Lecture: "The Rise of Cultural Entrepreneurs in Early Twentieth-Century China"

How did the business of culture in China change in the modern age? What new modes of cultural production became available thanks to evolving technologies and growing transregional ties? How did investors respond to the expansion of the cultural sphere? And how did artists respond to new money-making opportunities?

This talk traces the historical forces that gave rise to a generation of Chinese “cultural entrepreneurs”—businesspeople who risked financial well-being and reputation by investing in multiple cultural enterprises—in the early twentieth century. It illustrates this process through case studies of authors becoming filmmakers and consumer product magnates; pharmaceutical executives founding amusement parks and engaging in venture-philanthropy; and trade groups flexing their entrepreneurial muscles towards governments and competitors. Drawing on a recent co-authored study, Christopher Rea argues that these cases offer useful models for understanding three distinct archetypes of cultural entrepreneurship still prevalent today: the cultural personality model, the tycoon model, and the collective enterprise model.

Christopher Rea is an associate professor of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia. He is author of The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China (2015), which the Association for Asian Studies awarded the 2017 Joseph Levenson Book Prize (post-1900 China). He is editor of China’s Literary Cosmopolitans (2015), Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts (2011), The Business of Culture (2015) (with Nicolai Volland), and Imperfect Understanding: Intimate Portraits of Chinese Celebrities (2018). With Bruce Rusk, he recently cotranslated The Book of Swindles: Selections from a Late Ming Collection (2017). His next book is China’s Chaplin: Comic Stories and Farces by Xu Zhuodai (Cornell East Asia Series, 2019).

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