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6. The Grounding of Cosmopolitans

Merchants and Local Cultures
in Guangdong

Helen F. Siu


In his study of Hankou merchants in the eighteenth century, William Rowe points to their institutional significance as an autonomous social force in dialogue with the late imperial state. Their physical presence matured well before the forces of modernization, which were associated with the coming of the West.[1] David Faure, however, stresses the lack of an independent identity for mercantile groups. His study of Foshan focuses on the literati concerns shrewdly pursued by a range of town-based elite a century earlier. There might have been powerful mercantile interests, but he sees no conscious cultural identity apart from state ideology.[2]

Scholars have debated about mercantile groups, their trade organizations, family institutions, lifestyles, outlooks, and networking with literati and state. The maturing of marketing systems from the Song dynasty onward is well demonstrated by studies on Shanxi, Huizhou, Fujian, and Jiangnan.[3] Cycles of commercial growth and decline were interwoven with dynastic fortunes. They also contributed to a regional renaissance of the arts and culture, family institutions, and popular religion.[4] Despite the material and cultural impact of mercantile groups, their identities remained as ambiguous in historical records as in the minds of analysts.

The ambiguity has much to do with the fact that successful merchants cultivated a great deal more than their trades. Huizhou merchants during the Ming invested in academies and literati pursuits. Those in Jiangnan excelled in the craft of garden building and fine arts.[5] In Fujian, they built elaborate temples.[6] In Guang-dong, they acquired and developed vast river marshes (sha) in the name of ancestral estates. These estates were the backbone of the evolution of an elaborate lineage complex.[7]

If those engaging in mercantile activities subscribed to the cultural forms of the literati and contributed significantly to the making of local society, we should


Pearl River Delta, Guangdong Province.

[Full Size]

not assume that merchants were extraneous to agrarian institutions and threatening to state orthodoxy. However, such an assumption often frames research questions and historical explanations: the difference between the studies by William Rowe and David Faure thus becomes one of historical time and place. The Foshan elites would be seen as having emerged from a rural political economy and having borrowed state ideologies to legitimize their operations. The Hankou merchants had another century to develop private urban institutions and regional networks in order to "collude, negotiate, and conflict" with the state on their own terms.

The assumed totalizing impact of the imperial order and its hostility to commercial activities continue to shape scholarly imagination for the Republican period. Chinese historians have agonized over the Qing's failure to modernize China's economy. To them, the culprit was state orthodoxy as much as Western imperialism. In their view, when imperial prerogatives weakened, the new Chinese bourgeoisie emerged from under the shadow of the decaying Qing state. They thrived when the preoccupation of Western powers in Europe during the First World War created competitive opportunities for indigenous businesses. Labeled compradors (maiban), capitalists, and national bourgeoisie, depending on the side of the political spectrum they were cast, these groups were seen to have reached a golden age in an emerging metropolitan landscape of treaty ports and coastal cities.[8]

A similar analytical logic is extended to the Chinese diaspora. Wang Gungwu maintains that overseas Chinese merchants thrived due to their distance from imperial control and to their skillful adaptation to colonial and local states in Southeast Asia.[9] Liu Kwang-ching observes the privatization of mercantile activities as reflected in guilds and native-place associations. He chronicles how late Qing compradors used their intimate knowledge of Western institutions to promote new practical philosophies on state and society.[10] New business interests in the early twentieth century were seen as continuing this maneuver between the legacy of tradition and modern Western challenges. Scholarly attention focuses on processes of nation-state building, where an assertive cosmopolitan elite assumed an autonomous identity and public space.[11] Riding on their "marginality," select entrepreneurial groups in Republican Nanjing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou conspicuously positioned themselves as national politics became decentered.

However, one cannot ignore the demise of mercantile groups in other regional cities and towns. The decline of the Huizhou merchants started in the early nine-teenth century, when the monopolistic powers of state licenses were eroded. Many hang merchants in Guangzhou were bankrupted before the system was finally abolished. The devastation of the long-distance traders of agricultural products in Guangdong in the early twentieth century also stood in sharp contrast to the fortunes of the new militarized bosses in the same region.

It remains difficult to pinpoint the predicaments of the range of entrepreneurs in Chinese history, their membership, the nature of their business, their lifestyles

and outlooks, their shifting alliances with power, and their national impact. If the term merchant defies definition as a distinct social category vis-à-vis the state in the Ming and Qing, merchants' differing fortunes in the Republican era are also hard to categorize. It may be more fruitful to treat these mercantile experiences as multilayered processes that intertwined with the making of cultural, economic, and political institutions in particular historical junctures. Granted that there are always winners and losers in history, a discussion of what contributed to the fate of mercantile groups in relation to the fluctuating fortunes of state and local society will sharpen our focus on their identities. Instead of subscribing to the mechanical dichotomies of state/market, urban/rural, elite/popular, and public/private, we may focus on the creative linkages forged by merchants in their efforts to excel in the circumstances in which they found themselves. As a result of those efforts, they changed the terms for dialogue and invented new cultural arenas, which integrated local society, the larger political order, and their own identities.

Once local agency and its historical complexities are analyzed, state institutions and agendas appear to have been nuanced and amorphous rather than restrictive and bureaucratic. At a discursive level, the state could be a fluid cultural idea subject to manipulation and contest. In previous articles, I have argued for a decentered view of the Chinese state. Such a view allows us to appreciate more fully the input from various social groups positioned in different parts of the empire. These groups had emulated what they perceived as literati values of the political center. In the process, they contributed to the creative making of regional society as well as the authoritative language of the state. What became recognized as cultural orthodoxy had much to do with the local resourcefulness of these agents, intentional or otherwise.[12]

The ambiguous nature of merchants and their cultural efforts also allows us to rethink the terms of debate on "civil society" in historical and contemporary China. In a study of contemporary urban China, Elizabeth Perry aptly summarizes such rethinking: "Our Western social science habit of viewing state-society relations as a zero-sum game, in which society's gain is the state's loss, does not shed much light on a China where private ties, public associations, and state agents are so thoroughly intertwined."[13]

What follows will be an exploratory essay, a rethinking of historical and ethnographic materials on the Pearl River delta that I have collected over the years. The maneuvers of mercantile groups in the late imperial period will be contrasted with those in the early twentieth century. If there are visible gaps in the data and a conscious rereading of it, this is because my research has not been focused on mercantile experiences or the Republican period. I shall draw upon the works of historians and, in particular, colleagues who have worked on Guangdong. In the past few years, we have tried to finetune issues in historical anthropology, reset basic parameters on which the map of Chinese culture was drawn, and uncover voices in crucial moments of history that might not have been given the attention they deserve.[14]



If we do not analytically pose state orthodoxy and agrarian institutions against merchant interests, how do we assess the historical efforts of mercantile groups in bridging state and local identities? Scholars often assume that literati were more important than merchants in creating ideological commitment to the state.[15] They may acknowledge that gentry and merchants often overlapped in membership in the commercial regions during the Ming and Qing, but they seldom give merchants a leading cultural voice.[16] However, Yu Ying-shih in a recent article presents ample evidence, from the sixteenth century on, that merchants were able to create cultural space on their own terms while making every attempt to emulate orthodoxy. In the process, they changed the overall philosophical orientation of Chinese tradition itself.[17]

To give due attention to the interactive impact of merchants' actions on mainstream culture and society, Susan Mann argues that, "like all agrarian societies, China offered merchants ideological sanctions and organizational roles that legitimized their status, incorporating them fully into the workings of the body politic…. The Qing call to ‘make people content and facilitate the activities of merchants' (anmin tongshang) recognized the integral relationship between a state agrarian order and a regular flow of commerce."[18] Her study minimizes the assumed incompatibility of state orthodoxy and merchant interests, and focuses on liturgical leadership and market town development made possible by a state that recognized the merits of commerce.

David Faure brings attention to another side of the merchants' bridging functions—the merchants' initiative in making local rural society, the cultural foundation of which was shared, if not synonymous, with the Confucian state. He addresses the problem by highlighting new dimensions of being a merchant and making lineage. Stressing that mercantile activities permeated many social arenas, he observes, "Historians of China recognize that, in the Ming and the Qing, merchants contributed to their lineages and drew from them resources that they put into their business activities. While this view of the lineage gives it a place in business history, it nevertheless characterizes lineage institutions as being extraneous to the world of business. In this short note, I wish to argue that the distinction between lineage and business activities can often be misleading, and that the development of the lineage as an institution must be recognized as an intrinsic element in the history of Chinese business."[19] In a political system where commercial law did not exist, Faure argues, patronage was actively sought to ensure business security. From the Ming dynasty on, the territorially based lineages that rose to dominate the landscape of the towns and villages of south China, with their corporate estates, ornate ancestral halls for ritual and worship, and array of literati members, were consciously cultivated to provide the necessary patronage networks for the fledgling commercial interests.[20]


Faure's analytical point is relevant in other aspects of social life as well. Materials from the Pearl River delta in the Ming and Qing periods largely support the view that corporate lineage estates in the sands (sha), popular religious beliefs and practices, academies, and strong territorial bonds based on settlement rights in the expanding delta grew with the region's commercialization. Although these cultural features were long recognized as major components of a state agrarian society, their making could not have been possible without crucial input from and impact on mercantile interests.[21]

Historical records from Foshan illustrate the point. Foshan was one of the four prominent market towns (zhen) of China. Since the Ming, it had been famous for iron-implements industries, pottery kilns, and dyed-cloth and papermaking businesses. However, it excelled not in industries alone. It was home to the delta's powerful lineages surnamed Xian, Li, Chen, and Huo. From the 1400s to the 1800s, these lineages produced a dazzling array of literati figures and owned extensive river marshes, kilns, lumber farms, ironworks, pawnshops, markets, and river landings. They had mobilized effectively for community defense, especially against the rebellion by Huang Xiaoyang in 1450. They were also promoters of a cult of the ancestral temple (zu miao) in Foshan with elaborate annual rituals.

