Merchants and Material Culture in Qing China: A Review of Luxurious Networks

Zhaojin Zeng

Yulian Wu’s Luxurious Network is an articulate and engaging piece of scholarship on Chinese salt merchants in the Qing period. Departing from the literature that often focuses on the merchants’ trading and business activities, Wu provides a unique social and cultural history of the Huizhou merchants by exploring their handling of luxurious goods, artistic works, and construction projects for both their own consumption and for imperial use. In the process of funding, building, and promoting these material objects, the salt merchants not only established their social and cultural connections with the emperors in the capital but also defined their standing within the local elite community. By situating the Huizhou merchants in the larger social and cultural context, Wu’s study is a welcome contribution to the understanding of the court–merchant relationship and material culture during the Qing dynasty in China.

Luxurious Network consists of five chapters and is divided into three thematic parts. The first part, Chapter 1, provides the historical background of the interactions between the salt merchants and the Manchu court. In the wake of the Qing takeover of China, lacking experience in managing the salt business, the new Manchu rulers inherited the hereditary franchise system, gangfa (纲法), from their Ming predecessors. Instituted first by the Ming government in 1617, the gangfa system replaced the old grain–salt exchange system (开中法) and granted selected merchants the hereditary power to conduct the salt trade in designated regions. This policy change, as Wu shows, led to the dominance of Jiangnan merchants in China’s salt trade (p. 35). Later, Manchu emperors made two important changes to the gangfa, which allowed their effective control over the salt monopoly network: first, appointing the emperors’ close bannermen to lead the salt administration, and second, selecting Han Chinese merchants as the head merchants to assist the official salt management bureaucracy. Wu points out that most of the head merchant positions in the Lianghuai and Liangzhe salt zones were held by wealthy Huizhou merchants (pp. 49–53). The emperors’ bondservants as salt officials cooperated with the influential Huizhou merchants to forge the ‘complicated and intertwined networks’ (p. 59), which both served the Qing court’s control purpose and provided the merchants with economic and political privileges.

The second part of the book then shows how Huizhou salt merchants repaid the emperors’ favor by serving their various material needs. Chapter 2, Furnishing the Court, examines the circuit of tributary goods (公务), court-commissioned subjects (活计), and rare books between the capital and Jiangnan. The salt merchants not only meticulously searched for these expensive goods but sometimes even paid for them. As Wu points out, merchants did so to ‘facilitate and reinforce their connections with the court’ (p. 64). Also, by meditating the exchange of imperial-use goods, the merchants learned and followed the emperor’s taste. As a result, the ‘court-style’ goods became popular in the south. Likewise, the Qianlong emperor discovered the merchants’ ‘Jiangnan style’ during his southern tours. Amazed by the possessions and decorations in merchant residences, Qinglong ordered similar interior decorations for imperial palaces in the capital (pp. 85-87). The emperor–merchant exchange of goods and taste, Wu argues, would be impossible without the ‘merchants’ broad social networks with businessmen, craftsmen, and connoisseurs in the local society of Jiangnan’ (p. 89).

Chapter 3 continues the analysis of the court–merchant interactions and the reshaping of the collecting culture in the High Qing period by looking at the merchants’ collecting activities. Wu argues that Qinglong’s connoisseurship – his personal enthusiasm for collecting antiques and keen interest in studying rare books and evaluating artworks – played a key role in the transformation of the collecting culture in Qing China (pp. 95-97). Imperial recognition helped to turn private collectors into a unique social group, one that was highly visible and recognized in the society (p. 94). More important, collecting was no longer a personal hobby but ‘a pursuit of scholarly work’ (p. 97). The social recognition of collecting and cultural privilege of being a collector also attracted the wealthy merchants. The story of Wang Qishu shows that the merchant was able to identify himself as an expert collector by accumulating and displaying the valuable seal collections. Overall, in embracing various imperial collecting projects, the merchants reinforced their connections with the court and remade local material and consumption culture.

The last part of the book shifts the focus of analysis to the relationship between the merchants and various material objects they constructed or sponsored in the countryside. In Chapter 4, Wu tells the story of the Bao family, who managed to accomplish three lineage construction projects in the countryside: the compilation of a new genealogy, the building of a Parental Love and Filial Piety Shrine, and the donation of charitable lands to the lineage. These expensive projects served to ‘display their economic prowess and construct their moral reputation in local society’ (p. 153). Moreover, in the process of constructing these projects, the merchants developed and strengthened cross-regional ties with the scholar and official communities in their home village as well as in the urban areas of Jiangnan and at the court (p. 158).

Chapter 5 examines how the merchants sponsored the construction of chastity and fidelity arches in the villages. These arch projects, targeting primarily Han commoners and displaying the Manchu endorsement of Confucian moral values publicly, were a central component of the Qing’s ‘ethnic politics to stimulate Confucian morality in its empire’ (p. 163). As the major patrons of these projects, the Huizhou merchants embraced enthusiastically the Manchus court’s effort of legitimizing and consolidating the mandatory rule by ethnic minorities (p. 166). Under the support of the wealthy merchants, various kinds of arches were erected to espouse female fidelity and widow chastity. In addition to ideological functions, these arches also symbolized luxurious material consumption by the merchants. In particular, these projects praised ‘the role of women in managing the household’, which was a truly practical concern for the merchants when conducting business far away from home (p. 178). These projects thus promoted both the ‘court-sponsored chastity’ and the merchants’ local standing (p. 180).

In sum, this book sheds new light on the culture and society of Qing China. It also has the potential to invite dialogues with a wider audience. Historians of the Ming and Qing dynasties will find the analysis of the merchants’ role in Qing state-building to be interesting. Scholars on cultural and art history will appreciate the author’s nuanced descriptions of the luxurious projects in imperial China. Economic and business historians may enjoy reading the colorful social life of the wealthy Chinese merchants in the 18th and 19th centuries. Lastly, Wu’s study, combined with other recent works on Chinese merchants and business, such as Madeleine Zelin’s The Merchants of Zigong (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006) and Brett Sheehan’s Industrial Eden (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), once gain reminds us of the important but often overlooked role that businesspeople had played in shaping Chinese society and culture.