Abstract: Selling Chinese Dreams: Fashion, Culture and Discourse in Advertising in China between the Two World Wars

Stephen L. Morgan


Advertising in China was almost non-existent when economic reform began in the late 1970s, but has now developed a sophistication and style that is very much its own. This was also true of an earlier time before 1949. The paper aims to examine the development of advertising in China during the interwar years. Its focus is on the 'message,' the images of modernity, fashion and consumption that Chinese advertising conveyed, and the firms that produced these images. Shanghai was the centre of consumerism in China during the inter-war years and the home to the leading advertising firms, foreign and domestic. As China's major industrial center, Shanghai was quintessentially 'modern'—modan in the Chinese of the day. By the late 1920s there were nearly 30 advertising firms in Shanghai alone, and the six largest companies formed an industry association. While early advertising copy and display was done mostly in-house in the major newspapers and magazines (e.g., Shen Bao newspaper, Dongfang zazhi magazine), there were independent advertising firms, which employed or contracted copywriters, graphic artists, painters, and photographers. They created what were then innovative marketing materials, which projected the image of a new modernity and consumerism that spread out from Shanghai to the hinterland, and which were often a complex blend of foreign and Chinese images, that resonated with the past while creating dreams of a new future.