Luxurious Networks
Salt Merchants, Status, and Statecraft in Eighteenth-Century China
Yulian Wu



Merchant Culture in the Material World of Eighteenth-Century China

On February 3, 1769, the Qianlong emperor awarded Lady Fang, mother of a wealthy salt merchant, the Honor of Chastity. Lady Fang lived in Choushu village in She county of Huizhou and had been widowed for twenty-nine years. Along with this title, the court, following the regulations that the Yongzheng emperor had established in 1723, granted thirty taels of silver to Lady Fang’s family to encourage them to erect a chastity arch to display her virtuous deeds. Lady Fang’s son, Wang Xun, was a head salt merchant in Yangzhou who not only conducted business there but also helped the court’s official, the salt administrator, manage the salt monopoly system. Wang’s father had passed away just after Wang was born, so his mother, Lady Fang, raised him on her own. Wang Xun, like many other wealthy Huizhou salt merchants, went through a complicated and costly process to construct a chastity arch for his late beloved mother in his home village. He bought a specific type of large stone in the neighboring province and had them shipped to She county via the Xin’an River. Wang also hired masons to carve decorative patterns on the beams. In 1775, six years after the imperial honor was granted, this chastity arch was finally erected.1

The arch that Wang Xun constructed still stands in the field outside Choushu village, among the four arches straddling the pathway heading to the village (see Figure I.1). It measures 11.5 meters (37.7 feet) tall and 9.5 meters (31.1 feet) wide. Four columns divide the arch into three bays, each topped by three roofs. In the middle bay on the top, a stone slab, adorned by highly decorative dragon carvings and inscribed with the words “imperial edict” (shengzhi) in the emperor’s calligraphy, was placed. It reminded and still reminds the local residents of the honor Lady Fang received from the emperor. This arch is by no means unique in Huizhou, a region deep in the southeastern part of Anhui province about 230 miles inland from Shanghai and the native place of many wealthy salt merchants like Wang. Since 2002, when I first began my research in Huizhou, I passed, observed, and touched stone arches of many shapes and sizes. Gazing upon the tall columns and delicate carvings of these monumental objects, however, I was struck by some questions: Who built these chastity arches? How and why did they build them? Why were some of the arches better preserved than others? What kinds of stones were used? How much did they cost? These questions, seemingly simple, are generally ignored by scholars, let alone answered. When this material object was finally completed, the complicated process that produced it was, ironically, buried in history.

Figure I.1   Chastity arch for Lady Fang, Choushu village, She county, Huizhou. This arch, along with three others, was placed on a main road entering the village.

An exploration of these questions reveals the elaborate process Huizhou salt merchants went through to construct a stone arch in their hometowns during the eighteenth century. More importantly, the incredible investment and energy that these businessmen expended calls for an examination of the unique historical context they inhabited. Evidence shows that the Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) incorporated public display into their empire-wide cultivation project (jiaohua), promoting the construction of chastity arches to publicize the virtuous deeds of moral exemplars in the local society. Huizhou salt merchants such as Wang Xun participated in this imperial project by deploying the resources they had—wealth, knowledge of construction, and networks with craftsmen and shipmasters—to successfully build arches. Their wealth, the ultimate foundation of merchants’ sponsorship, was itself a product of the Manchu court’s salt monopoly policies. An examination of the production of these arches, therefore, reveals a dynamic network between the court and Huizhou salt merchants that involved state policies and money circulation. This relationship was materially expressed by the chastity arches and was conducted and operated through merchants’ activity of building these monuments. Exploring the obscured processes of how and why these arches were made thus enables us to gaze into the activities and agenda of Huizhou salt merchants when they interacted with these monument objects and, more importantly, to study the historical environment in which this interaction took place.2

The stone arch is one of the many objects that engaged the time and attention of these Huizhou salt merchants. From the precious jade articles prepared for the imperial court to the ancient bronze seals preserved in luxurious residences in Jiangnan, from the refined seal compilation books to the ebony steles inscribed with elegant calligraphy, merchants were surrounded by objects. Each one—big or small, expensive or cheap, splendid or plain—had a hidden history embedded in its production, purchase, exchange, and display. How and why did these businessmen devote themselves to these things? What can we learn about eighteenth-century China by examining the relationship between merchants and objects? This book is the result of my effort to answer these questions.

Locating Huizhou salt merchants in the material world of eighteenth-century China uncovers the unseen history of a dynamic interaction between these merchants and the objects that surrounded them. This interaction indicates the emergence of a novel and vital network between the Qianlong emperor, the imperial household department, court officials, and Huizhou salt merchants, one constructed between the capital, Beijing; the urban centers of Jiangnan; and the remote countryside of Huizhou. Made possible by the Qing government’s salt monopoly policies, this network was constellated through the movement of a variety of objects the wealthy merchants produced and consumed. This book challenges the conventional paradigm of status negotiation that interprets merchants’ activities as a simple emulation of literati, proposing rather to examine Huizhou salt merchants’ motivations and behaviors in the specific spaces, institutions, and relationships they inhabited. In instrumentalizing their relationship with the court, the Huizhou salt merchants played an essential role as cultural, economic, and political mediators. In the process, these merchants both experienced and shaped the political, economic, and cultural transformations of eighteenth-century China.

