X-Rotary (1): a Sociography of the Rotary Club in China

This post is the first of a series of essays aimed at a sociography of the Rotary Club in China. This introductory essay will serve to sketch the general argument, to give a brief historiographical overview, and to present the sources and the research methodology I intend to use in my later analyses.


The first Rotary club was founded in Chicago in 1905. The organization rapidly expanded in the following years, as other clubs were founded in various cities in the United States and Europe (the first club outside the United States opened in Dublin in 1911). The Rotary International was established in 1922, consecrating the Rotary as a genuinely transnational organization. Rotary clubs throughout the world helped to promote the US-inspired ethics of service and business and to spread American ideals of democracy, free market, education and social welfare. Locally, Rotary clubs worked in close cooperation with other local or transnational organizations (chambers of commerce, YMCA, women’s organization, famine relief committees, etc.).

The first club founded in China was the Shanghai Rotary in 1919 – just a few months after Manila, which is known as the first club opened in Asia. Later, other clubs were established in treaty-ports and major cities in China (Tianjin, Beijing, Hongkong). In 1940, there was a total of 11 branches. In principle, all clubs shared the same rules and modes of functioning (highly selective conditions of membership, weekly meetings, election of officers, only one member for each class of service), yet with local variations (day and time of meeting, classification of service) in order to adapt to specific local conditions. Although members could not belong to more than one club (except for honorary members), they could transfer their membership in case of relocation.

While the history of the Rotary Club in the United States – and to a lesser extent, in Europe – is well-known, it has been completely neglected by China historians so far.1 Yet we can rely on a rich array of first-hand materials: local directories and rosters of members, Rotary’s official magazine (Pagoda), local newspapers, municipal archives (correspondence with the club), archives of the Rotary International in Evanston (Illinois) and personal papers of prominent members (American commercial attaches Julean Arnold and Alonzo Calder, businessmen and professionals like Norwood Allman). It is true that the documentation is scattered across multiple repositories throughout the world, and this may account for the current historiographical gap. Identifying and compiling the available sources certainly require tenacious efforts. We also need appropriate tools to process them in a systematic way (text mining and machine learning, databases, social networks analysis (SNA), geographical information system). What I propose here is to take up the challenge.

Research framework

In the following essays, I propose to conduct a historical sociography of the Rotary Club in China, drawing on massive corpora of untapped sources and appropriate digital tools. I will probe into its membership and organization, its activities and modes of sociability, its connections with other institutions and events, and the interpersonal relations within and beyond the club. I will combine the in-depth analysis of membership with a more distant view of the club’s operations over its thirty years of existence – from the founding of the first Rotary Club in Shanghai to the Communist take-over in 1949.

The Rotary Club in China offers an intriguing case of transnational organization, in which multiple nationalities (American, Chinese, European, Japanese) and various circles (business, politics, charity, publicity, information, science, research and education) intersected and interacted on a daily/weekly basis. In this regard, the Rotary club provides an ideal laboratory for exploring the new brand of global elites and market professionals that was emerging during the interwar years. As it simultaneously shaped and was shaped by international, national and local events, the Rotary also illuminates the specific forms that global trends took in the specifically transcolonial framework that characterized China at the time. I assume that it is only through a thorough investigation of historical actors – their social and cultural backgrounds, their daily work and life, their relations and circulations – that we can better understand how global ideas and practices permeated local societies and circulated throughout the world – more specifically here, between China and the United States. In the end, this sociography of the Rotary in China will shed a new light on the disputed issue of Americanization and imperialism in modern China.


For this investigation, I will start from the following questions:

  1. Who were the Shanghai Rotarians? Where did they come from in terms of nationality, occupation (CSP) and class of business (sector of activity)? What do we know about their social-cultural background?
  2. Where did they work and live in Shanghai?
  3. How did these social and spatial patterns evolve over time?

To be more specific, I intend to test the following hypotheses:

  1. Can we identify patterns of social-cultural homogeneity or endogamy (as suggested on pictures 1 and 2):
    1. Is it a strictly/primarily foreign (American) club or is it open to other nationalities? It is rather a culturally-mixed club, more open and diverse than their British counterparts in particular (e.g. Shanghai Club)?
    2. Is it an elite or elitist club? What kind of elites does it include? What other elite groups are not represented? How did the structure of occupations evolve over time?
    3. Can we observe a diversification of membership between 1930-1948?
  2. Spatial patterns: How did these patterns of social-cultural endogamy translate onto space (see picture 3):
    1. Can we observe a spatial concentration of office places in the International Settlement (particularly its Central district) and home/residences in the Western district or in the French Concession?
    2. Is there a strict division/separation between office and home? Does it point to a broader functional division between settlements?
    3. If we look more closely, can we identify a differentiation of work and residential places depending on members’ social-professional profiles and sectors of activity? Can we map the spatial distribution of Rotarians’ activities and occupations? Did they tend to group according to their occupations and sectors of activity? For instance, did financial services tend to concentrate their offices in specific districts (Central/business district) or along specific roads (Bund/Nanking), separated or distant from other activities?  Did senior executives and managers prefer to live in the same neighborhoods (Western district and French Concession residential zone), separated from other (lower) occupations? Did Chinese members reside in the same districts as their foreign fellows?

(3) Location of offices and residences in Shanghai (maps)


The next four episodes will focus on the Shanghai Rotary – which is by far the best documented in Republican China. Relying on three successive rosters of members I found in Calder Papers (1930, 1940, 1948), I will analyze each of them separately, going backward in time (1948, 1940, 1930), and I will end by a long-term perspective over the period 1930-1948.

