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The Salt Merchants of Tianjin

The Salt Merchants of Tianjin: State-Making and Civil Society in Late Imperial China

Kwan Man Bun
Copyright Date: 2001
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  • Book Info
    The Salt Merchants of Tianjin
    Book Description:

    For nearly four hundred years the Changlu salt merchants played a leading role in the urbanization, commercial development, and social change of the city of Tianjin. As early as the fifteenth century, this small yet important group of citizens negotiated with the state as revenue-farmers, developing and defending their businesses and customs while evolving their own urban culture. In this the first detailed study in English of the mercantile activities and social role of Tianjin's salt merchants, Kwan Man Bun reveals how they helped stabilize the city and assumed many civic responsibilities, providing relief, charities, and other services to their fellow citizenry.

    Although these developments resemble the emergence of an idealized "public sphere" as in Europe, Kwan makes clear that Tianjin's social changes were not grounded on "rational discourse" but rather drew their strength and continuity from merchant networks based on exclusivity, wealth, education, and kinship.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6500-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. 1-11)

    On an early June afternoon of 1911, over a hundred leading citizens, representatives of various trades, managers of local charities, and village heads from the suburbs, all clad in their official-buttoned caps and gowns, marched on Tianjin’s many yamen. With the city’s economy in turmoil, they insisted on voicing their concerns. As a reluctant governor-general and other officials listened, the citizens pleaded for the immediate release of Wang Xianbin (1856–1939).¹ Wang—the city’s “single indispensable person”—a head merchant of the Changlu Salt Division, chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, owner of industrial enterprises, benefactor of local charities and...

  5. 1. THE CITY
    (pp. 12-28)

    Tianjin is a young city by Chinese standards. When Neolithic cities first appeared on the North China plain, the land on which Tianjin now stands was just being formed. By the Northern Song dynasty (960–1126), sedimentary action of the Yellow River, the Yongdinghe, and other rivers had created a marshy lowland ideal for defense against invading horsemen. The Haihe, then known as the Jiehe, or Boundary River, formed part of the border with the Khitans, and outposts dotted its west bank. One of these, Zhiguzhai (see Maps 1 and 2), has been identified as Tianjin’s earliest settlement, although Neolithic...

    (pp. 29-49)

    The salt tax, or gabelle, had a long history in China as a stable source of revenue from a broad population base even at a low rate. To ensure its collection, a full spectrum of state institutions had evolved since 114 B.C. for salt production, transportation, and distribution. By the mid-seventeenth century, the Ming state derived almost half its annual income from salt. It financed production by hereditary saltern households and granted the exclusive privilege of transport and sale of the salt to merchants who had prepaid in kind or with silver.¹

    Pressed for revenue to finance their conquest, the...

    (pp. 50-72)

    The state left its imprint on the salt merchants’ household economy as well. As household and business expanded and contracted through successive cycles, frequent quarrels broke out over entitlements (if not rights), management of household properties, and contractual obligations. These litigious subjects taxed the expertise and resources of the local magistrate. As judge, prosecutor, jury, and investigator, this figure had to abide by established legal principles and procedures to the satisfaction of his superiors. But overwhelmed as he and his secretaries often were with homicide, theft, and other crimes, disputes between private parties over property and rights—what European legal...

    (pp. 73-88)

    Tianjin’s urban culture offered another field of negotiation between state and society. For much of China’s history, the scholar-official was the career of choice. Whether in or out of office, scholar-officials considered righting public morals and customs(yifeng yixu)part of their social responsibility. In this process, Confucianism as a moral philosophy and state orthodoxy became a form of cultural capital.¹ Conferring on themselves the privilege of deciding a hierarchy of culture from “high” to “low,” literati-officials deemed poetry, collections of paintings, books, and antiques as respectable, but gaily colored clothing, “lewd” customs, and extravagant spending were lowly forms to...

    (pp. 89-103)

    Beginning in the seventeenth century, Tianjin’s salt merchants became increasingly active in a broad range of urban social services. Not only did they fund road construction, city wall maintenance, soup kitchens, orphanages, and fire brigades, but they eventually operated the city’s academies and militias. Interpreting this development has stirred considerable debate. Some scholars see a “Confucian public-mindedness” at work.¹ The weakness of this argument is that while Confucianism has indeed been influential in Chinese history since the Han dynasty, if not earlier, organized private philanthropy of the type discussed here dates from the Song dynasty. While the salt merchants’ ethical...

    (pp. 104-121)

    Whatever their motivations, the salt merchants’ activism prepared them well for the tumultuous times of late Qing. Amidst domestic rebellions, foreign invasions, and economic crises, they countered by expanding their market at home and abroad. Diversifying from their traditional businesses, they began to invest in new industries that made up the bulk of Tianjin’s “modern” sector before 1911 and, as part of the late Qing state-sponsored reforms, helped establish the Tianjin Chamber of Commerce in 1904. Under its leader, the Changlu head merchant Wang Xianbin, the chamber stabilized Tianjin’s market and integrated it as part of the national financial market....

    (pp. 122-136)

    The rise of Tianjin’s Chamber of Commerce, then, does not mean that an idealized “civil society” distilled from the experience of Europe had been realized in the city. Yet Tianjin’s version of “civil society,” like its counterparts in London and elsewhere, did not arise ex nihilo. These merchant princes relied on formal and open institutions as well as informal and exclusive networks to conduct their business and pursue their interests. Figures such as Wang Xianbin were enmeshed in the matrix of an evolving Chinese social and political culture despite the novelty of the institutions through which they worked.

    As self-conscious...

  12. 8. THE CRASH
    (pp. 137-152)

    Early on the morning of July 17, 1911, Wang Xianbin’s family was evicted from its eighty-eight-room mansion on Second Street (Er-du-jie). Nine other salt merchants, including Li Baoheng, suffered a similar fate. Later that morning, Zhang Zhenfang the Changlu commissioner inspected Wang and Li’s vacated mansions and their furnishings with satisfaction. Sealed and inventoried, the mansions and all its contents were auctioned off.¹

    Explanations of this episode vary in their persuasiveness. According to some contemporaries, the crash was orchestrated by Zhang Zhenfang who wanted to apply pressure for the rehabilitation of his relative Yuan Shikai.² If true, Zhang would have...

    (pp. 153-156)

    Tianjin of late imperial and modern times, beset by internal rebellion and by invasion from without, underwent significant changes in its relationship with the state. In this the dynamics were similar to, yet different from, the idealized Western European experience. Since the seventeenth century, the city’s merchant princes had been constructing their society and identity through economic activities, local business and legal customs, culture, and social services. The Qing state made “useful compromises” with these merchants, securing social and revenue stability in the exchange. This interpretation of a Chinese “civil” society is not based on the assumptions that state and...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 157-196)
  15. Glossary
    (pp. 197-200)
  16. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 201-228)
  17. Index
    (pp. 229-239)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 240-240)