To understand how the Guangdong merchants lost to militaristic bosses from the regional fringes, one needs to examine the rural bases of the merchants as they had cultivated them. Since the mid-1980s, I have worked with a team of historians on several sites in the Pearl River delta, which is made up of the West (Xi), North (Bei), and East (Dong) River systems. From the Ming to the late Qing, this part of
The Development of the Sands
In order to elaborate on how merchants in the towns and regional cities anchored themselves in the delta, one cannot ignore the development of the sands, the associated cultural dynamics, and the power relationships that arose. Various elite interests in the towns were intimately tied to the conversion of vast areas of river marshes into cultivable farmland. They also controlled the harvests for a grain trade that grew in importance as the delta became commercialized. Settlers in Xinhui started to reclaim land on the western edge of the delta from the late Song on. Extensive river marshes matured further southeast during the Ming. The reclamation of the sands accelerated to such an extent that officials in the eighteenth century had to intervene due to massive flooding in the upper reaches of the river delta.
Much of the sands was reclaimed in the name of town-based lineage estates during the Ming and Qing. Merchant groups in county capitals and market towns often financed these highly capitalized projects. They acquired river marshes measured in units of qing and donated them to ancestral estates. Major tenant contractors for long-term rental of these ancestral estates often were managers of the estates themselves. They parceled out the land to give short-term leases to farmers. Being a tenant contractor of an ancestral trust could be an exclusive business. To qualify for the auctioning of the leases from the ancestral trusts, bidders were required to pay large deposits. From the start, merchant wealth was intimately tied to land development and the subsequent grain trade.
The Language of Lineage and Ethnic Hierarchy
Investment in ancestral estates could be profitable. More important, affiliation with an estate enabled merchants to speak the language of territorial community based on patrilineal descent. The language also marked a clear political geography with an ethnic hierarchy. Town residents on the edge of the sands claimed
However, the dominance of the merchant-gentry alliances was not assured. The remoteness of the sands allowed rapid social mobility among even those most discriminated against. Local functionaries accumulated enough of their own resources and negotiated with their former patrons. The use of force was not uncommon. They eventually acquired the necessary cultural symbols to establish themselves against a new layer of tenant farmers and dan fisherfolk farther out in the expanding marshes. Who could start an ancestral hall in a settled area became a most contentious issue in local life, and led to bloodshed, feuds, and lawsuits among surname groups.
Underlying the intense struggle over the cultural symbol of lineage were shrewd economic claims for rights to control the sands. Community and lineage halls, temples, and academies were public arenas for flexing political muscles. Closer to the county capitals, where one found official bureaus and magistrates, literati institutions and etiquette framed the terms of conflict and negotiation. As one ventured farther into the sands, increasingly control depended on the display of sheer physical might. In these areas, where gentrified rituals ceased to matter and the corresponding political leverage faded, the language of control was mixed with those of popular religious cults, brotherhood, and the outlaw. In a recent essay, Liu Zhiwei and I argue that identities were fluid. In times of peace, some of the floating population who engaged in transport and commerce accumulated enough resources to become respectably "landed." In times of disorder, those who remained in the regional fringes were branded as pirates.
The historical circumstances of Guangzhou as a government-designated trading port since the Ming had also encouraged extensive sea-trading networks with Southeast Asia and beyond. The impact of foreign trade along the coast and in the delta was profound. Not only were local agricultural and handicraft production stimulated by tastes and demands outside of the empire, but foreign silver too
In sum, the political ecology of the sands and the coast allowed (and necessitated) the intertwining of dazzling commercial and landed wealth, the juxtaposition of territorial lineage groups, elaborate rituals, literati pretensions, outlaw imagery, and the blurring of boundaries with unorthodox and overseas interests. These had characterized mercantile life in Guangdong from the Ming through the early twentieth century. Water Margin (All men are brothers), a classic Ming novel about a group of outlaw heroes, was hardly fictional, nor was the idea of an exclusively town-based merchant elite conceivable. Questions remain. What caused the dramatic reversal of fortunes in the first few decades of the Republican era? Why were the merchants no longer able to perform their integrative functions of bridging state, literati, and rural community, which they had done well since the Ming? I would like to use historical materials centering on Huicheng to explore the questions.