In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section New Social Classes, 1895–1949

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals, Bulletins, and Newspapers
  • Collections of Source Materials
  • Labor Markets
  • Industrial Revolution and the “Social Problem”
  • Class Formation and the Labor Movement
  • The Bourgeoisie and Its Politics
  • Nationalism, Class, and the Labor Movement in South China
  • Radical Intellectuals, the Chinese Communist Party, and Labor
  • Women Workers and Class Identity
  • Wartime Labor
  • Artisans and the Handicraft Sector
  • Petty Urbanites and the Poor

Chinese Studies New Social Classes, 1895–1949
Joshua H. Howard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0032


The ability of foreign enterprises to establish factories in China after the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895 accelerated industrialization and as a consequence proletarianization, by which numerous workers without resources entered a class relationship by selling their labor power to survive. It was, however, during the economic boom years of World War I and its aftermath and during the New Culture Movement with the introduction of socialism that new urban social forces—the bourgeoisie and working class—emerged and radical intellectuals applied the concept of social class to their analysis of society and revolution. The increasingly politicized and often-militant quality of the labor movement between 1919 and 1927 led Jean Chesneaux (Chesneaux 1968, cited under Class Formation and the Labor Movement) to argue, in Marxist terms, that a class-conscious proletariat under the ideological guidance of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had arisen in reaction to the forces of imperialist oppression and exploitation. Although most social historians of the republican era concur that social classes in their objective form had emerged by the 1920s, they disagree on whether workers constituted a subjective “class for itself.” Scholars influenced by the new labor history school, with its emphasis on community and culture, find the complexity of the social composition and social dynamics of the working class to have obstructed the process of class formation. Despite positing workers’ own historical agency, these scholars underscore how segmented labor markets, workers’ particularistic ties and strong sense of regional identity, and gender divisions impeded class consciousness. Consequently, questions over workers’ politics and the nature of the labor movement have become controversial. Elizabeth J. Perry (Perry 1993, cited under Class Formation and the Labor Movement) interprets labor divisions based on skill, provenance, and gender as encouraging rather than debilitating labor activism. Other studies emphasize how anti-imperialism fueled the 1920s labor movement, with class taking a subservient role to nationalism. In a related issue, the relationship between workers and the CCP has sparked debate. Whereas Chesneaux emphasized that a class-conscious proletariat served as the social basis for the Communist revolution, others have challenged the CCP’s ideological supremacy and leadership over the labor movement and have focused on contradictions between Communists (largely drawn from the intelligentsia) and workers. Although these studies focus on Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Canton from 1919 to 1927, scholarship on Chongqing’s class formation during the 1940s analyzes both objective and subjective features of social class and contributes to an ongoing debate about the origins of the post-1949 work unit (danwei 单位) system.

General Overviews

Although dated, Bastid-Bruguiere 1980 provides a useful introduction to how foreign intrusion and internal structural changes ushered in social change during the last forty years of the Qing dynasty. The book argues that the upper classes were broken up and transformed with the formation of a nascent bourgeoisie after 1905. A small industrial proletariat and a class of marginalized commoners emerged, marking not the disappearance of traditional society but its progressive dislocation. In a similar fashion, Li 2005 follows Weberian theory in using both economic and cultural criteria to examine social stratification after the 1911 revolution. The reemergence of capitalists in the contemporary market reform in China prompted Marie-Claire Bergère (Bergère 2007) to synthesize her long-standing research on the bourgeoisie by examining continuities and ruptures over the 1949 divide and the impact of the state on the capitalist class. Chinese-language overviews of the working class are sharply divided along political and ideological lines. Ma 1959, overseen by the founding director in 1927 of the Nationalist government’s labor bureau and three-time mayor of Nanjing, provides an official Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang, GMD) chronicle of the labor movement and offers a sympathetic appraisal of Nationalist government labor legislation and a hostile view of Communist participation in the 1920s labor movement. By contrast, Liu and Tang 1998 ascribes class formation during the early 1920s to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership and castigates the Nationalist government for its white terror of the 1930s. The authors blame Leftist adventurism for labor’s setbacks during the Nanjing decade but credit CCP policy and the labor movement during the anti-Japanese war for balancing class contradictions with the goal of national liberation and for following Mao Zedong’s revolutionary strategy of encircling the cities from the countryside during the civil war. Selden 1983 also highlights the Communist Party’s dominant leadership and the repressive capacity of the Nationalist state in shaping the Chinese labor movement, noting that only the 1920s constituted a high-water mark in the conscious and autonomous revolutionary activity of the working class. Chesneaux and Kagan 1983 underscores how the precapitalist social relationships of the working class constrained its ability to become an enduring and viable force in the political arena. McQuaide 2008 reviews late-20th- and early 21st-century labor historiography, highlighting the impact of the new labor history school of thought and the turn away from class analysis among most Western scholars. Although scholarship on the post-Maoist era in China continues to adhere to the official party narrative regarding the centrality of the party to class formation, interest in topics once off-limits—such as workers’ preindustrial associational culture, the Nationalist-controlled unions, and working-class ties to secret societies—suggests labor history’s growing independence from Communist-dominated narratives.

