Sociography of the Shanghai Rotary Club (4): Services

This is the fourth episode in my series devoted to the Shanghai Rotary Club. This episode will examine the distribution of activities among Shanghai Rotarians. My analyses rely on a classification of activities derived from the original classification of services that the Rotary International drew in the 1920s – yet with slight adaptations.

The notion of service was central to the philosophy and practice of the Rotary Club all over the world. By 1930, the Rotary International established a standard classification of services. This universal list roughly overlapped with the structure of activities within contemporaries societies (professional fields, industrial and business sectors). Although in theory, all Rotary clubs throughout the world shared the same standard classification,  it could be accommodated to the local structure of activities and the local state of economic development. Not only did the standard list vary from one club to another, but it also evolved over time in order to adapt to broader social-economic changes.

The classification system was the means devised to select membership. In Rotary’s classification, “a profession was defined by the capacity to offer the community a ware or service” (De Grazia, 2005: 58). In principle, each profession or classification could be represented by only one member. In principle, the Rotary selected the top representatives of each profession or classification (De Grazia, 2005: 33). The original stipulation, however, was flexible enough to tolerate deviations from the norm, provided the local clubs could provide some plausible sociological explanation.

The following table provides the classification of services that was in practice at the Shanghai Rotary Club between 1930-1948. For analytical purposes, I have reduced this classification to twenty main categories, so as to enable comparisons, to identify long-term patterns and to track changes over time (the attached table includes correspondence between the original classification and my own simplified typology).

Let’s examine more closely the distribution of activities among Shanghai Rotarians between 1930 and 1948. What did they do for a living? In which professional fields or business sectors did they engage? Or to borrow the Rotarian terminology, how did they serve society?

Shanghai Rotarians’ sectors of activity (all nationalities)

Over the entire period, and all nationalities included, Shanghai Rotarians primarily engaged in the financial sector (34 members, 13%), followed by machinery, equipment and energy (27, 11%). The second group includes more diverse activities that  represented each less than 10% of Rotary’s membership: government service and transportation (22, 9% each), medical and health service (20, 8%), arts, decoration and entertainment services (19, 7%); associations, paper and textile industry (18, 7% each). The third and last group comprises minor activities that involved less than 5% of Rotarians: chemical industry (17, 7%); building (10, 4%); education (8, 3%); communication (7, 3%); food and tobacco ; retail and wholesale trade (6, 2% each); honorary and retired members (less than 2%).

How did this structure evolve over time? Let’s now consider Shanghai Rotarians’ activities year by year.

In 1930, the distribution of activities was very similar to that of the long-term pattern.  The four core activities that dominated over the entire period (finance, machinery, government service, transportation) were already well established among Shanghai Rotarians. Finance had already emerged as the leading sector (11, 14%), followed by machinery (9, 12%). There were small exceptions to the long-term distribution, however: government service (8%) came after transportation (9%); paper and textile (8% each) overtook associations; building (5%) surpassed the chemical industry (4%) and honorary members (3 Rotarians, 4%). Retail and wholesale trade represented but a small share of the overall distribution (only 1 member, 1%).

By 1940, there had been no structural change in the initial distribution. Financial services and machinery slowly progressed (from 14% to 16%, and from 12 to 19%, respectively). Although government service experienced a small decrease (from 8% to 7%), it still came fourth, immediately behind transportation (9%). Three other sectors had slightly declined: arts and entertainment (from 9% to 7%), associations (from 6 to 5%), paper (from 8 to 7%) and textile (from 8 to 6%). The construction industry had dropped dramatically (from 5 to 1%), while education and religion/charity had totally disappeared. There were still two honorary or retired members. Conversely, Shanghai Rotarians were increasingly attracted by medical services (from 6 to 7%) and retail/wholesale trade (from 1 to 3%). Despite its recent emergence, the communication sector already stood in a respectable position (5 members, 5%).

The postwar distribution suggests that the Sino-Japanese war brought a serious overhaul to the rather stable distribution of Rotarians’ activities so far. In 1948, financial services and machinery have decreased significantly (from 16 to 9% and 13 to 6% respectively). The massive departures of foreigners during the war may account for this decline. By contrast, government and medical services have risen from 7 to 11%, while associations have doubled their share (from 5 to 10%), which was probably an effect of the war and the subsequent need for relief operations.

Other services maintained their share: transportation stood around 8-9%, followed by the chemical industry (7-8%), arts and the paper industry (6-7% each), and ultimately, the food industry (2%).
The remarkable progress of the construction industry (from 1% to 6%) may result from both the halt brought to building operations during the war and the postwar reconstruction needs. Equally striking is the sudden rise of religion, education and charity services (from none to 6%). By contrast, the communication sector has declined (from 5% to 2%), while honorary or retired members have disappeared, which suggests a deep renewal of generations within the Shanghai Rotary in the postwar years.

How did this general structure vary according to Rotarians’ nationality? Let’s first have a look at Chinese Rotarians’ activities over the period 1930-1948. Did they follow the general pattern or did they display a distinct social-economical profile?

