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Reviewed by:
  • Commerce and Capitalism in Chinese Society
  • David D. Buck (bio)
Gary G. Hamilton . Commerce and Capitalism in Chinese Society. New York: Routledge, 2006. xii, 309 pp. Paperback $37.95, ISBN 0-415-15705-6. Hardcover $135.00, ISBN 0–415–15704–8.

The sociologist Gary Hamilton has gathered eleven of his articles in this collection. Because these articles cover a wide range of subjects, his central theory emerges in a somewhat disjointed fashion. Nevertheless, Hamilton's interpretations are impressive and offer a challenge to accepted thinking about Chinese business organization. The book is highly recommended to all interested in how private Chinese firms operate.

A summary statement of Hamilton's interpretation is that before 1850 China had developed its own particular form of economic organization that was unlike Western capitalism. The Chinese commercial system depended upon highly segmented and complex trading networks linking consumers and producers through chains of self-governing artisans and merchants. He states, "China is not a mirror image of the West. Rather it is an independent vision of how a society can be put together" (p. 70). Capitalism, Hamilton states, came to China, as it did to other places beyond northern Europe, by means of diffusion. Specifically, capitalism challenged the Chinese system after the Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth century, and the Chinese responded by adapting Western economic forms by the end of the century. In the early twentieth century, a mixture of established Chinese ways and Western business styles appeared, which suggests that "Westernization might better be viewed as a new way to signify, as an attempt to reaffirm, a traditional social order" (p. 90). Thus, China's underlying patterns of economic organization survive into the present. Hamilton believes this is a common process that has taken place in Japan and other parts of the world.

Hamilton argues that a process he calls "reflexive manufacturing" lies at the heart of Chinese economic organization, both in premodern and present-day manifestations. His case for reflexive manufacturing is best made in an article cowritten with Kao Cheng-shu and originally published in 2000. The authors describe how networks [End Page 451] of small and medium-sized firms in Taiwan successfully responded in the 1960s to the rapidly shifting demands of increasingly powerful American mass retailers. Taiwanese began manufacturing goods such as clothing and household items. Confident after their initial successes, these same networks of Taiwanese businessmen rapidly expanded into increasingly complex products, especially bicycles and computers. In the mid-1990s, they began shifting this reflexive manufacturing model to China's coastal regions.

Hamilton's analysis of Taiwan's success rings true, but he also projects this same organizational form back into the Qing dynasty. An article co-authored with Chang Wei-an and Chi-kong Lai argues, "In late imperial and early modern China, commercial organization, that is the organization of marketing products, shaped the patterns of commodity production" (p. 96). The authors go on to argue that present-day and premodern textile production in China embodies a common organization "'backward' from distribution rather than 'forward' from production" (p. 102). Hamilton cites the obvious case of the Ford Motor Company as characterizing the forward style that dominated American manufacturing in the twentieth century. Consequently, the present-day Chinese economy embodies an adaptation and expansion of its earlier reflexive organizational qualities. This has proven especially beneficial in a global economic system in which mass retailers in North America and Europe in the late twentieth century turned to cultivating networks of producers who could respond quickly and efficiently to rapid (and manipulated) changes in consumer taste.

Hamilton and his collaborators dwell on China's nineteenth-century textile production for their chief example for reflexive production. Several other examples from late imperial times occurred to this reviewer, including Ming-period exports of porcelains decorated to Islamic tastes, the individualized production of monogrammed porcelain dinner services at Jingdezhen in inland Jiangxi for export to England through Canton beginning in the mid-eighteenth century; the production of black teas suited to British taste after 1860, and the simultaneous development of brick teas adapted to Russian taste. Further into the early twentieth century, American department stores shipped Belgian linen handkerchiefs...