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Western Capitalism in China: A History of the Shanghai Stock Exchange

Author(s):Thomas, W. A.
Reviewer(s):McElderry, Andrea

Published by EH.NET (December 2001)

W. A. Thomas, Western Capitalism in China: A History of the Shanghai Stock

Exchange. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001. xii + 328 pp. $74.95 (hardback), ISBN:


Reviewed for EH.NET by Andrea McElderry, Department of History, University of


W. Arthur Thomas of the University of Liverpool has written a very

straightforward descriptive history of the securities market in Shanghai from

the late nineteenth century to the present. The study centers on securities

trading in Shanghai’s International Settlement where the listed securities

were almost exclusively those of foreign companies and organizations. Along

the way Thomas provides glimpses of life in the International Concession and

sketches of its foreign residents. In the final two chapters on Chinese stock

markets, Thomas gives a useful summary of the Chinese government bond market

until 1940, which was the main activity on the Chinese stock exchanges, and

of the ins and outs of today’s emerging markets in Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Thomas begins with a brief account of the development of foreign trade in

China and of the foreign community in Shanghai. Crucial to both was the

formation of the International Settlement in Shanghai as a result of the

Treaty of Nanking, 1842 (which ended the Opium War) and subsequent agreements

between Chinese and foreign governments. In the International Settlement,

foreign residents lived under the jurisdiction of their own courts and at

least some of them elected their own Municipal Council since “there were

strict property qualifications attached to the franchise” (p. 20). Western

banks and trading houses located in the Settlement and it quickly became a

“flourishing emporium.”

The bulk of the book is an account of securities trading centered in the

International Settlement. Thomas’s main source of information is the weekly

share list and related material published in the Settlement’s English-language

newspaper, the North China Herald. In spite of “an extensive search of

libraries and other depositories,” Thomas did not find any records of the

Shanghai Stock Exchange founded in 1904 or the earlier Shanghai Sharebrokers’

Association, formed in 1898. The first share list appeared in 1866 and by then

Shanghai’s International Settlement had developed the conditions conducive to

the emergence of a share market: several banks, a legal framework for

joint-stock companies, and an interest in diversification among the

established trading houses (although the trading houses themselves remained


The supply of securities came primarily from local companies. In the early

days, banks dominated private shares but, by 1880, only the Hong Kong and

Shanghai (the local bank, so to speak) remained. Shipping, insurance, and

docks persisted to 1940 but were overshadowed by industrial shares after the

Treaty of Shiminoseki, 1895, which permitted Japan, and by extension other

nations who had treaties with China, to establish factories in Shanghai and

other treaty ports. Rubber plantations became the staple of stock trading

beginning in the second decade of the twentieth century. Fixed securities

balanced the “risky” shares of local companies, both in terms of dividends and

capital value. Those of the Shanghai Municipal Council and local utilities,

such as the Shanghai Waterworks, enjoyed the most consistent favor.

Shanghai had no shortage of people who were willing to risk investing in local

companies. Thomas has gleaned information about the foreign investors from

reports of company meetings in the North China Herald. Individuals,

most connected in one way or another with Shanghai’s foreign trading

companies, provided the main “supply” of investors in the early days. From the

mid-1890s, with the expansion of commercial activity and the introduction of

manufacturing, “the securities of local companies became attractive trade

investments for the corporate sector” (p. 83). Information on Chinese

investors comes largely from Yen-p’ing Hao’s work on compradors and Chinese

business development in the late nineteenth century. (See, Yen-p’ing Hao,

Commercial Revolution in Nineteenth Century China: The Rise of Sino-Western

Mercantile Capitalism, University of California Press, 1986, and The

Comprador in Nineteenth Century China: Bridge between East and West,

Harvard University Press, 1970.)

What stands out in chapters 7 through 9 detailing the fluctuations of the

market is the importance of rubber. In 1909-10 investment and speculation in

rubber plantations in Southeast Asia “produced a transformation in the share

list” (p. 145). By autumn 1910, 47 rubber companies were listed on the

Shanghai exchange. Not surprisingly, the boom did not last. Thomas details the

rise and subsequent crash of rubber shares, the general outlines of which are

known to those familiar with Shanghai financial history. What is not so well

known is that rubber recovered and remained a staple of the market until the

Japanese occupation of International Settlement in December 1941 brought an

end to the Shanghai Stock Exchange. For example, “a sharp and unexpected rise

in the price of rubber produced a big increase in share business” (p. 199) in

1925 after a major strike among Chinese workers in Shanghai. Rubber prices

collapsed in early 1928 on the heels of a crisis connected to Chiang Kai-shek

consolidating control over the Chinese part of Shanghai. Perhaps, Thomas

suggests, the fall in rubber prices was responsible for the ensuing enthusiasm

for greyhound shares. Greyhound racing had arrived in Shanghai in 1928 and

the shares in companies who ran the sport were briefly “the focus of all

activity” (p. 203). However, when “the flirtation with ‘the dogs’ had ended

the market returned to its main dealing medium, rubber shares” (p. 203).

Thomas’s study is the first account of foreign stock trading in Shanghai and,

as such, will be useful to those who examine various aspects of finance and

business in Shanghai and China. The book is also an addition to literature on

the history of stock trading. It would benefit from an analytical framework

grounded either in Chinese economic history or in comparative stock market

history. The latter is more realistic since the author is clearly not a China

specialist but is quite conversant with stock markets.

The book has a sense of having been written and published in a hurry.

Footnoting is inconsistent. At times, even quotations have no citations.

Material from the Cambridge History of China, one of the main secondary

sources on China, is sometimes cited by author but mostly cited only by volume

and page. Also the book, or at least the copy I have, needs some serious

copy-editing, especially for romanized Chinese words. Understandably spell

check doesn’t recognize the Chinese words, but even Hong Kong comes out

variously as Kong Kong and Honk Kong. More serious, Chinese names of authors

cited are sometimes, but not always, misspelled. For example, the frequently

cited works of Yen-p’ing Hao are often footnoted as Hoa. Less serious is the

lack of a standardized romanization system such as on page 138 where spellings

of Kang Youwei and the Kuang-hsu emperor come from two different systems.

Admittedly, the romanization of Chinese is a slippery slope and thus its

inconsistency can be put down as a quibble from a Chinese specialist who will,

no doubt, use the book as a reference.

Andrea McElderry’s publications on Chinese business history include a study

of Chinese stock exchanges, “Shanghai Securities Exchanges: Past and Present”

(Occasional Paper Series in Asian Business History #4), Brisbane: Asian

Business History Centre, University of Queensland, 2001.

Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII