This book brings together much of Wen-hsin Yeh's earlier research with new material on the late Qing and the World War II period to provide a fascinating and engagingly presented depiction of lower-middle-class life and attitudes in early twentieth-century Shanghai. Since the 1980s, historians have responded to Shanghai's rapid development by moving on from studies of the city's wealthy bourgeoisie and its increasingly politically conscious factory workers to a new focus on the daily life of the middle classes. Yeh, who has been at the forefront of these studies, focuses here on office and shop workers, those we might think of by one clothing metaphor as holding “white-collar” jobs but whom Yeh terms the “gowned.” She describes their everyday lives, their aspirations for modern lifestyles, but above all their developing political self-consciousness against the backdrop of political disintegration and foreign invasion.
The book begins with a study of the changing self-perception of merchants during the last years of the Qing. Yeh argues that the rise of foreign trade and of the comprador class associated with it transformed the ways merchants understood themselves and their activities. Instead of presenting themselves as exemplars of the Confucian virtues of trustworthiness and thrift, the new merchant elite emphasized their contacts with the West, and from the 1900s onward, they drew from the West a vision of commerce as learning. In chapter 2, Yeh provides a wonderful account of the development of commercial schools and business studies in Shanghai. Out of these schools grew a new class of “vocational youth,” young people who were unable to enter elite educational institutions and instead learned skills that would qualify them to work in Shanghai's developing commercial economy.
Yeh goes on to describe the lives and thwarted aspirations of this new class of professionally educated office and shop workers. The material for chapters 3, 4, and 5 is drawn from her previously published work: a state-of-the-field essay on commerce and culture in republican Shanghai and research articles on the employees of the Bank of China and on Zou Taofen, the editor of the popular magazine Shenghuo zhoukan (Life Weekly). She summarizes some of the prolific literature on Shanghai's commercial culture, especially the work of Susan Glosser, Karl Gerth, Sherman Cochran, Carlton Benson, and Xu Dingxin, uses it to show the aspirations of the gowned workers, and then goes on to illustrate how those aspirations clashed with the paternalistic attitudes of employers and the continuity of traditional family expectations.
The final two chapters of the book use new research to show how the Shanghai lower middle class's aspirations for a stable life and the ability to support a nuclear family were destroyed by the impact of the Great Depression and then the Japanese invasion. Out of this destruction grew a call for employers and ultimately the state to take moral responsibility for the support of their workers. This call had its roots in the paternalistic claims to social legitimacy of employers such as the Bank of China but ultimately worked against them, for as more and more members of the middle classes fell into poverty and the gap between rich and poor widened, such attitudes led to support for the Chinese Communist Party. Yeh illustrates the shift with the story of Gu Zhun, who rose through the commercial schools to wealth and fame as an accountant and author of accounting textbooks but ultimately joined the Communist Party and left Shanghai for Yan'an.
Those who, like the present reviewer, have read with interest and pleasure Yeh's earlier articles will find that the book's main contribution is its introduction, which provides a framework that links her previously published research together and brings into focus the way in which a commercial culture developed and changed over time. For those new to Yeh's recent work, however, it is far more convenient to read a book that brings her research together in a satisfying whole, that provides a valuable depiction of life in late Qing and republican Shanghai and makes an important argument for the role of its commercial classes in shaping China's early twentieth century.