Farm Workers Picking Oranges

Graduate Student Profiles

Matthew Combs

Cohort Year: 2011
B.A., University of California San Diego, 2003, History with Emphasis in East Asia
M.A., San Diego State University, 2011, History
Ph.D., University of California, Irvine, 2018, History

Curriculum Vitae

Advisor: Dr. Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Dr. Qitao Guo
First Field: Modern China/ East Asia
Second Field: World History
Thematic Emphasis: Imperialism/Colonialism, Commodity studies, History of Science & Technology.

Dissertation Topic: Camphor, a Plastic History: China, Taiwan, and Celluloid, 1868-1937

Research Abstract:
My dissertation, Camphor, a Plastic History: China, Taiwan, and Celluloid, 1868-1937,  examines the invention of celluloid, the world’s first plastic, and draws global connections to what has been seen as a local or transAtlantic story. The production of celluloid required camphor, a natural product that largely came from the forests of Qing China’s Taiwan province. I argue that celluloid, a modern invention of global significance, not only relied on Chinese materials, but also served an important role in Republican era debates on Chinese modernization and nationalism. The case of camphor and celluloid illuminates the complex ways in which mechanisms of imperialism interacted with resource extraction, scientific and industrial innovation, and technological adoption, as well as discussions of modernization and nationalism. I begin by highlighting historical uses of camphor and its changing role in the nineteenth century, and examine the technology of camphor harvesting and the place(s) of camphor in Taiwan. I then argue that celluloid’s creation in the state of New York in 1869-70 was contingent upon imperialist conflicts between British and Qing agents that took place in 1868 in Taiwan. I then examine the adoption of celluloid products within China. By the time the first celluloid factories opened in Shanghai in the early 1920s, China’s urban centers had already been flooded with celluloid household goods and toys produced in Europe, the US, and Japan. The logic behind opening Chinese celluloid factories may have been the economic one of import substitution, but Chinese celluloid producers were hailed as being on the “front line of national defense.” Shoppers were urged to buy domestic products to defend the nation against Japanese expansion. At the same time amateur photographers in China were beginning to adopt Kodak and similar cameras that made use of the flexible rolled film produced with celluloid, quite literally re-framing the way they viewed themselves and China.