Business History Review

Research Article

Silks by Sea: Trade, Technology, and Enterprise in China and Japan*

Lillian M. Lia1

a1 Associate Professor of History, Swarthmore College


Although East Asia's silk trade with the West stretched far back into antiquity, the middle and later years of the nineteenth century witnessed a remarkable growth in the European and American demand for silk. This imparted a tremendous impetus to the Chinese and Japanese industries. For some eighty years, from the 1850s through the 1930s, trade flourished until the coming of synthetic fibers and world war curtailed its growth. The rise of so large an international business obviously had a significant impact on these countries, one that was particularly profound in the case of Japan. When the upsurge in trade began, both China and Japan were at roughly comparable stages in their economic development, but when the trade ended with the onset of war, it was Japan, not China, which had emerged as one of the leading industrial nations of the world. While few would contend that silk alone, however important, accounted for this differing course of national development, the dissimilar paths followed by the Chinese and Japanese silk industries not only reflected many themes characteristic of business enterprise in those countries but also typified their divergent national experience during this dramatic era of economic growth.


* The Chinese side of this essay is based on material from my book, China's Silk Trade: Traditional Industry in the Modern World, 1842–1937 (Cambridge, Mass. Harvard East Asian Monographs, 1981). This essay was originally presented as a paper at the Conference on United States-East Asian Economic Relations, held in June 1976 at Mt. Kisco, New York. I am grateful to Cheng-lung Ch'en for research assistance on the Japanese side of this project during its initial stages, and to Kazuko Yoshida Furuta for assistance in the final stages. Ms. Furuta, formerly a graduate student in the Department of International Relations at Tokyo University, and now a graduate student at Princeton University, has published her undergraduate thesis on the Japanese silk industry (see note 23 below). I am also grateful to Professor Richard J. Smethurst, Department of History, University of Pittsburgh, for his comments on this paper. Swarthmore College and the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University have given me generous institutional support over the years.