Papers presented by Boyao Zhang since 2019

2023 Detroit, MI, United States

"The Mystique of Expert Numeracy: Reinvented Traditions, Untranslatable Science, and the Professionalization of Chinese Accountants"

Boyao Zhang, University of Toronto


This paper explores the debates on double-entry bookkeeping that were central to the professionalization of twentieth-century Chinese accountants. Conventional histories of Chinese accounting have generally assumed that double-entry bookkeeping only became prevalent in twentieth-century China through the agency of forward-looking modernizers. However, recent scholarship has unearthed growing evidence that double-entry bookkeeping was already widespread in the early modern Chinese commercial world. This raises a rather perplexing question: why twentieth-century Chinese professional accountants claim that double-entry bookkeeping was a “Western” innovation, if this method had long been known to nineteenth-century Chinese merchants? Drawing from professional journals, company gazetteers, old accounting manuals, and declassified government document collections, this paper argues that twentieth-century Chinese professional accountants sought to buttress the legitimacy of their new discipline by framing the discussion on double-entry bookkeeping as a controversy over Chinese tradition and Western modernity. The first generation of Chinese accountants educated in business schools embraced the ideals of scientific management at a time when the “visible hand” of the management was still largely absent from Chinese economic life. For this reason, Chinese professional accountants strove to demonstrate both the inadequacy of existing bookkeeping practices and the ineluctability of the future in which their new managerial science of expert numeracy would play a central role in modern industry. In the process, these accountants deployed a new nomenclature that reinvented “traditional Chinese accounting” and “double-entry bookkeeping” as two sets of incompatible knowledge systems that could not coexist in the modern world. However, this strategy of self-legitimation by no means guaranteed the unassailability of the authority of Chinese professional accountants. In the 1960s, anti-technocratic critics of professional accountants, encouraged by the Maoist regime, appealed to "tradition" and "customs" to justify their rejection of modern managerial science.


business and culture
East Asia