The career of a prominent native of Nanhai county, in which Foshan was located, illustrates a creative fusion of these multiple interests and experiences. Huo Tao's ancestors supposedly started as duck farmers in the river marshes. They later operated iron-casting businesses, pottery kilns, and lumber farms. Huo Tao succeeded in the literati route. In his rise through the ranks of the imperial bureaucracy in the Ming, his family accumulated vast properties in the sands, which formed the backbone of corporate lineages that David Faure described. As minister for the board of rites in the Jiajing reign (1522–66), Huo Tao sided with the emperor against a majority of the ministers in the Great Rituals Controversy (da liyi) during the 1520s. According to Faure, the debate was one of the most emotionally charged and divisive in the Ming court. By supporting the emperor's wish to give ritual superiority to his blood ancestor rather than to the person from whom he inherited the throne, Huo sided with two other senior officials of Guangdong to stress the primacy of primordial ties. It was not entirely coincidental that, in 1525, Huo built a hall to honor founding ancestors of his lineage in his native village, Shitou xiang near Foshan. After that, there was in Guangdong a proliferation of territorially based lineage formations that stressed blood ties to the focal ancestor, literati achievements, written genealogies, and landed estates.[22]

Faure's observations may lead one to credit Huo Tao with the creation of a literati form of cultural orthodoxy in Guangdong. However, Huo was also known to promote overseas commerce when the Ming court was advocating exclusion. He opposed the court's policy of suppressing sea trade (haijin), noting that trade with Southeast Asia could be mutually beneficial and that China should not commit self-imposed closure (zikun) by rejecting traders from those areas.[23]


The Foshan materials show that the mercantile activities, the development of the sands, the rise of corporate lineages, and literati achievements intertwined to create a thriving regional culture and society. Mercantile activities did not appear to constitute a social force that arose from a previously undifferentiated rural society, nor did merchants eventually develop autonomous voices challenging the state. Instead merchants seemed to function best during the heyday of imperial fortunes and orthodoxy, and when rural society was intimately linked to merchant operations. Mercantile interests and their cultural maneuvers had allowed local, regional, and state identities to complement and penetrate one another. This historical process is summarized by two Chinese economic historians, Tan Dihua and Ye Xian'en. Although framed in Marxist language, the message is clear:[24]

Foshan zhen prospered during mid-Ming when iron-and pottery works developed under the general conditions of an increasing social division of labor and commodity production. However, feudal power privileging descent rose with Foshan's economic prosperity and strengthened its control over and interference in the economy. When prominent merchants continued to become feudal gentry, and when lineages invested in scholarly talents with lineage properties, cultivating droves of feudal bureaucrats, Foshan became filled with these literati types, expanding forever the consuming and parasitic population. A productive city gradually became a place of consumption; a specialized industrial and commercial city ended up being a fortress of feudalism. (163)

Social pluralism, competent self-management, a coherent prosperity, and alliance with officials stressing morality and restraint are themes noted by historians in the characterization of merchant-state relationships in the Ming and Qing in many areas of China.[25] Moreover, as the Foshan materials show, the merchants' intrinsic role in local society was by no means a matter of passive accommodation of a lack of alternative investment opportunities. The security of their urban operations depended on the active cultivation of rural bases and the associated cultural repertoire, which the imperial dynasties had promoted as their own civilizing agenda.[26]


The parallels between Foshan and Huizhou merchants are striking. Despite the span of historical time and space between Anhui province where Huizhou lies, and the Pearl River delta in Guangdong province, which is home to Foshan, some comparisons can be made.[27] First, owners of large private lands in Huizhou were rare. Ye Xian'en observes in his book on the Huizhou merchants in the Ming-Qing period that few private landlords owned over 100 mu of land.[28] This form of investment in land was small in proportion to the enormous wealth accumulated in commerce. However, merchant contributions to ancestral estates were substantial, amounting sometimes to thousands of mu in wooded hilly land.[29]


Many of the estates were rented out long term to rich households who contracted bond servants (dian pu) to manage the wooded lands.[30] These operations assured merchants of a steady supply of products (such as lumber, bamboo, and tea) for their trade, and profits accumulated were often turned into loans for interest collection. The vast sandy land in the Pearl River delta auctioned out by town-based ancestral trusts to tenant contractors for long-term development quite paralleled the cultivation of woods for lumber in the hills of Huizhou.[31] Furthermore, in Guangdong, it was common to find entire villages of particular surnames that were bond servants to established lineages. However numerous their members were, they were treated by their patrons as mixed surnames (za xing), that is, as members of lineages without ancestral halls and subject to numerous ritual restrictions.[32]

Economic functions aside, the estates in both Huizhou and Guangdong and the rituals they financed had a cultural-political dimension. They were set up in the name of founding ancestors. With due recognition by state officials, local populations claimed native roots and the associated rights of settlement and use. Furthermore, the estates were managed by those linked to the town merchants with particular social bonds and obligations. Many of the functionaries had become prosperous entrepreneurs themselves, but cultural rules demarcating status remained strong.[33] The merchants' contribution to the estates legitimized their membership in the community despite their prolonged residence in towns and cities. Harriet Zurndorfer's examination of the Fan lineage estates reveals generations of land and other investments by lineage segments whose members became prosperous in commerce.[34] In a word, lineages were more than kinship and rituals: they were cultural inventions with significant economic and political impact.[35] In an emerging status hierarchy of which lineage became a significant component, a merchant could profit as kin and patron.

Cultural strategies extended beyond the local community. Historical materials on Huizhou merchants point to the elaborate political networking created by the merchants' support of education.[36] In the six counties of Huizhou, there existed fifty-one academies of varying sizes and visibility, most of them built during the Ming and early Qing, when the Huizhou merchants were enjoying great prosperity. From village schools to county academies, merchants' support not only prepared their kin for officialdom but the academies also became the arena for activities other than schooling. At times as a result of territorial bonds, at times as a result of kinship, these institutions were where local leaders, merchants, and officials composed the local and regional versions of a literati language for practical politicking. The numbers of graduates are staggering. During the Ming, Huizhou produced 298 juren (provincial graduates) and 392 jinshi (metropolitan graduates). In the Qing, it produced 698 juren and 226 jinshi.[37] The importance of the Xin'an school of thought (Xin'an xuepai), brandishing leading neo-Confucians as its native sons, can be seen as part of such a process.[38] It may be useful to view the late imperial state as a totalizing cultural idea rather than as political machinery, and as such it allowed local agents to maneuver shrewdly from within.[39]


The Huizhou merchants were also distinguished by their conspicuous elaboration of literati lifestyles, regional drama, and the arts. Major Huizhou opera troupes (Si da Hui bang) had prominent merchant patrons.[40] It would be difficult to dismiss their actions as unsophisticated acquisition of "superfluous things."[41] Ironically, in the merchants' eager emulation of the literati and in their subscription to what they perceived as state orthodoxy, they created new social and cultural space within the imperial order that linked city to country. In a word, judging from the development in Huizhou, merchants could be central to the very cultural processes of state making and of incorporation of local society into the imperial order. Hence their liturgical role during the high Qing.

G. William Skinner's work on the hierarchy of markets confirms the importance of economic nodes for cultural integration. The economic importance of the Huizhou merchants in the Yangzi River system is reflected in a saying that "one cannot claim to have a market if there are no Huizhou merchants."[42] Moreover, their influence on mainstream cultural pursuits could hardly be discounted. It is worth noting that out of the four persons who, at the request of Emperor Qianlong, donated over five hundred types of books and manuscripts to the imperial library (Si ku quan shu guan), three were merchants of Huizhou origin.[43]


While merchant groups were able to maintain integrative links with both regional society and metropolitan politics during the dynastic heyday in the Ming and Qing, the balance was fundamentally disturbed as the nineteenth century wore on. Philip Kuhn and Susan Mann attribute the late Qing crisis to the intensified attempts by the state to reach society directly, after the growth of regional militaristic interests in the wake of midcentury rebellions. The capacity for merchant groups to meet an increasingly interventionist state depended greatly on how rooted the merchants were in the local community. This is illustrated by Mann's description of reactions by merchant groups in Huicheng (the Xinhui county capital) and neighboring Jiangmen city to the imposition of the transit tax (lijin) in mid-nineteenth century. The Xinhui merchants, represented by a locally entrenched fan palm guild and regionally powerful lineage formations, successfully resisted the tax. The Jiangmen merchants, many being transport brokers (and I suspect they had been dan fisherfolk in origin, with no local roots), avoided the tax by leaving the area. (The dan were a floating population of tenant-farmers, fisherfolk, and transport functionaries.) The historian Luo Yixing observes the similar fate of prosperous merchants a few decades later in Lubao, a river market north of Foshan that had thrived on being a distribution center of regional goods. The merchants met stiff competition from rising local bosses in the surrounding countryside, who used the label shuiliuchai (floating twigs, a term for the dan, who often were not given settlement rights in local communities) to disenfranchise them.[44] These labels, imposed on the less rooted by landed groups, were a powerful cultural

means of exclusion and of defining social hierarchy in the late imperial order.

Paradoxically, merchants also suffered when the state faced its own crisis of legitimacy. Problems began to surface in the early nineteenth century in different guises. When the power of the state to grant trading monopolies diminished, the Huizhou merchants rapidly declined.[45] So did the Fu-Rong salt-yard elite lineages in Sichuan at the end of the century, when the structure of state authority governing salt production could no longer be profitably manipulated. Merchants in the regional cities and market towns of the Pearl River delta did not depend on state licenses. They thrived for another few decades in the nineteenth century by maintaining their own local monopolies and regional networks. With the influx of overseas Chinese capital after the 1911 revolution, fan palm and citrus peel merchants in fact reached the height of their prosperity.

However, the fact that the state lost its authoritative presence eventually caught up with them. They had less to draw on to enforce the terms of their trade in the local and regional environments. There were fewer means to redress contractual and credit arrangements that had been broken, and they were vulnerable to encroachment by marginal groups. They experienced tremendous hardships when they lost territorial control in the rural hinterland to local bosses who did not respect the moral authority and the power play embodied in literati etiquette or communal rituals. In Xinhui county, many large enterprises in the trading of grain, fan palm, and citrus peel closed down. Properties owned by guilds and academies, and town-based ancestral estates, were forcibly taken and sold by local strongmen who rose from the regional fringes. Their troops often occupied communal temples that were made into tax collection stations. At times, when negotiations with local bosses broke down, heads of merchant organizations were held ransom. The demise of the merchants accelerated during the war with Japan when central authority completely eroded. In Xiaolan zhen of Zhongshan county, over a hundred of the town's 393 ancestral halls were dismantled by local bosses who maintained a tense truce with the Japanese military and the Nationalist generals.

