Marketing Death: Culture and Life Insurance Markets in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong

Cheris Shun-ching Chan,  Professor of Sociology, University of Hong Kong
| Penn law school, Room GK238

Based on ethnographic data, Chan presents how a commercial life insurance market is emerging in mainland China despite incompatible local cultural values, particularly the ingrained cultural taboo on the topic of death. She discusses how transnational and domestic insurance firms dealt with local cultural resistance differently, and how local culture shapes the trajectory of the market development. By further examining the life insurance development in Taiwan and Hong Kong as compared to China, Chan argues that the nature of the dominant firms in the field affects the extent of localization of a global enterprise and its growth in a specific locale.

Cheris Chan received her PhD in sociology from Northwestern University in 2004. Before joining HKU, she was an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh. She was also a fellow of the Summer Institute on Economy and Society from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, and a recipient of a global fellowship from the International Institute of UCLA. Her writings have appeared in American Journal of Sociology, British Journal of Sociology, Theory and Society, Social Psychology Quarterly, International Sociology, and The China Quarterly among others. Some of her articles have received prizes from the American Sociological Association.

Chan’s first book, Marketing Death: Culture and the Making of a Life Insurance Market in China (OUP, 2012), has won two awards and one honorable mention from the American Sociological Association and from the Society for the Study of Social Problems. Based on extensive ethnographic research, the book analyzes the role of culture in shaping the trajectory and features of a new market. It details how the Chinese cultural taboo on the discussion of premature death affects the organizational strategies of transnational and domestic life insurance firms. This project was subsequently expanded to include Hong Kong and Taiwan’s markets for a comparative analysis, examining how culture and the local state together shape transnational corporations’ business strategies.

Chan’s current project focuses on hospital care in urban China. Three major themes emerge from her ongoing fieldwork: (1) the moral economy of informal payment and social network in gaining access to quality medical care; (2) doctor-patient relation and the professional authority of physicians in China; (3) the rationalization and legitimacy of Chinese medicine in China.