This paper applies and adapts the sociologist Philip McMichael’s concept “incorporating comparison” to examine the two networks of tea merchants—one based in Japanese Taipei and the other in British Singapore—in the course of Asia’s transformation between 1912 and 1942. Prominent merchants of both networks developed their trade across maritime East Asia. For example, Guo Chun-yang (1860-1935) from the Taipei Tea Merchants Association (TTMA; est. 1898) started his trade in in the Dutch East Indies and invested in Shanghai, Fujian and British Hong Kong. Lin Qingnian (1893-1968) from the Singapore Tea Merchants Association (est. 1928) held businesses in Kuala Lumpur and Fujian. Existing studies have investigated their achievements respectively. This paper aims at contextualizing their divergent while related economic and cultural agendas against the two different competing approaches of overseas Chinese modernization between 1915 and 1941.
The first approach is to apply Confucianism to reform Chinese customs. This is represented in Guo’s support of Confucian learning along the line of Kang Youwei’s (1858-1927) disciple Chen Huanzhang (1881-1933). The second approach agreed with the ideas of the Chinese New Culture and May Fourth Movement in the education programs in Singapore. I argue that these two approaches reflect not only the different understandings of Confucianism, but also different views on China in the age of empire.