For much of imperial Chinese history, the ‘Four Arts’ were the creative qualities that defined a scholar. Amongst these four artistic pursuits the practice of calligraphy was preeminent. Chinese schools still value penmanship today. Students are chastised for completing a character’s strokes in the wrong order, or for not maintaining the logograph’s proper proportions.
However the advent of new technology means it is now often far easier to type a word than it is to sketch it. This has not been lost on pen manufacturers, particularly Shanghai Hero Pen, a producer of fountain pens. For decades it monopolised the fountain pen market in China. Indeed, during the pre-computer era nearly all Chinese students had used a Hero fountain pen, or aspired to own one.
Enter the digital age and the demand for fountain pens began to plunge. In 2012 Hero was in such a dire situation that the state-run firm proposed to sell a 49% stake of its factory for Rmb2.5 million (or less than $380,000). Given its glorious past the relatively tiny deal garnered a lot of attention. An article claiming Hero “was worth less than a Shanghai apartment” went viral among internet users.
Perhaps its brand is so ingrained in the Chinese collective memory that this article has resurfaced recently. But this time Hero has been able to use the occasion to share the company’s newfound optimism.
Speaking to ThePaper.cn, the company’s CEO Pan Hong explained that the 2012 restructuring deal – which didn’t include the state firm’s land and trademark – was designed to attract “strategic investors” and was not an accurate valuation of the company and its assets. In fact the proposal was never implemented. Pan went on to suggest that Hero has already transcended its practical application. “Hero fountain pens have developed from being ordinary writing tools to being cultural gifts and relics,” Pan now claims.
His proof? In May a pair of 1999 Hero pens – which were designed to commemorate the return of Macau to China – were sold at a charity auction for Rmb300,000. Clearly there is still some prestige attached to the brand name: a reputation it supposedly earned in the 1950s.
Shanghai Hero Pen was founded in 1931 as the Wolff Pen Manufacturing Company. At that point it was a foreign venture, but that would change after 1949 and in 1966 the now state-owned firm rebranded as Hero.
According to an article from Headlines, a portal, in 1958 Hero achieved national fame when it claimed that the quality of its fountain pens had “caught up” with world famous Parker steel pens after only nine months of research. This claim even inspired the patriotic movie Hero catches up with Parker.
Of course, 1958 was also the year that Mao Zedong launched the Great Leap Forward – an ill-fated policy designed to boost China’s manufacturing and production levels and overtake capitalist rivals (one of the chief goals was to catch up with the British economy within 15 years). Hero ‘catching up’ thus reflected a prevailing mood.
Today, Pan Hong dismisses the slump Hero suffered in 2012, telling ThePaper.cn many have misunderstood Hero’s development.
Hero has since recovered its poise. Its revenue last year rose 33%, and this year Pan has set the target of seeing sales climb another 20%. His faith in the saleability of traditional pens in the digital age is rooted in his credo: “You can only draw out the elegance of Chinese characters with a pen.”
This sales pitch suggests that Hero pens are now being marketed as a champion of Chinese culture – a notion that appears to have resonated with the article by Headlines. It concludes: “We have to recollect our awe for culture, our awe for Chinese characters, and our awe for calligraphy. Hero Pens cannot just be the memory of one generation.”
Indeed, in Xi Jinping’s patriotic ‘new China’ one suspects government officials will be keener to carry a Hero than a Mont Blanc. It may be no coincidence that the national pen’s apparent renaissance (since its low in 2012) has coincided with his tenure in office.
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