From College Station to Shanghai: Mu Xiangyue and the Introduction of Taylorism in China

In 1911, the American Frederick Winslow Taylor published his seminal text, The Principles of Scientific Management. The book was a global sensation and ‘Taylorism’ blossomed into a theoretical cornerstone of the emergent discipline of ‘management’ across the United States, Europe, and later the Soviet Union. Just five years later, the book was translated into Chinese by Mu Xiangyue (穆湘玥), a Shanghai native who had recently completed degrees in scientific agriculture at the University of Illinois and Texas A&M University. During his time as A&M’s first Chinese student, Mu became enthralled by Taylor’s theories and he even struck up a correspondence with the celebrity. After returning to China, Mu not only completed his translation, but also established three cotton spinning mills and adapted Taylor’s theories in their management. In tandem with other reformers and intellectuals, he also promoted these ideas through publications and elite Shanghai social organizations. Through Mu’s memoir《藕初五十自述》(1926) and the Chinese- and English-language press, this paper analyzes the transmission and evolution of American ideas of “scientific management” in late 1910s China. While Taylorism was controversial and elicited violent pushback around the world, its introduction into China represents a fascinating thread in both the intellectual ferment of the early Republican era and the longer history of Sino-American trade and exchange. By critically examining Mu’s understanding of Taylorism, his attempts to implement these ideas, and his 1919 clash in the press with future CCP founder Chen Duxiu over the implications of ‘scientific management,’ this paper re-examines the transnational circulations of knowledge that shaped both Chinese industrial capitalism and its evolving notions of ‘science’ in the early twentieth century.