One Industry, Two Chinas: Silk Filatures and Peasant-Family Production in Wuxi County, 1865-1937.
The debate on issues related to development in late imperial and modern China has been at the center of scholarship, both in and outside China, for at least two decades. In the 1970s, younger generations in the American scholarly community challenged the then authoritative approach to modern Chinese history that located the dynamics of China's development in the modern era primarily in the impact of the West. This new breed of scholarship, however, was far from being unified. It was deeply divided on issues such as how to evaluate Chinese development (or underdevelopment), how to distinguish growth from development, whether imperialism hampered or stimulated the Chinese economy, and so on. Simultaneously, in China historians immersed themselves in a search for evidence of so-called sprouts of capitalism in pre-Opium War China. The products of such scholarly pursuits, prolific and solid as they were, provided a footnote to Mao's assertion that had it not been for the Western intrusion "feudal" China would have gradually developed into a capitalist system.
Linda Bell's book adds a fresh dimension to this decades-long debate on Chinese development. Taking the silk industry in Wuxi and its vicinity in the lower Yangzi delta as a case study, Bell argues that a developmental continuum exited between urban-based, machine-driven silk industry and rural household handicraft. Cocoon production, which involved mulberry cultivation and silkworm raising and was traditionally a rural calling, was an indispensable part of the urban-based modern silk industry. Along with the rise of silk filatures in Shanghai and Wuxi in the early twentieth century, the Wuxi countryside became the principle site of cocoon production in the Yangzi delta. Wuxi peasant households took up cocoon production to serve the modern filature industry in the city, as well as the world-market demand for machine-spun raw silk. Nearly every peasant household in Wuxi engaged in cocoon production for the urban-based silk filatures. Hence Bell argues that there were "two Chinas" which coexisted in the form of one industry. The two--rural and urban China--were not competitive but, rather, mutually dependent. Although peasant households seemed to be the exploited party in this relationship, the fragmentation of cocoon production among rural households and the segmentation of the market among many layers of merchants and small-scale producers required a progressive elaboration among all the parties involved.
Bell refers to the phenomenon of the fusion of peasant family production with early Chinese industry as "China's new developmental continuum at the turn of the twentieth century" (pp.2-3). This continuum was the essential feature of the silk industry and it serves as the theme of Bell's book. Students of modern Chinese history will naturally relate Wuxi's silk industry continuum to the rural-urban continuum that G. William Skinner and his colleagues (especially Frederick Mote) so skillfully argued in their monumental work, The Chinese City in Late Imperial China (Stanford 1977). Although Bell apparently has no intention of elaborating her argument on the silk industry continuum by building upon Mote's model of an rural-urban continuum in traditional China, the reader may get a deeper understanding of Bell's book by reading the two "continuums" together. By the same token, if we move the cursor up to contemporary China, we find some interesting echoes of Bell's silk industry continuum in early twentieth-centur y Wuxi. Known as village and township enterprises (xiangzhen qiye), small rural-based industries were one of the major forces behind China's startling rate of industrialization in the last quarter of the twentieth century, in much the same way (and indeed in the same area) that Bell depicts in her book.
Bell's work touches upon a number of topics in Chinese socioeconomic history, ranging from industrial investment, management style, merchant guilds, and international trade to women's role in the work force, the division of labor, household income, and so on. But a central concern of her book is the role of the local elite and its interactions with both the state and the local community. Bell claims that she is "interested almost exclusively in silk-industry reformers at the very bottom of local elite hierarchies" (p.133). Her work does provide detailed observations, and sometimes insightful analyses, of local politics and industrialists. For instance, readers can see how, among other local activists, Xue Shouxuan (?-1972), a silk-industry magnate in Wuxi in the Nanjing decade (1928-37), quite skillfully straddled the territory between the Guomingdang government and local entrepreneurs, and ended up in a long and turbulent exile in New York. Xue's story is just part of a bigger picture of the interaction of t he local elite with state power. Much of the book successfully shows "how governments at all levels became involved with various aspects of promotion and regulation of the modern silk industry" (p.177). According to Bell, from the Taiping period (1850-64) to the first decade of the Republic, local authorities and elite worked well together to protect and promote cocoon marketing. However, after the 1910s, some tensions arose between the two. The most prominent example is that the Wuxi cocoon merchants, via their guild, increasingly worked together to defend and develop local commercial interests, in particular against provincial taxation. But Bell warns us that the goal of the local elite was not to seek autonomy or a direct confrontation with the authorities or the public sphere. Rather, the elite, in its fight to safeguard the interests of the silk trade, "often relied upon local government assistance and sanction in promoting their activities of self-regulation and self-protection" (p.88). Hence Bell is "c asting doubt on long-standing notions that 'local autonomy' of elite from the state was endemic everywhere during the late Qing and the Republic" (p.l84).
This is a very well researched book. Its rich array of historical materials is supplemented by the author's anthropological fieldwork in Wuxi. The book is written is an accessible and engaging style, and dozens of illustrations, tables, figures, and maps add clarification and vividness. Bell's book should be on the shelf of any scholar who is interested in modern Chinese socioeconomic history, local history, and business history.
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2001|
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