Professor Bian Li Talks about Merchant Families’ Management During the Ming and Qing Dynasties of China

Professor Bian LiBian Li is the director of Center for Huizhou Studies of Anhui University, doctor of History and deputy director of the Institute of Chinese Social History. He is engaged in the research of Huizhou studies, history of regional social economy of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, and study of the history of legal system.

This interview is conducted by Zhang Fang, Ph.D. student at the EHESS (École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris) focusing on the education of Chinese merchants during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

1. Could you briefly explain the way merchant families operate and are managed as economic unities during the Ming and Qing dynasties? For example, you could talk about financing or capital accumulation, collaborative management and internal management . . . and final profit distribution among the family members.

Bian Li: During the Ming and Qing dynasties, management of merchants, represented by Huishang, is typical of family business. The financing channels among family members include partnerships, joint ventures, loan capital, and stock management etc. Huishang mostly adopted the written contract for both financing or capital accumulation and collaborative management. The contract terms act as a basis for constraining an individual’s actions. That is, although the business is family-owned, its internal management is not entirely that of a family business. It is not the head of the family or clan that makes all the decisions. The stakeholders, according to the rights, obligations and responsibilities in the contract, manage the business.

2. Could you tell us why it was necessary for the merchants during the Ming and Qing dynasties to invest in real estate and official titles and how they benefited from such activities?

Bian Li: After their success in business, the merchants during the Ming and Qing dynasties, in addition to investing the profit in expanding the business, often took a conservative manner of “以末致富,以本守之” in their historical context. They invested in land and real estate to get the rent, and, therefore, became businessman-landlords. It should be emphasized that this reduced investment risk compared to continually investing in commercial operation. Therefore, it almost became a profitable trade without risk of losing money. Meanwhile, many merchants, including Huishang, bought titles from the government and became so-called “red top” businessmen in order to get official protection for their fortune. It was very necessary for the merchants to invest in real estate and official titles because of the government’s policy of encouraging agriculture and holding back commerce. However, that businessmen were keen to donate for official titles is also a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it protected the merchants’ interest temporarily. On the other hand, it ultimately ruined the lives of a generation of businessmen. The trinity of businessmen-landlords-bureaucrats was indeed a common phenomenon during the Ming and Qing dynasties, which played a negative and reactionary role in history.

3. Ibid, in your opinion, what was the motivation for the Ming and Qing merchant families to invest heavily in educating and training the children of the whole family and how did they benefit from such an investment?

Bian Li: During the Ming and Qing dynasties the merchant families, including Huishang, after the success of their business, invested in education, especially of the children of the whole family. They invested in schools and colleges, which greatly enhanced the cultural quality and vocational skills of the children of merchant families. This is the positive side of such an investment. However, the purpose of educating children of successful businessmen was still essentially to obtain protection for their wealth by having their children pass the imperial examinations so as to become officials of the empire. This is the real motive behind businessmen’s investment in education. The benefits and rewards of such an investment were very significant. There was a famous official and businessman, Wang Daokun, from Shexian during the Ming dynasty. In his book《太函集》there was a profound revelation of the relationship between “Merchants ” and “Confucianist”, which is “贾为厚利,儒为名高。夫人毕事儒不效,则驰儒而张贾。既则身饗其利矣,及为子孙计,宁弛贾而张儒。一弛一张,迭相为用,不万钟则千驷,犹之转毂相巡,岂 其单厚然乎哉,择术审矣。”

4. Among the reasons why the management and organisation of trade associations during the Ming and Qing dynasties were different from those of the charters of commence of the West, could you tell us those reasons relating to   practical factors and traditional cultural, ideological, philosophical and other influencing factors?

Bian Li: It must be emphasised that during the Ming and Qing dynasties merchant halls (会馆) and guilds (行会) of merchants were still very different from those in the late Qing Dynasty and the beginning of Republic of China (ROC). Merchant halls (会馆) were mainly based on geopolitical considerations while the guilds (行会) were based on business connections. In addition to their own property, their common features include the construction of schools and some social charity. They serve as an organisation of solidarity and friendship among businessmen. During the latter half of the Ming Dynasty, a large number of merchant halls and guilds (行会) appeared. To some extent, they played a positive role in the protection of merchants’ interest. However, merchant halls were tied to provincialism and feudal forces, which hindered the expansion of commodity exchange and socio-economic development. During the social change in modern Chinese history, modern trade associations were involved in the political field, and participated in the constitutional movement (立宪运动). In the late Qing Dynasty and the beginning of ROC, those trade associations converted into guilds (同业公会) due to the development of the Chinese national capitalist economy, the intensification of industry changes and the new act on chambers of commerce by the government of ROC.

There are huge differences between merchant halls (会馆) during the Ming and Qing dynasties, guilds (行会) or modern chambers of commerce and Western trade associations. The differences lie in their historical backgrounds, cultural traditions, ideologies and philosophy. The Chinese guilds (行会) and trade associations were not “the third party”, independent of the government and of businessmen. They were social organisations of fellow provincials and peers traders, which were attached to the government.


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