Huizhou Salt Merchants in High Qing China (1683–1839)

The rise of Huizhou salt merchants was an integral part of a High Qing story, a period that was named the “prosperous age” (shengshi) and was considered the apex of Manchu rule. Although dating schemes of this period differ slightly, scholars agree that the High Qing era covered the eighteenth century and was characterized by dramatic economic growth, flourishing luxury consumption, an explosive population boom, and enlarged social mobility.3 The accelerating prosperity and status of Huizhou salt merchants was part of a process of historical production involving imperial power, the salt monopoly, and migration and mobility unique to the High Qing period.

In 1644 Manchu armies from the northeast took over China. In order to obtain revenue from wealthy salt merchants to support military endeavors and initiate economic recovery for the new state, the new Qing government quickly reestablished the salt monopoly system that had fallen into disarray during the wars marking the transition from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) to the Qing. It then gradually developed its own policies. The new Qing salt monopoly system, discussed in Chapter 1, not only helped the Jiangnan salt merchants accumulate wealth in a short time but also granted some of these merchants quasi-official status, which brought with it political privileges. As a result, these Jiangnan businessmen became one of the wealthiest merchant groups and strong allies of the Qing court in Qianlong’s reign (1736–1795).

Although the Jiangnan merchants conducted their salt business and resided in the Lianghuai and Liangzhe salt zones, in which the urban centers of Yangzhou and Hangzhou were the most prosperous, most had not been born in these wealthy cities. Their place of birth was Huizhou, which lay approximately 125 miles west of Hangzhou and was connected to Jiangnan urban centers by the Xin’an River. The region’s topography was defined by myriad mountains and rivers, so fruitful opportunities in agriculture were few, which led many locals to seek fortunes through trade with nearby urban Jiangnan.4 In fact, most of these salt merchants came from She county, one of the six counties in Huizhou, especially the western reaches of the region (Shexi).5 These wealthy merchants never forgot their homeland. They sent money back to Huizhou by building residences, purchasing land, patronizing lineage-related constructions, and financing charitable projects. Thanks to these merchants’ investments, the remote Huizhou countryside even today boasts an array of grand architectural projects, such as the eleven-meter-tall stone arch that Wang Xun built for his mother.

These majestic buildings place modern Huizhou in a unique position. Throughout the rest of China, little of the built environment constructed during the Ming and Qing dynasties survives. Many of the buildings that were spared the destruction of the Cultural Revolution were unfortunately destroyed by the aggressive modernization programs that began in the 1980s. To be sure, the tumult of the numerous rebellions and wars that marked the nineteenth and twentieth centuries wrecked Huizhou villages. The steep mountains of Huizhou, however, made it difficult for modern industry to develop, a condition that slowed the speed of modernization in this area. The landscape of the High Qing, featuring high mountains and serene rivers dotted with grand architectural monuments—most of which were underwritten by wealthy salt merchants—endures to this day. Most villagers share a small number of surnames, identifying themselves with common ancestors, restoring the written genealogies of their heritage destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and keeping alive their regional customs. The enduring landscape and social environment of Huizhou, therefore, provides opportunities for the historian to reconstruct the material scene where historical events took place and where historical figures lived.

The lives of these Huizhou salt merchants were, in many ways, unique. They were one of the wealthiest merchant groups in the High Qing era, such that the salt taxes they submitted to the state made up half of the salt revenue.6 In addition, they were a highly visible, if not the most visible, merchant group in the eighteenth century. Not only was their financial contribution to state revenue formally recognized, but their participation in social and cultural activities in Jiangnan urban centers and in Huizhou villages was also widely acknowledged. Contemporary literati produced numerous writings, including genealogies, gazetteers, novels, and anecdotes, that took note of these Huizhou salt merchants’ lives. These salt merchants, relying on their financial strength, also made, purchased, exchanged, and displayed a large number of objects that allowed them to express ideas and intentions (see Figure I.2). These sources, both texts and objects, not only serve as the necessary foundation of this book but also reveal these men’s privileged status. The unprecedented privileges that they enjoyed—their incomparable wealth and their visibility—led historians to explore the political and social elements that brought these salt merchants into this new sociopolitical prominence. In other words, even though the lives and circumstances of these Huizhou salt merchants were not identical to those of other merchants, the uniqueness of these merchants bespeaks important social and political changes in the eighteenth century. A close focus on the distinctiveness of these merchants’ political and economic roles, therefore, provides a clear window onto much larger political and social transformations in High Qing China.

