COMPARATIVE MATERIALS ON HUIZHOU MERCHANTS
The parallels between Foshan and Huizhou merchants are striking. Despite the span of historical time and space between Anhui province where Huizhou lies, and the Pearl River delta in Guangdong province, which is home to Foshan, some comparisons can be made. First, owners of large private lands in Huizhou were rare. Ye Xian'en observes in his book on the Huizhou merchants in the Ming-Qing period that few private landlords owned over 100 mu of land. This form of investment in land was small in proportion to the enormous wealth accumulated in commerce. However, merchant contributions to ancestral estates were substantial, amounting sometimes to thousands of mu in wooded hilly land.
Many of the estates were rented out long term to rich households who contracted bond servants (dian pu) to manage the wooded lands. These operations assured merchants of a steady supply of products (such as lumber, bamboo, and tea) for their trade, and profits accumulated were often turned into loans for interest collection. The vast sandy land in the Pearl River delta auctioned out by town-based ancestral trusts to tenant contractors for long-term development quite paralleled the cultivation of woods for lumber in the hills of Huizhou. Furthermore, in Guangdong, it was common to find entire villages of particular surnames that were bond servants to established lineages. However numerous their members were, they were treated by their patrons as mixed surnames (za xing), that is, as members of lineages without ancestral halls and subject to numerous ritual restrictions.
Economic functions aside, the estates in both Huizhou and Guangdong and the rituals they financed had a cultural-political dimension. They were set up in the name of founding ancestors. With due recognition by state officials, local populations claimed native roots and the associated rights of settlement and use. Furthermore, the estates were managed by those linked to the town merchants with particular social bonds and obligations. Many of the functionaries had become prosperous entrepreneurs themselves, but cultural rules demarcating status remained strong. The merchants' contribution to the estates legitimized their membership in the community despite their prolonged residence in towns and cities. Harriet Zurndorfer's examination of the Fan lineage estates reveals generations of land and other investments by lineage segments whose members became prosperous in commerce. In a word, lineages were more than kinship and rituals: they were cultural inventions with significant economic and political impact. In an emerging status hierarchy of which lineage became a significant component, a merchant could profit as kin and patron.
Cultural strategies extended beyond the local community. Historical materials on Huizhou merchants point to the elaborate political networking created by the merchants' support of education. In the six counties of Huizhou, there existed fifty-one academies of varying sizes and visibility, most of them built during the Ming and early Qing, when the Huizhou merchants were enjoying great prosperity. From village schools to county academies, merchants' support not only prepared their kin for officialdom but the academies also became the arena for activities other than schooling. At times as a result of territorial bonds, at times as a result of kinship, these institutions were where local leaders, merchants, and officials composed the local and regional versions of a literati language for practical politicking. The numbers of graduates are staggering. During the Ming, Huizhou produced 298 juren (provincial graduates) and 392 jinshi (metropolitan graduates). In the Qing, it produced 698 juren and 226 jinshi. The importance of the Xin'an school of thought (Xin'an xuepai), brandishing leading neo-Confucians as its native sons, can be seen as part of such a process. It may be useful to view the late imperial state as a totalizing cultural idea rather than as political machinery, and as such it allowed local agents to maneuver shrewdly from within.
The Huizhou merchants were also distinguished by their conspicuous elaboration of literati lifestyles, regional drama, and the arts. Major Huizhou opera troupes (Si da Hui bang) had prominent merchant patrons. It would be difficult to dismiss their actions as unsophisticated acquisition of "superfluous things." Ironically, in the merchants' eager emulation of the literati and in their subscription to what they perceived as state orthodoxy, they created new social and cultural space within the imperial order that linked city to country. In a word, judging from the development in Huizhou, merchants could be central to the very cultural processes of state making and of incorporation of local society into the imperial order. Hence their liturgical role during the high Qing.
G. William Skinner's work on the hierarchy of markets confirms the importance of economic nodes for cultural integration. The economic importance of the Huizhou merchants in the Yangzi River system is reflected in a saying that "one cannot claim to have a market if there are no Huizhou merchants." Moreover, their influence on mainstream cultural pursuits could hardly be discounted. It is worth noting that out of the four persons who, at the request of Emperor Qianlong, donated over five hundred types of books and manuscripts to the imperial library (Si ku quan shu guan), three were merchants of Huizhou origin.