WINNERS AND LOSERS IN THE REPUBLICAN ERA
When the imperial order faded into the background, social groups attached to particular institutions rose and fell with the political turbulence at the national, regional, and local levels. In the towns and cities of the Pearl River delta, merchants' fates seemed to be intimately tied to the structures of power and influence encompassed in the territorial bond—relationships and resources centering on lineage organizations, market hierarchies, popular religion, and political patronage. As the Qing fell, the languages of local dominance and state authority were reworked.
The Demise of Town-Based Ancestral Estates
In a previous essay focused on the Republican period, I compare the sharply different ways local strongmen in three townships transformed lineage institutions
The changing relationship between the Chens of Tianma and the established lineages based in Huicheng was highlighted in an episode in 1948. At that time, there was a civil war on a national scale. Locally, the political vacuum provided opportunities and economic fluidity. The Mo lineage, landlords with large holdings and merchants in Huicheng, claimed that its ancestors had been settled in the area since the Ming and maintained elaborate ancestral halls. In the first few decades of the twentieth century, local bosses from Tianma, some of whom had been tenant contractors and functionaries of the Mo, had numerous conflicts in and out of court over control of the Mo estates in the sands. In the 1940s, it happened that a landowning family of the Mo lineage in Huicheng ran a county newspaper. The editor, Mo Chaoxiong, was a lawyer and county politician. He published an article written by his father ridiculing the humble cultural origins of the Chens (who were known locally as dan). When mediation by other politicians failed, local bosses at Tianma mobilized over a hundred villagers to march to the newspaper office in Huicheng with the intention of beating up Mo Chaoxiong. Mo managed to escape, but they destroyed his office. The county government officials, having been bribed by the Chens, did little to stop the mob and did not legally charge the offenders.
The ancestral estates of major lineages in Xiaolan zhen of the neighboring Zhongshan county had a slightly different fate. Since the eighteenth century, the town had been dominated by an alliance of landed interests and grain traders from four major surnames whose ancestral estates held vast areas in the sands. For a town of a few thousand residents, the 393 ancestral halls had a towering presence. However, by the 1930s, they too were losing to the military bosses. Local strongmen from the sands did not build ancestral halls in the sands because there was no sizable village. Instead, they moved into town, took over the temples, and dismantled many of the ancestral halls. In the most important community event
When the Japanese military occupied the area later in 1939, local bosses in town maintained an uneasy truce with the Japanese unit stationed in Shiqi (the county capital of Zhongshan). Over a hundred of the town's 393 ancestral halls were torn down. A social club, known as the Siyou tang, was set up by the head of the town, in which the different bosses could socialize and work out conflicts of interests. They formed "companies" to collect grain and taxes in the sands, very often by a blatant show of force. Their patron was Yuan Dai, former captain of a crop-protection force and current commander of the third regiment under the Nationalist government. His deputy and cousin, Qu Renze, kept troops in the town, while seven of his captains were stationed in the sands.
In Shawan of Panyu county, a smaller market town further southeast toward the sands, a He lineage had accumulated 60,000 mu of reclaimed river marshes. Members of this lineage, together with smaller surnames such as Li, Lai, and Huang, had built 116 ancestral halls. Annual rituals involving the founding ancestral hall, the Liugeng tang, and the local Beidi temple were formidable spectacles. Residents in town lived off the grain rent. The collection of rent had depended on powerful tenant contractors who were lineage members themselves. In the turbulent decades of the Republican era, auctioning off the land and collecting rent necessitated a show of force. Estate managers and tenant contractors, who were the major participants in these auctions, were escorted by their own entourage of armed guards. The assets of Liugeng tang, the positions of its managers, and the vast power networks it commanded became the center of contention. Identification with the ancestral estate continued to be reinforced because of the intense competition. But local residents clearly distinguished the more "legitimate" managers and tenant contractors from the new local bosses, who, like their Zhongshan counterparts, organized collection companies out in the sands to extract protection fees, and who preyed on the rich and poor alike.
