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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.

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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]

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