This is a guest post by Alice Tsay, a PhD candidate in English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Alice’s dissertation, “Matters of Taste: Digesting Difference in Victorian and Edwardian Culture” examines the rhetorical functions of food and ingestion within discourses of difference during the long nineteenth century.
The folk singer Pete Seeger tells a story about a girl who sickens and is prescribed Dr. Johnson’s Pink Pills for Pale People by the doctor. After her father makes up a song for her on the phone, the ditty gets repeated through the telephone wires until proper communications are drowned out. Eventually, the government cuts down the telephone poles and wires, throwing them overboard far from shore. In the watery depths, however, the wires continue to resonate with the sounds of the song:
Pink pills for pale people,
Pink pills for pale people.
Pink pills, pink pills…
While fanciful, Seeger’s story takes its inspiration from an actual patent medicine called Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People. Though he turns it into a fable about the white noise of commercialism in modern society, the tale also suggests the ubiquity and pervasiveness of the product to which it alludes.
First formulated in Canada in 1886, Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People quickly made their way across the world, appearing in advertisements in dozens of countries by the early 20th century. These advertisements claimed that the pills would cure nearly any ailment, including eczema, rickets, and paralysis. Unsurprisingly, the company’s outsized claims drew complaints from both consumers and professional associations. By the 1910s, Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People had gained a reputation in North America and Great Britain as the archetypal quack cure, part of a gullible past with no place in modern medical practice.
In China, however, these pills met with a slightly different fate. Marketed in English language publications in Shanghai from the early 1900s onward, Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills also appeared in Chinese-language publications from the 1910s through the early 1940s. In the mid-1920s, these Chinese advertisements went from suggesting that the product could be procured ‘wherever Western medicines were sold’ to declaring that it would be available ‘at all pharmacies’, the latter suggesting much greater social saturation. By 1941, adverts sent customers directly to the National Department of Health (guomin zhengfu weisheng shu), a governmental entity whose focus on establishing public sanitation standards has been seen as a main component of developing modernity in Shanghai.
Though this trajectory of growing legitimacy seems surprising, several features of these pills would have eased their integration into the lives of Chinese consumers. While new Western imports such as deodorant, powdered milk, and oatmeal started out as totally unfamiliar products, the wan or pill form of medication in China dates back several centuries, as medicinal powders formed into a wax-covered ball. Moreover, as a purported cure-all, the pills were a good fit for the symptom- rather than disease-based approach central to traditional Chinese medicine. Marketers further catered to the audience by translating ‘Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People’ into weilianshi dayisheng hongse buwan in Chinese, or ‘Doctor Weilianshi Red Supplement Pills’. With alliteration abandoned, the pink pills became red (though merely in name), taking on a color with greater cultural resonance and existing precedence in traditional medicinal packaging.
The story of Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People in Shanghai is an accumulation of paradoxes, both in comparison to its Western origins and in the context of China itself. To start with, it was a foreign product that was familiarized through the form of traditional Chinese medicine. Beyond that, it was one that increased in popularity in the wake of the New Culture and May Fourth Movements of the 1910s and 1920s, which reacted against both traditional Chinese culture and what was seen as excessive imperialist influence. These seeming contradictions reveal not only the tangled processes of history at a local level, but also the hybrid cultural pathways that contributed to the formation of global modernity.
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