The merchants' difficulties were partly due to the general disruptions of war and political turmoil that brought great destruction to both villages and cities. In rural north China, Philip Huang has argued, the commercialized areas suffered greatly, especially those where warlord armies passed.[46] Prasenjit Duara stresses the intrusions of the Nationalist state via local agents in regional and county governments.[47] The merchants in the county capitals and market towns of the Pearl River delta, whose businesses provided crucial links between rural and urban areas, were caught at both ends. Some businesses survived, but others declined.[48] While appreciating what Joseph Esherick and Mary Rankin describe as the broad range of strategies available to local elites for maintaining dominance, one wonders if the rise of the new power holders in the Republican era could have been a catalyst for the demise of those who had prospered by traditional means before.


Mercantile groups in general did not face a common enemy—an imperial state clinging to "feudal" traditions. Instead, they were drawn to the political center and local society in vastly different but equally intense ways. New power holders in the early twentieth century, be they mercantile or militaristic, were able to make a new language of the nation and create alternative territorial bonds that attached local regions to the Republican state. Those who depended on the language of the imperial state and its shared cultural assumptions in local community fell by the wayside.

In the sections that follow, I will focus on a less explored factor in the demise of the merchants in the Pearl River delta in the Republican period: their inability to maintain ties to the rural community due to the rise of militaristic local bosses.[49] The cultural resources with which merchants adorned themselves, and which had dovetailed with the imperial order's civilizing enterprise, had been crucial to their social identity and economic prowess in the regional cities and towns during a large part of the late nineteenth century. It seems that the usurpation of a rural base eroded their claim to a legitimate place in the state patronage networks. This correspondingly closed off the arenas for practical networking and political negotiation based on shared assumptions. Moreover, unlike their counterparts in Guangzhou or Shanghai, these merchants were not close enough to the new political centers to develop any alternative cultural arenas to maintain the necessary political dialogues. When the state became less of a malleable cultural idea and more a predatory military power, the predicaments of commercial groups seemed to have become progressively grim. This upset the delicate balance between compliance and resistance that David Strand perceptively describes as the "embrace and foil of state agents" by commercial groups.[50]

If we follow this scenario, we must ask questions different from those already asked: What kind of mercantile groups were major players in the Republican period? How do we disaggregate their access to economic resources and cultural strategies? With regard to partnership in the building of a modern nation-state and cultural identity, whose golden age was it? How do we evaluate the fate of the traditional merchant institutions and arenas in the face of the rise of the new merchant-industrialist groups? Until we remark on their differing local bases and their complicity with imperial orthodoxy or with modern state institutions, it may be difficult to characterize the age of the Chinese bourgeoisie and its part in the restructuring of region, state, and nation, then and now.


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.[51] From the Ming to the late Qing, this part of

the delta underwent rapid commercialization.[52] Marketing networks intensified among the towns and villages from the edge of the sands to county capitals. Regional cities emerged as production and distribution centers for local and long-distance trade in specialized agricultural and handicraft products. As described earlier in this essay, the distinguished products in Foshan were iron implements, pottery, dyed cloth, and paper.[53] In Xinhui, the commodities were grain, citrus peel, and fan palm. Over centuries of settlement, identities were constructed with elaborate ritual complexes that allowed local inhabitants to claim significant affiliations with the expanding Chinese imperial order—as migrants from the Central Plains, and as descendants of royal branches and officials. These processes of cultural construction were marked by important turns in local political economy as highlighted below.

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.[54] Extensive river marshes matured further southeast during the Ming.[55] 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.[56]

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.[57] 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.[58] 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

lineage pedigrees connected with prominent families from the Central Plains, flaunted their wealth and literati connections, and put up severe barriers against those they referred to as dan. Backed by official pretensions and often by force, this lineage complex was an effective tool for claiming settlement rights, mobilizing large capital investment for the reclamation of the marshes, excluding potential challengers, and, not least, assuring business terms. Magnate lineages in the Foshan area that rose during the Ming—in Xiaolan town and Shunde county capital in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in Shawan xiang during the late Qing—were remarkable examples.[59] Disputes over the boundaries of properties as they changed with the meandering of the rivers were resolved not only with cultural strategies to demonstrate authority: power was also exerted by semiofficial militia organizations and bureaus set up by an alliance of officials, merchants, and lineage trusts in the urban nodes.[60]

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.[61]

Coastal Trade

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.[62] 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

entered into daily trading transactions as much as temple contributions.[63] Even before the massive import of opium from the late eighteenth century on, foreign trade created powerful merchant gangs with armed fleets, culturally ambiguous brokers, and sophisticated marketing networks linked to river ports and market towns.[64] The tremendous wealth created was quite beyond the government's capacity to supervise. As in the inland rivers, in peaceful times these trading gangs maintained an appearance of respectability as merchants. In times of dynastic closure, they were labeled as crafty barbarians, local bosses, pirates, and smugglers.[65]

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.


Huicheng had been a sizable county capital since the Ming.[66] The four largest lineages in town, the He, Liu, Xu, and Mo, held ownership rights to extensive sands in the south and southeast of the county. The He lineage, numbering over three thousand in population, was particularly powerful because of He Xiongxiang, a minister of revenue in Nanjing during the Wanli reign in the Ming. His family moved from a village at the southern edge of the county capital to the town center at Shangshu fang, a neighborhood named after his official position. During his long retirement, he "mingled in the market with fishermen and peddlers," but he emerged to exert great influence whenever local circumstances required.[67] The other lineages also had ancestral halls clustering at the southern gate of the city, mixing with growing merchants' quarters and grain wharves that were connected by numerous waterways to other market towns and county capitals in the delta.[68] However, the processes of growth were periodically disrupted and local populations were dislocated. There were widespread revolts by bond servants against their lineage masters in the delta in the Ming. The coastal evacuations imposed by Emperor Kangxi in the early Qing also caused hardships.[69] New immigrants eventually resettled in the area. They grew into territorial lineages themselves, with demonstrated claims to settlement rights and eventual literati status.[70]


As mentioned earlier, reclaiming the sands became a capitalized commercial undertaking requiring long-term investment of labor and resources as well as the flexing of political muscles. Merchants in Huicheng and Jiangmen continued to invest in the sands in the nineteenth century in the form of trusts and estates. For example, an ancestral estate, the He Bingru Gong tang, operated the Zhihe grain shop in the Daoguang period and later opened the Hecheng native bank in Jiang-men. It acquired 140 mu of sands.[71] Another record describes a Li surname whose lineage claimed that they once had an ancestral hall at the western gate of the county capital. At the end of the Qing, a site was located at the center of Huicheng. Some members loaned and donated cash for the "rebuilding" of a hall in order to deposit their ancestral tablets. The managers spent 73,000 taels of silver for the building and used the remaining 24,000 taels to acquire river marshes between Xinhui and Xiangshan counties to create an ancestral estate.[72] Vast areas of sands were thus tied to the town through a hierarchy of tenant contractors and functionaries acting as clients and kin.

Grain from the sands was marketed in Huicheng and other towns in the delta. Another dominant commodity for long-distance trading was fan palm. The commodity linked the rural areas to Huicheng in multiple ways. A local historian estimated that by the late nineteenth century, over 250 qing of the county's diked fields were devoted to palm growing. The growers were large, some having 20 or so qing of palm fields, and many dried the leaves for processing as well.[73] Another group of enterprises made the fans. The large-scale ones took up long-distance trading.

Merchant organizations in Huicheng commanded a powerful presence in the surrounding area. Growers, fan processors, and traders belonged to various guilds, which oversaw an elaborate division of labor, credit arrangements, trading etiquette, and shrewd politicking. The overarching organization for the fan palm trade was the Fan Palm Guild (Kuishan huiguan), with its management body the Yuqing tang.[74] Smaller guilds further divided the trade, based on the particular grades of fans to be produced, the location of the workshops, and the region to which they transported their goods.[75] A major concern of the trade organization was control of the supply. Unregistered selling of the fan palm by growers caused prices to fluctuate and made it difficult for traders to maintain the standard of products.[76]

The long-distance traders (chujiang bang) depended on networks of native-place and guild associations, reaching scores of regional cities such as Hankou, Chongqing, Suzhou, Zhenjiang, and Changsha. They returned to Xinhui with a variety of products from other provinces (such as herbal medicine from Sichuan and cotton cloth and jute from Hunan, Hubei, and the Yangzi River delta) to be sold in the surrounding regions.[77] Since the nineteenth century, water transport through Jiangmen was a convenient channel for reaching Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. Sometimes foreign steamboats were employed. At the turn of the century, those of Butterfield and Swire, a British company, carried an average of two to three hundred tons of fan palm per boat to northern China, among other local agricultural products such as sugar and citrus fruits.[78]


Trades organizations had existed before the formal establishment of the Fan Palm Guild in Huicheng in 1848. With the guild, the production and trading of fan palm became more institutionalized. The guild grew into the most formidable political and economic power by the late nineteenth century. It held only a few hundred mu of land, the income of which was used for ritual and politicking purposes. More important, it wielded monopolistic power over the growing, financing, processing, and marketing of the fan palm. Yuqing tang, the management body of the guild, consisted of elected representatives from the various organized neighborhoods (jia) representing the different stages of producing the fans. With membership dues and income from its landed estate, the guild at the time boasted an annual income of about 30,000 taels of silver. It gave 1,000 taels to each of two local degree holders, who were entrusted to perform the necessary etiquette with officials. It maintained a militia for the collection of rent and surcharges and for the securing of the supply of fans from delinquent contractors.[79] When Nie Ergang was county magistrate in the 1860s, the traders in the guild were led by Liang Chunrong, a member of the Gangzhou public bureau. As Susan Mann observes in her reading of magistrate Nie's public announcements, the guild effectively fended off the magistrate's numerous efforts to impose the lijin tax.[80]

Prosperity continued for the dominant members of the guild for at least two decades into the twentieth century. A few of the major fan palm enterprises also traded citrus peel, an equally important commodity produced locally for long-distance trading. Among the enterprises were Lin hengji and Liu yiji. Both were family businesses that lasted generations and held landed estates. They monopolized the markets in Chongqing and, later, Shanghai.[81] Solidarity of the town merchants was made visible by rituals in the guilds and by the celebrations and parades of the deities at Dilintang, a communal temple in the commercial district at the southern edge of town.

