Chinese Capitalists versus the American Flour Industry, 1890-1910. Profit and Patriotism in International Trade

Author: Meissner, Daniel J.
At the turn of the twentieth century, American and Chinese millers were locked in a fiercely contested battle for control of China’s urban flour market that both sides considered crucial to their nation’s future. For Americans, Chinese markets were vital to continued commercial expansion and ultimately, the power, prestige and security of the United States. For Chinese, defending their markets against foreign imports, influence and intervention was essential to preserving their commercial integrity and China’s national sovereignty. This study analyzes the dynamics of this commercial conflict from a perspective essential to the advancement of Chinese business studies, redirecting research in the field from the current China-centered approach to a China-global context. It contextualizes the flour trade through analysis of global factors—political as well as economic—influencing the competitive marketing of domestic and imported commodities. This broader view provides a more balanced, comprehensive examination of late Qing business history and the role played by international trade in the development of import-substitution industrialization. Countering previous failure-based studies of Chinese industrialization, this study highlights the complex relationship between Chinese capitalists and the government, which stimulated successful private industrial development in late imperial China. Analysis of China’s flour milling industry also provides insight into the contemporary capitalist-state alliance that has spurred the nation’s dynamic commercial growth since the 1980s.


“It is plain that understanding how Chinese business works, including both how it is similar to and different from Western and other Asian business styles, is an important task. Increasing Chinese energy demand portents a continuing long-term rise in petroleum, natural gas and coal prices. Chinese suppliers are a principal source of goods for sale at Wal-Mart. The computer giant IBM found a Chinese buyer for its personal computer business, while small factories across the United States find they cannot compete with Chinese manufacturers. … It seems that China business is no longer an obtuse topic, but rather a force swirling through the world economy and threatening to take away your job - on the assembly line, the tool and die shop, the engineering laboratory and on and on.

In this atmosphere, the history of Chinese modern business obviously is relevant: Books about Chinese attempts at industrialization appear with increasing frequency. … Meissner's project is part of this renewed interest in Chinese modern industrial enterprises. In this monograph, attention centers on the understudied flour milling industry, particularly in Shanghai. As in so many other aspects of twentieth-century Chinese life – including architecture, entertainment, public information, and social organization - the examples of business in Shanghai set trends for all of China. Meissner's selection of the Fu Feng mills is an apt choice because mechanized wheat milling became a flourishing industry in Shanghai and elsewhere. Chinese consumers, especially in the northern wheat-growing portions of China, used enormous amounts of noodles and steamed breads made from wheat flour. What separates this project from most other recent accounts in Chinese business history is the context of the international trade in flour and wheat into which Meissner has placed his research … In too many studies of Chinese business, the international context of business innovation is left in the background. Here, Meissner's extensive research fully explores that topic … Meissner provides a well-researched account of how American and other flour millers employed new milling technology to serve the Chinese market in the nineteenth century … Along with the other works on early modern Chinese business mentioned here, Meissner’s monograph should establish for us all that - as in so many other aspects of current affairs - the early history of modern business in China will reveal so much about both the present and the future of China's rapidly developing economy.” – (from the Commendatory Preface) David D. Buck, Professor Emeritus of Asian History, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

“…Meissner’s extensive and solid research is presented in a very readable narrative. The book is enlivened with sketches of ruthless capitalists and clever businessmen and it provides enough but not too much technical detail about flour milling. The book should be read by business historians, historians of modern China, and anyone interested in Chinese-American economic relations in the twenty-first century.” – Andrea McElderry, Professor of History, University of Louisville

“This work makes three contributions to existing scholarship: as a business history of American and Chinese flour industries; as an economic history of boycotts and nationalism; and last but not least, a revisionist view of late Qing state-society relationship.… Meissner also offers an alternative view of the nature of late Qing state-society. The boycotts, especially the one of 1905, were conceived, planned, and coordinated by leading officials and entrepreneurs. Rather than divisive and meek, if not quite a hoax, late Qing reformers, as part of their nation-building effort, succeeded in fostering a synergistic and mutually beneficial state-bourgeoisie relationship.” – Kwan Man Bun, Associate Professor of History, University of Cincinnati

"The book breaks new ground in the study of modern Chinese business history by providing a comprehensive account of China's modern flour industry in the last twenty years of the Qing dynasty. ... it will be interesting to explore the similarities and differences between today's Chinese enterpriser and their predecessors a century ago in terms of their business methods, their weaknesses and strengths, the problems and risks they encounter in competing with foreign companies, their relationship with the government, etc. Such findings as Meissner's will certainly improve our understanding of the long term trends in Chinese business." -- Prof. Linsun Cheng, University of Massachusetts

Table of Contents

Preface by David D. Buck
1. Technology, Hard Wheat and High Milling: Midwestern Roots of the International Flour Trade
2. The Second Gold Rush: California Wheat Opens Asian Flour Markets
3. A Transpacific Flour Empire: The Portland to Hong Kong Connection
4. Industrial Nationalism: Profits, Patriotism, and the Rights Recovery Movement
5. Breaking with Tradition: Technological Change in Chinese Milling
6. A Chinese Competitor: Fu Feng Pioneers China’s Flour Milling Industry
7. A Nationalist Boycott? The Politics of Industrial Survival
8. Crisis and Cooperation: Re-Conquest of the Domestic Flour Market
Selected Bibliography