Chinese Rotarians: a sustained polarization around medical and financial services

Distribution of activities among Chinese Rotarians (1930-1948)

Over the period 1930-1948, the distribution of activities among Chinese Rotarians slightly detracted from the general trend. They tended to specialize primarily in medical and health services (15 members, 17%), followed by finance (11, 13%). Less than 10% of Chinese Rotarians engaged in arts and entertainment (8, 9%), or textile and transportation (7 members, 8% each). They were even fewer to pursue their careers in the building and chemical industry, in associations, government service, and machinery (5 members each, 6%), in the paper industry (6, 5%), the communication sector, or as honorary members (3, 3% each). Education and the food industry included only one member each (1%).

How did this structure evolve over time? Let’s now consider Chinese Rotarians’ activities year by year.

In 1930, the distribution of services among Chinese Rotarians followed the long-term pattern for this specific group, with a few yet significant deviations. Sectors like transportation were either poorly represented (only 1 member, 5%) or not represented at all (associations, chemical industry, machinery, communication and food industry). Part of the explanation may lie in the fact that these were still emerging industries at the time. Other better established sectors appearently took advantage of their relatively late development: building materials (3 members, 16%), which now stood on equal footing with the medical sector, followed by education, religion and charity (1, 5% each), arts and entertainment, transportation, paper and honorary members (2, 11% each).

In 1940, an increasing number of Chinese Rotarians embraced financial careers. Indeed, the financial sector now came first (6 members, 17%), followed by medical services and machinery (5, 14% each). The second group engaged in arts, textile, transportation or chemical industry (3, 8% each). A third cohort turned to the paper industry, associations and communication (2, 2% each), while government service and honorary members tended to decline (1, 1% each).
Among the rising industries, this is undoubtedly machinery that has experienced the most important progress. Utterly absent in 1930, it now included 5 members in 1940, i.e. 14% of the total distribution within the Chinese group. How to account for Chinese Rotarians’ new attraction for the machinery industry ? Had this very sector itself developed over the period under study? Did Chinese industrialists become able to compete with their foreign predecessors? Or did formerly leading foreign industrialists leave the country after the bombing of Shanghai in August 1937, leaving the field open to Chinese newcomers? Did the Shanghai Rotary change or diversify its election strategies regarding members’ social-professional background? Until we dig into external evidence, these remain open questions.
The textile and chemical industries, along with the retail and wholesale trade, also showed a significant increase. Chinese Rotarians, however, still declined to engage in the food industry. These are anomalies that also deserve further investigation.
In 1948, the most striking feature is undoubtedly their greater involvement in medical services (7, 22%), which is rather consistent with the general (multinational) pattern. Although the financial sector had regressed from 5 to 3 members, it still occupied the second position (from 14 to 9%). The building sector had re-emerged, which was also in line with the general trend; and so was the development of associations and government service (3, 9% each, compared to 2, 6% and none, respectively, in 1940). All honorary members had disappeared. Education, religious and charity services had also disappeared, which seems at odds with the general trend. Although the food industry had finally emerged, there were still very few Chinese Rotarians who engaged in this sector (only 1 member, 3%).
To conclude on Chinese Rotarians’ activities,  while they showed a strong, sustained and increasing preference for the medical career (14% to 22%), they also increasingly turned to the financial sector (as did their fellow Rotarians of other nationality). Associations, government service (3 members, 9% each) and the textile industry (less than 10% over the entire period, and only 5% in 1930) were not as well represented as one could expect, at least until the Sino-Japanese war. Yet they showed a significant progress in the postwar period, in line with the general pattern.
Let’s now examine the distribution of activities among American Rotarians – the second most important national group.

American Rotarians: more eclectic careers

Distribution of activities among American Rotarians (1930-1948)

In contrast to Chinese Rotarians, there was no clear field of specialization within the American group. We observe a greater variety in the distribution of activities. Americans primarily engaged in machinery (11, 20%), followed by finance (9, 16%), transportation and association (6, 11% each), the chemical industry and education (4, 7%), government and arts (3, 5% each), medical services, building and the food industry (2, 4% each); and finally paper, textile, communication and retail and wholesale.
In 1930, there were significant disparities between American Rotarians’ activities. Since seven sectors were missing, there was a greater concentration around two major sectors, first of all machinery (4 members, 33%), followed by financial services (2 members, 17%). The remaining members pursued more eclectic careers in arts, associations, the chemical industry, education, government service, and the paper industry (only 1 member, 8% each).
In 1940, there were still sharp disparities between activities and a huge concentration around few strategic sectors. Although the financial sector had decreased since 1930, it still represented 21% (4 members) of the general distribution, only challenged by two fast-growing sectors – machinery and transportation (which was missing in 1930) (also 4, 21% each) – followed by the chemical industry (2, 11%). The remaining American Rotarians disbanded across five secondary sectors – arts, associations, food industry, medical service, retail and wholesale trade (1 member, 5% each).
By 1948, there had been dramatic changes in the initial distribution. Associations now came first (4, 16%), in line with the general trend and probably in response to postwar needs. American Rotarians then engaged in education, finance and machinery (3, 12% each), building (a sector stimulated by reconstruction programs), government service and transportation (2, 8% each). The remaining members were distributed among six small sectors: arts, chemical, communication, food, medical, textile (1, 4% each). Apparently, American Rotarians were still reluctant or unable to enter the paper industry. The retail/wholesale trade sector had lost its few former representatives.
Overall, Americans were either absent or very weak in the very sectors in which Chinese elites were well established (medical services, textile and paper industry). Conversely, they occupied a prominent position in those sectors in which Chinese Rotarians were not, or poorly, represented (machinery).
Let’s now turn to the third major national group in the Shanghai Rotary – the British. In which services did they engage? Did they follow their Chinese or American fellows, or did they embrace different careers?

