A Postcolonial Reading of Western Discourses About Chinese Entrepreneurship in the Treaty Port Period

Miriam Kaminishi and Andrew Smith

This paper covers the period from the close of the First Opium War in 1842 to 1911, when the Qing dynasty was overthrown in a revolution supported by much of the emergent Chinese bourgeoisie. The so-called treaty port system contributed to the rapid growth in Sino-Western commerce, which increased more than seven fold from 1864 to 1911. The treaty ports acquired large populations of Westerners, many of them businesspeople. As a result, Western and Chinese entrepreneurs came into much more frequent contact. The importance of the trade between Western and Chinese entrepreneurs meant that Westerners had both increased opportunities for observing Chinese entrepreneurs and a stronger incentive to think about Chinese entrepreneurship. Westerners during the Treaty Port period frequently discussed the nature of Chinese entrepreneurship in print.

Based on primary sources published in English, Portuguese and French, this paper examines the above-mentioned discourses to determine the extent to which the Western writers who wrote about Chinese entrepreneurship either supported or challenged Orientalist depictions of the Chinese entrepreneurship. This paper applies postcolonial theory, a theoretical approach that has been unduly neglected by historians of Chinese business and by business historians more generally. The postcolonial theory offers a great deal to business historians who wish to participate in the project of the New Entrepreneurial History which focuses on culture, mentalities, and differences in cognition.

We find that while some contemporary authors, particularly former missionaries and government officials, employed the Orientalist tropes of passivity and economic stagnation in the course of discussing Chinese entrepreneurship, other authors, particularly those from mercantile backgrounds, challenged Orientalism by stressing that Chinese people, or at least some populations in China, were actually extremely entrepreneurial. Our research shows that while Westerners who wrote about entrepreneurship in late Qing China looked at this subject through an Orientalist lens, others appear to have rejected Orientalism. The historians discussed in this paper have emphasized the extent to which Western depictions of the Chinese in this period were infused with Orientalist ideas. Our research, therefore, challenges the view that the hegemony of Orientalist ideas in contemporary discourses about Chinese entrepreneurship was uncontested. This paper nuances our understanding by showing that some Western writers rejected Orientalist ideas, at least when they were talking about Chinese entrepreneurship.