AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 549

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Session 549: Navigators of Global Trade in the Canton Era (ca. 1700-1840)

Organizer: Paul A. Van Dyke, University of Macau, Macau

Chair: James R. Fichter, Lingnan University, Hong Kong

Discussant: James R. Fichter, Lingnan University, Hong Kong

In the era of the Canton trade (ca 1700-1840) merchants, transporters, mariners, and entertainers in South China each mediated between politics, economies, cultures, religions, and languages. Chinese merchants in Canton during the Qing Dynasty were at the forefront of the interactions and conflicts between these various elements -- compromising when they must, driving a hard bargain when they could, and blending in when asked. Those who played the game well learned how to keep some traders at a distance, while embracing others, and to respect the limitations of politics and commerce. Without Chinese transporters and their lighters called “chop boats”, commerce and trade would not have moved so smoothly and efficiently. These transporters developed a boat well adapted to the unique conditions of the China coast allowing merchandise to be transferred from Chinese merchants to the ships of their international trading partners. Similarly, Chinese mariners on transoceanic ships created global networks of empire and established cross-cultural and hybrid practices. Canton flower boats represent a different dimension of interaction, linking these elements of trade with the inland suppliers of goods. These linkages and trans-cultural interactions created the complex of Canton era global connections.

Global Positioning: Houqua and his China Trade partners in the Nineteenth Century
John D. Wong, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Records of the commercial vitality and global interactions of early-nineteenth-century Canton faded only because we have allowed our image to be clouded by China’s later weaknesses. I will explore this story of the China trade that helped shape the modern world through the lens of a single prominent merchant, Wu Bingjian, known to foreigners by his trading name Houqua. To date, much has been written to explain the failure of the many Hong merchants but few have explored how Houqua succeeded when most failed. Houqua’s success stemmed largely from his ability to maintain an intricate balance between his commercial interests and those of his Western counterparts, all in an era of transnationalism before the imposition of the Western world order. To counteract Britain’s rising trading power and the decline of continental European merchant houses, Houqua nurtured a partnership with American merchants in order to structure an alternative channel for his commercial exchange with the West. By reviving this story of economic vibrancy through the account of Houqua’s business maneuvers, this project will restore the historical contingency at the juncture at which global commercial equilibrium unraveled with the collapse of the Canton system. A study of Houqua’s ascendency explains the process by which local players manoeuvred to exploit opportunities generated by different imperial agendas during this earlier age of global interface, while an understanding of his family’s fall from prominence in international commerce provides a new perspective on the economic divergence of China relative to the financial powers of the West.

Navigating Trade: Canton Chop Boats bringing China to the World
Susan E. Schopp, University of Macau, USA

Chinese lighters, or “chop boats” as they were more commonly called, formed the link between Canton and the world’s markets. Being the only vessels authorized to carry imports and exports, they were indispensable to trade. Chop boats carried goods from ship to shore and vice versa. Their singular form was a familiar sight that distinguished them from the hundreds of other craft plying the river. Because they operated in the margins between China and the outside world, their activities provide important insights into the control and administration of trade. They were responsible for the safe and timely transfer of valuable cargo so ships could depart on schedule. By limiting their numbers and daily movements government officials used chop boats as tools to monitor, check, and tax commerce. Their highly functional structure is also testimony to Chinese ingenuity and accommodation to trade. Chop boats were a fusion between a simple sampan with its adjustable panels, a river crane that could lift and transfer heavy cargo, and a sleek river transport that could deliver goods safely and efficiently to their destinations. Because chop boats were at the forefront of the administration and accommodation of foreign trade, their movements provide us with important insights into that commerce.

Canton Era Chinese Mariners: Transoceanic Workers, Cross-cultural practices and Changing British Maritime Labor practices
Iona Man-Cheong, Stony Brook University, USA

A survey of wage ledgers and East India Company documents shows numbers of Canton sailors active in international trade grew exponentially on British and country ships licensed to the British East India Company from the late eighteenth through the early nineteenth century. Yet British Navigation Laws stipulated quite clearly that only one quarter of any outgoing crew from Britain could be non-English. This paper presents the results of the survey (1799-1815) and identifies a new British maritime labor practice that enabled the Chinese transoceanic diaspora to grow and diversify, generating new practices borne of these cross-cultural encounters. Sailors, the maritime workers in the Age of Sail, tend to be a forgotten part of Chinese history, difficult to document and rarely discussed at any length. Unless we come to terms with their contribution we will elide a significant aspect of global trade. Not only did they contribute to the cultural diversity and hybridity of many port cities and imperial metropoles, they also helped to keep China’s trade moving/growing. Unlike some of the more celebrated and exoticized Chinese visitors to Europe, Chinese mariners established the roots of overseas Chinese communities in Britain and the globe generally.

Conciliating Trade and Politics: Floating Brothels and the Canton Flower Boats
Paul A. Van Dyke, University of Macau, Macau

Pleasure boats, known more commonly as “flower boats”, have long been a subject of curiosity, fascination, and mystique. As Canton’s foreign trade grew from 1700 onwards, so did the demand for these luxurious boats with their many delights. By the mid-eighteenth century flower boats were as familiar a sight in Canton as the chop boats that carried imports and exports to and from the city. These floating palaces were venues where the most prominent people in Cantonese society came together and made decisions that affected trade and politics. An enchanting evening out on a glamorously adorned flower boat was very impressive to visiting dignitaries. Flower boats were also favoured venues that helped to convince inland tea dealers to give up their best products so Canton merchants could fulfil their contracts with foreigners. Brothels in general were used as tools of government in the maintenance of harmony. Prostitutes operated in several locations along the river and in vessels of many different shapes and sizes. Some of them serviced Asians and foreigners, while others serviced one or the other. Among the Chinese community, the most sought after prostitutes were those who lived on the Canton flower boats. They were specially trained in the arts of pleasing men. This new research shows that flower boats and brothels in general were more than simply objects of male fascination, but were in fact central to the keeping of peace and to the growth of trade which helps to explain why they rose in unison.