Apart from the networks of relationships based on ancestral estates, temples, and guilds, an important arena in which local gentry, merchants, and officials mingled was the county academies.[82] These academies were organized on a territorial basis. According to a Xinhui county gazetteer (1840), Gangzhou shuyuan (academy) was set up by a county magistrate who allocated to the academy 1,100 mu of land in 1752. Local elites in Huicheng and some nearby townships took over its administration in 1806. A magistrate in 1760 established the Jingxian shuyuan in Jiangmen. He granted to the academy some river marshes that had been subject of a lawsuit. Xi'nan shuyuan was set up in 1845 by eight degree holders of different surname groups. Its estate was built through contributions from patrons in two subcounty districts in the southwestern part of the county. The academy forged an alliance of gentry and merchant interests who claimed ties to that region.

Although the academies had explicit goals of promoting education and literati values, their agendas included far more than Confucian schooling. Each of the academies owned between 600 and 1,000 mu of river marshes. Rituals for the birthday of Confucius were performed in keeping with the state's explicit educational

goals. Grants were given to aspiring scholars. However, literati aspirations were linked to territory and kin. The beneficiaries were members of the home areas represented by the academies. The lineage ideal was reinforced, as patrons from a range of surnames from a particular region donated land to build up the academy's estate; the academy reciprocated by putting up tablets of their ancestors for worship. In turn, the legitimizing concern of ties to land and agriculture (wuben) was confirmed in the claims of origin. The question remains: to what extent were these academies reflections of state orthodoxy for social control, and to what extent were they local inventions? The process of mutual appropriation is worth exploring.

I see the academies as visible urban arenas where local nonofficials and, in particular, a growing community of merchants whose economic interests were intertwined with the development of the rural hinterlands shrewdly defined spheres of influence and control by improvising on a repertoire of literati symbols. To borrow Prasenjit Duara's idea for north China, these merchant-gentry institutions were nodes in a visible cultural nexus of power that bridged rural-urban distances, delineated social boundaries, defined statuses and identities, exerted control, and ultimately gave every participant his respective place in an evolving imperial order.[83]

The academies became centers for political mobilization in times of crisis. In the mid-1850s, local rebels associated with the Red Turbans sacked the county capitals of Shunde, Heshan, Jiangmen zhen, and besieged Huicheng for two months. They also ravaged the surrounding townships. The Xinhui county magistrate and a handful of local notables made every effort to assemble community leaders at the various academies to coordinate defense.[84] A meeting was first called at the Gangzhou shuyuan. When Jiangmen was threatened, members met at Jingxian shuyuan. Public bureaus (gongju) were formed within the context of the academies. Contributions were solicited from prominent merchants, while lineages in the surrounding townships provided volunteers. However, the leaders were constantly frustrated by unrest within their own camps from "unworthy members" of various surnames as much as by the reluctance of wealthy families to be involved. Most fled the county capital, and those who remained in the city stayed away from the public bureaus. The Fan Palm Guild, a symbol of mercantile interest in Huicheng, was in fact taken over by rebel troops for a short period.[85]

As in other parts of China, the disturbances in the delta changed the power relationships that merchants and landed elites had cultivated in the countryside. The century that began with the Red Turbans in 1854 and ended with the Communists in 1949 saw general militarism in the region. Both state officials and merchant-gentry organizations in the county capital seemed increasingly unable to mediate or supervise local militia units. The militarized bosses at the regional fringes took matters into their own hands. Various sands protection associations (husha) rose under their leadership with the explicit aim to collect taxes and protection dues. The notorious Dongnan ju (renamed Dongnan gongyue after the public bureaus were abolished) was led by local bosses of three townships in the southeast of the

county.[86] It used armed fleets in the sands to smuggle salt, to force harvest, and to extract taxes and surcharges. The county magistrate Nie Ergang could only express indignation when gentry members of the Xi'nan shuyuan reported to him that farmers within the academy's jurisdiction were arrested, beaten, and jailed by the Dongnan gongyue's militia. When the magistrate's men caught the smugglers, the militia claimed them back. In one case, armed guards from the bureau came with a signed statement from their leaders. They forcibly took the boats carrying the seized goods and sailed away.[87]

By the late nineteenth century, the merchants' participation in Huicheng's social-political life shifted to a new institution and arena—the charitable associations (shantang). Individual charitable acts by merchants were historically well-known, and they were rewarded with academic and official titles. However, large-scale organizations for philanthropy and relief for the poor mushroomed only during the last decades of the Qing dynasty. They involved visible merchant participation in local society that focused on social problems arising from a changing urban landscape.[88] Their functions ranged from providing relief for the poor in the form of free food, medical care, coffins, and burials to maintaining public calm in times of crisis. In Huicheng, the board members of charitable associations were native bankers and leading traders of grain, fan palm, and citrus peel.

The limited focus of this chapter does not allow a detailed exploration of this new institutional form of merchant involvement in local society during the late Qing. My observation is that, in practice, these associations became urban in orientation, although the charitable acts continued to draw moral authority shrouded in Confucian terms.[89] Future research will determine whether the shift of attention to relief for urban poor was a cause or a consequence of the town-based merchants' loss of moral authority, which they used to share with those in the countryside.


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

from within.[90] In Tianma xiang a few miles south of Huicheng, tenant contractors of lineage estates based in the county capital thrived by taking over the land of their patrons and then building ancestral halls in the village to claim settlement rights. The demise of the town-based estates had to do with the structure of land tenancy, rent collection, and the payment of taxes. Cash rents collected from tenant contractors on a long-term basis became worthless in the financial upheavals of the Republican decades. However, the estates were obligated to pay numerous taxes and surcharges imposed on land by local and regional state officials. The tax farmers (who collected taxes for the government but kept any amount they collected beyond the government's quota) happened to be local bosses themselves and often forced or colluded with managers of the estates to "sell" land cheaply. During nearly a decade of war with Japan (1937–45), grain became a precious commodity. The bosses, many of whom sided with the Japanese military that occupied Huicheng, took over palm and citrus fields and grew grain instead. They collected rent in kind from farmers and deposited the grain in the grain mills at Huicheng for speculation.

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.[91]

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

for the town in 1934, the chrysanthemum festival—which was held once in sixty years—the surviving ancestral trusts were barely able to keep up appearances. Instead, the active participants were members of mixed surnames who had speculated on financial markets in Shanghai. Their allies were local military officials who were political clients of warlords in Guangzhou.[92]

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.[93] 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.[94]

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.[95] 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.[96]

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.[97] 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,

and financing community rituals. However, these ritual efforts to gain legitimacy were diluted by the rapidly deepening crisis in the large political order.[98]

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.[99]

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.[100]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.[101] 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.[102] 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.[103] 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

into the 1940s. However, none of his networking with the local community saved his life. Branded as a local bully, he was tried in public and shot by the Communists during the land reform.

Similar episodes showed the precarious position of the town merchants, who were sandwiched between the local bosses and new regional military commanders.[104] 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.[105]

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.[106]

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 entrepreneurs for two decades. As it was a lucrative channel for extracting contributions, bribes, and surcharges, there were endless debates as to whether it should be a government project (guanban), a joint government-merchant enterprise (guanshang heban), or a private project (minban). The project was only partially finished when the Communists arrived in 1949.[107]

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.[108]

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

to grant a subsidy for the fort project. I could not find other documents to explore further, but the building of the port seemed to have stalled afterward.[109]

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.[110]

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.[111]


The Pearl River delta during the late imperial and Republican periods saw a drastic reconfiguration of power and authority that had been the bases for "merchant" identities. With their own historical specificity, leading mercantile groups in the Ming and Qing were able to create vigorous dialogues with the state by engaging in a language of orthodoxy. The dialogues took place in the local arenas of lineage, temple, guild, and academy.[112]

After the imperial metaphor receded into the background of political discourse, traditional mercantile groups suffered, as illustrated by those in Huicheng. Militaristic bosses colluded with precarious warlord governments and brandished a volatile language of power. As predatory da tian er carved out territories for control with their guns, the new business arena was far from cosmopolitan.[113] The demise of local merchants extended somewhat to overseas Chinese groups whose repeated attempts to recreate their home bases in the delta largely failed to materialize because they too had grown marginal within the local power configurations. Cultural strategies that had enabled merchant interests to merge with landed groups and rural community while sharing the moral authority of the imperial state faded from the public arenas long before the Communists made their direct attack in 1949.


Although the local bosses were hounded out during the land reform in the early 1950s, new arenas for mercantile activities did not materialize. Instead, as I have argued in previous publications, the Maoist regime virtually eliminated all private commerce. Market towns in the delta shrank drastically in size and impact as villages increasingly became cell-like units, their links to the outside severed. One saw the destruction of traditional hierarchies of marketing, lineage, and popular religion, and their associated cultural meanings. These relationships had functioned to creatively link villagers to region and state and had given local agents in late imperial Guangdong a relatively prosperous and pluralistic arena in which to maneuver.[114]

The analytical assumptions that fuel the debates about the Republican period are relevant to the present period. Can one assume that the post-Mao era signifies a struggle between state and market, and between the weighty bureaucracy and new entrepreneurial interests? Or must we find a less dichotomous framework in order to interpret commercial energies that are given relatively free rein all over China? Moreover, how do we take into account the decades of Maoist politics that might have fundamentally changed social institutions and cultural values?[115]

The Pearl River delta in particular is bustling with mercantile activities. The question remains as to who these "merchants" are. The prosperous operations are often dominated by a new generation of local cadres who have captured the market through their positions in the state system. A new authoritarianism comes hand in hand with dazzling wealth.[116] Market-town officials now stage community rituals and pursue the language of native place with unprecedented zeal and scale. This is to give a new grounding to overseas capital and business connections.[117] The politics of native roots has been played up in local festivals and lavish banquets. They are theaters of power and influence. Such politics attracts investments for factories, sports stadiums, and schools. In an era when the central government promotes modernization and cautious exposure to Western ways, local officials and residents seize the opportunity to negotiate the status of being China's new middle class.[118] The "local bosses" of the 1990s are cadres who clog the roads with their Mercedes-Benzes, who use their cellular phones to call public security officers in order to get out of traffic jams, and who install karaoke bars in their grossly magnificent villas to entertain business friends and mistresses.

