- Shanghai Splendor: Economic Sentiments and the Making of Modern China, 1843–1949
For the past twenty-five years or so, Shanghai has been the exemplar of Chinese modernity in Sinophone and Anglophone scholarship on nineteenth- and twentieth-century China. Wen-hsin Yeh’s Shanghai Splendor provides a deft, literate, state-of-the-field synthesis of much of this work, while also succeeding as a novel scholarly monograph on Republican-era economic sentiment and commerce. It traces the propagation and transformation of economism—a state of mind and view of life in which economic matters not only are central to society and the nation but also constitute a calculus of morality and social value— from the wake of the Opium War through the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. This agenda would be ambitious for any study, especially one as slim as this one. Yet through bold declarative writing, strategic choices, and artful montage, Yeh achieves her aim.
Unlike the majority of studies on early twentieth-century Shanghai, which explore the circumstances of political and commercial elites, college students, workers, prostitutes, storytellers, or others at the extreme ends of the social spectrum, Yeh’s book focuses on middling types, the so-called petty urbanites, such as shop assistants, office clerks, bank tellers, accountants, and other desk workers in the city’s modern firms. Her book successfully connects economic and business history, which often focus on intellectual and institutional questions, to social-cultural history. As anyone familiar with her other [End Page 497] works, such as The Alienated Academy: Culture and Politics in Republican China, 1819–1937,1 will appreciate, Yeh possesses a marvelous facility for exemplifying key arguments by choosing telling details and narrative strands from an astonishingly diverse body of materials. In the interest of brevity, she sketches some points rather than fully explicating them with supporting evidence. This strategy keeps the narrative flowing, but sometimes I desired the opportunity to explore more of Yeh’s underlying evidence and analysis. Shanghai Splendor is one of the few scholarly monographs that I would wish to be longer.
Consisting of an introduction, seven thematic chapters, and an epilogue, Shanghai Splendor narrates a dramatic two-part transformation. The introduction and first five chapters describe the rise of economistic thinking and the petty urbanite’s celebration of capitalists as beneficent patriarchs and social models whose success demonstrated the scientific rigor and national importance of economic growth as a core facet of urban modernity. The last two chapters relate the unraveling of this consensus and the transubstantiation of economism, showing how petty urbanites first critically reevaluated Shanghai’s capitalists as social and economic stewards of their interests and those of the nation, and then shifted their allegiance to communist-inflected visions of the national economy and social justice.
Chapter 1 sketches the development of commerce in late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century Shanghai. In light of the nascent view of commerce as a form of war, and the promotion by officials and businessmen of domestic commerce as a means of national strengthening, capitalists and others came to perceive and promote the new concentration of urban wealth in Shanghai as patriotic, scientific, and democratic.
Chapter 2 traces the advent of commerce as a subject of scientific knowledge and study, along with the concomitant rise of a new petty bourgeoisie elite primarily composed of advanced degree holders from overseas universities, shareholders, traders, and advertisers. Yeh argues that the establishment of influential bodies like the Chinese Society for Vocational Education (CSVE), as well as the general development of commercial learning, were both a product of and reagent for the transformation of business from a suspect undertaking to a laudatory, [End Page 498] socially essential endeavor in which success, in the form of wealth, was equated with superior knowledge, skill, and patriotism. The national significance of commerce made the late Qing and Republican states increasingly interested in the promotion and regulation of commercial studies, such as accounting, which was viewed as the epitome...