The fifth essay will shift the gaze to the Peking Rotary Club. Drawing on a roster of members published in 1937 – and being mindful of the temporal gap and disparities in the available documentation – I will offer a comparative perspective with the Shanghai Rotary. Was the Rotary Club of Peking as open and culturally-mixed as the Shanghai club? What sectors of business and occupations were the most represented? Did they differ from Shanghai? What does it tell us about the social-economic-cultural structure of the city? Did Peking and Shanghai Rotarians have similar profiles and backgrounds? Did they circulate between the two clubs? Can we identify common or transferring members? How can we account for these exceptions to the Rotary principle of unicity?

Raw lists of members, however, do not tell the whole story. If we are to enrich and flesh out this Rotarian sociography, we need to dig deeper into the local press. In later essays, I will draw on Chinese and English-language newspapers in order to examine more closely members’ backgrounds and interpersonal relations, to trace their trajectories and parallel lives, and to scrutinize the Rotary’s multiple connections with other institutions and people.


1 The bulk of the American scholarship, however, is outdated and fragmented into a myriad of local monographies. Written by members of the clubs themselves, they too often lack critical distance. Most European studies tend to focus on Germany. De Grazia regards the organization as a major agent of Americanization in interwar and postwar Europe. A small group of Chinese historians has recently shown a new interest in Rotary clubs in their studies of transnational networks and emerging business and professional elites in Republican China, with a particular focus on their ethics of service and public welfare.


Charles, Jeffrey A. Service Clubs in American Society: Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions. University of Illinois Press, 1993.

De Grazia, Victoria. Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance through Twentieth-Century Europe. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005.

Erdmann, Paul, et Bastian Salier (Firma). Rotarier unterm Hakenkreuz: Anpassung und Widerstand in Stuttgart und München, 2018.

Guan Yuting 管玉婷, et Chen Yunqian 陈蕴茜. “Minguoshiqi Zhongguo Fulunshe fazhan chutan 民国时期中国扶轮社发展初探 (The development of the Rotary club in republican China)”. Jiangxi Shehuikexue 江西社会科学, no 6 (2009): 154–58.

Jiang Pei 江沛, et Geng Keyan 耿科研. “Minguoshiqi Tianjin zujie waiqiao jingying shetuan — Fulun she shulun 民国时期天津租界外侨精英社团——扶轮社述论 (Foreign elite organization in Republican Tianjin foreign settlements: the Tianjin Rotary Club)”. Lishi jiaoxue (xiaban yuekan) 历史教学 (下半月刊), no 6 (2013): 3-11

Liu Bensen 刘本森. “Fulun she yu minguo shiqi shangye jingying 扶轮社与民国时期商业精英 (The Rotary Club and business elites in Republican China)”. Nanfang luncong 南方论丛, no 6 (2012).

Liu Bensen 刘本森. “Minguo mingzao – yishi de gongyi zuzhi — Shanghai Fulun she” 民国名噪一时的公益组织——上海扶轮社 (The Shanghai Rotary Club and Public Welfare in republican China)”. Shiji 世纪 , no 4 (2013): 42–46.

Marden, Charles F. Rotary and Its Brothers: An Analysis and Interpretation of the Men’s Service Club. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1935.

Nicholl, David Shelley. The Golden Wheel: The Story of Rotary, 1905 to the Present. Estover, Plymouth: Macdonald and Evans, 1984.

Rolph, C. H. Towards My Neighbour: The Social Influence of the Rotary Club Movement in Great Britain and Ireland. London; New York: Longmans, Green, 1950.

Goff, Brendan M. The Heartland Abroad: The Rotary Club’s Mission of Civic Internationalism., 2008.

Wilpert, Friedrich von. Rotary in Deutschland: ein Ausschnitt aus deutschem Schicksal. Bonn: Buchhandlung H. Behrendt, 1981.

Zapffe, Carl A, et Rotary Club of Baltimore. Rotary!: An Historical, Sociological and Philosphical Study Based upon the Half-Century Experience of One of the Larger Rotary Clubs, 1963.

Citer ce billet
Cécile Armand (2019, 20 février). X-Rotary (1): a Sociography of the Rotary Club in China. ADVERTISING HISTORY. Consulté le 29 mai 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/aml9

Cécile Armand

Ancienne élève de l'Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon (2006), agrégée d'histoire (2009), docteure en histoire (2017), mes travaux portent sur la publicité, l'histoire urbaine, les migrations intellectuelles entre la Chine et les Etats-Unis et les méthodes computationnelles appliquées à la recherche historique. Mes recherches ont reçu le soutien des fondations Chiang Ching-kuo, Coca-Cola, Andrew Mellon (Program DHAsia, Stanford), de l'Agence Nationale de la Recherche (Access ERC, ENS-Lyon) et du Conseil Européen de la Recherche (projet ENP-China, Aix-Marseille).

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Cécile Armand

Ancienne élève de l'Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon (2006), agrégée d'histoire (2009), docteure en histoire (2017), mes travaux portent sur la publicité, l'histoire urbaine, les migrations intellectuelles entre la Chine et les Etats-Unis et les méthodes computationnelles appliquées à la recherche historique. Mes recherches ont reçu le soutien des fondations Chiang Ching-kuo, Coca-Cola, Andrew Mellon (Program DHAsia, Stanford), de l'Agence Nationale de la Recherche (Access ERC, ENS-Lyon) et du Conseil Européen de la Recherche (projet ENP-China, Aix-Marseille).

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