- Modern China’s Network Revolution: Chambers of Commerce and Sociopolitical Change in the Early Twentieth Century by Zhongping Chen
In the study of the social history of modern China, there are two opposing views. On the one side, scholars of a liberal bent argue that in China’s transformation from an empire to a nation-state, there emerges an autonomous social realm analogous to what the sociologists call “civil society.” The emergence of this autonomous social realm—evidenced in the spread of print capitalism, the proliferation of self-governed organizations, and the professionalization of the academy—creates a horizontal network that allows citizens to gather and share views. Independent of the state, this social realm affirms China’s “modernity” not only by breaking the centuries-long tradition of imperial autocracy, but also by challenging the totalitarian rule of the Guomindang and the CCP. On the opposite side, scholars who are less convinced of the “tradition-modernity” dichotomy emphasize the symbiosis between state and society in China’s attempt at building a nation-state. They see the continuation of the old gentry culture in which social elites—especially the educated and the wealthy—enjoy the privilege of mediating between the public and private interests. Emphasizing the advantages of the close state-society relationship (such as efficient coordination and less contentious political atmosphere), these scholars argue for a unique form of modernity in China that does not follow the western liberal tradition.
In Modern China’s Network Revolution: Chambers of Commerce and Sociopolitical Change in the Early Twentieth Century, Zhongping Chen enters the debate by supporting both views. This “middle-of-the-road” approach produces a stimulating but somewhat ambiguous account of merchants’ roles in a rapidly changing China. The book opens with a review of the scholarship on modern Chinese society. By identifying what is lacking in current literature, Chen foregrounds his main argument: the Lower Yangzi chambers of commerce were “the vanguards and representatives in the network revolution and attendant sociopolitical change up to the national level” (p. xv).
By “network revolution,” Chen means “an unprecedented level of relational institutionalization, expansion, diversification, and interaction” that was developed among merchants (p. xv). This institutionalization and rationalization of commercial ties led to the founding of a three-tier system of chambers of commerce—the general, affiliated, and branch—that allowed merchants to expand their influence [End Page 240] beyond native places, market towns, and major cities to places far and wide throughout China (chapters 2–3). This three-tier system also gave merchants the “organizational networks” to make alliances among themselves, to bargain with local and national officials, and, more important, to mobilize the populous to put pressure on the government when making major political decisions (chapters 4–6). Previously at the fringes of the Confucian society, merchants now became key players in national politics such as the anti-American boycott in 1905, the Nanyang Expo in 1910, the 1911 revolution, and the constitutional and parliamentary politics in the second and third decades of the twentieth century. By turning merchants into a powerful interest group, Chen concludes, “[the] relational revolution was quieter than the 1911 Revolution, but it lasted much longer and left deeper impacts on the sociopolitical landscape of China, especially on its lower-level society” (p. 210).
While one may think Chen supports the emergence of “civil society” in modern China, he counters that view by emphasizing the historical roots of the chambers of commerce. First, the system of chambers of commerce was built on the old merchant guilds that existed in China for centuries (chapter 1). Second, the way that merchants dealt with officials was based on the old gentry culture that stressed close collaborations between elites and the officialdom (chapter 2). To underscore the partnership between merchants and officials, Chen traced the early history of chambers of commerce when they were created as part of the Qing government’s expansion into the business sector. The partnership continued on after the...