Western Debates About Chinese Entrepreneurship in the Treaty Port Period, 1842–1911

This paper assesses how Westerners depicted Chinese entrepreneurship in the late Qing period. The paper, which is based on a range of primary sources in English, Portuguese, and French, shows that Western views of Chinese entrepreneurs were highly diverse and that while some contemporary authors viewed Chinese entrepreneurship through an Orientalist lens, others rejected this paradigm by stressing that Chinese people, or at least some subsets of the Han Chinese population, were extremely entrepreneurial. Another group of authors modified the Orientalist stereotype of Chinese stagnation by suggesting that Chinese businesspeople were capable of the lower entrepreneurial functions (e.g., simple arbitrage) but not the higher branches of entrepreneurship, which involved innovation and creative destruction. These entrepreneurial functions were, ethnocentrically, regarded as the domain of Westerners. The paper may extend our understanding about how the past still affects our current perception of Chinese entrepreneurship. It also develops our understanding of the cultural histories of entrepreneurship and Sino-Western business.