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Tailors in 1950s Beijing: Private Enterprise, Career Trajectories, and Historical Turning Points in the Early PRC

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How new was the New China? This article explores the experience of Beijing tailors in the early years of the PRC in light of this question. After 1949, many long-established tailors simply continued to ply their trade in their old business premises, giving a strong impression of continuity in the social fabric of the city. They were increasingly challenged, however, by newcomers to the industry, including petty entrepreneurs who chose to invest in a socially useful trade, and the graduates of newly established sewing schools, usually women. Policy shifts from the New Democracy period through the “three anti” and “five anti” campaigns to the eve of the socialist transformation in 1956 affected old and new businesses, men and women, in different ways. Overall, the reduction in entrepreneurial freedoms that characterizes this period of Chinese business history was, in this sector of industry and commerce, most strikingly manifest in limitations on what tailors were licensed to make, which had effects on what Beijing people wore. From these various perspectives, 1949 can be seen to be a rather clear dividing line in the history of Beijing, but it was possibly a rather faint line at first, becoming darker and thicker as the 1950s progressed—or should that be “regressed?”


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