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October 9, 2006

Anthropologist studies ‘Silk Road’ from Shanghai to Milan

By Jennifer McNulty

Like the ancient trade route that moved goods from China to Europe, today’s "Silk Road" runs from the high-fashion design studios of Milan to the textile factories of Shanghai, says anthropology professor Lisa Rofel.

Cultural anthropologist Lisa Rofel will spend spring quarter in Shanghai and the nearby cities of Hangzhou and Jiaxing. Photo: Jennifer McNulty

But more than goods are transported on the modern path, according to Rofel, who is embarking on a detailed case study of how contact with the fashion capital of Italy is influencing business and cultural practices in postcommunist China.

The contrasts between the two countries are striking and irresistible to Rofel, a cultural anthropologist who has witnessed cataclysmic changes in China over the past 20 years as it has embraced capitalism and emerged as a major player in the global economy.

“The majority of textile production for the world takes place in China,” noted Rofel. “They manufacture for Russia, India, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. It’s not just the United States, though we’re a huge market for them.”

By contrast, Italy’s major export is style, and its high-fashion industry—dominated by names like Versace and Dolce & Gabbana—has eclipsed Paris as the harbinger of worldwide fashion, said Rofel. “When you think about what Italy is good at exporting, it’s mainly taste,” she said. “Whether it’s clothes, shoes, cars, or furniture, Italy is known for taste.”

Since 2001, when China joined the World Trade Organization, most of Italy’s top fashion houses have moved production to China, according to Rofel, who became fascinated by the “cultural encounters” she anticipated taking place between Chinese and Italians.

For example, Rofel noted that Italian business is dominated by small to medium-sized family-owned firms with fewer than 100 employees, while Chinese textile manufacturing is dominated by factories with more than 1,000 employees. Italy is a nation with a strong union tradition, while manufacturing in postcommunist China takes place in facilities run by a “fascinating mix” of local government officials and private entrepreneurs, said Rofel.

“Socialism is dead in China, but this is nevertheless a time of major transition for the country,” said Rofel, whose project, "Made in China, Designed in Italy: The Twenty-First Century Silk Road,” attracted a $25,000 grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. Rofel and her colleague Sylvia Yanagisako, a professor of anthropology at Stanford University, will spend spring quarter in Shanghai and the nearby cities of Hangzhou and Jiaxing.

“There is an emerging middle class in China, made up of professionals and entrepreneurs who do have the money to buy expensive, high-taste goods,” said Rofel. Although still only perhaps 10 percent of the population, this group represents a huge number of potential consumers in China, where cities like Shanghai boast 16 million residents, noted Rofel.

All the major Italian fashion houses have opened boutiques on China’s fanciest boulevards, which Rofel sees as a calculated move designed to foster desires that will ultimately pay dividends.

“There’s a lot of window shopping going on right now, but not much buying yet,” she said. “It’s all about creating the taste, the desire, and the sense of felt need—the idea that if you want to move as a cosmopolitan person in the world, you need to look a certain way.”

At the same time, there’s a large group of unemployed Chinese workers who used to labor in state-run factories, and peasants who’ve migrated from villages to cities, where they work without residence permits in fields like construction and housekeeping. “They’re like undocumented immigrants here,” said Rofel. “They do the work no one else will, and they keep coming because there are jobs.”

Rofel is eager to spend time in factories and boutiques with workers, managers, and owners to observe firsthand how Italians and Chinese respond to what they learn about each others’ cultures and business styles.

“The Chinese are very bureaucratic, while the Italians like to turn things over,” Rofel said, snapping her fingers to illustrate a fast pace. “The moment is right for a detailed case study of how workers on the ground confront each other from such divergent business, historical, and cultural traditions.”


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