Like Cattle and Horses

“Like Cattle and Horses: Japanese Informal Empire, Communist Revolution,  and the Industrial Labor Movement in Republican China”

Hilton Union Square, Union Square 19&20

Chair: Zhiguo Yang, University of Wisconsin-River Falls


Informal Empire, Nation-Building, and the Chinese Labor Movement in the Zaikabō of Qingdao, 1923–37

Zhiguo Yang, University of Wisconsin-River Falls

Getting Off at an Earlier Station: Cotton Mill Workers, the Communists, and the Shanghai Summer Strikes of 1926

Shensi Yi, Chinese University of Hong Kong

The Politics of Seeing: Female Workers’ Evening Schools in 1930s Shanghai

Miao Feng, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

Comment: Dandan Chen, State University of New York, Farmingdale State College

Panel Abstract

This panel is the first of two CHUS paper panels devoted to examining modern Chinese labor history proposed for the 2024 AHA, focusing on mainland China during the Republican era (1912–1949). The geographic context of the events studied here is Shanghai and Qingdao, where Japanese capital investment stimulated a rapid growth of textile and other industries in the first three decades of the twentieth century and where labor-capital disputes created China’s first breeding ground for modern industrial union movement. The three presenters examine the intriguing interplay between Chinese Communist movement, Nationalist labor policies, non-political and private actors such as YWCA, Japanese imperialism and its economic representatives in China, and Chinese factory workers in shaping the agenda and characteristics of the labor upheavals in the 1920s and ’30s.  Labor historian S. A. Smith wrote Like Cattle and Horses: Nationalism and Labor in Shanghai, 1895–1927 to connect “the narrative of Chinese nationalism and the narrative of the labor movement.” Likewise, the presenters in this panel will offer three case studies to reveal the interconnectedness of different casual factors for a burgeoning labor movement that is anything but monolithic in terms of agenda, strategy, political affiliation and influence, and outcome.  They will also illustrate that as a component of modern Chinese history, applying multidisciplinary and multiperspective approach to the investigation of labor history can lead to a better understanding of both. 

 Paper Abstracts

Zhiguo Yang, “Informal Empire, Nation-Building, and Chinese Labor Movement in Zaikabō of Qingdao, 1923 – 1937”

After capturing Germany’s Leased Territory of Jiaozhou in Shandong at the start of World War I, Japan ruled this former German colony in China until 1922.  During this eight-year period, not only did Japan turn Qingdao, the administrative center of the Jiaozhou Territory, into a bastion of Japanese textile industry in northern China, it also built an economic empire in Shandong by controlling the Qingdao-Jinan Railway and the mining industry along its line.  However, after Japan returned the Jiaozhou Territory to China according to the Shandong Treaty signed at the Washington Naval Conference in 1922, that empire was reduced to the six Japanese cotton mills, or zaikabō, in Qingdao.

The largest employer of Chinese factory workers in Shandong, these cotton mills became a breeding ground of the burgeoning industrial labor movement in China from the 1920s onward. In times of labor unrest, Japan either resorted to threat of military intervention to pressure the Chinese government to end it or, when that failed, landed troops to crack down on the Chinese strikers and luddites. Facing such a menace, the Chinese government in Qingdao attempted to preempt Japanese military intervention by alternating between violent suppression of militant union movement and brokering reconciliation of Japanese mill owners with their Chinese employees over labor-capital disputes.  Narrating the history of labor in Japanese cotton mills in Qingdao in this context, this paper illustrates how the tug of war between Japan’s defense of its entrenched economic interests against modern unionism and China’s effort to consolidate its home rule in a former foreign concession shaped the labor movement in Japanese cotton mills in Qingdao and made it a focal point in the Sino-Japanese relations during the Nationalist Decade.

Shensi Yi, “Getting off at an Earlier Station: Cotton Mill Workers, the Communists, and the Shanghai Summer Strikes of 1926”

In June 1926, Shanghai cotton mill workers staged strikes at Japanese-owned factories (Naigai Wata Kaisha) in Xiaoshadu, the western area of Shanghai, protesting the dismissal of workers accused of arson in the workshop. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) recognized that Chinese workers should align their actions with their labor movement strategy and tried to control the scale of the strikes. In August, responding to an incident where Japanese sailors killed a Chinese man, the CCP redirected its strategy to launch a large-scale combined strike, catering to Chinese laborers’ demands of Japanese employers, but not accounting for practical market conditions at that time. Drawing on a variety of sources including the CCP internal documentary collection, this article reveals that dissidence in leadership, weaknesses in grassroots organizations, and unrealized alliances made it impossible for the Communists, the so-called vanguard of the working class, to lead the summer strike. Contrarily, the cotton workers coerced the Communists and the labor unions under their control to maximize workers’ benefits. By mid-September, the attempted strike had failed to take place, causing a serious setback for the Communist organization in Shanghai. Compared to the CCP’s improvisation and confusion, the Japanese capitalists took advantage of the favorable economic climate of 1926 to launch their countermeasures, ultimately triumphing over the Communists and workers.

Miao Feng, “The Politics of Seeing: Female Workers’ Evening Schools in 1930s Shanghai”

Workers’ schools were important channels for revolutionaries to approach and mobilize workers in the history of Chinese revolution. Previous studies tend to subsume workers’ education to the narratives of labor movements led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Such studies rarely examine the gender aspect of workers’ education. This paper focuses on the education program founded by the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) for women cotton and tobacco workers in 1930s Shanghai. This evening school program became the cradle of not only future labor movement leaders, but also future revolutionary cultural workers who sang and performed for the worker and peasant masses. Based on rich archival research, this paper shows that workers’ education was contended in the 1930s; various forces vied for workers’ education including social education programs, the rural re-construction programs, and the CCP revolutionary underground forces. The paper argues that the reason for the success of the YWCA program is the schoolteachers’ concentration on the everyday experiences of their worker students. The YWCA organizers frequently recruited literacy, drama and singing teachers among the underground revolutionary cultural workers who gathered in the city after 1933. This was a time when these revolutionary intellectuals demanded the popularization of literature and arts. These intellectuals actively interacted with workers, considered their feelings and obtained their feedback on art works. The schools’ singing and drama classes creatively revised the previously elite-centric art content and form, allowing workers to sing, hear, act and see their own experiences. This experience of representing and presenting workers’ own experiences greatly helped female workers develop compassion as well as self-reliance. It also gained great trust and support from the YWCA organizers who had aimed their labor education at nurturing women workers’ self-reliance and autonomy. This research thus complicates the previous narrative of labor education history.