Guilty of Indigence: The Urban Poor in China, 1900-1953

Guilty of Indigence: The Urban Poor in China, 1900-1953

Janet Y. Chen

Language: English

Pages: 320

ISBN: 0691152101

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

In the early twentieth century, a time of political fragmentation and social upheaval in China, poverty became the focus of an anguished national conversation about the future of the country. Investigating the lives of the urban poor in China during this critical era, Guilty of Indigence examines the solutions implemented by a nation attempting to deal with "society's most fundamental problem." Interweaving analysis of shifting social viewpoints, the evolution of poor relief institutions, and the lived experiences of the urban poor, Janet Chen explores the development of Chinese attitudes toward urban poverty and of policies intended for its alleviation.

Chen concentrates on Beijing and Shanghai, two of China's most important cities, and she considers how various interventions carried a lasting influence. The advent of the workhouse, the denigration of the nonworking poor as "social parasites," efforts to police homelessness and vagrancy--all had significant impact on the lives of people struggling to survive. Chen provides a crucially needed historical lens for understanding how beliefs about poverty intersected with shattering historical events, producing new welfare policies and institutions for the benefit of some, but to the detriment of others.

Drawing on vast archival material, Guilty of Indigence deepens the historical perspective on poverty in China and reveals critical lessons about a still-pervasive social issue.


















the correlation between labor and parasitism, or refute the link between impoverishment and crime. One Shenbao commentator asked, “Poverty is not a crime—so why are there so many detention centers set up for the poor?” Another presented a series of foreign proverbs to illustrate that “poverty is not a vice,” contending that “many of the world's great figures have experienced poverty.” And writing in an influential journal in 1944, Zhou Xianwen posed the familiar question: “What causes poverty?”

more than four hundred homes and shops in Fahuazhen (in the Western District) to begin a major drainage project. The residents protested that their homes were not straw huts—they were actually built of brick, and many were multistory structures. “For the Public Works Bureau to call them huts—doesn't this disregard the truth?”138 In another instance, more than four hundred people from Subei had built eighty huts on a small vacant plot of land in Yangshupu, the site of the protracted battle with

“eradication” and “improvement” schemes. After several abortive attempts at implementing different plans, in 1936 Mayor Wu Tiecheng instructed his subordinates at every municipal agency to brainstorm solutions. The proposals numbered hundreds and included forcible removal; monetary incentives to relocate; emulating the International Settlement's “no new huts” policy; putting the burden on land owners to clear out the huts; cordoning off the existing shantytowns with bamboo or wire fences. It

In English-language scholarship, historians have identified the political shifts and social changes of the period as a major turning point and as the genesis of future developments in the People's Republic. Taken together, the new scholarship views the Sino-Japanese War as a transformative moment in modern Chinese history.1 In this chapter I show how the wartime climate, rather than a fundamental break with the past, intensified the productive impulse, the seeds of which had been planted decades

questions, Feng Guifen and his fellow reformers emphasized the economic prosperity and military prowess of Western nations, using “wealth and power” as twin benchmarks. But although China's “poverty” might have presented the logical contrast to the apparent “wealth” of the West, it did not emerge as a distinct concept in the discourse of self-strengthening. Instead, reformers focused on the country's “weakness” (ruo) as the negative parallel to Western “power” (qiang). Even Zheng Guanying, who

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