Orientalist attitudes vs. local norms. The diffusion and reception of life insurance in Asia (1870–1970)

The paper examines the difficult diffusion of insurance in a number of countries in East Asia from the late nineteenth century to the end of the 1960s. The period covers contrasting phases in world history, namely the first era of the global economy, marked by imperialism and the operation of the international gold standard before the First World War, and the subsequent era of de-globalisation, economic nationalism, war and decolonisation which characterised the period from the 1920s to the 1960s. Taking China as a case study, the paper aims to identify, assess and explain the obstacles that Western life insurance companies faced in Asia, and their strategies for overcoming these. It also analyses differing popular attitudes to risk and uncertainty among local populations, and different modes of risk pooling and risk prevention. How did the big Western life insurers – firms such as the Royal of Liverpool or the Sun Life of Canada – develop their extensive operations in China before and after the First World War (Salmon 2003)? How did they overcome the political, social and cultural obstacles they faced in trying to sell financial products that were relatively little understood by the local population? By comparison with much of Asia outside Japan, China was precocious in developing its own indigenous insurance companies in the Treaty ports of Canton (Guangzhou), Hong Kong and Shanghai during the nineteenth century. Some of these companies were formed with the help of foreign capital, but not all. Several of them also sold insurance overseas, in places of Chinese migration and trade such as California. Within China, how were these native organisations, the Chinese business elites that invested in them, and the Chinese state, involved in the process of insurance diffusion? What risk management policies did they pursue and why? What strategies did they adopt to enable them to compete with the large Western insurance corporations?