In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Industrialism and Innovation in Republican China

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Historiographical Surveys
  • Firm, Enterprise, and Business History
  • Industrial Labor, Workplace, and Skill
  • Knowledge, Work, and Industrialization
  • Technology and Industrialization
  • Rural, Handicraft, and Borderland Industries
  • Resource Extraction, Environment, and Infrastructure
  • State-Sponsored Industrialization during the Nanjing Decade (1928–1937)
  • Wartime Industry (1937–1949)
  • Chinese Industry and the World

Chinese Studies Industrialism and Innovation in Republican China
Eugenia Lean
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0197


Until the late nineteenth century, China had been a largely agrarian empire. Yet as other parts of the world started to industrialize, China was not far behind. It was willing to import and adapt foreign technologies during the latter part of the nineteenth century with the Qing dynasty’s (1644–1911) state-sponsored Self-Strengthening Movement (c. 1861–1895). After China’s defeat in the 1895 Sino-Japanese War, the Self-Strengthening Movement approach toward technological and industrial development was suddenly deemed insufficient, less because of any inherent failure of the movement itself than the shift in political winds as a result of the war. The political situation in the following years with the fall of the empire by 1911 and a weak Republican era state in the 1910s and 1920s meant that state-sponsored industrialization weakened considerably. Yet, in the vacuum, regional elites and entrepreneurs shouldered the task of industrial and technological growth. In spite of unrelenting economic imperialism and weak state support, these private actors accomplished considerable innovation and development. With the Nationalist government consolidating national rule by 1928, the Nanjing decade (1928–1937) saw the emergence of state-led industrialization that only intensified during the wartime period, where science, technology, and industry were prioritized to meet wartime needs. Earlier studies from the 1950s to the 1970s, including the work of Albert Feuerwerker, tend to characterize modern China’s attempts at responding to the impact of the West and adapting to demands of the modern world as marked by failure. More revisionist accounts, however, have complicated the picture. Business historians publishing in the 1980s were already eschewing the question of why China failed to modernize its industry. They document how Chinese firms and enterprises were able to develop nimble organizational structures and, in turn, build China’s light manufacturing and consumer goods industries, often in ingenious ways and in the face of formidable obstacles. Building on this revisionist turn, scholars have even more recently drawn from an array of adjacent and related fields, including the history of science and technology, energy and environmental studies, as well as infrastructure studies, to explore more deeply the multifaceted nature of industry building during the Republican period. They have expanded the definition of industry to move beyond large-scale, mechanized mass production to incorporate forms of industrial activity associated with small industry, handicrafts, and other practices of “making.” They have also been more cognizant of the global connections and transnational contexts in which Republican era industrialization occurred. The result is growing recognition in the field that that Republican China witnessed considerable innovation, and that Chinese actors, despite challenges posed by political weakness and war, proved highly entrepreneurial and adept in building industry, especially light manufacturing. Finally, while recognizing the ingenuity and resourcefulness behind the process of industrialization, scholars are, at the same time, increasingly identifying the political, social, and environmental costs that came with that industrialization.

General Overviews and Historiographical Surveys

There are several article-length overviews and an edited volume that usefully provide a sense of the developments in the study of early-20th-century Chinese industry in the field. Earlier overviews, including Perkins 1975 and Feuerwerker 1983, while somewhat dated in their assessments, offer useful empirical information and analysis. Surveys written in the 1980s to the early 2000s have started to move away from relying on modernization theory and Eurocentric models of development. Brandt 1997, Rawski 1989, and Wright 1983 provide a revisionist account from the perspective of Republican China’s economic history and industrial development. Bian 2011 is written more from the perspective of business history. Bian 2007 provides an overview of the study of China’s wartime state-led economy. Finally, Brook and Blue 1999 casts doubt on using Eurocentric standards of capitalist development on the study of modern China with a set of conceptual and theoretical essays.

  • Bian, Morris L. “How Crisis Shapes Change: New Perspectives on China’s Political Economy during the Sino-Japanese War, 1937–1945.” History Compass 5.4 (2007): 1091–1110.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1478-0542.2007.00443.x

    A review of literature spanning the 1970s to the 2000s related to the study of China’s political economy during the wartime period. Shows how the field moved toward understanding the wartime era as one not of failure, but of how, when wartime conditions permitted it, the Nationalist regime expanded state-owned industry, created the state enterprise system, and formed the ideology of the developmental state. Suggests these developments had implications for the Communist era.

  • Bian, Morris L. “Interpreting Enterprise, State and Society: A Critical Review of the Literature in Modern Chinese Business History, 1978–2008.” Frontiers of History in China 6.3 (2011): 423–462.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11462-011-0136-x

    A thorough review of the English-language field of modern Chinese business history spanning 1978–2008. Illustrates how business histories written during the period focused on key issues such as how companies adopted to the emergence of industrial capitalism, how new financial institutions were built, how and why China’s modern states created state-owned enterprises, and what impact the Sino-Japanese War of 1937–1945 had on businesses.

  • Brandt, Loren. “Reflections on China’s Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century Economy.” The China Quarterly 150 (June 1997): 282–308.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0305741000052486

    Reviews 1990s scholarship focused on the late-19th- and early-20th-century Chinese economy, including China’s industrialization. This literature challenged conventional wisdom in the 1970s that China’s economy during this era was uncompetitive and development of industry was limited. It shows how, despite a challenging political environment, growth did occur, even though it was uneven. The growth was the product of Chinese private enterprise that drew on strengths of the traditional economy, as well as succeeded in transferring technology for industrialization.

  • Brook, Timothy, and Gregory Blue, eds. China and Historical Capitalism: Genealogies of Sinological Knowledge. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    A set of essays that examines how capitalism has served as a motivating force behind Eurocentric interpretations of history that have marginalized China and other parts of the world. Doubt is cast on narratives of failure that have been used to evaluate China’s industrial and economic development based on Eurocentric standards. Several essays promote new critical approaches that evaluate historical development that do not rest on comparative hierarchies but examine local meanings of technology, industrialization, and economic livelihood.

  • Feuerwerker, Albert. “Economic Trends, 1912–1949.” In Cambridge History of China, Vol. 12, part 1. Edited by John K. Fairbank, 28–116. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

    A brief overview of trends in China’s modern industry and economy over the first half of the twentieth century. While dated, the estimates for output and sector size have held up quite well.

  • Perkins, Dwight, ed. China’s Modern Economy in Historical Perspective. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1975.

    This edited volume asks which “traditional” elements of China’s late imperial economy enabled growth in the 20th century, and proposes the need to compare China’s modern industrialization not to Europe, but to other “less developed” countries. Even if the volume still remains framed by a narrative of modernization, several chapters nonetheless cover the Republican period and are empirically valuable.

  • Rawski, Thomas. Economic Growth in Prewar China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

    While not directly about industrialization per se, this iconic study challenges earlier scholarly narratives of stagnation and decline of the Republican era economy by showing how domestic factors, the private sector, and market competition did indeed enable growth.

  • Wright, Tim. “Economic Development in China during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: A Review Article.” Journal of Economic History 43.2 (1983): 494–500.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022050700029806

    Examines several studies published in the early 1980s that are relevant to the understanding of China’s modern economic history and industrial development, and argues against the uncritical application of modernization theory to China’s economic history, which has tended to generate a narrative of China’s failure and stagnation, especially in comparison to Japan and Russia.

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