  • Bastid-Bruguiere, Marianne. “Currents of Social Change.” In The Cambridge History of China. Vol. 11, Late Ch’ing, 1800–1911, Part 2. Edited by John K. Fairbank and Kwang-Ching Liu, 535–602. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

    Traces social change in the late Qing dynasty among elites (gentry, military officers, merchants, and rural oligarchy) and the lower classes (artisans, industrial workers, and migrant laborers) in rural and urban China. Industrial capitalism ushered in a nascent bourgeoisie, which remained auxiliary to the broader modern elite and was limited to major treaty ports.

  • Bergère, Marie-Claire. Capitalismes et capitalistes en Chine: XIXe–XXIe siècle. Perrin Asies, Paris: Perrin, 2007.

    An overview of Chinese capitalism and its hybrid character (relying on native and imported business practices) during the 20th century. Emphasizes how late development gave rise to the preponderant role of the state vis-à-vis capitalists except during the ephemeral “golden age” of Chinese capitalism between 1911 and 1927.

  • Chesneaux, Jean, and Richard C. Kagan. “The Chinese Labor Movement: 1915–1949.” International Social Studies Review 58.2 (1983): 67–87.

    In a critical reevaluation of his earlier work (Chesneaux 1968, cited under Class Formation and the Labor Movement), Chesneaux provides a socioeconomic profile of the Chinese working class and its working conditions with emphasis on precapitalist social relations to understand the relative weakness of the labor movement and why it did not play the leading role in the Chinese revolution, especially after 1927.

  • Li Mingwei 李明伟. Qingmo Minchu Zhongguo chengshi shehui jieceng yanjiu: 1897–1927 (清末民初中国城市社会阶层研究: 1897–1927). Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 2005.

    Well-documented study of social change and stratification throughout coastal and river port cities of China. Focuses on the relationships among economic interests, cultural values, and social differentiation by examining the income, lifestyle, marriage patterns, and educational opportunities of eight social strata, including bureaucrats, compradors, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, petty urbanites, and workers.

  • Liu Mingkui 刘明逵, and Tang Yuliang 唐玉良, eds. Zhongguo gongren yundongshi (中国工人运动史). 6 vols. Guangzhou, China: Guangdong renmin chubanshe, 1998.

    Well-documented Chinese Marxist narrative of the labor movement from the late Qing dynasty to 1949 and its role in the new democratic revolution. Argues that the semifeudal, semicolonial context pushed workers’ economic struggles during the 1920s into broader political opposition against imperialism and warlordism. Traces the trajectory of the post-1927 labor movement as corresponding to CCP policy with detailed analysis of Communist base areas and Nationalist China.

  • Ma Chaojun 馬朝俊, ed. Zhongguo laogong yundong shi (中国劳工运动史). 5 vols. Taibei: Zhongguo laogong fuli chubanshe, 1959.

    This massive work (some twenty-three hundred pages) chronicling major events of the labor movement highlights its anti-imperialist thrust during the 1920s and the Nationalist Party’s leadership role. Also provides full texts of important documents.

  • McQuaide, Shiling. “Writing Chinese Labour History: Changes and Continuities in Labour Historiography.” Labour/Le Travail 61 (Spring 2008): 215–237.

    Critical review of labor history scholarship in both the West and China in the late 20th and early 21st centuries exploring the rejection of class analysis in Western scholarship but the continued adherence to orthodox Marxist approaches among Chinese labor historians.

  • Selden, Mark. “The Proletariat, Revolutionary Change, and the State in China and Japan, 1850–1950.” In Labor in the World Social Structure. Edited by Immanuel Wallerstein, 58–120. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE, 1983.

    Comparative overview of stages of industrialization, class formation, and the role of state power in shaping the rise of labor and revolutionary movements, especially between 1919 and 1927 in China and the immediate post–World War II period in Japan.

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