In Guangdong as in other coastal provinces, new urban landscapes have emerged with new consumption patterns and political networking. But there are lingering questions for contemplation and further research. In the county capitals (and municipalities) of the Pearl River delta, where the dominance of local government cannot be discounted, and where state and commercial interests had been so consciously opposed during the previous decades of Maoist politics, what are the nature and identity of these new commercial bosses? Do we assume that mercantile agendas were only repressed in the previous era and are now exploding with a vengeance after the state decided to recede? Or should we expect local officials, armed with state mandate, on the one hand, and strategic control of local

resources, on the other, to blossom into new modernizing elites? Using their entrenched power bases, they negotiate with, compete with, and accommodate state authority as much as they reinvent local traditions. Is this their way of being "Chinese" and "modern" when the central government struggles to define a new "socialism with Chinese characteristics"? If that is the case, what must we learn from previous generations of mercantile experience in order to appreciate the ways that the agendas of the larger polity, state agents, entrepreneurs, and localities are energized and reconstituted?


1. See William Rowe, Hankow: Commerce and Society in a Chinese City, 1796–1889 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1984). [BACK]

2. David Faure, "What Made Foshan a Town? The Evolution of Rural-Urban Identities in Ming-Qing China," Late Imperial China 11, no. 2 (December 1990): 1–31. [BACK]

3. See the works of the Chinese economic historian Fu Yiling on Ming-Qing merchant capital; Ye Xian'en and Harriet Zurndorfer on Huizhou; and Shiba Yoshinobu on Jiang-nan, among others. For late imperial China, the cycles of regional systems are presented in the works of G. William Skinner. [BACK]

4. For family institutions and women, see the works of Patricia Ebrey and Dorothy Ko. For popular religion, see those of Atsutoshi Hamashima, Valerie Hansen, and Richard Van Glahn. [BACK]

5. See the works of Joanna Handlin Smith, Craig Clunas, and Timothy Brook on Ming commerce and culture. [BACK]

6. See Kenneth Dean and Zheng Zhenman, Fujian zongjiao beiming huibian: Xinghua fu fence (Epigraphical materials on the history of religion in Fujian, Xinghua region) (Fuzhou: Fujian renmin chubanshe, 1995). [BACK]

7. See David Faure, "The Lineage as a Cultural Invention," Modern China 15, no. 1 (January 1989): 4–36. [BACK]

8. Marie-Claire Bergère, The Golden Age of the Chinese Bourgeoisie, 1911–1937, trans. Janet Lloyd (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989). See also Huang Yifeng et al., Jiu Zhongguo minzu zichan jieji (The national bourgeoisie in Old China) (n.p.: Jiangsu guji chubanshe, 1990). [BACK]

9. See Wang Gungwu, "The Culture of Chinese Merchants," University of Toronto–York University Joint Centre for Asia Pacific Studies, working paper series no. 57, 1990. He argues that overseas Chinese merchants thrived within their own culture when they were free from bureaucratic restraints. [BACK]

10. See Liu Kwang-ching, "Chinese Merchant Guilds: An Historical Inquiry," Pacific Historical Review 57, no. 1 (1988): 1–23; see also his book Jingshi sixiang yu xinxing qiye (Economic thinking and new enterprises)(Taipei: Lianjing, 1990). [BACK]

11. See Mary Rankin, Elite Activism and Political Transformation in China: Zhejiang Province, 1865–1911 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986); Keith Schoppa, Chinese Elites and Political Change: Zhejiang Province in the Early Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982); essays by Keith Schoppa, Lenore Barkan, and David Strand in the volume of essays edited by Joseph Esherick and Mary Rankin, Chinese Local Elites and Patterns of Dominance (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990); see also Susan

Mann, "Merchant Investment, Commercialization, and Social Change in the Ningpo Area," in Reform in Nineteenth Century China, ed. Paul A. Cohen and John Schrecker (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), 41–48; Joseph Fensmith, "From Guild to Interest Group: The Transformation of Public and Private in Late Qing China," Comparative Studies in Society and History 25, no. 4 (October 1983): 617–40; Michael Godley, "Overseas Chinese Entrepreneurs as Reformers: The Case of Chang Pi-Shih," in Reform in Nineteenth Century China, ed. Paul Cohen and John Schrecker (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), 49–62; Hao Yen-p'ing, The Comprador in Nineteenth-Century China: Bridge between East and West (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970). [BACK]

12. See Helen Siu, "Recycling Tradition: Culture, History, and Political Economy in the Chrysanthemum Festivals of South China," Comparative Studies in Society and History 32, no. 4 (1990): 765–94; and afterword to The Culture of Scholarship, ed. Sally Humphreys (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 139–86. See also, "Where Were the Women? Rethinking Marriage Resistance and Regional Culture History," Late Imperial China 11, no. 2 (December 1990): 32–62. [BACK]

13. See Elizabeth Perry, introduction to pt. 3, "Urban Associations," in Urban Spaces in Contemporary China: The Potential for Autonomy and Community in Post-Mao China, ed. Deborah Davis, Richard Kraus, Barry Naughton, and Elizabeth Perry (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 297–301; also Elizabeth Perry, "Trends in the Study of Chinese Politics: State-Society Relations," China Quarterly (September 1994): 704–14. See also ‘Public Sphere’/‘Civil Society’ in China? Paradigmatic Issues in China Studies, the special symposium volume of Modern China 19, no. 2 (April 1993). [BACK]

14. For the materials on Xinhui county, Guangdong, please refer to chaps. 3–5 of Helen Siu, Agents and Victims in South China: Accomplices in Rural Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989). For a sample of historical essays on Guangdong produced by our research group, see David Faure and Helen Siu, eds., Down to Earth: The Territorial Bond in South China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995). [BACK]

15. See Hsiao Kung-chuan, Rural China: Imperial Control in the Nineteenth Century (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1960); also Frederic Wakeman Jr. and Caroline Grant, eds., Conflict and Control in Late Imperial China (Berkeley: Center for Chinese Studies, University of California, 1975). [BACK]

16. Boundaries were blurred. Merchants emulated literati lifestyles and unsuccessful literati turned themselves into prosperous entrepreneurs. See historical materials on Huizhou, and Shiba Yoshinobu, "Ningpo and Its Hinterland," in The City in Late Imperial China, ed. G. William Skinner (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1977), 391–440. [BACK]

17. See Craig Clunas, Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991), and Timothy Brook, The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998), on the deeply felt impact of commercial wealth on culture and society during the Ming. See the insightful essay by Yu Ying-shih, "Business Culture and Chinese Traditions—towards a Study of the Evolution of Merchant Culture in Chinese History," in Dynamic Hong Kong: Business and Culture, ed. Wang Gungwu and Wong Siulun (Hong Kong: Centre of Asian Studies, the University of Hong Kong, 1997), 1–84. [BACK]

18. Susan Mann, Local Merchants and the Chinese Bureaucracy, 1750–1950 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987), 27–28. [BACK]

19. See David Faure, "A Note on the Lineage in Business," Chinese Business History 1, no. 2 (April 1991): 1–3. For a longer version of the paper, reprinted from the Second Conference

on Modern Chinese Economic History, see David Faure, The Lineage as a Business Company: Patronage versus Law in the Development of Chinese Business (Taipei: Institute of Economics, Academia Sinica, 1989). [BACK]

20. David Faure, "Lineage as a Cultural Invention"; also Faure, "What Made Foshan," 1990. [BACK]

21. See the introduction to David Faure and Helen Siu, eds., Down to Earth. [BACK]

22. See also David Faure, "The Emperor in the Village: Representing the State in South China," in State and Court Ritual in China, ed. Joseph McDermott (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). [BACK]

23. On the industries and lineages of Foshan, see a series of articles in Guangdong lishi xuehui, ed., Ming Qing Guangdong shehui jingji xingtai yanjiu (Research on the society and economy of Guangdong in the Ming and Qing) (Guangzhou: Guangdong renmin chubanshe, 1985), in particular, the following articles: Luo Yixing, "Ming Qing shiqi Foshan yetieye yanjiu" (Research on the iron industries of Foshan during the Ming and Qing); Ye Xian'en and Tan Dihua, "Lun Zhujiang sanjiao zhou de zutian" (On the ancestral estates of the Pearl River delta); Cao Tengfei and Tan Dihua, "Guanyu Ming Qing Guangdong yetie ye de jige wenti" (On several issues of the iron industries in Ming-Qing Guangdong); Tan Dihua and Ye Xian'en, "Fengjian zongfa shili dui Foshan jingji de kongzhi ji qi chansheng de yingxiang" (Feudal lineage power and the impact of its control over Foshan's economy); Zheng Kecheng, "Huo Tao de zhengzhi zhuzhang he jingji sixiang—du Ming shi. Huo Tao juan zaji" (Huo Tao's political views and economic thinking—on reading Ming History, the Biography of Huo Tao). See also documents from Ming Qing Foshan beike wenxian jingji ziliao (Economic historical materials from stone inscriptions of Ming-Qing Foshan), ed. Guang-dong sheng Foshan shi bowuguan et al. (Guangzhou: Guangdong renmin chubanshe, 1987). [BACK]

24. See Tan Dihua and Ye Xian'en, "Fengjian zongfa shili dui Foshan jingji de kongzhi ji qi chansheng de yingxiang," ed. Guangdong lishi xuehui, 144–64. [BACK]

