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.