AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 661

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Session 661: The Everyday Life of the Economic: Formations of Life and Knowledge in China, 1900-1949

Organizer: Malcolm D. Thompson, Independent Scholar, Canada

Chair: Katsuhiko Mariano Endo, University of Victoria, Canada

Discussant: Katsuhiko Mariano Endo, University of Victoria, Canada

In the first half of the twentieth century, China was at least partially incorporated into the forms of life and organization which correspond to a capitalist social formation. This incorporation spawned a variety of attempts to think through these new phenomena under the sign of “the economic.” A number of questions arose: How should the interests of business, society, and the state be calibrated, given the “fact” of the economy and new forms of financial mobilization? What is the economic as such, and how is it related to other domains of life and thought? How should governing be reorganized, now that the economic is included in its set of concerns? This panel takes up the dissemination of economics and attempts to understand how it functioned in a series of specific sites. Bryna Goodman addresses the press, as a site for the organization of public discourse and of speakers concerned with economic phenomena; Rebecca Karl focuses on philosophy, as a site for the production of concepts; and Malcolm Thompson takes up statistics, as a site for the production of useful knowledge for governing. The disparateness of these sites shows the powerful gravitational effect of the notion of the economic as an organizer of social life. Our chair, a specialist on Japanese economic theory in the same period, will contribute a comparative perspective. Post-panel discussion will explore how these sites connected to each other, the theoretical issues raised, and the possibility of a broader approach to the global problem of thinking the economic in relation to modern social formations.

Economics, Individual Freedom, and National Sovereignty
Bryna Goodman, University of Oregon, USA

From the moment of Yan Fu’s translation of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations into Chinese in 1902, Chinese interpretations of economics were marked by tensions between a logic of a free market and interventionist notions of national necessity. Although the circulation of new economic ideas in modern China has generally been approached through the history of translation (focusing on the last decade of the Qing) or through the history of disciplinary formation and the transnational circulations of intellectuals (focusing on the 1930s), this paper considers these tensions in the May Fourth era, in the context of daily life and the circulation of economic ideas in society. As Shanghai witnessed an economic bubble in 1921 that was marked by the emergence of 150 new Chinese stock exchanges in the city, Chinese economists, business associations, officials, and journalists sought words to describe, and policies to resolve, an impending economic crisis. This paper examines a public debate between individual businessmen and the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce over issues of economic development, freedom, and national sovereignty that broke out on the pages of the daily press in the context of the Shanghai exchange bubble.

Economics and Philosophy in 1930s China
Rebecca E. Karl, New York University, USA

This paper takes up Wang Yanan’s critique of existing economic philosophy in late-1930s China through his consideration of the German Historicists and of the Austrian School of economics. While Wang is best known as the translator into Chinese of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx, and others, he was also a major theorist of the phenomenon called “the economic,” and a great critic of social scientific conventions that reduced it to quantitative data. This paper will explore his philosophy of the economic and his attempt to detach it from its theoretical abstractions so as to reground it as a philosophy of the concrete socio-historical everyday.

The Economic Value of China's Rural Population
Malcolm D. Thompson, Independent Scholar, Canada

In 1935, Ma Yinchu, founding member of the Chinese Economics Association and a senior advisor to the Nationalist government on economic matters, wrote that “the sole and proper object of economics is value.” Economics, then, produced the possibility both of radically narrowing the focus of reformist thought and practice (since they had now to deal with only one central term) and of universalizing their reach (since everything could, through quantitative analysis, be reduced to a common substance, distributed only in different amounts). This paper will analyse the problem of “general equivalents” in China, through a study of statistics in the rural reconstruction movement. It will focus on one particular equivalent, the “Man-Work Unit” (MWU), and follow it from its origins in American agrarian economics in the 1910s through to its inscription into the basic data-gathering activities of the movement in the 1930s. As far as statistics were concerned, the reduction of all the phenomenal variety of the rural world to a quantitative unit was a positive methodological requirement of organizing effective interventions, to the end of constructing a viable national economy. Finally, this paper will ask: How did the concrete practice of governing in China change, what new coordinations became possible, when knowledge of the rural was passed through the filter of the economic?