FACT: “On the night of July 7, 1937, skirmishes between Chinese and Japanese troops near Beijing’s Marco Polo Bridge broke out, marking the beginning of World War II in China. The fighting quickly spread, and by month end Japanese forces had consolidated control over the region. An all-out assault on Shanghai in August, followed by the December slaughter of civilians and soldiers in Nanjing, forced the Nationalist government to flee. Chiang Kai-shek led his troops and supporters first to Wuhan, then to Sichuan, where he set up a temporary capital in Chongqing in October 1938.”

Guilty of Indigence: The Urban Poor in China, 1900-1953
by Janet Y. Chen

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.

“In this surprising and creative book, Janet Chen shows that early twentieth-century Chinese intellectuals, officials, philanthropists, and police in China’s cities came to see poverty and the poor very differently from their late imperial predecessors–with often drastic consequences for those so categorized. Meanwhile, beggars, refugees, orphans, and others not only struggled to survive, but to make themselves heard in ways that might lead to help, or at least avert punishment–and Chen captures those struggles in prose that is both poignant and analytically powerful. Sensitive to details and ever mindful of the big picture, this is social history of the highest caliber.”–Kenneth Pomeranz, author of The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy

We invite you to read the Introduction here: