previous sub-section
Chapter Five Native-Place Associations, Foreign Authority and Early Popular Nationalism
next chapter

Early Nationalism and Developing Class Tensions

In the differences between the riots of 1874 and 1898 it is possible to view two important developments in late-nineteenth-century Shanghai which reshaped native-place communities and popular understandings of native-place identity. The first was the merchant politicization and rising popular nationalism that followed the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. The second was the gradual internal restructuring of power relations between elite and non-elite elements in the huiguan itself.

Both riots were essentially affairs of the Ningbo community, which mobilized to defend its sacred burial ground. As such it would be problematic to assert that for the actors involved the riots involved a sense of nationalism. Although a group of Cantonese rowdies took advantage of the second riot to attack a French police station, neither riot provides evidence of common or coordinated action among different native-place groups in defense of "Chinese" rights or sovereignty.

Nonetheless, although it is important to avoid a refashioning of earlier events in accord with later sentiments, if neither riot presents a case of "modern nationalism," it is important to note the ways in which neither may be described as purely "traditional." In the 1874 incident, tension between people of different native-place groups (the Ningbo crowd versus a Guangdong woman) produced the social friction which sparked the riot. In the context of French imperialism and popular anti-French sentiment this spark produced not a Ningbo-Guangdong street brawl (with members of the Guangdong community jumping in to re-


store their native-place honor), but rather an anti-French riot. The idea that the purity or virtue of the Guangdong group was compromised by purported sexual relations between a Guangdong woman and French clients resonated with Ningbo sojourners' determination to preserve inviolate their sacred burial grounds against French incursions.

In the second incident we see a maturation of tactics, the development of a politically motivated strike and boycott, tactics which depended on the cooperation of the entire Ningbo community (across occupational and status lines) and proved most effective in impressing the foreign community. Boycotts were hardly new to huiguan and gongsuo , but they had been developed to discipline deviant members of the community or external economic competitors.[45] The French target and the context of French jurisdiction on Chinese soil resulted in the adaptation of a traditional device of collective action to new and specifically political uses.

Moreover, the experience of antiforeign riots was transformative. Such confrontations (whatever the sentiments of the rioters) were important to the gradual working out of the opposing positions of "Chinese people" versus "foreigners" in the political imaginations of Shanghai residents. Although Chinese newspaper accounts of the 1874 incident were sympathetic to the aggrieved Ningbo community, they did not immediately view the events in terms of a Chinese-foreign polarity. In contrast, Shenbao editorials constructed a different meaning for the 1898 incident, reflecting developing public opinion. The 1898 events were presented in more universalistic terms, as a matter of asserting and protecting Chinese rights against foreigners:

If we do not resist, the will of the [Chinese] people will appear weak and Westerners will make unlimited demands. In the future, if the people's hearts from the one county of this little gongsuo are as steadfast as this, this will show that even though the country might be weak and the officials might be controlled, the people can't be bullied. Foreigners will know the firmness of the Chinese people's will and they will restrain themselves in order to not offend the people. Although this act of the French demands the land of the gongsuo , it may also be a test of the will of the Chinese people.[46]


This editorial clearly constructs an understanding of the incident in which Ningbo people appear as exemplary Chinese in their steadfast determination to protect one small corner of Chinese territory from foreign imperialism. Here we see a positive linking of native-place solidarity to national identity and national interests. This connection is echoed in what we know of the motivations of Shen Honglai, who, according to Negishi Tadashi's account, visited Japan prior to his activism in the Changsheng Hui. During this stay Shen contemplated China's weakness and concluded that the key to China's problems could be found in the lack of cohesive social organizations which could unite to protect China's interests. Upon his return to Shanghai he threw himself into organizing the Ningbo Changsheng Hui.[47]

Finally, the Shenbao editorial also expresses an appreciation of the force of popular nationalism as an antidote for China's weakness and a corresponding construction of officials as weak in contrast to the "people," presenting a critique of Qing officialdom at a time of government capitulation to foreign demands. These themes, stated cautiously here, would be voiced with considerably greater flamboyance in the early twentieth century.