Figure I.2   The elaborate gate carving on the female ancestral hall “Qing yi tang,” Tangyue village, She county, Huizhou.

Exploring Merchant Culture in a Material World

The wealthy Huizhou salt merchants were educated and could write. When printing culture expanded and literacy increased in the eighteenth century, even more literati and merchants entered the world of writing, but this situation also made it much harder for literate men, including scholars and merchants, to gain recognition through their writings. In addition, compared to those of their scholarly counterparts, the written accounts left by merchants were relatively meager.7 Circumstances also prevented them from participating in many of the traditional venues for written expression. Yet the seemingly low profile of textual records written in merchants’ own hands certainly does not mean that they had no desire to express themselves. On the contrary, merchants may have been more eager to express themselves because they did not pass the civil service examinations and, therefore, were not guaranteed higher status in local society.8

Merchants expressed themselves by doing things. From the sixteenth century onward, when Huizhou merchants began to dominate the salt business in Jiangnan, they actively participated in social and cultural affairs at Jiangnan urban centers and in their home villages at Huizhou. In contrast to the relatively low-key or mixed social reception of their writings, Huizhou salt merchants’ activities received much broader attention, in particular in their interactions with objects. A wide range of social groups produced abundant written descriptions about what Huizhou salt merchants did with things.

The Qianlong emperor commented many times on the projects that Yangzhou salt merchants had prepared for the emperor’s southern tours. For instance, he once complained that “merchants have drawn water into a spouting fountain that shoots dozens of feet in the air,” and it “really detracts from the pristine [surroundings].”9 On other occasions, the emperor seemed to enjoy the preparations that merchants had arranged. He wrote several poems to praise the elegant gardens that merchants had designed to host the imperial visits or the refined objects that they used or displayed. When the emperor visited Huizhou salt merchant Wang Yushu’s garden, for example, he acclaimed that “the nine Tai Lake stones which are irregularly but beautifully placed [in Wang’s garden] inspired admiration for the ancient time (cuozhi jiufeng chu guqing).”10 Qianlong’s comments, sometimes expressing adulation and sometimes disdain, were all directed at merchants’ activities and especially at the objects that merchants had prepared.

At the same time, the scholarly elites in Jiangnan frequently depicted merchants, especially the wealthy Huizhou salt merchants, as people who were obsessed with expensive furniture and ostentatious clothing. Record of the Painted Boats of Yangzhou (Yangzhou huafang lu), the famous book describing the social lives of eighteenth-century Yangzhou, for instance, gives a vivid description of salt merchants’ lives. The following paragraph is one of the most popular accounts illustrating the stereotype of salt merchants:

There was a lover of horses who raised several hundred of these animals. Each day a single horse’s maintenance ran to several tens of taels. In the morning they were taken to the outskirts of the city and in the evening they were taken back. So rich was their coloring that the onlooker’s eyes were dazzled. There was a lover of orchids who planted orchids everywhere from the gate to the inner studios. There was one who erected wooden nude female statues in front of his inner halls, all mechanically controlled, so as to tease and surprise his guests.11

There is no doubt that the author was critical of the luxurious lifestyle of these nouveaux riches.12 This obviously negative description, however, also hints at the author’s grudging admiration for the skills that enabled merchants to produce such extravagance.

Finally, in the countryside of Huizhou itself, many merchants also left their marks in local gazetteers or genealogies, where the public or private constructions that they patronized were described and recorded. My fieldwork interviews reveal that even today local villagers still remember wealthy ancestors, mostly through the material objects that those merchants built. For instance, the history of the famous Huang family of merchants was recorded by Xu Chengyao (1874–1946), a local scholar of She county, in his book.13 These merchants are remembered in their home village of Tandu because they built a stone bridge still in use today.14 People’s memories, in other words, are attached to objects, albeit often recorded in written words. Whatever the source of these records and memories, it was the material objects that made the Huizhou salt merchants visible.

In addition to the textual representation of merchants’ lives, sources also reveal a dynamic world in which the merchants closely dealt with objects and costly materials. Imperial memorials show the head merchants going to the Suzhou market, purchasing expensive zitan wood (a type of purple hardwood), and supervising skilled craftsmen to make beautiful furniture for the Qianlong emperor. We also see the salt merchant Wang Qishu (1728–1798) collecting enormous numbers of seals (hand-carved stamps or “chops”), storing them in his studio, classifying them into different categories, carefully making an impression of each seal, and proudly circulating his compilation of these impressions. In the meantime, back in Huizhou, the stone arch whispers the story of the life of salt merchant Wang Xun.

