- Industrial Eden: A Chinese Capitalist Vision by Brett Sheehan
Industrial Eden tells a complex story of two men, father and son, who built business enterprises in northeastern China during the first half of the twentieth century. The father, Song Chuandian (宋傳典 1872?–1929), came from a poor peasant family that converted to Christianity. British Baptist missionaries in this part of northern China belonged to “the social gospel movement,” which—along with religious conversion—aimed to better the lives of destitute people through developmental projects such as schools and small businesses. They justified their motives for emphasizing economic development by conceiving a causal link between Christianity and prosperity.
As a student in their missionary school, Song Chuandian came into contact with this “developmental gospel.” After he graduated, the missionaries gave him work in one of their handicraft projects: a small lacemaking business. Chuandian gathered a few investors, and together they founded the Dechang Lace Company (德昌花邊莊). It remained a small and cash-poor operation until the mid-1910s, when they added hairnets for export to the product line. The hairnet business earned Chuandian a fortune. After Chuandian’s death, his eldest son, Song Feiqing (宋奜卿 1899–1955) turned the family business into a modern industrial enterprise specializing in spinning yarn. During the 1940s, he expanded into other commodities, including gunnysacks.
One of the book’s many strengths is that it is the first to analyze Chinese people’s lives across the dislocations of the five authoritarian regimes in power in North China from the founding of the Chinese Republic in 1912 through Chinese Communist Party rule. This time span gives Brett Sheehan the opportunity to explore the commonalities shared by authoritarian regimes and—more importantly—the contradictions arising from immediate circumstances. These five regimes each aimed to build state-run economies. Sheehan complicates the division between authoritarian and developmental states by showing that, in the midst of the extortion and confiscation that private companies like Feiqing’s Dongya Corporation (東亞毛呢纺織股份有限公司) endured, there were also times when these regimes needed to promote developmental objectives, bringing cooperation between the authoritarian state and private business.
Central to Sheehan’s analysis is Song Feiqing’s business philosophy. Song—as well as other Chinese businessmen in the 1920s and 1930s—conceived of industrialization as a modern and scientific project that had the potential to socially, culturally, and politically redeem the Chinese nation. In other words, industrializing China was not just about making money. Entrepreneurs like Feiqing were patriots. Theirs was a utopian vision of change derived from origins that scholars do not usually see as complementary. For Feiqing, there was Christian redemption from Baptist missionaries; the paternalism, loyalty, and self-cultivation of Confucian teachings; and the Western and scientific mandate of the May Fourth movement. These influences came together in Song Feiqing’s vision of a scientific, hygienic modernity practiced at his factory in Tianjin. In his utopian vision, shareholders, employees, and the nation were enriched and prospered along with the business. Sheehan’s title, Industrial Eden, captures this complex convergence of ideas and influences. [End Page 106]
Evidence from Sheehan’s rich and widely varied sources puts to rest historiographical arguments over whether Chinese entrepreneurs in the twentieth century profited from reliance on Chinese cultural values or exposure to Western business practices. Song Feiqing and his father did not use any “single, culturally determined set of Chinese business practices” (4). They were pragmatists. They accepted the arbitrary and extortionate nature of their political environments. They formed their business strategies and met challenges by using what they saw as the most effective means at hand. Sheehan shows how the term “capitalism” could have multiple meanings as a result of the hybrid practices that men like Song Chuandian and his son used to build their business empires.
One of the ironies that Industrial Eden documents is that it was often the instability of China’s political environment that brought success to the Song family. Father and son were astute and clever, and they found spaces within authoritarian, but often disorganized, regimes where they could run their businesses...