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The Golden Age of the Chinese Bourgeoisie

January 31, 2010

Marie-Claire Bergère. The Golden Age of the Chinese Bourgeoisie, 1911-1937. Trans. Janet Lloyd. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Ellen Huang (2003)

In light of the post-Mao era Chinese market reform and its emphasis on economic modernization, Marie-Claire Bergère seeks to reconsider the role of a cosmopolitan, entrepreneurial “bourgeoisie” in twentieth-century Chinese history. Bergère’s work traces the brief flourishing of an elusive, if not nebulous, Chinese bourgeoisie between 1910 and 1920, who, to the author, was important because it was the first to “identify its own destiny and that of China as a whole with economic modernization” (4). In doing so, she offers the only definitive study that examines the various constituents of these new capitalist entrepreneurs and attempts to dismiss conventional Marxist historiography in dissociating the interplay of modernity and revolution in Chinese history. By studying the brief emergence of the bourgeoisie, Bergère challenges the Marxist interpretation of Chinese history and believes that a social revolution was not necessary for economic progress.

Certainly, the strength of the book lies in its first half, where Bergère’s use of social analysis illuminates the fragile emergence of a modern industrial business class, primarily focusing on Shanghai. Her discussion of this modern business elite is informative, engaging us in spatial descriptions of industrial Shanghai, and giving face to name by using family histories to portray different members of China’s capitalists and their various motivations. Rather than interpreting this class rigidly and merely reducing its intricacies to Marxist abstractions, Bergère’s bourgeoisie is one whose social structure is organized dynamically along traditional family and regional links, as well as professional lines, from which it initiated new forms of associations. Thus, the novelty of this new bourgeoisie was its ability to “make tradition serve new objectives” (185), therein playing a vanguard role in China’s march toward modernization.

Bergère’s assertion that a bourgeois class existed between the 1911 eclipse of state power to the 1927 restoration of the state is less convincing. She does not adequately demonstrate, as she asserts, that during this time, a truly “united front” of this business class emerged as a near autonomous, self-aware political force in Chinese society (240). Having presented such an elaborate view of these new entrepreneurs, her failure to explain how the socially distinct (sometimes indistinct) group came to develop such self-consciousness prevents readers from a just evaluation of whether this bourgeoisie really was a distinct political force or just a melee of businessmen striving for economic goals over which a select elite group could assert a vacillating political agenda. A systematic analysis of ideology and its transformation of this new “bourgeoisie” is needed to support Bergère’s interpretation. Moreover, by dissociating modernity from revolution overlooks the importance of revolution in modern Chinese history.

This treatment of the Chinese bourgeoisie gives significant insight into the vagaries of the modernization process as dealt with by China’s social and political forces between 1911 and 1927, as seen through the achievements and adaptations experienced by this new urban business class at its apogee. Reviewers unanimously acknowledged Bergère’s study as indispensable, well-researched and having continuing relevance (Parks Coble in Pacific Affairs, 64,1:94-6; Prasenjit Duara in Modern Asian Studies, 26,3:632-3; Sherman Cochran in Journal of Asian Studies, 49,4:895-896). Duara and Cochran both raise questions about the use of social analysis to construct a political narrative in doing investigations centering on issues of state versus society in Chinese history.

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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