Nationalism Behind Consumerism

One of the interesting aspects about east asian consumer history is that those studies on Chinese consumers are always linked to politics and nationalism. The fact that every scholar under this topic has covered some discussion on nationalism has confirmed that Chinese government’s guidance in consumer behavior and perception of products plays an important role in Chinese consumer history. Since during twentieth century, China had already begun its regular communication with foreign countries, Chinese market witnessed an influx of western products. As pointed out by Tian and Lily (2009), Chinese consumers, at that times, regarded Western brands, or to be more broadly, the West, as vehicle of democratization, symbol of cultural and military domination, and presentation of economic development. Under such circumstance, Chinese brands were more linked to national pride. In fact, Chinese consumers’ perception of Western brands were somehow impacted by government. This also explains why advertisement for Dr. T.C. Yale’s Phostose Brain Tonic began to attach political meaning to its “health” product (Zhang, 2014) and why Qingdao Beer managed to promote it as a national product and built a relationship between consuming Qingdao Beer and a civilized Chinese nation (Yang, 2007).

In addition to health products and beer industry, both MacPherson (2013) and Lien (2009) agree that although the emergence of department store was impacted by the western countries, several incidents like “national products movement” again proves the nationalism element deeply rooted within Chinese consumers. What’s more, China’s relationship with other countries can also affect its consumers’ consumption of products from those countries, as in the case of Soviet movies (Huang, 2014).

Therefore, all of these authors have agreed on the impact placed by government or nationalism sentiment on Chinese consumers’ behavior. What differs their argument are the prerequisites for government’s policies and national pride. Except Huang (2014) who thinks it is the foreign relationship that pushes government to introduce some policies on limited consumption of a certain foreign product, other scholars all point to the sudden huge influx of western impact and its products which stimulate the nationalism of Chinese consumers.

Westernization and East Asian Consumers

Not surprisingly, several scholars have observed that with a deepening communication with western countries, east asian consumers’ consumption of certain goods has got changed. For example, Umemura (2011) has found out that during the first half of the twentieth century, traditional Japanese medicines declined due to the imported Western-style medicines which seemed to be more trustworthy than Japanese ones. Same rule also applies to the decline in Japanese people’s consumption of rice when other meal choices like western food became available for ordinary Japanese people (Francks, 2007).

Such phenomenon is not limited to the Japanese consumer society, from the late Qing dynasty in China, Chinese consumers have had access to western health products and it was those products that stimulated Chinese society to develop its own version of healthy lifestyle (Peng, 2012). A more recent example can be found in Chinese consumers’ consumption of hamburger. When KFC first entered Beijing market, it was so welcome by local consumers, which indirectly caused a famous traditional Chinese restaurant go out of business. To catch up with western fast food, several Chinese restaurants joined the trend of imitating western fast food chains (Yan, 2000).

All of these scholars have noticed changes in east asian consumers’ consumption behavior caused by westernization, and some of them also observe its decline or resurgence of local products during the later stage. In the case of traditional Japanese medicine, it regained the market due to development of technology and Japanese patients’ belief that some diseases cannot be cured by western-style medicines (Umemura, 2011). Also, in Chinese society, there were boycotts of British-made products during 1920s and 1940s (Chan, 2013).

Although Umemura and Chan might think the impact of western products actually offers an opportunities for local products to catch up in technology or for local people to rethink the value of their traditional products, Yan (2000) might disagree on their opinions, at least from the perspective of local businesses who were not strong enough to handle the sudden challenge placed by the western products. In addition, studies on Japanese consumers find that they were appreciating western products themselves while Chinese consumers tended to like the cultural meanings behind those western products as in the case of hamburger and health products.


One reason why twentieth century is so important to east asian countries is that during this century, they entered into the status of modernity due to development of technology, impact of western countries, and changes in social system. However, the process and meaning of modernity is different among Chinese and Japanese consumers.

