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The Canton Trade, 1700–1842  

Paul A. Van Dyke

In 1684, China reopened its doors to trade with the outside world, which had a huge impact on the development of global commerce. Canton quickly emerged as one of the few ports in the world where everyone was welcomed and where everyone (except Japanese and Russians) had access to everything including tea, silk, and porcelain. Unlike other ports, individual traders in Canton could buy and sell the same high-quality products as those handled by the East India companies. As the Canton trade grew, international networks became more sophisticated; as more ships went to China, new forms of remittance such as Letters of Credit and Bills of Exchange became standard, which streamlined international finance; as more money flowed into Canton, more goods were distributed worldwide, which gave rise to globalization; as economies in both the eastern and western hemispheres became more integrated with the Chinese market, there was a parallel decline in the risks of conducting trade, which encouraged the advancement of private enterprise. One by one the large East India companies found it increasingly more difficult to compete and went broke. However, the success of the Canton trade was also its weakness. Because the legal trade was so dependent on silver collected from opium sales, and because a decline in opium sales would likely lead to a decline in rice imports, only minimal efforts were made by local officials to stop the smuggling. Foreigners were eventually able to overcome the system with the outbreak of war in the late 1830s, but this happened because the system had already defeated itself.

Article

Chinese Merchants in Japan and Korea  

Jin-A Kang

In the mid-19th century, Chinese merchants moved to the treaty ports of Japan and Korea to expand the domestic commercial network abroad. They made significant profits by importing and distributing British cotton clothes via Shanghai to Japan and Korea. While Chinese merchants in Japan remained purely economic immigrant groups, those in Korea took an active political role since their advance to Korea on business was part of an effort by the Qing dynasty to strengthen its influence in Korea. Before the Mukden Incident in 1931, Chinese merchants in Kobe, Japan, engaged in trade with China and Southeast Asia and continued to be a powerful commercial group in Asian trade. However, Chinese merchants in Korea suffered from business crisis earlier on. They were hit hard by the sharp decline in import trade from China, which was their primary business, due to Japan’s protective tariff policy introduced in 1924. Until 1930s, both Chinese merchants in Japan and Korea were forced to gradually revise their business strategies to sell Japanese products in Greater China and Korea. The outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937 turned out to be a decisive blow to the already struggling businesses of the Chinese merchants in Japan and Korea.

Article

The Commerce and Economy of Ancient China  

Zhang Zhaoyang

Initially, commerce did not play an important role in ancient China. However, starting from the 6th century bce, China experienced unprecedented growth in this area. Land became privatized and a highly sought-after commodity, contracts began to be widely used in transactions, some sort of market network emerged, and merchants started to exert influence on society. This transformation was due to the various reforms and policies that reshaped the overall structure of ancient Chinese economy and emancipated the strength of merchants. Furthermore, the sophistication and advancement of agriculture meant ordinary farmers had a surplus of labor and products, providing them with incentives to go to market.

Article

Commercial Structures of Ancient Central Asia  

Xinru Liu

Transactions between ancient communities across the varied ecological zones of Central Asia produced a complex commercial structure. Pastoral nomads on the steppe and farmers in the oases traded to supplement their livelihoods. Domestication of horses on the Eurasian steppe around four thousand years ago was a driving force stimulating interactions between the horse riders and settled farmers. Conflicts between horse-riding nomadic powers on the steppe and Chinese empires initiated the silk-horse treaty trade, which lasted until the end of the Tang Dynasty. Domestication of camels around 3000 bce enabled transportation across deserts and thus linked the oases to one another and to the outside world. Especially after the invention of a new saddle for the Bactrian (two-humped) camel, the caravan trade flourished as the major means of commercial interchange in the Central Asian deserts during the 1st millennium ce. Sogdian city states around the Syr and Amu Rivers prospered through farming, and the Sogdians became the agents of trade among Chinese empires, Persian empires, South Asian states, and various Turkic empires on the steppe. After the Islamic conquest of Central Asia, the Sogdians gradually submitted to Islamic rule, transforming themselves into Muslim traders and continuing to play an essential role in linking Central Asia to the wider Eurasian commercial world. Means of transportation and means of communication provided the infrastructure for trade. Governments and major trading communities such as the Sogdians were active in building trading networks, and religious movements such as the spread of Buddhism facilitated the formation of commercial networks.

