At the periphery of the Chinese empire, a group of innovative
entrepreneurs built companies that dominated the Chinese salt trade
and created thousands of jobs in the Sichuan region. From its
dramatic expansion in the early nineteenth century to its decline
on the eve of the Sino-Japanese War in the late 1930s, salt
production in Zigong was one of the largest and one of the only
indigenous large-scale industries in China. Madeleine Zelin
recounts the history of the salt industry to reveal a fascinating
chapter in China's history and provide new insight into the forces
and institutions that shaped Chinese economic and social
development independent of Western or Japanese influence. Her book
challenges long-held beliefs that social structure, state
extraction, the absence of modern banking, and cultural bias
against business precluded industrial development in China.
Zelin details the novel ways in which Zigong merchants mobilized
capital through financial-industrial networks. She describes how
entrepreneurs spurred growth by developing new technologies,
capturing markets, and building integrated business organizations.
Without the state establishing and enforcing rules, Zigong
businessmen were free to regulate themselves, utilize contracts,
and shape their industry. However, this freedom came at a price,
and ultimately the merchants suffered from the underdevelopment of
a transportation infrastructure, the political instability of
early-twentieth-century China, and the absence of a legislative
forum to develop and codify business practices.
Zelin's analysis of the political and economic contexts that
allowed for the rise and fall of the salt industry also considers
why its success did not contribute to "industrial takeoff" during
that period in China. Based on extensive research, Zelin's work
offers a comprehensive study of the growth of a major Chinese
industry and resituates the history of Chinese business within the
larger story of worldwide industrial development.
Subjects: History, Economics
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