Marketing Death: Culture and the Making of a Life Insurance Market in China
Cheris Shun-ching Chan
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How do companies sell life insurance in a country where death is a taboo subject? In Marketing Death, Cheris S.C. Chan explores both how and why the life insurance industry has managed to emerge in China, a country with an entrenched cultural stigma against the very topic of death. Drawing on extensive ethnographic fieldwork and engaging with current scholarship, Chan explores the processes and micro-politics by which foreign and domestic companies have negotiated local cultural resistance and created a market in spite of it. In doing so, she asks larger questions about how different societies view and value life and death, what is meant by "cultural values," how they interact with a set of fragmented cultural tools to compellingly organize individuals' practical daily lives, and how the market is influenced by them. Chan tells a story not just of the emergence of the Chinese life insurance industry, but of the dynamic relationships between culture and markets, local norms and foreign influences in one of the world's fastest-growing economies.
Marketing Death is the first book to offer a sociological analysis of the emergence of a life insurance market outside of a European or American context. Through in-depth study of the expansion of an industry whose unique "product" - gambling on one's own sudden death - has always met with a measure of resistance, but never more so than in China, Chan provides a new lens for understanding how modern capitalist enterprises are diffused to regions with disparate cultural traditions.
logics that define death, good life, and risk, as discussed in chapter 1, are not at all compatible with the profit-oriented institutional logic of life insurance. This incompatibility was observable in the general public’s preferences with respect to life insurance products. Regardless of the specific details of an insurance policy, the crux of the matter for the informants was whether the insured would get the money back when they were alive. To quote one client: Whether the products belong to
organized and elaborated of all the companies I observed. Its agency system handbook contained 45 pages, with systematic and detailed explanations of various awarding schemes and promotion standards. The various bonuses, altogether 18 kinds, were as attractive as those offered by Pacific-Aetna. The overall fringe benefits provided by AllianzDazhong were better than those of AIA and Ping An. But why did the agents seem so dissatisfied with the company? When I approached the agents of the Aries
foreign insurers normally started with a risk management sales talk but then switched to whatever might work to move the prospects. This “whatever,” nonetheless, is not random. Let me quote at length one of the cases showing how an agent switched the discourse in her sales talks. This example demonstrates how insurance agents attempted to teach the public about the foreign concept of insurance, on the one hand, and endeavored to arouse concerns and interests by using local cultural symbols on the
E S P E O P L E buy a commodity as invisible and intangible as life insurance? Although commercial life insurance is one of the most instrumentalrational commodities that attempts to convert uncertainties into manageable risks, buying life insurance is rarely based on rational economic calculations. In England, commercial life insurance, initially invented as a risk management device, became a risk-taking gambling instrument for the masses in the eighteenth century (Clark 1999). In the United
alive, because taking care of one’s own yanglao issue prevents a financial burden from passing on to the next generation. An alternative explanation for the disproportionate preference for the kinds of products that make payments to the policyholders is that people in general did not trust insurance companies, and they wanted to see a return of money before they died. However, if people did not have a sense of trust in the insurance companies, they would not have bought the yanglao policies that