Article

Commodities and Consumption in Modern China  

Karl Gerth

How did the introduction and spread of countless new commodities and their consumption shape modern Chinese history? The intersection of commodities and consumption provides the flipside to the better-studied history of production and underlies countless topics at the center of Chinese and world history since the 19th century, such as imperialism, trade, industrialization, revolution, social hierarchies, and the ascendance of China as a global manufacturing and export superpower. Consumption includes the introduction and spread of mass-manufactured consumer commodities, the proliferation of discourse about these goods in new forms of mass media, and an ongoing shift toward creating and communicating hierarchical social identities through the consumption of mass-produced commodities. While consumption is often viewed as an individual matter, one related to creating personal identities, a key theme that emerges throughout modern Chinese history is that the Chinese states and elites have long sought to link commodity consumption with ideas of patriotism and national strength, helping shape what it means to consume commodities right down to the present.

Article

The Cowrie World  

Bin Yang

For a long time cowrie shells originating in the Maldive islands had been used as a form of money in various Afro-Eurasian societies The use of cowrie shells as money was first adopted in Bengal around the 4th century, and cowrie money soon expanded into the Tai world, then into Yunnan province, on China’s southwestern frontier, where it became a legal currency. Local shell money was also adopted as early as the 10th century along the great bend of the Niger River in West Africa, and cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean were also shipped there by way of the Mediterranean. From the 16th century onwards, European merchants, led by the Portuguese, initiated the cowrie slave trade and the cowrie palm oil trade by shipping Maldivian shells through Europe to West Africa, thus reshaping the cowrie monetary zone in West Africa and creating a broad network that connected two oceans (the Indian and Atlantic oceans) and two worlds (the Old and New Worlds). The cowrie trade and cowrie money enabled the acquisition of Asian and African resources by Europeans and so promoted European dominance across the world, until a glut of cowrie shells destroyed this monetary system.The case of early China is different. While cowrie shells shared the same origin of the Indian Ocean, and played a significant role amongst the Chinese elite, they did not constitute a form of money.

Article

Environment and Economy in Song China  

Ruth Mostern

The period between the 9th and the 13th centuries in China, a largely temperate climate span that followed an interval of punishing droughts, was a time of pivotal economic and environmental transformation. The Song dynasty, chronologically divided into the Northern Song (960–1127) and the Southern Song (1127–1276) periods, dominated the era, but numerous other regimes and societies prospered in eastern Asia as well. Over the course of these centuries, China’s recorded population rose from sixty to one hundred million people, and perhaps 20 percent of them lived in cities. Technological innovation transformed numerous landscapes and areas of human activity, and market relations came to play a significant role in the exchange of land, labor, and goods. When deforestation caused a crisis in timber availability, some Song metalworkers shifted from charcoal to coal to power forges for iron and steel. The amount of land under agricultural cultivation expanded dramatically. In the Yangtze delta, the economic core of south China, farmers drained wetlands and constructed terraces and polders to support paddies on which they grew new strains of fast-ripening rice. Elsewhere, they turned grasslands and forests into fields, with consequences for herders and foragers, nonhuman animals, and soil stability. To the north, on the Yellow River watershed, deforestation and grasslands degradation caused major erosion that initiated an era of inundation and avulsion that transformed floodplain landscapes and modes of subsistence downstream. New maritime technologies ensured that the environmental consequences of the Song economic revolution extended beyond the borders of the realm and into distant Pacific and Indian Ocean worlds as well. Nevertheless, many Song landscapes lay outside human exploitation, and many Song practices allowed for sustainable relationships between people and the ecosystems that they inhabited.

Article

Fiscal Policy and Institutions in Imperial China  

Taisu Zhang

Up until the final four decades of the Qing Dynasty, fiscal extraction in imperial China was primarily a matter of taxing agricultural production, generally in the form of an annual property tax assessed on the basis of landholding, and collected in either grain or cash. All major dynasties prior to the Qing wielded this fiscal instrument somewhat flexibly, with large-scale reforms, usually leading to significantly higher taxes, occurring around mid-dynasty, but the Qing broke this trend: the absolute volume of agricultural taxes remained locked in place for the great majority of its 278-year life span, despite a near tripling of both the population and the economy. This eventually rendered the Qing fiscal state an extreme outlier in both horizontal and vertical comparisons: relative to the economy it governed, not only was it much smaller than its major early modern competitors, ranging from Japan to Western European states to other central Asian empires, but it was also probably the smallest post-Qin dynastic state by far. Preexisting scholarship has largely failed to identify, let alone explain, this sudden and dramatic shift in fiscal policy towards the end of China’s imperial history. There are a number of possible explanations for it, some of which have appeared in the extant literature, but the most promising one—which has not appeared—seems to be that the extraordinary circumstances of the Ming–Qing transition served as the catalyst for a decisive conservative turn in Chinese fiscal thought, pushing the Qing state into a fundamentally different political and institutional equilibrium than its predecessors.

