Making the Chinese Copycat: Trademarks and Recipes in Early Twentieth-Century Global Science and Capitalism

This essay examines early twentieth-century international disputes over alleged Chinese copying of the trademarks and brand recipes of Burroughs Wellcome and Company’s Hazeline Snow vanishing cream. By doing so, it explores the complex back-and-forth that occurred between metropole manufacturers and actors in the colonial periphery in negotiating the parameters of a newly emerging global trademark regime. The essay does not present Chinese adapters of brand trademarks and recipes as simply unethical counterfeiters or passive victims of imperial aggression but treats them as full participants in a global debate over questions of ownership of commercial marks and manufacturing and chemical knowledge. Furthermore, because of Chinese adaptation of marks and circulation of brand recipes as “common knowledge,” Burroughs Wellcome and Company mobilized the trademark law of the newly emerging industrial property regime to halt the travel of adapted marks and recipes. The company’s deployment of trademark law thus serves as an example of how a capitalist corporation sought to ensure its advantage in competitive pharmaceutical markets by obstructing the purportedly “free markets” of capitalism and to stymie any open circulation of chemical and manufacturing knowledge. Such findings allow us to refine the recent emphasis on “circulation” often used in the historical analysis of modern science and capitalism.