Theoretical Diversity in English-language Analysis of Entrepreneurship in China, 1842-1911

30 05 2015

That’s the title of a paper I will be presenting at a development workshop at the Business History Conference in Miami. To represent Chinese entrepreneurship in this period, I’ve included a picture of a Shanghai street scene in the early twentieth century. The scene shows several micro-entrepreneurs at work, although the main focus of my paper is Western perceptions of Chinese entrepreneurship more generally.  The picture is from a website called SeeShanghai.

Abstract: This paper will examine the analysis of Chinese entrepreneurship in English-language texts published  between 1842 and 1911. During this period, Western expatriates advanced a variety of competing explanations for why Chinese entrepreneurship was retarded relative to the West. These opinions were shared through the media of books, consular trade reports, newspapers, and learned journals. The paper will show that these discussions were informed by conflicting theories of culture, political institutions, and human nature. This paper will show that while some Western observers advanced institutionalist explanations, such as insecure property rights, for the relative retardation of Chinese entrepreneurship, others argued that Chinese culture was the problem. Since 1978, China has once again been integrated into  the world economy and Westerners have resumed their discussion of the topic of Chinese entrepreneurship. The ongoing academic discussion of entrepreneurship in mainland China and other Chinese societies exhibits some striking parallels with the similar debates on the pre-1911 period. The lessons scholars of present-day entrepreneurship should draw from this research is that all lenses for viewing entrepreneurship have historical roots and philosophical foundations of which the scholar may be unconscious. By historicizing present-day theoretical debates about entrepreneurship, this paper should encourage greater scholarly reflexivity.

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