It is clear that this developing articulation of popular nationalism in the press fastened on symbolic victories in the absence of substantive ability to deter the expansion of colonial control. The final settlement of the Siming Gongsuo affair was not achieved until early in the summer of 1899, when Beijing authorities finally granted the French the settlement extension they sought, in one sweep doubling the size of the French Concession. Although the Guangxu Emperor had steadfastly opposed such an extension (and had in fact proposed that the huiguan sacrifice its land to mollify the French), the court ultimately had no choice but to concede to French pressure.[48]


The contrast offered by the simultaneous preservation of huiguan property and expansion of Shanghai territory under French control highlights our perception of the weakncss of the Chinese central government and the local strength of Chinese associations. It also foreshadows the ways Chinese nationalism would (and would not) gain popular acceptance. Viewed from the perspective of this riot, national interests were not necessarily popular if they involved the sacrifice of local institutions (in this case the highly respected Siming Gongsuo). Although, in fact, more Chinese territory had been lost than gained by the time of the ultimate resolution of the riot, in local eyes the huiguan achieved a certain victory over the French, emerging ironically (if no less sincerely), as a champion of the nation.

The riot of 1898 provides another window on the process of internal restructuring that was taking place within the native-place community, visible also in the changing organizational arrangements for burial and yulanpen ceremonies. As noted in Chapter 3, the growing non-elite membership of the broad sojourner community provided a critical, though unstable, source of the elite huiguan leaders' power. As workers and artisans organized themselves and accumulated collective property, they were able to demand a somewhat greater voice in huiguan affairs. The hierarchy within sojourner communities would be increasingly challenged as the organizational clout of commoner sojourners grew and as popular organizations gained greater political legitimacy (as would happen in the course of popular nationalist movements).

In each Ningbo riot the huiguan elite attempted the delicate manipulation of the broad native-place community, the collective force of which was necessary to achieve victory in the struggle with the French. By calling a mass meeting in 1874 the dongshi mobilized and incited popular action. At the same time, they removed themselves from the scene of popular violence, dosing the Siming Gongsuo gates until calm was restored and they could emerge as influential and respectable mediators who could negotiate on behalf of the Ningbo community while sharing the foreign authorities' goal of maintaining order.

In the riot of 1898 the paternalism symbolized by the huiguan directors' gift of mantou two decades earlier appears to have broken down. Worker and artisan sojourner groups acted on their own initiative in the later strike, organized through articulate spokesmen who could claim Ningbo victories as their own.


The popular mobilization of 1898 hastened a process of limited democratization within the association. The evident power of worker organizations in the strike forced the huiguan elite to recognize and relinquish a certain amount of power to non-elite leaders who could effectively mobilize workers. Not only did the maverick Yu Xiaqing break into the circle of directors, but the worker-leader Shen Honglai rose to become business manager. Within three years, Shen (still bearing the prestige of organizing the 1898 strike) forced a reformation of the system of huiguan governance, forming a committee of rotating representatives of each trade which met regularly with the group of dongshi .[49]

A stela document authored by Shen Honglai provides eloquent testimony of the rise of a man of the laboring classes into a position of power within the Siming Gongsuo.[50] The author expresses himself stridently and inelegantly, his carved words evidently an extension of his lifetime battle for acceptance by the huiguan elite, who frequently excluded him from their company. At one point in the stone document Shen rages about an incident in which (after receiving Shen's help on various matters) the huiguan director Yan Xiaofang failed to answer his letter and then refused to receive him in his home, concluding resentfully, "From this you can see the behavior of the director: When there is a problem [and he needs you], he sees you as a person. When there is no problem, you are nobody to him." In his account Sheri takes evident pleasure in listing for posterity the considerable property and capital assets his Changsheng Hui brought to the Siming Gongsuo, all of the times huiguan leaders came to him for assistance, and all of his accomplishments as huiguan manager. According to his testimony, his help was sought as early as 1875 by huiguan director Zhou Xiaolu in regard to an attempt by an American to seize eight feet of a Siming Gongsuo road, a large portion of which had been paved by the Changsheng Hui. He details the role of his Changsheng Hui in the 1898 strike, as well as his pivotal role in a meeting with the U.S. Consul, who threatened him, saying, "If you want to strike, we twelve nations [the international community in Shanghai], together with the French, will tear down the huiguan. " While the U.S. Consul waited, Shen left the meeting and notified his bang to end the strike. According to his account, after he returned to the meeting and announced this decision the French troops retreated.


