2015 Student-Faculty Fellows Program: McDaniel College

Ownership and Entrepreneurship in the Tiehua Industry:
Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics 1992-2014

Mentors: Qin Fang, Department of History; Kevin McIntyre, Department of Economic and Business Administration
Students: Kent Hu’15, Greg Laslo’15, Zoie McNeil’17, Andrew Roberts’16, Aaron Sampson’17, Carly Weetman’16


Visiting tiehua, “Welcoming- Guest Pine Tree,” at the Great Hall of the People
Visiting tiehua, “Welcoming- Guest Pine Tree,” at the Great Hall of the People

Project Abstract

The research group from McDaniel College spent 25 days in China examining the transformation of market structure and entrepreneurship in the tiehua (iron painting) industry in Wuhu, Anhui Province. Our research mainly focused on three types of tiehua enterprises (state run, family owned, and share-holding business) and their performance over the past 25 years. Though each student has his/her own research agenda (a documentary, a photo album, a website, and three papers), the six students collaborated extensively, preparing interviews, sorting out/sharing pictures and videos, and collecting various data for the whole group. During our stay in Wuhu, McDaniel students interviewed business owners to understand their marketing strategies as well as their thoughts about the challenges to and opportunities for business owners in contemporary China. Students also explored market structure by frequenting tiehua shops and interviewing tiehua advocates. It occurred to us the importance of the state and local government’s economic policies on tiehua business when we went through various tiehua workshops set up in Wuhu industrial parks.

Additionally, through bargaining at local tiehua shops and hammering tiehua pieces, students gained first-hand experience of shopping and working in China, which was crucial to their research. The three weeks spent in China not only has helped students develop partial answersto their proposed questions, but also has inspired new questions that they did not seriously think about in their proposal. For example, what are the unique cultural aspects of Chinese capitalism and how does it contribute to marketing strategy and market structure? How did the unique brand of Chinese capitalism shape the tiehua industry, say, who stayed and who were ousted? How would this affect market structure? Students will incorporate these new questions in their own projects.

Welcome to Anhui Normal University
Welcome to Anhui Normal University

Greg Laslo
For me, the month-long stay in China over the summer of 2015 was nothing short of life changing. I met many fascinating people, who stood out in an already-fascinating culture, and made personal connections abroad. The wide variety of individuals I met, many much worse off than myself, reinforced my impression of being very privileged in today’s world. Our experience of actually participating in the craft of tiehua (iron painting) was very impactful, and I believe it helped me better understand not only the art form, but Chinese culture in general. These experiences overseas have also brought new plans and opportunities into sharp focus, and have given me the confidence to begin to follow them. Thanks to this change in perspective, I am currently making plans for graduate school, and a possible career working abroad through the US government.

In our study of the impact of privatization and government intervention on tiehua and its culture, we visited and spoke with many artists and craftsmen in the industry. They are former workers at the old state-run factory, which is now nearly defunct. Most other businesses are struggling, despite the optimistic attitude of the craftsmen, and have begun experimenting with new styles, and methods of manufacturing. Tiehua as an art form is slowly gaining ground, thanks to government cultural policies, but is still relatively unknown, even in China. We also uncovered unique cultural aspects of capitalism in China, which is less competitive than expected in some ways. However, more work remains to be done in researching why tiehua is so unknown, and who remains in the industry, who does not, and why.

Immersion with local community.
Immersion with local community.

Andrew Roberts
I was fortunate enough to be able to spend three and a half weeks conducting economic research in China during the summer between my junior and senior years of college. Not only did I learn a great deal about economics and its real world application, I was also able to learn a great deal about Chinese culture and myself along the way. In addition to conducting research, we travelled all over China, and we saw so many amazing things that I would have never got the chance to see otherwise. I interacted with Chinese students my age, and learned about how they lived and what they enjoyed doing in their free time, an invaluable cultural exchange I will not soon forget. Overall, I learned as much in twenty-five days in China as I had in the previous three years in the classroom.

In college, as an economics major, you spend the majority of your time in class learning about theory and ideas, all about markets and supply and demand and what would happen as a result of different decisions being made. Rarely do you get the chance to see real world application of these theories; you simply accept them as truth. However, this past summer I got the chance to observe first-hand how many of those economic theories actually play out in reality. I gathered information on how the liberalization of Chinese markets in the 1980s impacted the Tiehua industry, and how the change from state-run operations to a free market setting benefitted those who work in that industry. It was an incredibly rewarding experience both academically and personally.

Rice-paper making and calligraphy practice.
Rice-paper making and calligraphy practice.

Aaron Sampson
My goal after college is to work for the State Department as a translator or to work with the United States Army as a translator on some posts in a foreign country. This summer I made friends with Chinese college students and learned from them basic Chinese language. Their excellent English impressed me and also inspired my interests in further study of the Chinese language. I will keep in touch with them so that I can maintain my Chinese and learn about Chinese history and cultures. I believe my trips to China will prepare me better for these future careers I’ve dreamed of.