Article

Opium in China  

Yangwen Zheng

Opium was used as a medicinal herb during the Tang-Song dynastic era, if not earlier, but this medicinal role was transformed during the Ming dynasty as it became an ingredient in aphrodisiacs produced for the Ming court. Small countries in South-Southeast Asia included opium in their tribute items to the Ming. Tribute missions were a form of trade as well as the best way to maintain foreign relations. Opium transformed again in the early Qing dynasty as Southeast Asian Chinese brought the habit of smoking opium mixed with tobacco back to the mainland. This was soon integrated in and promoted by the sex recreation industry in the mid-18th century, and the demand for opium grew rapidly in the early decades of the 19th century. By the 1850s, increasing supply fueled a level of consumption that neither repeated attempts at prohibition, nor two opium wars could stymie; it exploded into a consumer revolution. Opium became vital to the economy as all the polities since the late Qing taxed it to sustain themselves. It also became a symbol of China’s humiliation and anti-imperialist political platform. It has now come back to haunt the country despite the Mao era success in eradication.

Article

Silver, Piracy, Conspicuous Consumption, and the Transformation of Ming China in the 16th Century  

Harriet Zurndorfer

China historians have long recognized that the 16th century marked a significant shift in the economic, social, and cultural development of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). By then the program of the Ming founder Zhu Yuanzhang (also known as Emperor Hongwu, r. 1368–1398) to recreate the autarkic village economy envisioned by early Confucian thinkers, had crumbled. During the first decades of the 16th century, China experienced a flourishing commercialized economy of urban and rural markets, cash-cropping, specialized handicraft industries, and extensive interregional and illegal overseas trade that also allowed merchants easier access to wealth and status. Nevertheless, two major problems originating in Emperor Hongwu’s governing strategies continued to affect the well-being of the empire at this point. Both his policies, that is, to promote the use of paper money and thereby exclude silver as a medium of viable exchange, and to prohibit maritime commerce, meant that the economy operated under severe monetary constraints and that illicit trade along China’s littoral thrived. The Emperor himself had exacerbated the latter situation by utilizing the ship-building and nautical skills of southern Fujianese, known as Hokkien, to help streamline the Ryukyu islands into the Chinese tribute system for his own benefit, with the result that by the end of the 15th century, a complex trade system that stretched to both Southeast and Northeast Asia became the backdrop to 16th-century maritime disorder and mayhem. Piracy up and down the coasts of Guangdong, Fujian, and Zhejiang provinces, was endemic in the 16th century, and drew all strata of coastal society, from fishermen and sailors to merchants and gentry, into a web of smuggling, trafficking, and illegal protection rackets. With the discovery of silver in Japan during the 1530s piracy intensified, and the littoral’s illicit trade expanded into stealthy commerce centered on the island Shuangyu (near Ningbo, Zhejiang) where merchants covertly exchanged large amounts of Jiangnan-made high-quality silks and other textiles for Japan’s precious ore, while Portuguese venturers supplied arms and goods from Southeast Asia to multiethnic (but mainly of Chinese origin) pirate gangs, known as wokou. The silver, however much wanted and needed in China, could not enter the country legally because the Ming government had suspended all trade with Japan in 1523. Attempts by the Ming authorities in the following decades to wipe out the wokou failed until 1566 when fighting ended, the maritime ban was lifted, and China became “flooded with money.” With more silver available than ever before, the fortunes of the landed gentry elite as well as merchants steadily increased, leading them to engage in heightened levels of conspicuous consumption of goods and services. Commerce and connoisseurship fed off each other, as more and more rich people were able to acquire “things” and thereby distinguish themselves socially from others less well-off. While a small percentage of the literati elite engaged in discourses highlighting the market’s erosion of traditional mores, most people, including scholar-officials and the landed gentry, enjoyed their riches and pleasures. Their exuberant lifestyle would endure beyond the end of the 16th century.

