Cross-Currents E-Journal (No. 16)

September 2015
Editors' Note
Sungtaek Cho, Korea University
Wen-hsin Yeh, University of California, Berkeley


Rethinking Business History in Modern China

Wen-hsin Yeh, University of California, Berkeley
Klaus Mühlhahn, Freie Universität Berlin
Hajo Frölich, Freie Universität Berlin

In this special issue of Cross-Currents, the contributing authors look at how business linked China and the world from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, and how Chinese and foreign companies interacted with one another, as well as with political power, long before today. Some authors concentrate on material connections, including shipping, banking, the building of railroads, the spread of the motion picture industry, international treaties, and the formation of knowledge, while others investigate the role of business culture and how entrepreneurship and networks of trust crossed borders. Both of these aspects are set against the backdrop of simultaneous Chinese state-building efforts that became evident in the state creation of a national market and the formation of political borders. All of the authors collected here draw on case studies of individual entrepreneurs or companies, just as they draw on the new historical and theoretical scholarship summarized above to fill out the picture of China’s economic development within global processes. As the contributions to this issue demonstrate, rethinking Chinese business history also forces us to rethink Chinese urban history more generally... The new pictures of business practice presented here entail a remapping of the spatial dynamics of such activities and thereby a new understanding of the making of urban China...

Bert Becker, University of Hong Kong

In the period of “new” imperialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, France strived to create a sphere of influence in southwest China. To foster such imperialist policies, France’s policy makers regarded French companies operating in East Asia as instrumental. One such firm was Auguste Raphael Marty’s Tonkin Shipping Company, based in Haiphong, French Indochina, which operated steam coasters across the wider Gulf of Tonkin region. In the region’s highly competitive shipping market, Marty strived to achieve a monopoly when favorable conditions permitted during the final phase of the Sino-Japanese War. His profit-driven strategy caused huge losses for Chinese shippers and ultimately resulted in their boycotting his ships through the Tsap Yet syndicate. When French officials intervened on Marty’s behalf in negotiations with the Chinese government, the Syndicate was finally dissolved. It was followed by an agreement between the Chinese firm of Yuen Cheong Lee and Co. and the German firm of Jebsen and Co., based on long-established mutual trust between the owners. Although Marty received monetary compensation for his losses, he ruined his relationship with Chinese merchants. This case study presents little-known facts about the interactions among foreign firms in China and demonstrates the Chinese ability to react efficiently to unfair business practices.

Keywords: French imperialism, Chinese shipping business, Southwest China, Gulf of Tonkin, Hoihow, Pakhoi, Haiphong, Western tramp shipping, Tonkin Shipping Company, Marty et d’Abbadie, Auguste Raphael Marty, Yuen Cheong Lee and Co., Jebsen and Co., Schomburg and Co., Tsap Yet Syndicate, Sir Robert Hart, Edmund Baron von Heyking, Kwang-chow-wan, Kiaochow

Ghassan Moazzin, University of Cambridge

This article uses the case of the Deutsch-Asiatische Bank and its liquidation during the First World War to examine the challenges faced by German businesses during the war in China and China’s involvement in Allied economic warfare. This case suggests the detrimental effect that political crises and global shifts of power had on foreign businesses in modern China’s globalized treaty port economy. It also reveals China’s role in the global economic warfare of the Allies, showing that China first resisted Allied demands for a full liquidation of the German bank but eventually acquiesced to Allied pressure and handed control over the liquidation to the Allies. As a consequence, China ended up violating the very international law it had put so much value on when entering the war.

Keywords: China, WWI, Deutsch-Asiatische Bank, liquidation, economic warfare, international law, foreign banks, Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation

Tsu-yu Chen, Academia Sinica

Following the Japanese victory over Czarist Russia in the Russo-Japanese War and the signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth in 1905, the southernmost section of the southern branch of the China Far East Railway (Changchun–Port Arthur) was transferred to Japanese control. A new, semi-privately held company, the South Manchuria Railway Company (SMR, Mantetsu, was established with 85.6 percent capitalization by the Japanese government and foreign bonds to operate the railroad and to develop settlements (including highways, public health facilities, educational institutions,) and industries (coal mines, harbor facilities, electrical power plants, shale oil plants, chemical plants, and restaurants) along its route. SMR nonetheless emphasized railway and mining investment. The centerpiece of its mining interests was the Fushun Coal Mine. Starting in 1917, SMR began to prosper, with most profits coming from its coal mines, and it soon spun off subsidiary companies. In this sense, although the factors that influenced development of the Fushun Coal Mine in each period were different, this development still shows continuity of the business management. 

