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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.

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