MERCHANTS IN THE MAKING
OF THE LATE IMPERIAL STATE AND SOCIETY
If we do not analytically pose state orthodoxy and agrarian institutions against merchant interests, how do we assess the historical efforts of mercantile groups in bridging state and local identities? Scholars often assume that literati were more important than merchants in creating ideological commitment to the state. They may acknowledge that gentry and merchants often overlapped in membership in the commercial regions during the Ming and Qing, but they seldom give merchants a leading cultural voice. However, Yu Ying-shih in a recent article presents ample evidence, from the sixteenth century on, that merchants were able to create cultural space on their own terms while making every attempt to emulate orthodoxy. In the process, they changed the overall philosophical orientation of Chinese tradition itself.
To give due attention to the interactive impact of merchants' actions on mainstream culture and society, Susan Mann argues that, "like all agrarian societies, China offered merchants ideological sanctions and organizational roles that legitimized their status, incorporating them fully into the workings of the body politic…. The Qing call to ‘make people content and facilitate the activities of merchants' (anmin tongshang) recognized the integral relationship between a state agrarian order and a regular flow of commerce." Her study minimizes the assumed incompatibility of state orthodoxy and merchant interests, and focuses on liturgical leadership and market town development made possible by a state that recognized the merits of commerce.
David Faure brings attention to another side of the merchants' bridging functions—the merchants' initiative in making local rural society, the cultural foundation of which was shared, if not synonymous, with the Confucian state. He addresses the problem by highlighting new dimensions of being a merchant and making lineage. Stressing that mercantile activities permeated many social arenas, he observes, "Historians of China recognize that, in the Ming and the Qing, merchants contributed to their lineages and drew from them resources that they put into their business activities. While this view of the lineage gives it a place in business history, it nevertheless characterizes lineage institutions as being extraneous to the world of business. In this short note, I wish to argue that the distinction between lineage and business activities can often be misleading, and that the development of the lineage as an institution must be recognized as an intrinsic element in the history of Chinese business." In a political system where commercial law did not exist, Faure argues, patronage was actively sought to ensure business security. From the Ming dynasty on, the territorially based lineages that rose to dominate the landscape of the towns and villages of south China, with their corporate estates, ornate ancestral halls for ritual and worship, and array of literati members, were consciously cultivated to provide the necessary patronage networks for the fledgling commercial interests.
Faure's analytical point is relevant in other aspects of social life as well. Materials from the Pearl River delta in the Ming and Qing periods largely support the view that corporate lineage estates in the sands (sha), popular religious beliefs and practices, academies, and strong territorial bonds based on settlement rights in the expanding delta grew with the region's commercialization. Although these cultural features were long recognized as major components of a state agrarian society, their making could not have been possible without crucial input from and impact on mercantile interests.
Historical records from Foshan illustrate the point. Foshan was one of the four prominent market towns (zhen) of China. Since the Ming, it had been famous for iron-implements industries, pottery kilns, and dyed-cloth and papermaking businesses. However, it excelled not in industries alone. It was home to the delta's powerful lineages surnamed Xian, Li, Chen, and Huo. From the 1400s to the 1800s, these lineages produced a dazzling array of literati figures and owned extensive river marshes, kilns, lumber farms, ironworks, pawnshops, markets, and river landings. They had mobilized effectively for community defense, especially against the rebellion by Huang Xiaoyang in 1450. They were also promoters of a cult of the ancestral temple (zu miao) in Foshan with elaborate annual rituals.
The career of a prominent native of Nanhai county, in which Foshan was located, illustrates a creative fusion of these multiple interests and experiences. Huo Tao's ancestors supposedly started as duck farmers in the river marshes. They later operated iron-casting businesses, pottery kilns, and lumber farms. Huo Tao succeeded in the literati route. In his rise through the ranks of the imperial bureaucracy in the Ming, his family accumulated vast properties in the sands, which formed the backbone of corporate lineages that David Faure described. As minister for the board of rites in the Jiajing reign (1522–66), Huo Tao sided with the emperor against a majority of the ministers in the Great Rituals Controversy (da liyi) during the 1520s. According to Faure, the debate was one of the most emotionally charged and divisive in the Ming court. By supporting the emperor's wish to give ritual superiority to his blood ancestor rather than to the person from whom he inherited the throne, Huo sided with two other senior officials of Guangdong to stress the primacy of primordial ties. It was not entirely coincidental that, in 1525, Huo built a hall to honor founding ancestors of his lineage in his native village, Shitou xiang near Foshan. After that, there was in Guangdong a proliferation of territorially based lineage formations that stressed blood ties to the focal ancestor, literati achievements, written genealogies, and landed estates.
Faure's observations may lead one to credit Huo Tao with the creation of a literati form of cultural orthodoxy in Guangdong. However, Huo was also known to promote overseas commerce when the Ming court was advocating exclusion. He opposed the court's policy of suppressing sea trade (haijin), noting that trade with Southeast Asia could be mutually beneficial and that China should not commit self-imposed closure (zikun) by rejecting traders from those areas.
The Foshan materials show that the mercantile activities, the development of the sands, the rise of corporate lineages, and literati achievements intertwined to create a thriving regional culture and society. Mercantile activities did not appear to constitute a social force that arose from a previously undifferentiated rural society, nor did merchants eventually develop autonomous voices challenging the state. Instead merchants seemed to function best during the heyday of imperial fortunes and orthodoxy, and when rural society was intimately linked to merchant operations. Mercantile interests and their cultural maneuvers had allowed local, regional, and state identities to complement and penetrate one another. This historical process is summarized by two Chinese economic historians, Tan Dihua and Ye Xian'en. Although framed in Marxist language, the message is clear:
Foshan zhen prospered during mid-Ming when iron-and pottery works developed under the general conditions of an increasing social division of labor and commodity production. However, feudal power privileging descent rose with Foshan's economic prosperity and strengthened its control over and interference in the economy. When prominent merchants continued to become feudal gentry, and when lineages invested in scholarly talents with lineage properties, cultivating droves of feudal bureaucrats, Foshan became filled with these literati types, expanding forever the consuming and parasitic population. A productive city gradually became a place of consumption; a specialized industrial and commercial city ended up being a fortress of feudalism. (163)
Social pluralism, competent self-management, a coherent prosperity, and alliance with officials stressing morality and restraint are themes noted by historians in the characterization of merchant-state relationships in the Ming and Qing in many areas of China. Moreover, as the Foshan materials show, the merchants' intrinsic role in local society was by no means a matter of passive accommodation of a lack of alternative investment opportunities. The security of their urban operations depended on the active cultivation of rural bases and the associated cultural repertoire, which the imperial dynasties had promoted as their own civilizing agenda.