British Rotarians: leaders in transportation, but also more diverse profiles

British Rotarians’ sectors of activity

Within the British group, the distribution of activities was very widespread with limited disparities in the long-term. British Rotarians specialized first in transportation (7, 19%), followed by finance (5; 14%), associations and machinery (4, 11% each), and the paper and textile industries (3, 10% each). The next group of activities (including less than 10% of British members) comprised arts, the chemical industry, education and government service (2, 5% each). The remaining members engaged in more diverse activities: communication, medical service and retail or wholesale trade (1, 3% each). British Rotarians were totally absent from the food industry over the entire period.

In 1930, British Rotarians’ activities revealed a disparate profile that was very similar to their American fellows. As for Americans, seven sectors went missing, but not exactly the same (communication, medical, trade, arts, chemical, education, textile). Among the six activities represented in 1930, British Rotarians primarily engaged in transportation (3, 33%), followed by the paper industry (2, 22%), while the remaining members were scattered across four minor activities : government service association, machinery and finance (1; 11% each).
By 1940, British Rotarians were involved in an increasing variety of activities, which may reflect the more general diversification of business in Shanghai. More specifically, it reflects the remarkable development of financial services (which now came first, 3, 18%). The second set of activities (populated by 2 members, 12% each) includes arts, the textile industry, associations and machinery. The third group comprises minor services represented by only 1 member (6%) each (communication, medical, chemical, government service, paper, transportation).
After the war, British Rotarians engaged primarily in transportation (2, 27%). This is a major difference with Chinese Rotarians, indeed. Since we observe a similar pattern within the American group, we may assume that foreigners tended to specialize in – if not to monopolize – transportation services. Education occupied the second position (2, 18%), followed by a more eclectic group of minor activities with only 1 member, 9% each (chemical industry, textile, association, machinery and finance). It is important to highlight the dramatic decline of financial services, which had long been British Rotarians’ leading activity. Communication, medical service, arts, government service and the paper industry had all disappeared by 1948.
As a conclusion, what can we learn from this comparative multinational analysis?
Overall, Chinese members tended to specialize in medical services, while foreign Rotarians turned preferably to machinery, finance, government service (particularly in consular offices and as commercial counsellors) and miscellaneous sectors. Within the foreign group itself, however, we observe striking differences between the British (who competed with the Chinese in the paper and textile industries) and Americans (who never managed to enter the sectors dominated by British and Chinese industrialists).

The next episode will refine this sectorial analysis through a in-depth study of Shanghai Rotarians’ occupations.


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

Cécile Armand

Ancienne élève de l'Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS) de Lyon (2006), agrégée d'histoire (2009), docteure en histoire (2017), postdoctorante à Stanford University (2017-8) puis Aix-Marseille Université dans le cadre du projet ERC “Elites, Networks and Power in modern China” (2018-). Ma thèse soutenue à l’ENS Lyon en juin 2017 proposait une histoire spatiale de la publicité à Shanghai (1905-1949). Mon nouveau projet porte sur l’invention du consommateur et de l’expertise sur le marché en Chine républicaine. Au-delà, mes centres d'intérêt couvrent l'histoire urbaine, spatiale et sociale, les outils et méthodes numériques en sciences sociales, l'historiographie et l'épistémologie en général.

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Cécile Armand

Ancienne élève de l'Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS) de Lyon (2006), agrégée d'histoire (2009), docteure en histoire (2017), postdoctorante à Stanford University (2017-8) puis Aix-Marseille Université dans le cadre du projet ERC “Elites, Networks and Power in modern China” (2018-). Ma thèse soutenue à l’ENS Lyon en juin 2017 proposait une histoire spatiale de la publicité à Shanghai (1905-1949). Mon nouveau projet porte sur l’invention du consommateur et de l’expertise sur le marché en Chine républicaine. Au-delà, mes centres d'intérêt couvrent l'histoire urbaine, spatiale et sociale, les outils et méthodes numériques en sciences sociales, l'historiographie et l'épistémologie en général.

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