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What does the development of the sericulture and silk industry tell us about economic change and resistance to change in modern China?
In 1873, Chinese exports of raw silk were three times that of Japan, the second largest silk exporter (Ma, 2004). Yet by the 1930s, Japan had rapidly overtaken Chinese silk production (Ma, 2005). As such an important industry in up-and-coming modern China, sericulture and silk production provides a unique case study for analysing and critiquing economic change and resistance to change in modern China. With regard to economic change, development of this industry gives us a variety of significant insights: Modern enterprise could be economically-viable in China; economic change was regionally diverse; good infrastructure and institutions were vital to economic change; and by no means least, lineage and patronage often played an important role in economic development. Equally significant are the lessons of resistance to change. Of these insights, most prominent is the view that resistance came mostly - and rightly so - from the traditional handicraft workers that modern development displaced; and that official government wasn't necessarily against economic change if it was Chinese-led. While not perfect as the sole indicator of economic change and resistance to change, nonetheless what the development of the sericulture and silk industry tells us about these features of modern China provides a good starting point for wider debate on economic development in modern China. Empirical studies in the silk-reeling industry in the 19th Century demonstrate that industrial development in China could be economically viable when sensitivity to Chinese culture was observed and when adaption rather than adoption of technological developments was pursued. Chen Qiyuan's filature, through adapting efficient French-style reeling machines using locally produced materials and techniques, was able to produce a cost-effective business model, allowing China to compete with Western competition (Ma, 2005). Indeed, had it not been for resistance from traditional reelers and had the government been less slow in supporting modern enterprise, Chen Qiyuan's filature would have sustained its economic success. Although it is important not to overemphasize the successes albeit eventual failure of a single enterprise, this example does demonstrate that China was not immune to modern economic change when it best suited her interests and culture. It must also be noted, that in many respects, as one of the earliest areas of industrial development in modern China, experimentation and failure were to be expected. Nonetheless, the signs of economic viability were there. Another insight from the development of the sericulture and silk industry is that economic change was regionally diverse. This leads us to critique early-Western historians such as Fairbank who failed to appreciate the vast differences across China's geographic regions. The developments in the silk industry focused primarily on the regions of Guangdong and the Lower Yangzi, where the traditional powerhouses of sericulture were situated. As a specialist, regionalbased industry, developments in the sericulture and the silk industry highlight the fact that economic change should be analysed in their regional and historical context (Skinner 1985). In this respect, economic change is found to be more pronounced than the pessimistic view of China proposes. To make a compelling comparison, regional diversity in economic change and prosperity was also common during the same period in Western countries - most prominent was the socio-economic North-South divide in Italy following unification in 1861. As such, development of the sericulture and silk industry tells us that economic change was regionallyfocused, and not-unlike the paths of early development across Western nations.
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