In her study Consumers are also soldiers: subversive songs from Nanjing Road during the New Life Movement (1999), Benson depicts the New Life Movement in Shanghai during the 1930s through the perspective of songs and advertisements. She uses several examples of songs to illustrate Chinese government’s purpose of the New Life Movement which is to cultivate the nation’s austerity, thus moving forward towards a Chinese version of modernity. In this case, modernity was promoted by the government, which is a up-bottom implementation, but there is also modernity promoted from bottom to up as in the case of PUMC, an American-style hospital in Beijing during the early 1920s (Pfeiffer, 2005). However, as both Benson and Pfeiffer agree, in Chinese consumer society, the initial promotion of modernity does not seem to be a success. The up-bottom method finally turned into an opposite version of modernity to what the government was hoping for in the first place while the bottom-up method conducted by PUMC hospital did not match with Chinese consumers’ perception of modernity at that time.

In terms of Japanese consumers, modernity is more examined though different industries such as textile industry and sugar industry and focuses on advancement of technology. Francks (2011) points out the vital position of textile industry during the industrialization process due to its growth in output and exports and its role in promoting application of modern technology, which is a sign of Japanese society turning into modernity. Similarly, Kushner (2011) also accounts the increasing consumption of sugar during the early twentieth century to technology development in Japan which is linked to modernity, industrialism and urbanization.

To sum up, the examination on studies on modernity among east asian consumers reveals that modernity in China began as a government initiative but later was translated into different meanings by consumers and businesses while in Japan, modernity is more closely related to industrialism or to be more specific, technology.

Female Consumers

For east asian societies, female’s role has long been considered as only wife and mother, which largely constrains what they can contribute outside their families. However, scholars have also paid attention to this group of consumers and examine their relationship to the consumer society.

Take Kweon’s study Japanese Female Settlers in Colonial Korea: Between the ‘Benefits’ and ‘Constraints’ of Colonial Society (2014) as an example. It describes Japanese female settles who lived in colonial Korea during 1920s to 1930s and compares their lives with Japanese women’s lives in metropolitan Japan during the same period. He points out that after ‘Japanese town’ was set up in Korea because more Japanese migrants were coming, those Japanese women became important consumers in this community as they were living a modern lifestyle and got to enjoy the  goods brought by those Japanese department stores. In fact, their consumption was sometimes described as extravagant.

The enjoyment of department stores as a way to live a modern urban life it not limited to Japanese women because similar phenomenon has also been observed by Cwiertka’s study on Korean women (2011). She discovers that the reason why Korean shoppers enjoyed department stress was because of its fantastic image, goods on sale, feeling of security, and home delivery service. These characteristics were especially valued by Korean women as they were seeing going to department stores as a way to enjoying modern urban life. Therefore, both of these two studies on female east asian consumers focus on their consumption at department store and agree on why they like it. However, both of them do not compare female consumers and male consumers, which makes it a little bit hard for readers to understand why female consumers is a unique consumer group to both Japanese and Korean society.

Conclusion: Further Thoughts on Future Studies

Under three topics, contemporary scholars have already covered a wide range of perspectives related to east asian consumers, including politics and nationalism behind consumerism, westernization and east asian consumers, modernity, and female consumers. Although scholars who focus on the same country usually share similar major argument with each other, they might differ in prerequisites or assumptions that lead to the final argument as in the case of those studies on Politics and Nationalism Behind Consumerism.

On the other hand, as comprehensive as previous studies seem to be, there are still gaps for future studies to fill in. Currently, there are not as many studies in English on China and South Korea as those on Japan. One reason can be the difficulty in finding primary sources in English from these two countries. Therefore, it requires scholars who know Chinese and Korean to do more research on consumers in China and South Korea. In addition, previous works usually only focus on one country. However, there might be differences in consumers at different countries within the same time period. Kweon’s study (2014) has touched more or less on this point but still fails to do a detailed comparison between Korean and Japanese consumers. Therefore, future studies can also work on comparison among east asian consumers.


