NEW YORK Some of the most acrimonious moments of Monday's U.S. presidential election debate occurred during the candidates' discussions of China, with Barack Obama attacking Mitt Romney for his investments in Chinese companies, and Romney demanding that we adopt a tougher line on the Chinese counterfeiting of American products.
Romney was particularly shocked to discover that counterfeit valves -bearing fake serial numbers - were "being sold into our market and around the world" as though they'd been made by the U.S. competitor. "This can't go on," he insisted, as if this were a fraud being perpetrated for the first time during Obama's presidency. While Romney's outrage may make for good politics, history shows that Chinese counterfeiting is almost as old as America itself.
The first American ship to travel to China was the Empress of China, which sailed from New York to Canton (modern-day Guangzhou) in 1784, returning to New York in May 1785 with a cargo of tea, cotton fabric and porcelain. It earned its backers $30,000, a 25 percent return on their investment.
As word of the Empress of China's successful trip spread, a growing number of American merchants headed out to get their piece of the proverbial China pie. Between 1784, when the Empress of China blazed the trail, and the end of the War of 1812, almost 300 American ships made 618 voyages to Canton.
The merchants on those ships were greatly impressed by the highly skilled Chinese craftsmen, who were among the worlds most talented and productive. And the Americans noticed, as had the many European traders who preceded them, that the Chinese were exceptionally good at copying or reproducing objects and images.
Among the most intriguing Chinese reproductions were paintings. For a small fee, Chinese painters in Canton would copy any image the foreigners provided. (They also created unique paintings of Chinese scenes.) Americans took full advantage of this opportunity, and many famous American paintings, engravings and prints were thus duplicated and brought back to the United States. Among the more popular were representations of Lady Liberty, John Paul Jones, the landing of the Pilgrims and the Battle of Lexington.
The most popular subject, however, was George Washington, and the most desirable image of the great man was the one by Gilbert Stuart, called "The Athenaeum Portrait," of which there were multiple versions. (It is the model for the engraving of Washington that appears on the $1 bill.)
When Chinese copies of this portrait began to arrive in America in the late 1700s, Stuart was infuriated. Those who had purchased one of the originals from him had signed an agreement stating that they would not allow it to be copied, yet here was proof that the agreements were being flouted. One customer in particular, Captain John E. Swords of Philadelphia, was a major offender, purportedly placing orders in Canton for 100 copies of the portrait to be done as reverse paintings on glass. Stuart sued Swords, and a judge ordered the captain to stop. How many copies of Stuart's Washington portrait ultimately made their way to the United States is unknown, but whatever the number they were joined by many other Chinese reproductions of American paintings that hung on the walls of some of America's finest homes.
Americans also encouraged the Chinese to counterfeit the goods of other countries. By the early 1830s the Carnes brothers of New York City, Francis and Nathaniel, had grown rich importing goods from France, such as perfume, porcelain, fans and silk. That's when they came up with a novel idea: Why not have Chinese craftsmen replicate French goods for a fraction of the cost? After all, since the Chinese had shown great facility copying Western paintings and artistic styles, why couldn't they do the same for other items? And how about making cheaper versions of popular European foods and drugs as well? So the Carneses sent European samples to Canton, and the results were spectacular.
Americans—especially members of the slowly emerging middle class, who had discretionary income and a hankering for the exotic—were ready to buy. Faux French silk scarves and feather fans, along with delicious sauces, sweetmeats, syrups, rose oil and other impressive imitations, flooded into French-crazed New York, where they were sold for authentic prices. This was excellent news for the Carneses, since the knockoffs were ridiculously cheap compared to the real things. The Chinese even managed to find a pulpy wood that when pickled and packaged just right could pass for the much more expensive rhubarb. Although a few children reportedly died from eating too much of this product, it sold quite well. Finally the Carneses greed got the better of them. They imported so many fakes that the market became saturated and prices tumbled, forcing the brothers to shut down their Canton operation.
Although the level of Chinese counterfeiting today is many orders of magnitude greater than it was centuries ago, it's worth remembering that this problem is nearly as old as our trade with China itself. And as the Carneses discovered, the more the West chooses to rely on cheap Chinese labour, the more entrenched the counterfeiting problems become. Today's public officials haven't solved that paradox any more than their predecessors did 200 years ago.
( Eric Jay Dolin is the author of "When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail", Liveright, 2012 )
(Eric Jay Dolin)