Keywords: South Manchuria Railway Company (SMR, Mantetsu), Fushun Coal Mine, mining industry, Japan, Manchuria

Matthew D. Johnson, Grinnell College

The transition of the motion picture from foreign amusement to local enterprise was primarily the result of transnational commercial activity linking investors, entrepreneurs, and entertainment professionals. Amid the ongoing urbanization of China’s early Republican period, the enterprises emerging from this activity became increasingly profitable and, as a result, film production and exhibition became regularized phenomena, rooted in identifiable genres and standardized approaches to engaging audiences within the immersive space of the theater. By the early 1920s, those closest to the nascent industry were eager to legitimize its power by portraying the medium as a tool for political and social reform. However, commercial strategies and aesthetics remained relatively undisturbed despite this progressive rhetoric. In geographic terms, motion picture–related enterprises and culture remained strongly regional: affected and constrained by the non-Chinese national industries operating in politically divided China, by competing forms of local popular culture, and by existing geographies of exchange and infrastructure. The early Republican “experimental” period in Chinese cinema was, from an enterprise-centered perspective, one of numerous coexisting subnational cultural centers and zones.

Keywords: modern Chinese history, Republican era (1911–1949), business history, cultural geography, Sino-foreign enterprise, media change, cinema, motion pictures (production and exhibition), film theaters, popular culture

Robert K. Cliver, Humboldt State University

During the 1950s, China’s hybrid economy recovered from years of war and crisis. China’s Communist revolutionaries and “national capitalists” (minzu zibenjia 民族资本家) cooperated in this effort and were often successful, but the relationship was not unproblematic. This article focuses on the survival strategies of factory owners in the silk industry during what the Chinese Community Party terms the “socialist transformation of private industry and commerce.” This process was initiated and mobilized by the central government but implemented by local officials, and it was influenced by capitalists’ diverse responses, which showed adaptability, perseverance, manipulation, and even resistance. One surprising discovery is that many factory owners welcomed effective state involvement in the economy, such as expansion of the system of state-contracted production in private firms, and agitated to accelerate the transition to socialism. From the Five Antis Campaign in 1952 through the “socialist high tide” of 1956, the relationship between private businesses and the state changed dramatically and reshaped China’s economy, often in unpredictable ways. In this light, China’s transition to socialism appears more complex and contested than historians have previously imagined.

Keywords: China, revolution, capitalist, communist, socialist transformation, private business, industry, silk, state-contracted production, Five Antis Campaign

Review Essays, Notes & Bibliographies

Johan Elverskog, Southern Methodist University

In early 2015 an intellectual kerfuffle erupted about the state of violence in our contemporary world. On one side of this debate were scholars like Steven Pinker (2012) and Richard Bessel (2015), who argue that things are getting better; namely, the amount of violence today is at historical lows. This is an argument that others, such as John Gray and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, find preposterous. Whatever the case may be, it is certainly true that violence still exists in today’s world and that many scholars are trying to explain it. Indeed, understanding such violence is the driving force behind the excellent books under review here—two works that not only bring Mongolia into these larger intellectual debates but do so through an engagement with two distinct theoretical approaches to the question of violence: Giorgio Agamben’s political philosophy and Lacanian psychoanalysis...

Douglas Fix, Reed College

In her new book, Place, Identity and National Imagination in Postwar Taiwan, Chang Bi-yu argues that, despite this avalanche of publications and websites devoted to Taiwan’s (historical) geography and cartography, few publications have offered a comprehensive and detailed analysis of Taiwan’s spatiality, in particular the representations and spatial discourse of nation and homeland that have been propagated and controlled by the Kuomintang (hereafter KMT) regime since its retreat to Taiwan in late 1949. To fill that gap in the literature (particularly in the English-language scholarship) on Taiwan’s spatiality, Chang has examined the annual Taiwan Yearbook, Taiwan-based cartographic production, elementary-school textbooks, and the 1950s design and construction of Chunghsing New Village (site of the relocated provincial government). Her goal has been a better understanding of the symbolism, construction, visualization, and contested meanings of Taiwan’s geography and political landscape. In this monograph, Chang also seeks to examine the ways in which state spaces are operated, contested, and changed, as well as how power relations are concretized, social alliances established, and cultural changes enacted through state spatiality. Although the central focus is state spatiality, this is also a book about Taiwan’s identity politics and the highly contested postwar power relationships on the island...

Matthew Sommer, Stanford University

What does it mean to be a man in China? The two studies under review here, both valuable contributions, approach this question in different ways. Bret Hinsch offers a dynasty-by-dynasty overview of the broad sweep of Chinese history, whereas Geng Song and Derek Hird zero in on the contemporary urban scene. But the books have much in common. Both privilege “ideals of manhood,” as Hinsch puts it (10), over lived experience and focus on elites to the exclusion of the vast majority of Chinese men. Both titles employ the plural “masculinities” to emphasize the multiple and sometimes contradictory expressions of manhood found in Chinese culture. Despite that emphatic pluralism, however, the reader is startled to find that the working poor, the peasantry, imbalanced sex ratios, and same-sex desire are all more or less invisible in these accounts...