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Chapter Three Community, Hierarchy and Authority Elites and Non-elites in the Making of Native-Place Culture during the Late Qing
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Huiguan Business and the Huiguan Oligarchy

On most days in late-nineteenth-century Shanghai the large huiguan buildings which architecturally symbolized community were nearly empty. Periodically a small and exclusive group, calling themselves "elders" (weng ), or "directors" (dongshi ), met together in a central room in the huiguan complex to discuss matters which came before them—social, political, religious and economic.

Surviving records from the Guang-Zhao Gongsuo suggest the nature and rhythms of affairs within the huiguan oligarchy. In 1872, in an atmosphere of regained wealth and respectability, twenty-four directors contributed to the reconstruction of the building. All were prominent Guangdong merchants, compradors or officials in Shanghai. Records from this year show that the directors met several times each week in the early evenings after business hours, arriving casually between 6:00 and 7:00 P.M. A small group of active directors, ranging from as few as three or four to as many as ten or fifteen, normally attended. Shanghai officials, if Cantonese, often attended huiguan meetings.[2]


Through the last years of the Qing, a very small group controlled huiguan business. An 1897 discussion of protocols for use of the Guang-Zhao Gongsuo seal reveals this dearly. The seal was locked in an iron safe with two doors. Three keys fit the outer door, each kept by one director. The single fourth key, which opened the inner door, was held by a fourth director. Without the seal, of course, no documents could be signed and no financial transactions could take place.

It is sometimes assumed on the basis of collective decision making practices or fraternal rhetoric that nineteenth-century huiguan were sites of indigenous democratic practices.[3] Such a view should be tempered by recognition of the hierarchy embedded in huiguan practice. Huiguan rules stressed that individual sojourners did not have the right of access to the huiguan . Individuals who needed help were to go first to the leader of their regional subgroup. Without a letter of introduction from this intermediate authority, the gongsuo would not respond to an appeal. Individuals of good reputation who became implicated in lawsuits were instructed to attain a note of guarantee from a native-place shop.[4]

Even within the sojourning elite, the rhetoric of collective decision making that informed huiguan rules and record keeping concealed a practice of quietly coerced consensus, in which the most powerful members of the oligarchy determined the outcome of any decision. Year after year the same individuals appear in leadership roles. In the records, all decisions are unanimous. Discussion and dissent simply do not appear.[5]

In their meetings, the ciders/directors discussed a wide range of busi-


ness, including disputes over individual and business debts; family inheritance cases; price fluctuations for various goods; company shareholder arrangements; purchase and rental of huiguan property; insults and affronts to friends, associates and other Guangdong sojourners; injury to property (including wives and concubines); shop disputes; customs fees; disputes over purchased concubines; collections to develop factories; hiring and payment for huiguan employees (guards, construction workers, water carriers, janitors); bankruptcies; apprentices; charitable collections. This list is deliberately random; huiguan records and meeting practice did not separate diverse concerns into different categories, nor did a specialized organizational personnel deal with different problems; the "elders" addressed whatever business came before them.

Business was introduced by directors themselves; by individuals with sufficient connections to contact the elders/directors; and by businesses or trades within the Guangdong sojourning community.[6] At times representatives from particular trades or shops attended the meetings to present cases, as in 1897, when directors of two subgroups in the oil trade came to the huiguan to resolve a dispute. At other times the directors used the huiguan as a court, dispatching investigators, summoning plaintiffs and accused before them and passing judgements. Such cases were resolved when the parties involved signed an agreement "in the gongsuo , in the presence of all." The meeting records spell out the terms of settlement in business and inheritance cases and are marked with signatures or fingerprints and crosses, the marks of the illiterate. Those sentenced to pay penalties or turn property over to business colleagues or family members affirmed their intent to pay "before the [huiguan ] god, with a pure heart" (zai shen qian qing xin ), the god's authority reinforcing that of the huiguan directors.[7]