Works Cited

  1. Tian, Kelly, and Lily Dong. “The Use of Western Brands in Asserting Chinese National Identity.” Journal of Consumer Research 36, no. 3 (2009): 504.
  2. Zhang, Zhongmin. “The Commercial Construction of ‘Health’.” Chinese Studies in History 47, no. 4 (2014): 61-77.
  3. Yang, Zhiguo. 2007. “This beer tastes really good”: Nationalism, consumer culture and development of the beer industry in qingdao, 1903-1993. The Chinese Historical Review 14 (1): 29-58.
  4. Young, John D., “Sun Yatsen and the department store: an aspect of national reconstruction” in MacPherson, Kerrie L. Asian department stores. Routledge, 2013.
  5. Lien, Ling-Ling. “From the retailing revolution to the consumer revolution: Department stores in modern Shanghai.” Frontiers of Philosophy in China 4, no. 3 (2009): 358-389.
  6. Huang, Xuelei. “THE HEROIC AND THE BANAL: CONSUMING SOVIET MOVIES IN PRE-SOCIALIST CHINA, 1920S-1940S.” Twentieth-Century China 39, no. 2 (2014): 93-117.
  7. Umemura, Maki, “Reviving tradition: patients and the shaping of Japan’s traditional medicines industry” in Francks, Penelope, and Janet Hunter, eds. The historical consumer: consumption and everyday life in Japan, 1850-2000. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
  8. Peng, Juanjuan. 2012. Selling a healthy lifestyle in late qing tianjin: Commercial advertisements for weisheng products in the dagong bao, 1902–1911. International Journal of Asian Studies 9 (02): 211-30.
  9. Francks, Penelope. “Consuming rice: food, ‘traditional’ products and the history of consumption in Japan.” In Japan Forum, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 147-168. Taylor & Francis Group, 2007.
  10. Chan, Wellington K.K.,  “Personal styles, cultural values, and management: the Sincere and Wing On companies in Shanghai and Hong Kong 1900-1941” in MacPherson, Kerrie L. Asian department stores. Routledge, 2013.
  11. Yan, Yunxiang, “Of Hamburger and Social Space: Consuming McDonald’s in Beijing” in Davis, Deborah, ed. The consumer revolution in urban China. Vol. 22. Univ of California Press, 2000.
  12. Benson, Carlton, “Consumers are also soldiers: subversive songs from Nanjing Road during the New Life Movement” in Cochran, Sherman, ed. Inventing Nanjing Road: Commercial Culture in Shanghai, 1900-1945. Vol. 103. Cornell Univ East Asia Program, 1999.
  13. Kushner, Barak, “Sweetness and Empire: Sugar Consumption in Imperial Japan” in Francks, Penelope, and Janet Hunter, eds. The historical consumer: consumption and everyday life in Japan, 1850-2000. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
  14. Pfeiffer, Stefani. “‘Still Arguing Over Cost’: Bargaining, Etiquette and the Modern Patient in Republican Beijing.” Asian Medicine 1, no. 2 (2005): 355-386.
  15. Francks, Penelope, “Kimono fashion: the consumer and the growth of the textile industry in pre-war Japan” in Francks, Penelope, and Janet Hunter, eds. The historical consumer: consumption and everyday life in Japan, 1850-2000. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
  16. Kweon, Sug-In. “Japanese Female Settlers in Colonial Korea: Between the ‘Benefits’ and ‘Constraints’ of Colonial Society.” Social Science Japan Journal (2014): jyu004.
  17. Cwiertka, Katarzyna J., “Dining out in the land of desire: colonial Seoul and the Korean culture of consumption” in Kendall, Laurel, ed. Consuming Korean tradition in early and late modernity: commodification, tourism, and performance. University of Hawaii Press, 2011.

Continues Far Eastern Quarterly (1941 - 1956)
Title history

  • ISSN: 0021-9118 (Print), 1752-0401 (Online)
  • Editor: Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom University of California, Irvine, USA
  • Editorial board

Published for the Association for Asian Studies
The Journal of Asian Studies (JAS) has played a defining role in the field of Asian studies for nearly 70 years. JAS publishes the very best empirical and multidisciplinary work on Asia, spanning the arts, history, literature, the social sciences, and cultural studies. Experts around the world turn to this quarterly journal for the latest in-depth scholarship on Asia's past and present, for its extensive book reviews, and for its state-of-the-field essays on established and emerging topics. With coverage reaching from South and Southeast Asia to China, Inner Asia, and Northeast Asia, JAS welcomes broad comparative and transnational studies as well as essays emanating from fine-grained historical, cultural, political, and literary research. The journal also publishes clusters of papers that present new and vibrant discussions on specific themes and issues.

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