Theses Doctoral

Malfunctioning Machinery: The Global Making of Chinese Cotton Mills, 1877-1937

Yi, Yuan

This dissertation is a study of the mechanization of cotton spinning in turn-of-the-twentieth-century China. More specifically, it examines efforts made by the Chinese workers to keep imported spinning machines performing at maximum efficiency in their cotton mills. Such efforts ranged from customizing and modifying machines to suit the specific needs of individual cotton mills to repairing broken machines, maintaining aging machines, and sourcing parts locally by copying the originals. It also addresses endeavors made beyond the shop floor such as the cultivation of cotton varieties that better accommodated machine spinning and knowledge production of spinning technology and cotton cultivation in professional journals.

The study of industrialization, especially regarding the rise of factory workers as a new social class, was once a popular topic for social historians and feminist scholars in the China field. Previous scholarship investigated the fragmented nature of the Chinese working class in terms of gender, skill, and native places, with detailed accounts of the workers’ daily lives. However, these studies have paid little attention to the actual process of mechanization. Mechanization on the Chinese shop floor was far from smooth, since foreign machines malfunctioned for various reasons at different stages of operation, requiring continuous adjustment, maintenance, and repair. Without an examination of this challenging process, we underestimate the Chinese as passive recipients of machines and technologies, under the assumption that Western machinery was a one-size-fits-all instrument for Chinese industrialization.

My dissertation rectifies this neglect by reconstructing the concrete process of mechanization from a technological perspective. It draws upon a variety of technical writings such as machine manufacturers’ manuals, their contracts with client mills, engineering journals, agricultural reports, and factory regulations. It also revisits more conventional sources such as interviews with former factory workers. A critical reading of these sources reveals that Chinese engineers, machinists, and female machine operators strived to solve technological problems specific to their factories, with multiple layers of knowledge obtained through hands-on experience of machines and cotton as well as formal engineering education. All these human efforts to make better use of machines under varying financial, technological, and material conditions of each cotton mill, combined with larger political and social circumstances, determined the course of mechanization in China. The factory system in China was thus a craftwork, locally made on the basis of the global circulation of machines and technologies.

By highlighting the process of mechanization, rather than mere importation of machines, this study makes interventions into the discussion of Chinese industrialization and, beyond that, into debates about industrialization and technology transfer more generally. First, in exploring a range of handwork performed by technical experts at different stages of mechanization, it argues for the significance of manual labor in the making of the factory system, thereby complicating the long-held dichotomy between craft and mechanization. Second, by demonstrating how new sets of knowledge were created on the Chinese shop floor in the course of using foreign machines, it challenges the assumption that technology transfer simply emanated from the West to be disseminated to the rest of the world.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Lean, Eugenia Y.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 3, 2020