Although the rules of the Guang-Zhao Gongsuo refer to huiguan


business as gong shi (public or collective matters), private and public, personal and collective, were not clearly distinguished in practice during this period. Personal finances as well as business arrangements flowed through the mediating institution of the huiguan . Directors discussed their investments, invested together, and helped each other out in family and other business when one or another was out of Shanghai. Guangdong merchants and officials in other places contacted the Shanghai Guangdong merchants through the huiguan and asked them to handle various matters for them. Funds for private business transactions were often transferred through the huiguan . Payments for huiguan business, when large stuns were involved, would often combine the limited "common funds" with contributions and loans from individual directors.[8]

The concerns of sojourning workers do not frequently appear in the huiguan ledgers, which are densely packed with the property concerns of the sojourning elite. Nonetheless, strikes or pay disputes did periodically intrude on the business of the directors. At such moments it becomes possible to glimpse in action the types of bonds, beliefs and power relations which structured class relations within the tongxiang community.

The day-to-day concerns of artisans and workers were handled by artisan or worker native-place associations (bang, dian , or hui ). It was only when matters could not be handled at this level that the merchant huiguan directors stepped in as a higher adjudicating, enforcing or mediating authority. An example of such an instance may be seen in an 1879 ease in which the carpenter Zeng Ajin and his brothers refused to pay the 20 percent of their earnings required by the Guangdong carpenters' Lu Ban Dian. Because the brothers worked for foreign employers, they also dodged penalties imposed by the carpenters' association. To force the unruly brothers to comply, the carpenters' association appealed to the huiguan . As reported in the North China Herald , "The carpenters' society is subordinate to the General Cantonese Guild, which ultimately took the matter in hand; and a few days ago a warrant was issued by the District Magistrate in the city... to compel payment." In this case we


see not only the Guang-Zhao Gongsuo's readiness to enforce the rule that all Guangdong carpenters had to belong to their association, but also the positioning of the huiguan between the carpenters and the Chinese authorities (and the willingness of the latter to enforce huiguan decisions).[9]

A carpenters' strike at Farnham, Boyd and Company in 1902 provided another occasion for huiguan intervention. Four Cantonese carpenters were arrested by foreign-settlement authorities for intimidating a Ningbo labor contractor who was responsible for employing Ningbo carpenters during the Cantonese carpenters' strike. In an effort to resolve the strike and investigate the case, the Mixed Court contacted the Guang-Zhao Gongsuo. According to the huiguan correspondence with the court, the directors summoned the carpenters' headmen to the huiguan to persuade them to return to work. The huiguan directors in return agreed to arrange for the release of the four arrested carpenters and provide strike-compensation funds to the workers. After investigating the situation, the directors contacted the foreign shipyard owners to secure the carpenters' release. When this initial attempt was unsuccessful, they enlisted the help of the Daotai, selected members of their community to act as guarantors to go to the court on the carpenters' behalf, and finally secured their release.[10] This example highlights the mediating role of the huiguan , which fashioned a compromise to both mollify fellow-provincial carpenters and return them to work. It also represented them in court as a matter of course. Although business involving foreigners was not always smooth, the action of the Mixed Court in this case nonetheless makes clear that foreign authorities, like Chinese, recognized the need to work through the huiguan in order to resolve the labor dispute.


In Chinese matters, the huiguan leaders not only commanded the authority to resolve routine disputes but also were capable of quickly mustering considerable resources and participation on short notice. In 1898, for instance, when rice was scarce in Guangdong and prices were rocketing, the Guang-Zhao Gongsuo responded with alacrity to appeals from hospitals in Guangzhou and Hong Kong, using native-place connections to purchase and ship more than thirteen million pounds office from Hankou to Guangdong. The details of this massive endeavor are precisely recorded in the huiguan meeting notes. Twenty sojourning Guangdong firms took on the responsibility to purchase and transport the rice, accompanying it to Guangdong to ensure that none of it would be sold along the way.[11]

In such large and smaller matters, huiguan authority "worked" because, in addition to serving their own interests, huiguan leaders understood that their long-term interest depended also on the cultivation of the larger sojourning community. For this they needed arenas which went beyond their interior meetings and courtroom dramas.

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Chapter Three Community, Hierarchy and Authority Elites and Non-elites in the Making of Native-Place Culture during the Late Qing
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