At the periphery of the Chinese empire, a group of innovative entrepreneurs built companies that dominated the Chinese salt trade and created thousands of jobs in the Sichuan region. From its dramatic expansion in the early nineteenth century to its decline on the eve of the Sino-Japanese War in the late 1930s, salt production in Zigong was one of the largest and one of the only indigenous large-scale industries in China. Madeleine Zelin recounts the history of the salt industry to reveal a fascinating chapter in China's history and provide new insight into the forces and institutions that shaped Chinese economic and social development independent of Western or Japanese influence. Her book challenges long-held beliefs that social structure, state extraction, the absence of modern banking, and cultural bias against business precluded industrial development in China. Zelin details the novel ways in which Zigong merchants mobilized capital through financial-industrial networks. She describes how entrepreneurs spurred growth by developing new technologies, capturing markets, and building integrated business organizations.Without the state establishing and enforcing rules, Zigong businessmen were free to regulate themselves, utilize contracts, and shape their industry.
However, this freedom came at a price, and ultimately the merchants suffered from the underdevelopment of a transportation infrastructure, the political instability of early-twentieth-century China, and the absence of a legislative forum to develop and codify business practices. Zelin's analysis of the political and economic contexts that allowed for the rise and fall of the salt industry also considers why its success did not contribute to "industrial takeoff" during that period in China. Based on extensive research, Zelin's work offers a comprehensive study of the growth of a major Chinese industry and resituates the history of Chinese business within the larger story of worldwide industrial development.
Madeleine Zelin is Dean Lung Professor of Chinese Studies, professor of history and East Asian languages and cultures, and former director of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University. She is the author of The Magistrate's Tael: Rationalizing Fiscal Reform in Eighteenth Century Ch'ing China and the coeditor of Contract and Property in Early Modern China.