Engendered Entrepreneur: Women and the Politics of Business in Modern China

This paper sheds new light on the role of women in business amidst political change. Studies on gender and business of twentieth-century China have illuminated the changing roles of Chinese women outside the home. In this light, the paper adds another dimension to the narrative of Republican-era Chinese women to investigate hitherto understudied aspect of women’s careers: entrepreneurship. Focusing on Dong Zhujun and her business endeavours, this paper exposes both the deep fragility of female entrepreneurs in Republican China and the political networks involved in business maneuverings. Known as one of the early female “red capitalists” – entrepreneurs with close personal and political ties to the CCP – Dong befriended members of the CCP and aided the party through her business success. She founded a Sichuan restaurant in Shanghai in 1935 called Jinjiang, which became a ‘space’ for members of the underground communist movement. In the early years of the PRC, Dong successfully navigated political complexities and turned Jinjiang into a hotel of the same name, which subsequently became state-owned. From courtesan to businesswoman, Dong Zhujun stood out amongst Chinese women with her multiple identities as a woman. By analysing the actions of female entrepreneurs, this paper comments on the intersections of gender and politics in discussions of national identity and women’s labour. It not only highlights the ways in which she was portrayed but also affirms the significance of her legacy in providing an example of a cultural precedent that facilitated China’s economic and political transition.