Guilty of Indigence: The Urban Poor in China, 1900-1953

Guilty of Indigence: The Urban Poor in China, 1900-1953

Guilty of Indigence: The Urban Poor in China, 1900-1953

Guilty of Indigence: The Urban Poor in China, 1900-1953


In the early twentieth century, a time of political fragmentation and social upheaval in China, poverty became the focus of an anguished national conversation about the future of the country. Investigating the lives of the urban poor in China during this critical era, Guilty of Indigence examines the solutions implemented by a nation attempting to deal with "society's most fundamental problem." Interweaving analysis of shifting social viewpoints, the evolution of poor relief institutions, and the lived experiences of the urban poor, Janet Chen explores the development of Chinese attitudes toward urban poverty and of policies intended for its alleviation.

Chen concentrates on Beijing and Shanghai, two of China's most important cities, and she considers how various interventions carried a lasting influence. The advent of the workhouse, the denigration of the nonworking poor as "social parasites," efforts to police homelessness and vagrancy--all had significant impact on the lives of people struggling to survive. Chen provides a crucially needed historical lens for understanding how beliefs about poverty intersected with shattering historical events, producing new welfare policies and institutions for the benefit of some, but to the detriment of others.

Drawing on vast archival material, Guilty of Indigence deepens the historical perspective on poverty in China and reveals critical lessons about a still-pervasive social issue.


On the night of November 24, 1922, Guo Hetang was sleeping in a Beijing alleyway when a policeman from the Fourth District Precinct discovered him. As Constable Chang Quan learned from questioning him, Guo was thirteen sui, a native of Handan County (about three hundred miles southwest of the capital city). His mother died when he was quite young, and after his father passed away in 1921, he lived with his uncle for a while. When the uncle left town to look for work, Guo moved in with Li Kui, a neighbor who was a former soldier. in June of 1922, Li brought him to Beijing, but when they arrived he abandoned the boy at the Qianmen train station. At first Guo wandered around the city begging. a few days later he found a job carrying water for a man named Liu, who gave him a set of clothes and two meals of steamed buns each day. “But recently Liu complained that I was eating too much and kicked me out,” Guo told the authorities. “The policeman found me sleeping on the street.” At the conclusion of the interview, Guo signed a statement summarizing his responses with an X mark. Departing from the usually taciturn police report, Constable Chang wrote that “this young child wore thin clothing and was freezing. He shivered and his voice shook as he spoke. If nothing is done he will surely freeze to death.” Five days later, the police chief inspector’s office arranged for Guo to be sent to the Capital Vagrant Workhouse (Jingshi Youmin Xiyisuo), with a note explaining his history. the cover memo added that “this boy is orphaned and helpless, and deserves compassion,” and also expressed the hope that he would learn a “suitable craft” at the workhouse and no longer “wander about destitute.”

What happened to Guo Hetang at the workhouse, and afterward? the records do not tell us. His story, described in a one-page testimony preserved in the police files at the Beijing Municipal Archive, is one ordinary example among many. However truncated and sparse, the details of this case suggest new elements in twentieth-century Chinese urban life that deserve our attention. a policeman patrolling the city streets, an orphan abandoned at the railway station, a former soldier from a provincial town passing through the capital, a young life of misery narrated to interrogators and recorded for the police file, the workhouse as a place of charitable detention—these threads underline some of the main themes of this book.

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