- Useless to the State: “Social Problems” and Social Engineering in Nationalist Nanjing, 1927–1937
Uselessness is a modern concept. Modern state building entails, among other things, mobilizing useless, unproductive people and making them useful. That idea is central to Zwia Lipkin’s illuminating study of the Guomindang's (GMD) modernization of Nanjing from 1927 to 1937. By putting the spotlight on the Nationalist government’s treatment of social problems, Lipkin brings Nanjing’s fringe dwellers out of the historiographical shadows, portraying them as both agents and victims. Furthermore, she throws new light on the history of the Nationalist Party during its first years in government. Her close analysis of the Nanjing municipal government’s social engineering experiments portrays a regime more committed to reform, even a revolutionary agenda, than most studies of the Guomindang in power typically reveal.
The Nationalist state’s growing claims on society’s resources were accompanied by societal claims on the state. The expanding state’s push into formerly private spheres turned private problems into state responsibilities. For example, the problems of unemployment, itinerancy, beggary, and slum dwelling had usually not been the concern of imperial governments. The Nanjing city authorities, however, saw the removal of these problems—and of disreputable professions such as prostitution, fortune telling, and rickshaw pulling—as intrinsic to the reconstruction of Nanjing as a modern capital and showpiece of the new China. Lipkin repeatedly emphasizes that, in the early days in particular, the modernizers were more concerned with appearances, with Nanjing’s look, than with actual social reform. But at least some of the six mayors who held office during the 1927–1937 period seem to have been committed to carrying forward the national revolution, including meeting the “Four Basic Needs” that Sun Yatsen had defined as the state’s responsibility (clothing, food, shelter, and transportation). A 1928 survey that revealed a housing shortage, hygiene problems, a low birth rate, and high unemployment in Nanjing city was interpreted by Mayor He Minhun as evidence of government failure and as responsible for “a widening rift between the government and the people” that had to be remedied (p. 46).
Lipkin’s main purpose is to understand the social policy rationales and reform achievements of the Nanjing municipal government in the decade before the Japanese occupation of the city. She is concerned also with learning how subalterns reacted to their treatment; this, for the most part, is gleaned from government records, policy papers, and reports. And she deduces public opinion on social [End Page 141] issues from newspapers such as Minshengbao, Jingbao, and Chaobao. The study’s solid introduction to pre-Guomindang Nanjing is followed by an account of the eight Nationalist mayoralties from April 1927 to November 1937 (two mayors served twice). After this, the book is organized thematically, with a chapter each on refugees, shantytowns, rickshaw pulling, prostitution, and beggary. An epilogue draws comparisons between the Nationalists’ makeover of Nanjing in the 1930s and the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP)reconstruction of Beijing as national capital after 1949; Lipkin’s aim here is demonstrate some of the significant similarities between GMD and CCP approaches to social deviance in urban contexts.
What did the reformers achieve? One success was the drive to get beggars off the streets and into asylums or labor squads; beggars were less visible in Nanjing’s public places by the mid-1930s. Traffic reform failed to reduce rickshaw numbers, but government regulation and welfare provisions went some way towards making the life of the rickshaw coolie a bit more tolerable; the government came to realize that, in the absence of better alternatives, “rickshaw-pullers contributed to the proper functioning of the city” (pp. 159–160). But the municipal government could not build houses fast enough to accommodate the large numbers of refugees who, fairly steadily throughout the decade, streamed into the city and who resisted being relocated to housing estates outside the...