25. For Jiangnan, see the works of Yoshinobu Shiba, Susan Mann, and Mark Elvin, among others. [BACK]

26. The magnificent mansions of the Huizhou merchants, their lineage organizations, and their academies were public testimonies. In order to secure a solid grounding for their mercantile operations, merchants had tried to cultivate patronage and territorial bonds through native associations, trade guilds, charity, the buying of degrees, and support of popular religion. See the works of Ye Xian'en, Tan Dihua, and Luo Yixing in Ming Qing Guangdong shehui jingji xingtai yanjiu, ed. Guangdong lishi xuehui, 1985. For the relationship between popular religion and commercialization, see Valerie Hansen, Changing Gods in Medieval China (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990); Richard Van Glahn, "The Enchantment of Wealth: The God Wutong in the Social History of Jiangnan," Harvard Journal of Asian Studies (1991): 651–714; see also Atsutoshi Hamashima on the Chenghuang temples in Jiangnan. For the late Qing, see Madeleine Zelin, "The Rise and Fall of the Fu-Rong Salt-Yard Elite: Merchant Dominance in Late Qing China," in Chinese Local Elites and Patterns of Dominance, ed. Joseph Esherick and Mary Rankin (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990), 82–112; see also Lynda Bell, "From Comprador to County Magnate: Bourgeois Practice in the Wuxi County Silk Industry," 113–39, in the same volume. [BACK]

27. See Ye Xian'en, Ming-Qing Huizhou nongcun shehui yu dianpu zhi (Rural society and the system of bond servants in Huizhou during the Ming and Qing) (Anhui: Anhui renmin

chubanshe, 1983); Zhang Haipeng and Wang Tingyuan, eds., Ming-Qing Huishang ziliao xuanbian (Selected materials on Huizhou merchants during the Ming and Qing) (Hefei: Huangshan shushe, 1985); Liu Shen, ed., Huizhou shehui jingji shi yanjiu yiwenji (Translated essays on the socioeconomic history of Huizhou) (Hefei: Huangshan shushe, 1987). [BACK]

28. See Ye Xian'en, Ming-Qing Huizhou nongcun shehui yu dianpu zhi, 43. [BACK]

29. See ibid., 42–56, on the small amount of privately owned land and the vast lineage estates in Huizhou. [BACK]

30. See Harriet Zurndorfer, Change and Continuity in Chinese Local History: The Development of Hui-Chou Prefecture, 800–1800 (Leiden: Brill, 1989); see also essays in Liu Shen, ed., Huizhou shehui jingji shi yanjiu yiwenji. Ye Xian'en asserts that apart from bond servants, migrant laborers—known locally as the shed people (pengmin)—were also a source of labor in the lumber, salt, and tea enterprises for which the Huizhou merchants were known (Ming-Qing Huizhou nongcun shehui yu dianpu zhi, 84–85, 110–16). [BACK]

31. See Helen Siu, Agents and Victims, chap. 4. [BACK]

32. The Yuan village (Yuan jia cun) next to Chakang, the native village of Liang Qichao in Xinhui, was one such village of bond servants. In Chaolian, an island off the coast of Jiangmen, the established lineages all had bond servants. See also Tan Dihua, "Ming Qing shiqi Zhujiang sanjiao zhou de shipu" (The bond servants of the Pearl River delta in the Ming-Qing period), in Guangdong lishi wenti lunwen ji (Selected essays on issues of Guangdong history) (Taipei: Daohe chubanshe, 1993), 45–72. [BACK]

33. Ye Xian'en, Ming-Qing Huizhou nongcun shehui yu dianpu zhi; see also Fu Yiling's work on Fujian, where there had been numerous challenges and conflicts over former bond servants who became prosperous and who tried to establish their own ancestral halls. For similar cases in the Pearl River delta, see Liu Zhiwei's chapter, "Shawan of Panyu County," in Down to Earth, ed. David Faure and Helen Siu, 21–43. [BACK]

34. Her study focuses on the Fan lineage of Xiuning county in Huizhou prefecture. Xiuning and Xi counties are the two regions that produced numerous literati and merchants. See Harriet Zurndorfer, "Local Lineages and Local Development: A Case Study of the Fan Lineage, Hsiuning Hsien, Hui-chou, 800–1500," in Change and Development in Chinese Local History (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1989). She argues that the investments in lineage land and charity might not be large, but through financing the compilation of lineage genealogies and occasional charity, merchants were able to confirm their native roots and maintain ties in Xiuning. She uses the example of a Fan Huo, who lived lavishly as a salt merchant in Yangzhou. During serious floods and famine (in 1539 and 1542), he gave huge donations to the victims. However, Zurndorfer argues that these were public acts with political and commercial agendas, just like his giving expensive gifts to friends and officials. He showed no interest in relieving the everyday needs of his kin. [BACK]

35. See David Faure, "Lineage as a Cultural Invention"; Helen Siu, "Recycling Tradition." [BACK]

36. See Ye Xian'en, Ming-Qing Huizhou nongcun shehui yu dianpu zhi, chaps. 3–5. [BACK]

37. See ibid., 187–92. It is important to note that some of the degree holders had had urban residences for generations but claimed various rural counties in Huizhou as their places of origin. [BACK]

38. The neo-Confucians Cheng Hao, Cheng Yi, and Zhu Xi were claimed to be natives of Xi county, one of the six counties within the Huizhou prefecture (also known as Xin'an). See Ye Xian'en, Ming-Qing Huizhou nongcun shehui yu dianpu zhi, chap. 5. [BACK]

39. This runs counter to a top-down approach on state ideology and political control by Hsiao Kung-chuan. [BACK]


40. For example, the grandson of Zheng Jinglian, a salt merchant who resided in Yangzhou, and Jiang Heting were famous patrons of these operas. See Ye Xian'en, Ming-Qing Huizhou nongcun shehui yu dianpu zhi, 227. [BACK]

41. See ibid., chap. 5 on Huizhou. On the elaborate gardens in Jiangnan in the late Ming where interests of merchants and literati mingled, see Joanna Handlin-Smith, "Gardens in Ch'i Piaochia's Social World: Wealth and Values in Late-Ming Kiangnan," Journal of Asian Studies 51, no. 1 (February 1992): 55–81. [BACK]

42. See Ye Xian'en, Ming-Qing Huizhou nongcun shehui yu dianpu zhi, 78. [BACK]

43. See Keith Hazelton, "Ming Qing Huizhou de zongzu yu shehui liudong sheng" (Lineages and social mobility in Huizhou during the Ming and Qing), in Huizhou shehui jingjishi yanjiu yiwenji, ed. Liu Shen, 76–96, fn. 27 (the article was translated by Liu Zhiwei and Chen Chunsheng). The original reference can be found in Yong Rong et al., Sifu chuanshu zongmu, vol. 1, Shengyu (Imperial edicts) (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1965), 2. [BACK]

44. See Luo Yixing, "Territorial Community at the Town of Lubao, Sanshui County, for the Ming Dynasty," in Down to Earth, ed. David Faure and Helen Siu, 44–64. [BACK]

45. See Ye Xian'en, Ming-Qing Huizhou nongcun shehui yu dianpu zhi, chap. 3, sec. 6. [BACK]

46. See Philip Huang, The Peasant Economy and Social Change in North China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985). [BACK]

47. See Prasenjit Duara, "State Involution: A Study of Local Finances in North China, 1911–1935," Comparative Studies in Society and History 29, no. 1 (1987); Culture, Power, and the State: Rural North China, 1900–1940 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988). [BACK]

48. See Guangzhou gongshang jingji shiliao (Historical materials on business and economy in Guangzhou), a special volume on commercial and industrial enterprises in Guangzhou during the early decades of the Republic, Guangzhou wenshi ziliao 36 (1986). [BACK]

49. See Helen Siu, Agents and Victims, chaps. 4–5. [BACK]

50. See David Strand, "Mediation, Representation, and Repression: Local Elites in 1920s Beijing," in Chinese Local Elites and Patterns of Dominance, ed. Joseph Esherick and Mary Rankin (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990), 218. [BACK]

51. Our sites were Huicheng (Xinhui county capital) and Jiangmen on the Xi River system at the western edge of the delta, Xiaolan town of Xiangshan county, the settlements (xiang) of Shawan in Panyu county further southeast. There are also Foshan City, and Lubao of Sanshui county where North River joined the delta. [BACK]

52. See Ye Xian'en and Tan Dihua, "Ming Qing Zhujiang sanjiao zhou nongye shangye hua yu xushi de fazhan" (The commercialization of agriculture and the development of markets and towns in the Pearl River delta during the Ming and Qing), in Ming Qing Guangdong shehui jingji xingtai yanjiu, ed. Guangdong lishi xuehui, 57–97. See also Tan Dihua, "Qingdai Zhujiang sanjiao zhou shangpin jingji de fazhan yu tudi wenti" (Commodity production and land tenure in the Pearl River delta during the Qing), in Guangdong lishi wenti lunwen ji, 81–98. [BACK]

53. See Luo Yixing "Ming Qing shiqi Foshan yetieye yanjiu," 75–116. See also Tan Dihua, "Cong ‘Foshan jieli’ kan Ming Qing shiqi Foshan gongshanye de fazhan" (To view the development of commerce and industry in Foshan during the Ming and Qing from reading ‘Neighborhoods in Foshan’), in Guangdong lishi wenti lunwen ji, 225–42. [BACK]

54. See Zhao Shisong, comp., Sanjiang Zhaoshi zupu (The Zhao lineage genealogy of Sanjiang) (Hong Kong: n.p., 1937). The Zhao lineage of Sanjiang xiang (village), which owned extensive diked fields to its southeast, claimed to have descended from the entourage of the last Song emperor, who was defeated by the Mongols in the area. Another record involved

the Chens of Waihai xiang, south of Jiangmen City, where a Chen Xiang claimed 40 qing of sands that yielded a rent of 9,600 shi of grain. See Tan Dihua, Qingdai zhujiang sanjiaozhou de shatian (The sands of the Pearl River delta during the Qing dynasty) (Guangzhou: Guangdong renmin chubanshe, 1993), 76. [BACK]