As manager (while stressing his commitment to huiguan burial functions and providing charitable funds for impoverished members) Shen stopped wasteful practices, including the distribution of wood chips and planks from coffin construction to members as bonuses, by his estimate saving eventually forty thousand silver dollars from this alone. In addition to aggressive frugality, the talented Shen also raised funds to construct many income-producing properties (in one instance, residences with more than one hundred fifty units; in another, residences with more than three hundred units). Shen evidently gained considerable social prestige and attained a position of power by means of these accomplishments and by his consistent patronage of poorer Ningbo sojourners through provision of coffins and the construction of a clinic and hospital for the sick. Nonetheless, the stela stands as evidence of his recognition that his attainments were unusual (he repeats phrases like, "If you don't believe this, you can consult the deities" and "If this is not believed, there is a stela, you can come and see"). His account is defensive ("Ask the gentry merchants of the six counties [of Ningbo prefecture] to come and see the carelessness of the earlier managers of the gongsuo ") and self-aggrandizing ("After this, whenever the gongsuo had great or small matters to resolve, I, Honglai, acted on my own with power accorded to me alone") and expresses his fears that upon his death his gains and innovations would be lost to posterity.

The dual themes of the politicization of sojourner communities and the political emergence of subordinate groups within those communities dominate the history of native-place sentiment in the twentieth century and are a focus of subsequent chapters. In the popular expressions of antiforeign resistance and growing nationalism that characterized Shanghai in the first decade of the twentieth century, the precedent of the Ningbo Cemetery Riots would be invoked repeatedly as an episode of victorious heroism. In the riots, strikes and boycotts which followed, native-place organizations, prominent among them those of the already politicized and highly organized Ningbo community, proved to be crucial actors, mobilized to defend Chinese rights against injury and affront.

As was the case in the Ningbo Cemetery Riots, in the development of popular nationalism native-place organizations would appear consistently in the familiar role of dual-edged mediator, poised between the larger, non-elite tongxiang community and Chinese and foreign authorities. Because of the precedent of the cemetery riots, the unspoken threat


of popular violence underscored the urgency of huiguan demands at the negotiating table. Just as the strike success of 1898 forced the huiguan directors to recognize non-elite leaders who could mobilize workers, the increasingly popular nationalist politicization of the first years of the twentieth century would make links between high and low in the native-place community both imperative and tension filled. Huiguan leaders continued privately to encourage and publicly to restrain popular political activism in their native-place communities. Although they depended on the support of their tongxiang in their political battles, they also attempted to maintain order (not only to retain their respectability before Western and Chinese authorities but also in order to remain on top themselves).

Throughout this period the old elite generally did remain on top, but its control was often tenuous. Although workers frequently organized on their own, they still tried to assemble at the huiguan , which remained a symbolic center. Instead of abandoning the old nativc-place association, increasingly they would try to claim it as their own. Shen Honglai's rise and attempt to refashion the Siming Gongsuo foreshadows a broadening of association constituency which took place several years later in other native-place associations and produced an alternative, somewhat less oligarchic type of association. Although some of Shen's gains would indeed be lost after his death, his struggles and the early politicization of Ningbo sojourners during the 1898 riot were nonetheless responsible for hastening challenges to an old elite power structure which would not change without conflict.


previous sub-section
Chapter Five Native-Place Associations, Foreign Authority and Early Popular Nationalism
next chapter