In sum, a new generation of local strongmen rose from the regional fringes. Their power was not culturally recognized, but they were able to accumulate vast assets at the expense of the town-based lineages. They sidestepped the traditional arenas of negotiation by linking themselves directly to new regional military figures in a volatile network of patronage and intimidation. A different language of power prevailed over the cultural nexus that had been cultivated by the gentry-merchants for centuries. As rural communities were drawn into the personal orbit of the territorial bosses, the authoritative presence of the imperial order became increasingly remote in the daily lives of the villagers. Militarists in Guangdong and elsewhere did take on various literati trappings and activities, such as building their own ancestral halls, patronizing schools, running for county government offices,
The Degentrification of Merchants in Huicheng
Commerce was rapidly "degentrified" as well in the early twentieth century due to rapid changes in the larger political environment. After the 1911 revolution, overseas Chinese investment was sought by various warlord regimes. The influx of capital reached its height during the rule of the warlord Chen Jitang, who held power in Guangdong from 1931 to 1936. His regime made great efforts in building an industrial and trading infrastructure centering on Hong Kong and Guangzhou.
Although located at the western edge of the delta, Huicheng was the capital of a county known for its emigrants to Hong Kong and the United States decades earlier. The calls for nation building and modernization presented opportunities and challenges. Huicheng saw an influx of newcomers in the trading of fan palm and citrus peel, which began to break the monopoly of the elite merchant groups.Yuqing tang changed its leadership structure in 1922. The body of representatives from the various jia (neighborhoods where fan palm enterprises were located) was renamed lishi hui (executive committee).
Until the late 1930s, literati figures connected to the former Gangzhou public bureau continued to play a role in the politics of the guild. But real power was concentrated in the hands of Lu Zuonan, who became chair of the executive committee. His career illuminated the political fluidity of the times faced by merchant leaders and the maneuvers they made in order to thrive. Lu entered the fan-drying trade in 1918 through his former profession as a charcoal merchant. He rapidly expanded into fan making and became an upstart in the long-distance trade group. He represented a neighborhood of fan makers in the Fan Palm Guild. He was appointed a board member of the Xinhui Chamber of Commerce (formed in 1908) soon after. In 1922, when Yuqing tang reorganized, he assumed the headship. Two years later, he also took over the chairmanship of the chamber of commerce; its armed militia he transferred to the Fan Palm Guild. The shangtuan (merchants' militia) was first organized in the wake of a massive looting of the merchants' quarters in Huicheng by bandits. It grew rapidly, expanding from five small bands in 1919 to eleven bands with nearly five hundred men and eight hundred rifles. Lu himself headed the band based in Sanya, where his enterprise was. He fought and colluded with local bosses who had taken over palm fields and who often sold their fans to the highest bidder rather than to contractors in town. As a member of the executive committee of the Xinhui branch of the Nationalist Party, he used the same militia, which had been renamed mintuan, to put down a workers' strike in the late 1920s. He was also chief organizer for the parade of deities at Dilintang in 1930, an event organized once in ten years. His role during the Japanese occupation was not recorded, but his business empire survived
Similar episodes showed the precarious position of the town merchants, who were sandwiched between the local bosses and new regional military commanders. Soon after the Qing fell, regional warlords rapidly sold various government properties in Guangdong. Huicheng was no exception. A group of merchants of the Yu surname from the neighboring Taishan county had a higher-order ancestral hall next to the old magistrate's office in Huicheng. They offered to buy the property in a secret deal with some officials linked to the warlord Long Jiguang in Guangzhou. A group of local notables learned of the deal and decided to challenge the bid. To claim the property back, they mobilized an odd alliance of the members of the three public bureaus in Huicheng, the chamber of commerce, and a handful of overseas merchants. They activated political networks in Guang-zhou and finally bought the property with the backing of He Jintang, a banker and head of the Xinhui Chamber of Commerce in Guangzhou. The group was keenly aware of the need for broader alliances in politically volatile times, hence the idea of an academy for the entire county. The project stressed the solidarity (hequn) of the three regionally based groups of gentry-merchants in a spirit of "self-government" (zizhi). It took thirteen years, from 1915 to 1928, for the academy to be built. Copying the organization of the older academies, patrons contributed shares in order to place their ancestral tablets in the new hall. A sum of 634,000 taels of silver was quickly collected for the purpose, and the academy was formally established in 1923. However, the resources dazzled the eyes of regional commanders, one of whom in the same year demanded a protection fee of 10,000 taels. Several major gentry-merchants, including the banker He Jintang, were held by the commander until ransom was paid.
