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China’s Early Industrialization

January 29, 2010

Albert Feuerwerker. China’s Early Industrialization: Sheng Hsuan-huai (1844-1916) and Mandarin Enterprise. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Zhou Guanghui (2000)

Imperialist aggression and Manchu rule, which are often used to account for the tragic experience of modern China, are removed from the spotlight in Feuerwerker’s studies on China’s early industrialization effort. Different fate of Japan and China in the face of similar pressure from the West leads Feuerwerker to believe that the main reasons for China’s retarded industrialization should be looked for within China itself. In this seminal book, Feuerwerker carefully investigates the system of “official supervision and merchant management” (guandu shangban). In particular, he concentrates on the entrepreneurial activities of Sheng Xuanhuai and his economic empire, including the China Merchants Steam Navigation Company, the Imperial Telegram Administration, the Huasheng Spinning and Weaving Mill, and the Imperial Bank of China. He illustrates how family bonds, gentry roles, and official orientation tied Sheng Xuanhuai firmly to traditional values. His analyses of the failure of China’s effort to modernize point to a quite illuminating conclusion. The most important lesson to be drawn from this checkmate is the following: one institutional breakthrough is worth a dozen textile mills or shipping companies established within the framework of the traditional society and its system of values. (p. 242) In other words, the “overwhelming inertia” of traditional structure and ideology has to be overcome in order to develop a genuine “industrial revolution” in China.

Published in 1958 when China’s Great Leap Forward caught the attention of the whole world, this book undoubtedly had a powerful impact upon its readers. The treatment of early Chinese efforts at industrial growth provides “a much-needed perspective on the industrial effort now being directed from Peking” (Foreword) and thus helps readers see the continuities and changes of Chinese economic development. Moreover, as the first volume of the Harvard East Asian Studies, Feuerwerker’s book is part of large effort undertaken by a number of scholars to reconstruct modern Chinese history by using first-hand records in Chinese, Japanese and Western languages. Compared with the earlier studies focusing on treaty ports, another significance of this book is that the author placed the emphasis on China, and attempted to understand modern Chinese history not merely from its contact with the West, but from its own tradition as well.

Like Mary Wright and Levenson, Feuerwerker tends to believe that modernization was a normative development to be expected if China were to adapt to the modern world. And as critics point out, he somehow exaggerates the incompatibility between tradition and modernity (See Paul Cohen, Discovering History in China), and thus over-emphasizes the negative role of tradition. But on the other hand, as a serious historian, Feuerwerker never easily sacrifices historical facts for the sake of his grand theory. This can be clearly seen from his evaluation of both the positive and negative influences of tradition on modern entrepreneurial activities and his ambivalence about whether Sheng’s economic empire was a success or complete failure within the traditional institutional frame. His book is still very valuable for us to approach Chinese economic history. For example, if we hope to know the fiscal situation of Late Qing government, this book is one of the best guides.

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