55. The sands reclaimed were situated in the eastern part of Xinhui county, the northern part of Xiangshan (after 1925 renamed Zhongshan) county, and the southern part of Panyu county. These sands were eventually known as the Xihai shiba sha, Donghai shiliu sha, and Wanqing sha. [BACK]

56. See Kikuko Nishigawa, "Qingdai Zhujiang sanjiao zhou shatian kao" (An examination of the sands of the Pearl River delta during the Qing), trans. Cao Lei, Lingnan wenshi 2 (1986): 11–22, originally published in Tōyō gakuho 63, nos. 1 and 2 (1981): 93–136. See also Tan Dihua, "Qing dai Zhujiang sanjiao zhou shangpin jingji de fazhan yu tudi wenti," in Guangdong lishi wenti lunwen ji, 81–98. [BACK]

57. See Huang Qichen, "Ming Qing Zhujiang sanjiao zhou de shangye yu shangye ziben cutan" (An initial exploration of commerce and commercial capital in the Pearl River delta during the Ming and Qing), in Ming Qing Guangdong shehui jingji xingtai yanjiu, ed. Guangdong lishi xuehui, 187–236. [BACK]

58. See Ye Xian'en and Tan Dihua, "Lun Zhujiang sanjiao zhou de zutian," 22–64. [BACK]

59. See David Faure and Helen Siu, eds., Down to Earth, on the evolution of the lineage complex in the Pearl River delta. [BACK]

60. See the works on Kikuko Nishigawa on the local bureau for protecting the sands in Shunde county; see also Tan Dihua, "Xiangzu dizhu dui Zhujiang sanjiao zhou diqu de kongzhi yu husha de yuanhui" (The control of the Pearl River delta by lineage landlordism and the rise of the sands protection apparatus), in Guangdong lishi wenti lunwen ji, 155–74. [BACK]

61. See Helen Siu and Liu Zhiwei, "Lineage, Market, Pirate, and Dan—Ethnicity in the Pearl River Delta" (manuscript under review). [BACK]

62. The prohibition of sea trade (haijin) was relaxed in 1685, but the Qing government in 1757 closed the coastal ports, except Guangzhou, to foreign trade. See Huang Qichen, Deng Kaisong, Xiao Maosheng, "Guangdong shang bang" (The Guangdong merchant group), chap. 5 of Zhongguo shida shang bang (The ten dominant merchant groups of China), ed. Zhang Haipeng and Zhang Haiying (Hefei: Huangshan shushe, 1993); see also Li Longqian, "Ming Qing Guangdong duiwai maoyi ji qi dui shehui jingji de yingxiang" (Foreign trade in Guangdong during the Ming and Qing and its impact on society and the economy), in Ming Qing Guangdong shehui jingji xingtai yanjiu, ed. Guangdong lishi xuehui, 279–312. [BACK]

63. On the circulation of silver in Guangdong during the Ming-Qing period, see Chen Chunsheng, "Qing dai Guangdong de yin yuan liutong" (The circulation of silver dollars in Guangdong in the Qing), in Ming Qing Guangdong shehui jingji yanjiu, ed. Ming Qing Guang-dong sheng shehui jingji yanjiu hui (Guangzhou: Guangdong renmin chubanshe, 1987), 206–36. [BACK]

64. For comparison, see Fu Yiling, Ming Qing shidai shangren ji shangye ziben (Merchants and merchant capital in the Ming and Qing) (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1956), on the sea trading groups from Fujian; and Ye Xian'en, Guangdong hangyun shi (Gudai bian) (The history of sea transport—volume on the premodern period) (Beijing: Remin jiaotong chubanshe, 1989), on the merchant groups from the port of Zhanglin near Shantou in eastern Guangdong. [BACK]

65. See Zhang Wenyin, "Ming Qing Guangdong zhongxi maoyi yu Zhongguo jindai maiban de qiyuan" (The East-West trade in Guangdong during the Ming and Qing and

the rise of the modern comprador), in Ming Qing Guangdong shehui jingji xingtai yanjiu, ed. Guangdong lishi xuehui, 313–48. [BACK]

66. Some material on Huicheng is drawn from Helen Siu, Agents and Victims, chaps. 2–5. When the chapters were written, they were not focused on the issues I am now exploring. I have also done a conscious rereading of the research materials for this essay. [BACK]

67. See Tan Dihua, Guangdong lishi wenti lunwen ji, 95. Also, according to a local saying, He Xiongxiang accumulated 350 qing of sands in his lifetime, which he divided among his sons before his death. Jiuzisha, a strip of river marshes he nonchalantly gave to his newborn ninth son after he had divided his estate, grew in value to 6,000 mu. While other properties were taken over or sold over the centuries, Jiuzisha remained the property of the ancestral estate He Wenyi Gong tang until the twentieth century. It was a testimony to the power of the He lineage in Huicheng. See He Zhuojian, "Shangshufang He shi fengjian zuzhi" (The feudal organization of the He lineage in Shangshufang), Xinhui wenshi ziliao 1 (1963): 51–56. [BACK]

68. There were the Tan lineage in Chengnan, the Mos of Nanmen, and the Xu of Nanbiantang. According to a document on the rules for the Xu lineage, the author lamented that "for a hundred years or so after the founding ancestor moved from Kaiping to Xinhui, the lineage was prosperous, with literati honors and commercial achievements; but in the last few decades, the lineage has sadly declined." See "Xinhui xiancheng Nanbiantang Xu xing zugang" (The lineage charter of the Xu in Nanbiantang of Xinhui county capital) (manuscript, Huicheng, 1936). In the late 1970s, the ancestral halls of the Mo lineage at the southern edge of Huicheng were still standing. [BACK]

69. For example, two lineage genealogies in the area recorded these events: Xinhui Sanjiang Zhaoshi zupu (The lineage genealogy of the Zhao surname of Sanjiang), and the Chaolian Lubian Lushi zupu (The lineage genealogy of the Lu surname in Lubian neighborhood of Chaolian). A Liang lineage genealogy in the neighboring Zhongshan county also recorded similar hardships. See (Zhongshan) Kanxi Liangshi zupu, 5a-5b, "Qianmu zupu xu" written in the twelfth year of Kangxi (1673), Zhongshan 1927 edition. [BACK]

70. For example, the founders of a Chen surname group settled in Tianma village (xiang) a few miles south of Huicheng during the Ming. A member of a seventh generation who was a degree holder moved to Wufuli, a neighborhood outside the southern gate of Huicheng. An ancestral hall was built for him in the fifteenth year of Jiaqing's reign (1711) in Wufuli. In the nineteenth century, his tablet was deposited in the Xi'nan shuyuan (academy) of Huicheng and in the higher-order lineage hall of the Chens at Xiguan, the merchants' quarter in Guangzhou. See Chen zu shi pu (The lineage genealogy of the Chen surname) (Huicheng, 1923). [BACK]

71. See Tan Dihua, Qingdai zhujiang sanjiaozhou de shatian (1991), 79. [BACK]

72. See "Zhiqing zuci luocheng gongding cigui fu zhengxin lu" (The hall regulations at the establishment of the Zhiqing ancestral hall, with a directory of donors attached) (n.p., 1901). [BACK]

73. Guan Xiekuang estimated that the fifteen largest grower-dryers of fan palms monopolized about 90 percent of the business; see Guan, "Jiefangqian Xinhui kuiye jingying gaikuang" (The fan palm business in Xinhui before liberation), Xinhui wenshi ziliao 12 (1983): 1–28. [BACK]

74. Under it were these guilds: the Lianxing gongzhan for the growers, Lianxing tang for the palm-drying fields, Tongren tang for fan-making shops, and Guangshun tang for the long-distance traders. [BACK]

75. According to a document of Jimei tang, a guild for palm-drying and fan-making businesses, 693 signed on as members between 1713 and 1845. [BACK]


76. See "Jimei tang huigui bu" (The rules of Jimei tang) (manuscript, Huicheng, n.d.). [BACK]

77. See Guan Xiekuang, "Jiefangqian Xinhui kuiye jingying gaikuang." [BACK]

78. See Mo Yinggui, "Ying shang Taigu yangheng jin bainian zai Huanan de yewu huodong yu Mo shi jiazu de guanxi" (The activities of the British company Butterfield and Swire in south China for the last hundred years and the relationship with the Mo lineage), Guangdong wenshi ziliao 44 (1985): 77–131. [BACK]

79. Members often advanced credit for growers with the expectation of a specific supply of fans at a set price. It was difficult to collect during harvest, when growers were tempted to sell to higher bidders. [BACK]

80. See Susan Mann, Local Merchants, chap. 7. See also Nie Ergang, Gangzhou gongdu (Public announcements while in office in Gangzhou) (n.p., 1863). [BACK]

81. See Guan, "Jiefangqian Xinhui kuiye jingying gaikuang"; Lin hengji folded before the Japanese war, and Liu yiji continued into the early years of the People's Republic. Land reform documents from the Xinhui Records Office (dang'an guan) reveal vast estates owned by Liu yiji. Members of these enterprises were powerful representatives in the guild and later in the Xinhui Chamber of Commerce; for the citrus peel enterprises, see He Zhuojian, "Jiefangqian de Xinhui chengpiye" (The citrus peel business in Xinhui before liberation), Xinhui wenshi ziliao 20 (1965): 111–21. [BACK]

82. For more detailed descriptions of the academies, please see Helen Siu, Agents and Victims, chap. 4. [BACK]

83. See also Helen Siu, "Recycling Tradition." [BACK]

84. The Red Turbans disturbance broke out in 1854 and spread to various parts of the Pearl River delta in 1855. The group was put down in the 1860s. [BACK]

85. For a general documentary history of the Red Turbans in Guangdong, see Guang-dong sheng wenshi yanjiu guan and Zhongshan daxue lishi xi, comp., Guangdong hongbing qiyi shiliao (The just uprisings of the Red Turbans in Guangdong), vol. 1 (Guangzhou: Guang-dong renmin chubanshe, 1992). For events around Huicheng, see Chen Xiangpu, Gangcheng zhenge ji (A chronicle of preparing for battle in Gangcheng) (n.p., 1855); Tan Zu'en, Xinhui jingbian shilue (An account of rebel suppression in Xinhui) (1855; reprint, Guangzhou: Zhongshan tushuguan, 1960). A record in Tan's accounts mentioned that the Fan Palm Guild was taken over by some rebel troops for a moment. [BACK]

