chapter  11
22 Pages

Brokers and “guild” (huiguan) organizations in China’s maritime trade with Japan in the high Qing ANGELA SCHOTTENHAMMER

In the course of the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, numerous huiguan 會館 (usually translated – not quite correctly – as “guilds” in English) emerged in the economically more developed regions of China, such as the Jiangnan area (Jiangsusheng bowuguan 1959). In particular, during the Qing dynasty, going hand in hand with the development of commerce, huiguan became important institutions of and for merchants who wanted to improve their competitive position as outsiders in regions where they were not very familiar with the local environment.1 The huiguan also served as locations for meeting like-minded people from the same home regions and cherishing local customs. Common geographic origins thus played a vital economic and social role when merchants founded such huiguan, with their characteristics of native-place associations (Landsmannschaften) established in connection with long-distance trade. With economic development these institutions also became gradually more and more specified according to different commercial areas. The huiguan served as meeting places for members to inform one another about market and price developments, about changes in the demand for certain products, about effective sale strategies, about the undermining of one’s own trade and business area by competing merchant groups, and, last but not least, by the government. Whereas most huiguan were thus directly linked with supraregional and long-distance trade, at the same time they seemingly for the most part remained domestic trade institutions. Despite the ever-increasing commercial network linking local merchants to overseas markets, huiguan inscriptions found in China only rarely attest to merchants’ activities abroad, being generally rather restricted to domestic longdistance trade. If information on overseas trade is provided, it is, as a rule, very general. Conversely, as will become evident later, we obtain much more information not only from inscriptions from huiguan founded abroad by overseas Chinese, who sometimes cooperated with foreign merchants and institutions, but, as far as Sino-Japanese trade is concerned, in particular by Japanese sources in general. These sources at least mention where the merchants originally came from and, normally, also provide some details on the trade in which they were engaged. An analysis of huiguan-based merchant associations and their relation to maritime trade can therefore be carried out only by a thorough

comparison of a variety of both Chinese and foreign textual and archeological sources. Many huiguan were obviously established specifically to resist the influence of brokers and agents for the sale of commodities on commission (yahang 牙行; just hang hereafter). The government issued a broker’s license (yatie 牙帖) and expected brokers to control trade on behalf of the government. This would, of course, imply contradictions with non-governmental private merchants, such as those organized into huiguan. A number of huiguan also organized their own markets on their grounds and built stores to sell the commodities of particular local or even foreign merchants. With increasing development of trade and commerce, in particular in the southeastern coastal regions like Jiangnan, more and more merchants organized themselves according to business areas and fields, and the criteria for admission or exclusion became stricter. In addition, other economic groups, such as artisans, craftsmen, etc., founded huiguan, too. In this context, also different names emerged, besides huiguan, especially the term gongsuo 公所, which in Suzhou – in contrast to the merchants’ or trade huiguan – was primarily used by craftsmen and people who were in some respect integrated into the production process of commodities (Schottenhammer 1995); in Shanghai, on the other hand, huiguan apparently were native-place organizations, and gongsuo were common-trade organizations (Johnson 1993: 162). As many publications have shown, the local and central government mostly sought to strictly control merchant organizations such as huiguan.2 But merchants, as a rule, tried to arrange themselves within such control mechanisms. In the sphere of maritime trade with Japan, as will become obvious below, we frequently cannot even clearly distinguish between a private merchant and an official government sphere. In places such as Fujian, since Ming times authorized brokers had been appointed by the government to manage foreign trade. As Fu Yiling has already noted, they were shopkeepers (pushang 舖商) from Haicheng, the maritime center of that time, and they were selected from among the registered shopkeeper households, known as puhu 舖戶 (1956: 132-133, 200). By the Yongzheng reign (1723-1735), puhu and hang households (hangjia 行家) existed side by side, hang merchants overshadowing puhu without hang affiliation (Ng 1983: 168-169). These organizations thus had a clear relation to foreign trade. After the 1720s, as Ng Chin-keong has shown, specialization among merchants engaged in maritime trade became more complex. They were both exporters of native products to the Southern Seas (Nanyang 南洋) and importers of foreign goods for domestic trade, thus controlling both domestic coastal and foreign overseas trade (Ng 1983: 169). In 1727 new rules placed overseas trade under the management of the ocean hang (yanghang 洋行) and coastal trade under the management of merchant hang (shanghang 商行), and they emerged in international ports such as Guangzhou and Xiamen. Generally speaking, organizations managing foreign trade consequently seem to have developed from a cooperation of more or less official brokers rather than a cooperation of various private merchants engaged in the same branch of

business. But, private merchants were also involved. Thus, how important were organizations such as huiguan, yahang and yanghang in the Eastern Seas (Dongyang 東洋) trade, in particular with Japan? Can we discern a distinction between private huiguan and government-controlled yahang and yanghang, and what do we know about the role of “private” and “government-controlled” maritime trade with the eastern neighbor? Were maritime merchants active in the Eastern Seas trade organized in huiguan, or did they at least use their structures? Or, were they organized as official yanghang? Was there a kind of competition between huiguan and yahang similar to the competition involving domestic trade? In order to shed more light on these questions, this chapter will look into the organization structures that played an important role in Jiangnan-Japanese trade by analyzing merchants, “ocean guilds,” and guild organizations of private and official merchants engaged in the Qing copper trade with Japan, with emphasis on the late Kangxi (1662-1722), the Yongzheng (1723-1735), Qianlong (1736-1796), and early Jiaqing periods (1796-1820).