Article

Song China: The First Modern Economy?  

Billy So and Sufumi So

Often considered one of the most prosperous dynasties in China’s two-thousand-year imperial history, the Song dynasty lasted for about three hundred years (960–1276 ce). The dynasty is sometimes credited with having developed the world’s first modern economy. While the Song economy lacked such essential characteristics of modern economic growth as science-based ways of improving industrial output and law-based capital markets, there was an undeniable presence of market forces that depended on a combination of product specialization, industrialization, urbanization, commercialization, monetization, and the widespread use of credit instruments. Such are the modern tendencies that many scholars have seen in Song China. The Song’s commercial growth predated the development of trade and commerce in late medieval Europe that began in the 11th century. None of the European cities of this period could compare in population size or trade volume to those in Song China. Neither the use of paper currency nor the burgeoning growth in agricultural production and commercialization existed in Europe’s commercializing economy. From this angle, Song China deserves to be recognized as the world’s first modern economy.

Article

Tea, Porcelain, and Silk: Chinese Exports to the West in the Early Modern Period  

Ronald C. Po

Tracing the social lives of tea, porcelain, and silk, it is discernible that the world had been living with commodities made in and exported from China for a fairly long period of time. Particularly, when tea slowly became more common in England during the 18th century, most Britons tended to purchase tea leaves planted in the Yangtze River Delta and the Fujian region. When Europeans first encountered Chinese porcelain, it was so fine, translucent, and superior to anything that they could possibly manufacture at the time. They thus concluded that it must be a magic substance and astonishingly called it “white gold.” The Western obsession about Chinese porcelain, in turn, encouraged Europeans to produce their own imitations in terms of both production processes and marketing strategies. When silkworm disease ruined European sericulture in the middle of the 19th century, Chinese silk, including silk textiles and spun and raw silks, fulfilled a need in a demanding Euro-American market. These examples, among many others, conceivably reveal that China has played a crucial role in the global history of the dissemination and consumption of commodities since the early modern period.

Article

Trade in the East and South China Seas, 600 CE to 1800 CE  

Tamara H. Bentley

In the period from 600 ce to 1800 ce, the countries bordering the East and South China Seas were in frequent maritime communication, sharing in the process cultural practices and commodities. This article focuses on Chinese trade, with some attention to Japanese, Korean, Ryūkyūan, and Southeast Asian trade as well. In the early 7th century, Chinese Emperor Sui Yangdi expanded Chinese diplomatic connections in a variety of ways and overtook central Vietnam. During the ensuing Tang dynasty, south and west Asian maritime traders dominated the importing of aromatics, rare goods, and foodstuffs into China and the westward export of Chinese goods such as ceramics and silks. South Chinese ports such as Guangzhou were thriving international emporia. In the Five Dynasties, Song, and Yuan periods, Chinese shipping increased, and trade between China and Japan, as well as between China and Koryŏ, Korea, flourished. At the start of the Ming dynasty, a maritime trade ban was enacted, which led to an increase in tribute trade to China (which was not banned), as well as a high degree of contraband shipping. In 1567 the Chinese ban was lifted, and a period of vibrant China Seas trade ensued, which included Japanese red seal ships to Southeast Asia and Korea, and an increasing number of European merchants. In the mid-17th century, the Zheng family played a major role in intra-Asian trade, negotiating for advantage with both Japan and Spain, and largely competing with the Dutch VOC. With the consolidation of Qing dynasty power, China reopened her ports in 1684 and eventually established a central location for European trade in Canton, while allowing for Asian trade from other ports.

Article

Treaty Ports and the Foreign Community in Modern China  

Pär Cassel

Unlike other parts of the non-European world, China was never fully colonized by the Western imperial powers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Instead, the Western powers built up a network of open ports, where foreigners could reside and trade under the protective shield of consular jurisdiction and gunboat diplomacy. Even though the treaty ports arguably played a limited role in transforming China’s domestic economy, they became emblematic of China’s and East Asia’s encounter with capitalist modernity, and they left an indelible legacy on Chinese domestic politics and foreign relations. With the notable exception of Beijing and some other cities, most major urban areas in China today are former treaty ports and many of them were the first to open for trade when the People’s Republic of China embarked on economic reform in 1978.