86. The three townships were Chaolian (with established lineages of the Lu, Chen, Ou, and Pan surnames), Hetang (with the Rong and Li surnames), and Waihai (the Chens). Some notorious rebel leaders during the Red Turbans attacks also came from these townships. [BACK]

87. See Tan Dihua, Guangdong lishi wenti lunwen ji, 155–74, who quoted from "Yan chi Dongnan gongyue geshen lun" (On putting the gentry of the Dongnan alliance under strict order), in Gangzhou gongdu by Nie Ergang. [BACK]

88. In Guangzhou, for example, there were the jiu da shantang (Nine Great Charitable Associations). Apart from offering the usual relief for the poor, they diversified quickly into promoting new technologies, women's education, training for local self-government (difang zizhi), and maintaining public order. See Tang Yusheng, comp., Chuan Yue shehui shilu chupian (The initial compilation of social records of all Guangdong) (Guangzhou: Diaocha chuan Yue shehui chu, 1909). For a detailed analysis of the cultural and political impact of merchants in Hong Kong in the late nineteenth century, see a study of the Tung Wah Hospital by Elizabeth Sinn, Power and Charity (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1989). A summary of her argument is found in "Philanthropy and the Business World," in Dynamic Hong

Kong: Business and Culture, ed. Wang Gungwu and Wong Siulun (Hong Kong: Centre of Asian Studies, the University of Hong Kong, 1997), 230–52. [BACK]

89. See "Xinhui cheng Tongshen shantang Renji yihui Taoze yihui Zequn yihui xizi shicha zhimai baigu ershiwu qi zhengxinlu" (The twenty-fifth directory of donations for Tonshen, Renji, Taoze, Zequn charity associations for welfare and burial in Xinhui) (Huicheng: Yixing, 1936). [BACK]

90. See Helen Siu, "Subverting Lineage Power: Local Bosses and Territorial Control in the 1940s," in Down to Earth, ed. David Faure and Helen Siu. [BACK]

91. See Lun Haibin, "Mani ren daohui ‘Minhui ribao’" (People from Mani ransacked ‘Minhui daily’) Xinhui wenshi ziliao 6 (1983): 47–50. [BACK]

92. The opening ceremonies of the festival were officiated by Liang Bingyun, head of the third district and an appointee of the Nationalist government, and He Naizhong, a local resident and onetime adviser to the warlord Feng Yuxiang. A trade fair was organized in Hefeng Shuyaun (academy), which had been built by lesser surnames in town to compete with the established lineages. [BACK]

93. See Zhongshan wenshi ziliao, nos. 1–3, for descriptions of the local bosses in the sands of Zhongshan county. The most powerful companies were the Minsheng gongsi (company), based in Xiaolan, and the Minli gongsi, based in Minzong, an outpost in the sands. [BACK]

94. He Yanggao, formerly a large landlord in Xiaolan and a local historian, estimated that in Sisha, a strip of sands southwest of Xiaolan, the area held by these bosses increased from 400 mu to about 7,500 after the war (personal interview, 1986). [BACK]

95. On a detailed analysis of the rise of the He lineage in Shawan, see Liu Zhiwei, "Lineage on the Sands: The Case of Shawan," in Down to Earth, ed. David Faure and Helen Siu, 21–43. Beidi was a popular deity in south China. In Shawan, local inhabitants had made it to symbolize the authority of the first emperor of the Ming dynasty. His temple, together with the Liugeng tang of the He lineage, was the cultural and political center of Shawan. [BACK]

96. The former were referred to as "female guns." They used force for defense. The latter were branded as "male guns." They supposedly used force to prey on others. [BACK]

97. I see this as the beginning of the cellularization of the villages in the twentieth century. The process reached its height in the Maoist period, when the administrative machinery of the Communist Party reigned supreme. See Siu, Agents and Victims. [BACK]

98. Ibid., chap. 5. See also chapter by Siu in Down to Earth, ed. David Faure and Helen Siu, on the reworking of the lineage tradition in three communities in the Pearl River delta. For the ritual efforts of militarists in other areas, see Edward McCord, The Power of the Gun: The Emergence of Modern Chinese Warlordism (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993). [BACK]

99. See Nantian suiyue (The times under the southern sky), a special volume of Guangdong wenshi ziliao 37 (1987), on the warlord Chen Jitang in Guangdong during the 1930s. [BACK]

100. See Guan, "Jiefangqian Xinhui kuiye jingying gaikuang." [BACK]

101. There was Liang Hongye, whose father was a juror and who himself bought a minor degree. The other gentry leader was from the old He family of Huicheng, a He Ruoshan, who was head of the Xinhui Chamber of Commerce. [BACK]

102. See Mai Bingkun and Huang Xiaonan, "Xinhui cheng shangtuan shimuo" (The entire account of the merchant militia in Xinhui), Xinhui wenshi ziliao 3 (1965): 1–19. [BACK]

103. A document in 1948 listed members of the guild and their contracted growers. Among the growers were known local bosses. The documents also showed that many growers

did not deliver the contracted amount to the traders. See Xinhui xian kuishan shangye tongye gonghui, ed., Benhui huiyuan shanghao damai cewei yedian sanqi boli changbing shengbi shengshan laokui yi qingqi wei qingqi yi lan biao (A survey list of varying types of fan palm delivered [or not yet delivered] by the growers at Damai Cewei to member enterprises of our association) (Xinhui: n.p., 1948). [BACK]

104. See Siu, Agents and Victims, chaps. 4–5. See also Xinhui shuyuan dongshi licaiyuan, comp., "Choujian Xinhui shuyuan zhengxin lu" (The directory of donations for building the Xinhui Academy) (Huicheng: Yixing, 1927); and "Xinhui shuyuan gongding changji ji guanli zhangcheng" (The estate rituals of Xinhui Academy and its operating regulations) (Huicheng: Yixing, 1927). [BACK]

105. See "Xingjian Xinhui shuyuan de jingguo" (An account of the building of Xinhui Academy), Xinhui wenshi ziliao 2 (1964): 30–36, compiled by the journal's editors. [BACK]

106. See Xinhui cheng yuanhe shanghu weichi tuan, comp., "Chenghui Huihe lian'an puwei shimuo ji" (An account of redeeming the land attached to shops along the banks of Huicheng) (Huicheng: n.p., 1924). [BACK]

107. See Mo Rongfang and Xu Zhongtao, "Xinhui xian caicheng zulu de jingguo" (The account of tearing down the city and building roads in Xinhui county), Xinhui wenshi zilaio 2 (1964): 20–30. [BACK]

108. See David Faure, "Lineage Socialism and Community Control: Tanggang xiang in the 1920s," in Down to Earth, ed. David Faure and Helen Siu, 161–87. [BACK]

109. See Guangdong Gangzhou shangbu zhangcheng quanjuan (The complete constitution of the Gangzhou commercial port in Guangdong) (Hong Kong, 1911). See also an account of the planning of the port in Zhongguo shangye xinshi (New knowledge on China's commerce) (n.p., n.d.), 178–82. [BACK]

110. See He Zhiyi, "Xiangzhou kaibu jiqi shengshuai" (The opening of Xiangzhou port and its rise and decline), Guangdong wenshi ziliao 46 (1985): 87–97. [BACK]

111. See Liu Bogao, "Xinning tielu xingjian shi zai Xinhui yudao de difang shili de zunao ji qita" (The obstacles from local power groups met by the building of the Xinning Railway in Xinhui), Xinhui wenshi zilaio 9 (1983): 9–11. See also Zheng Dehua and Lucy Cheng, Taishan qiaoxiang yu Xinning tielu (Taishan, a land of emigrants and the Xinning Railway) (Guangzhou: Zhongshan daxue chubanshe, 1991). [BACK]

112. In Down to Earth, the contributors argue that local society in the delta was integrated into the Chinese imperial order through constant redefinitions of lineage, territory, ethnic identity, and religious rituals. They focus on the symbolic and instrumental means used by local inhabitants to position themselves within an evolving Chinese culture and polity. [BACK]

113. The term da tian er came from the Chinese domino game. It was used locally to describe local bosses who exerted dominance over a territory. [BACK]

114. This is the main argument in Agents and Victims, a historical account based on my ethnographic fieldwork in Xinhui. [BACK]

115. I have tried to deal with this question in previous publications: see Helen Siu, "Socialist Peddlers and Princes in a Chinese Market Town," American Ethnologist 16, no. 2 (May 1989): 195–212; "The Politics of Migration in a Market Town," in China on the Eve of Tiananmen, ed. Deborah Davis and Ezra Vogel (Harvard University Press, 1990), 61–82; and "The Reconstitution of Brideprice and Dowry in South China," in Chinese Families in the Post-Mao Era, ed. Deborah Davis and Stevan Harrell (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press 1993), 165–88. [BACK]


116. There may be conflicts of interest among levels of government and between center and region, but the connections with the state bureaucracy remain important for good business. See Elizabeth Perry, "China in 1992: An Experiment in Neo-authoritarianism," Asian Survey 33, no. 1 (January 1993): 12–22; see Dorothy Solinger, Chinese Transition from Socialism: Statist Legacies and Marketing Reforms, 1980–1990 (New York: Sharpe, 1993); see also Jean Oi, "The Role of the Local State in China's Transitional Economy," China Quarterly 144 (December 1995): 1132–49, on local state corporatism. [BACK]

117. See Siu, "Community Festivals in South China: Economic Transformation and Cultural Improvisations," in China Review, ed. Lo Chikin et al. (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1995), chap. 16, 1–17. [BACK]

118. See Helen Siu, "Redefining the Market Town through Festivals in Contemporary South China," in Town and Country in China: Identity and Perception, ed. David Faure and Tao Tao Liu (Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, forthcoming). [BACK]

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