Chang Chien (1853-1926) was a Chinese industrialist and social reformer who was chiefly concerned with finding a means to strengthen the Chinese nation at a time when it was threatened by foreign imperialism. His pragmatic reforms offered an alternative to the political methods of others.

On July 1, 1853, Chang Chien was born in the province of Kiangsu in central China. His ancestors had long been illiterate farmers. His father, however, acquired some education, and he enabled his sons to study for the civil service examinations. Chang passed the first of these trilevel examinations at the relatively early age of 15. But then his fortune changed, for despite repeated attempts he did not succeed in the third and last examination until 1894, when he was 41 years old. In that examination, however, he was ranked the highest—a distinction that brought him fame throughout the nation and promised him opportunities to rise to the highest offices in the government.

In an action almost without precedent for one awarded such an honor in the examinations, Chang rejected a bureaucratic career. This was just at the time of China's humiliating war with Japan, and Chang knew that China could survive in a world of imperialistic nations only if it undertook domestic reforms. He therefore returned to his native district of Nantung near Shanghai and began the series of reforms which he hoped would become a model for the nation.

The most important of Chang's undertakings was the Dah Sun Cotton Mill, which began production in 1899. Cotton cloth manufacture, employing modern machine methods, had begun in China in 1890, but Chang's venture proved to be the most successful of all privately financed cotton mills. This was partly the result of Chang's skilled and paternalistic management of the factory and of the high quality of the cotton fiber grown in Nantung. Within the next 6 years Chang also established in the area around Nantung a flour mill, an oil mill, a shipping line, a distillery, and a silk filature.

Chang used the profits from these ventures to institute a host of social and educational reforms in Nantung. He established a system of schools, including two normal schools, an agricultural school, and a medical college. He also took the lead in founding such diverse institutions as a founding home, a paupers' workshop, a medical clinic, a home for the physically challenged, a school for the blind, a museum, a library, a weather station, and an opera house. Many of these projects were financed entirely by Chang.

A person of Chang's reputation and abilities inevitably became involved in politics. He was an adviser to high officials such as Liu K'un-i, and in that role he helped prevent the provinces of central China from participating in the disastrous Boxer uprising of 1900. After a visit to Japan in 1903, Chang became a fervent advocate of constitutionalism. When the Manchu government instituted a series of reforms leading to constitutional government in 1908, Chang became an active leader in the advisory provincial assembly established in Nanking.

Chang had not favored the activities of the revolutionaries prior to 1911. Like many constitutional reformers in China at this time, however, Chang easily acquiesced in the overthrow of the Ch'ing dynasty and the establishment of a presidential form of government. During the early years of the republic, he served in the new government as minister of industries and then minister of agriculture. He worked harmoniously with President Yüan Shih-k'ai, until Yüan attempted to establish himself as emperor in 1915.

Throughout his career Chang adhered to the traditional Confucian values but was in the forefront of the movement to import modernity to China. In contrast to most other modernizers, such as K'ang Yu-wei and Sun Yatsen, Chang tried to avoid the political arena, believing that the most meaningful reforms to strengthen the nation must be implanted at the local level. He died on Aug. 24, 1926.

Further Reading on Chang Chien

The one work on Chang in English is by Samuel C. Chu, Reformer in Modern China: Chang Chien, 1853-1926 (1965). See also Li Chien-nung, The Political History of China, 1840-1928 (trans. 1956).