The merchants did not subject themselves to the encroachment of the military commanders and the new state officials without a fight. There was the tax resistance incident in 1923. The merchants' quarters in Huicheng were built along a waterway outside the south gate of the city. Over the years, some shops had been built on the dikes. In 1923, during the wave of reassessing government properties by regional warlords in Guangdong, the county government imposed tax surcharges on temples and shops. The shopkeepers were moved to strike when their shops were boarded up by tax collectors. After mediation by the county head, a sum was negotiated, and the government promised never to make another assessment. Yet the bureau for the development of the sands overruled the decision and imposed new taxes. It took repeated petitioning of the provincial government by an alliance of leading merchants in Huicheng before the original decision was upheld.
However, other efforts by the merchants were not as united. When the old city wall was slated to be dismantled so that a new road could be built, four successive county heads had to maneuver skillfully through competing groups of old and
New energies from Chinese merchants overseas boosted the local transformations of power. This had to do with the gradual shifting of political and economic energies to southern China after the imperial order was dismantled. Dr. Sun Yatsen, himself a native of Guangdong, relied greatly on overseas Chinese in Hong Kong and the United States (where emigrants from the four counties to the west of the Pearl River delta [Siyi] had established themselves). In the name of modernization and nationalism, overseas merchants sought opportunities to reconstruct their "home bases," real or imaginary. Warlords linked with a new generation of self-styled politicians at the provincial and county capitals also tapped merchants abroad for support through charity organizations, chambers of commerce, and native-place and lineage associations. This trend reached a high point when Chen Jitang controlled Guangdong in the early 1930s. There were several years of stability, with active government investment in infrastructure, industry, and commerce.
A few cases in Xinhui illuminate these energies. The idea of a "native place" remained strong. David Faure has reported the reconstruction of an entire lineage community of the Ruan surname in Tanggang (southwest of Huicheng) after its destruction by feuds with other surnames in 1919. The efforts lasted for more than two decades, the 1920s and 1930s, with a board of directors in Hong Kong hiring local managers for the rebuilding. Having gleaned information from an archive of the correspondences between the manager in Huicheng and the board of directors in Hong Kong, Faure points to the continuous frustrations of the board and its ultimate failure to build a lineage community according to the books. A language of authority that the merchants had taken for granted no longer guided local actions. Political dynamics on the ground were quite beyond their imagination.
The port of Gangzhou was a much more elaborate project involving overseas commercial interests. The port was to be located on the southwestern edge of Huicheng. According to the charter drawn up by the initiators, the alliance was broad and forward-looking rather than narrowly territorial. Merchant patrons from other counties and especially Hong Kong were actively invited to the joint venture. It started in 1910 with a few leading merchants in Hong Kong who, through the efforts of the chamber of commerce for Xinhui merchants in Hong Kong, assembled to plan a port. A charter was drawn up, and in the following month the organizers held a meeting with interested merchants in the Minglun tang (Confucian temple) in Huicheng. A few months later, seventy board members were recruited from Hong Kong, and some money committed. Architectural plans for the shops were drawn, and a fort on the opposite side of the river was planned as well. The merchants went ahead even though provincial officials refused
About the same time, a similar project to develop the port of Xiangzhou at the tip of Zhongshan county in fact proceeded beyond the blueprints. Roads and shops were built, and some merchants started settling in. They banked on the idea that the provincial authorities would grant the port tax-free status. Migrant fisherfolk along the coast of eastern Guangdong began to congregate to fill transport and other labor demands. However, provincial officials never granted the port tax-free status. The merchants finally cut their losses and left the area. Local bosses took over what remained of the facilities and turned Xiangzhou into a thriving place for wartime smuggling.
The last of the grand projects involved the building of the Xinning-Jiangmen railway. Again, the initiative came from an overseas merchant, Chen Yixi, a Taishan native who had emigrated to the United States. However, the building of the railroad was blocked by unlikely alliances of local gentry, merchants, and military bosses along its planned routes. The project, begun in 1907, was completed in fourteen years, but not without desperate networking and negotiating with regional government offices and military commanders. Numerous conflicts with local militia included the kidnapping of engineers and workers being beaten. The railroad was never very profitable, as roads and new bus lines posed increasing competition. The railroad was bombed by the Japanese military during the war, and the remains were dismantled by various local parties.