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Economic Anthropology 2014; 1: 167185 DOI:10.1111/sea2.


The Problem of Greed in Economic

Anthropology: Sumptuary Laws and
New Consumerism in China
Joseph Bosco

Department of Anthropology, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatin, Hong Kong

Corresponding author: Joseph Bosco; e-mail:

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
(16441911) 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 Maos China to dress virtually alike. Though
there were signicant, 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

Keywords Consumption; China; Sumptuary Laws; Greed; Consumerism

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

2014 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved 167

J. Bosco

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 Smiths
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 behaviorat least legal economic behaviorgreedy is overly moralistic. This is best illus-
trated 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 firms 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

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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 economists concept of
self-interest has no moral connotation; in contrast, greed implies excess, seeking more than ones
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
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 recogniz-
ing 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 envi-
ronmental costs (so-called externalities), we are taking more than our fair share and are therefore

Limits on consumption

Legal and social restrictions on consumption are increasingly emerging as topics of serious consider-
ation 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, ris-
ing 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 Dia-
mond (2005), for instance, has captured the sense that the modern consumer capitalist system may be
unsustainable. Finally, the banking crisis of 20072009 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. 194195), for example, argues for limiting executive pay by
law to a multiple of the lowest workers 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

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J. Bosco

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 nations publicly held
corporationsincluding failed CEOs, often even as they are being pushed out the door. (pp. 12)

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

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

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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 officials 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, 1961,
pp. 152153). 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, 1961, pp.
128130). 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, 1961, pp.
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 (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, 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

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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, birds 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. 375376).
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. 102103). 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 everyones 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 everyones
consumption. We see this approach in luxury taxes, but also in the common dress of Puritans and of
Maos China.

Dressing in Maos China: A political equivalent of sumptuary law

Political and social pressures led the masses in Maos 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.

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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. 7577). 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 Chinas 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 Peoples 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 Peoples 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. 2232). 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. 9597). 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 Peoples 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. 2223). 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 Unions 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.
2122; 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

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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 Peoples Liberation Army removed all rank insignia
from uniforms (Finnane, 2008, pp. 235237).
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 (19491979), 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 (19581961) 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 (, 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 Shanghais 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 (19661976), 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. 5961)

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 appear-
ance (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.

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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 Maos 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. 6162) 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. 4243). By early 1961,
Beijing residents had to use ration coupons to obtain all cotton products (Sang, 1997, p. 43). It bears
remembering that the CCPs 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 derrire,
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.

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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., Peoples Dailys, 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
Chinas 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

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 Chinas consumers
have wide choices in clothing and are also buying expensive items such as homes and autos. Chinas
automobile market is now the largest in the world.
Chinas 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 familys economic position, but
at considerable personal cost. Most live very frugally and are not generally part of Chinas consumer
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

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 months 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

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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.
Chinas 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 capitalismthe system that has
replaced itproduces 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 Chinas 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&Gs 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&Gs
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).

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.

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P&Gs success has come thanks to heavy marketing, including advertising, wide distribution, and free
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 familys 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

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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 affluencein 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. 128137). The cohort of
women who came of age from about 1964 and during the Cultural Revolution (19661976) 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).

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

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J. Bosco

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&Gs 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 bydistorted bycreated

Greed revisited

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 uncheckedexcept 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 Maos China.
Though no laws were passed forcing people to wear Mao suits, political pressures led to widespread uni-
formity of clothing by 1956, before even the first of the severe political movementsthe Anti-Rightist
movement of 1957attacked 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 patri-
otism. Colored and patterned cloth was available, but was only used for bedspreads or baby clothes,
since they were considered politically inappropriate for adults.

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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 Partys 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 val-
ued 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, egalitar-
ianism, and idealism of the 1960s, are unwilling to go back to the political repression and conformity of
that era. In most peoples 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. Todays 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 Xiaopings 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 consumerisms defenders (see Twitchell, 1999). We have seen how in
transgressing Imperial Chinas sumptuary laws and stretching the boundaries of what was permissible in
Maos 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 nave, 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 consump-
tion. 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.

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J. Bosco

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

Although compulsorily curtailing consumption is not acceptable, neither is doing nothing. Jared
Diamond (2005, pp. 358377) has detailed the environmental challenges China is facing. While the
critiques of Diamonds 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
nations 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 Chinas 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
Despite obvious signs of global warming, it is difficult to bring about change in peoples 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 Chinas 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 governments 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
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.

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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
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 Asias 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). Chinas 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.

1 The premodern critique of luxury and greed was rst weakened when Bernard Mandeville (16701733) presented the paradox
that private vices are public benets, 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 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 Not all economists have argued for the benets 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
selsh motivations.
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 islands 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 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 Note that in this case, the tailor was behaving in accordance with tradition: Ch (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 fty strokes,
unless the former reported the case to the authorities before it was discovered.
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

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J. Bosco

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 He actually said that To become rich is not an offence (zhifu bushi zuiguo), which is much milder.
9 Shenzhens wide roads and highways are reputedly based on those of Houston, Texas, as a result of Deng Xiaopings 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 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).

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