Tiehua business has experienced great changes and transformation in the last two decades after it was channeled to a market economy. Yet I saw two different views about privatization and marketization of tiehua business within the tiehua community. One indicates that tiehau business began to prosper and develop, while the other implies that the marketization and privatization led to reduced benefits and welfare and hence later led to an unfavorable state among some tiehua business. Using interviews and taxation statistics of tiehua business, I will explore three types of businesses (family business, state-owned factory, and shareholding business) and examine why some failed and why some succeeded. Looking at their success and failure, I will further explore how these businesses utilized marketing strategies, family legacies, and traditional influences to expand their enterprises. In addition, I will also examine whether their relationship with the state affect their performance on the market.

Interviews at Chu's Tiehua
Interviews at Chu’s Tiehua

Carly Weetman
I spent the month of June exploring China. Now how many people can say that? On a grant awarded by ASIANetwork, two professors, 5 other students, and I researched the effects of liberalization on the industry of an ancient art called Tiehua. We did our research in the city of Wuhu in the Anhui Province, spending 10 days conducting interviews with business owners, managers, and workers, holding research discussions, touring Tiehua factories and stores, and even purchasing Tiehua pieces of our own. One year ago I never would have thought I would be going to China, let alone traveling and exploring the way that we did. This experience will be applicable to any career that I decide to choose. I plan to continue my research and education in the field of economics and I hope to have a career on that topic as well. I now have an education that not many others do, a firsthand research experience that has given me a foundation in economics and other disciplines on which to further grow my understanding of the science.

This summer I was given the opportunity to explore and research the ancient art of Tiehua and its industry in Wuhu, China. Through countless interviews and hours of discussion and touring, I gathered information on the effects of Chinese liberalization of the 1980s on the Tiehua market. The research suggests that the change in Chinese economic policy was beneficial to the art of the Tiehua. Workers and designers are making more money, there is new entry into the market, and those involved in the art of Tiehua say the future of Tiehua is bright. The next step in my research is to produce a journal article,accessible to all, that discusses my findings during my time in China. The article will introduce and explain economic theory and detail this incredible real-world example.

Chahuahui (Tea-chat-party) with college students from Anhui Normal University.
Chahuahui (Tea-chat-party) with college students from Anhui Normal University.

Zoie McNeill
Our research has inspired me to consider careers abroad. I hadn’t ever travelled before being given this opportunity, because of different socioeconomic restrictions, but I learned that I absolutely love it. The people’s spiritual but atheistic view of the world and the atmosphere of support, slowness, appreciation, and collectivism, even as the implementation of the market economy is promoting competition, stress, and the feeling of needing to race through life, felt very peaceful to me. Even when every holy Buddhist temple or ancient ruin was encircled by people selling everything from flying planes to skewered meat to inflatable hammers to wheels to add to your shoes, I felt so much more calm in China than in Western Europe (I visited France a week after returning from China) or the United States or Canada (I’ve been to Quebec and Montreal). I want to return to China. I plan on researching how I can teach English there as soon as possible.

Based on the interviews we conducted and pictures/videos we shot in the summer, I will produce a photo album on working conditions in contemporary China and a documentary about the state’s presence in the tiehua factory. So far I have sorted out picture and video data. The next step is to come up with the corresponding themes for the album. In addition, I am working with Greg Lalso for the storyline of the documentary.

Students studying tiehua in Anhui Museum, Hefei, Anhui Province.
Students studying tiehua in Anhui Museum, Hefei, Anhui Province.

Kent Hu
I believe this summer trip has better prepared me for future studies in Chinese history and cultures, in particularly advancing my language skills. Assisting with interpretation and collaborating with Chinese college students, I realized that my Chinese really improved this summer. In addition, the research beyond the classroom helped me to learn about China beyond the headlines. I will be entering school, not as someone who has only been educated in the classroom, but as someone whom has learned about the Chinese culture through three different means: being raised in a Cantonese household, being taught about general Chinese culture in a collegiate classroom setting, and conducting teihua research. I am lucky and also appreciative to have been provided such a rare opportunity to broaden my views about China, to sharpen my understanding of Chinese capitalism, and to reflect myself cross-culturally, linguistically, and historically. I believe these experiences, especially the summer research trip, have helped me toward the dream that I may one day become a professor in Chinese studies. This will allow me to present myself as a better candidate when applying for any professional positions.

My job in particular has been the documentation, collection, and organization of each student’s blog entries on a website. Upon returning from China, I set up the website and kept updating the reflective journals from other student fellows. I have also incorporated my own personal entries regarding the trip and research developments. In addition, I kept thinking about the cultural aspects of Chinese capitalism and its relation to Confucianism. Though they were brutally exploited, why were tiehua workers willing to stay in the business and did not resist? I will sort out my notes and interviews for further exploration on these questions. I will update my thoughts on the website, which I will continue to maintain during my study in Taiwan.