Preferred Citation: Yeh, Wen-hsin, editor. Becoming Chinese: Passages to Modernity and Beyond. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c2000 2000.

The Grounding of Cosmopolitans


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.

The Grounding of Cosmopolitans

Preferred Citation: Yeh, Wen-hsin, editor. Becoming Chinese: Passages to Modernity and Beyond. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c2000 2000.