Chinese Business History: Interpretive Trends and Priorities for the Future

By Robert Gardella; Jane K. Leonard et al. | Go to book overview

In spite of some weaknesses and problems in the study of Chinese business history, 49 this field is poised for a takeoff with the help of several favorable factors: a foundation of solid research, extensive newly available source material, a Chinese government friendly toward business, and the economic boom in "Greater China." What are the prospects for the future?

One question in this connection concerns the extent to which we apply to Chinese business history the models that are developed from Western experience. Alfred Chandler's emphasis on technology and big business organization, for instance, has worked wonders in the study of business history not only concerning the United States but also concerning Britain, Germany, and Japan. There are some considerable limitations, however, in applying it to China because of China's distinctive problems and historical contexts. To begin with, both the predominance of small-scale businesses in the nineteenth century and the importance of the official, bureaucratic enterprises in the twentieth century left little room for the Chinese manager's "visible hand" to maneuver. If American business history serves as a reminder of the power of economics and technology over culture, then we may say that Chinese business history provides an eloquent testimony to the importance of history over economics and technology. Indeed, since late imperial times, Chinese history has exhibited institutional features that, in their totality, constituted a distinctive framework for organizing business activities, such as networks, the family business, the reticular market structure, the co-optational relationship between the state and private enterprises, and "nationalistic business." These features, shaped by culture and history, constitute particular characteristics of Chinese business history, distinguishing themselves from the key features of other countries' business histories, such as managerial creativity in the United States and government policy toward business in Japan.

Particular characteristics such as these, that are the product of China's own unique history, thus deserve our special attention. A challenge to all students in this field lies in how to study Chinese business history by putting business enterprises and businessmen in proper historical context. I would like to argue, therefore, that the main business of Chinese business history is business in history.


Notes
1.
Marion J. Levy, Jr., and Kuo-heng Shih, The Rise of the Modern Chinese Business Class ( New York: Institute of Pacific Relations, 1949). Kwang-ching Liu published articles on the Shanghai Steam-Navigation Company in the Business History Review in 1954 and 1955; Albert Feuerwerker, China's Early Industrialization ( Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958); Sherman Cochran, Big Business in China: Sino-Foreign

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