All in all, the eighteenth-century Huizhou salt merchants made, collected, exchanged, and displayed a broad variety of things. Some of these objects’ histories were recorded in written documents; others left traces with their existence, their materiality, and their physical characteristics. No matter what kind of message these objects left, they allow historians to examine the interactions between salt merchants and specific artifacts, thereby providing a new perspective through which we can explore their activities, intentions, and agenda. These objects therefore serve as valuable sources for historians. Indeed, close analysis of material objects is indispensable for the study of merchant culture in eighteenth-century China.

Using Objects to Tell History

The study of material culture has developed quickly in the last three decades. As some scholars have defined it, the purpose of material culture studies is to understand and explore “the way people live their lives through, by, around, in spite of, in pursuit of, in denial of, and because of the material world.”15 The concept of material culture consists of two parts: “objects” and “the meanings they hold for people.”16 The meaning of each object emerges from an active and mutual contact between things and people. Human agents use objects—the things that they can see, feel, own, and exchange—to communicate ideas, construct relationships, and identify themselves. Through these human-object interactions, individuals respond to and negotiate with the shared learned values and ideas of a particular society, and in turn shape and create meanings.17 Objects are therefore not merely reflections of culture but “the means by which it [culture] is created.”18

The meanings embedded in and created by objects change when objects move. Indeed, objects are not static. As Arjun Appadurai has argued in his influential article on the social life of things, the meanings of things “are inscribed in their forms, their uses, their trajectories.” Through “the analysis of these trajectories,” scholars “can interpret the human transactions and calculations that enliven things.” In this context, “from a theoretical point of view human actors encode things with significance,” and “from a methodological point of view it is the things-in-motion that illuminate their human and social context” (emphasis in original).19 Recent scholarship has further developed this framework by emphasizing people’s attachment to objects. Rather than only describing the “culturally informed economic biography” of an object, which focuses on a commodity’s changing status in the economic realm, these scholars emphasize the interactions between people and specific objects.20 As anthropologist Janet Hoskins argues, “Things can be said to have ‘biographies’ as they go through a series of transformations from gift to commodity to inalienable possession, and persons can also be said to invest aspects of their own biographies in things.”21 Similarly, Judith Zeitlin, a scholar of Chinese literature, follows the trajectory of a musical instrument and explores the “intertwined social and cultural lives of the instrument and its owners.”22

Long engaged with the analysis of textual sources, historians have also turned to material objects as alternative sources and for new research themes, arguing that “objects themselves are not simple props of history, but are tools through which people shape their lives.”23 Historical figures, in other words, not only lived with objects but also used them to achieve their goals and influence their society. By locating individuals’ interactions with objects in a specific historical context, historians could delineate the meanings embedded in and mediated through these artifacts, examine these people’s agenda and their motivations that drove their actions, and explore the social context in which they lived.24

This book studies the dynamic interactions between Huizhou salt merchants and a broad variety of things. I examine the physical characteristics of these things—their size, weight, material—as well as their life histories of production and circulation. A variety of textual evidence—including imperial edicts and memorials, gazetteers and genealogies, essays and poems of the literati, and catalogs and illustrations—enables us to contextualize the objects with which the merchants interacted; it also enriches our understanding of Huizhou salt merchants’ experiences and the historical context in which they resided. Based on both material and textual sources, therefore, we can investigate the materiality and life history of specific objects and, in turn, delineate the symbolic and cultural meanings that these objects carried, the social networks that they generated, and the individuals they connected.

An examination of the “life history” of objects—how they were chosen, produced, exchanged, and displayed—allows us to uncover merchants’ intentions and strategies. Tracing the life history of an object is like peeling an onion: through layer upon layer the meaning continues to open. An exploration of the construction process for chastity arches serves as a good example here. By examining the materiality of the stone, I discovered that most Qing Huizhou arches were made of a stone called “tea garden green.” This finding led me to trace its origins, which revealed that the stones could be found only in the mountains of neighboring villages. The discovery pushed me to consider the mining and transportation process, and finally allowed me to evaluate the financial support necessary for the procedure. All of this information, derived from arch builders’ choices of a specific type of stone, provided the foundation to examine how the merchants built these monumental objects and what merchants were displaying through these objects.

These artifacts not only bore witness to a wide range of Huizhou salt merchants’ experience and activities, but also made entangled and sometimes hidden social relations visible and concrete. For instance, a detailed analysis of the materiality of an ancestral hall and a stele that the Bao merchants invested in their home village, Tangyue, reveals an unexpected agenda of these wealthy men: their patronage to the lineage was not merely a display of their moral behavior; instead, they deftly used these charitable projects to construct and strengthen an extensive network with court officials.

While placing merchants’ interactions with objects at the center of my analysis, I have also located them in a specific context of High Qing China in which these objects were produced or used. A delicate piece of zitan wood furniture that was made in Yangzhou and was finally used by the Qianlong emperor in his palace records Huizhou salt merchants’ assistance to the salt administrator in satisfying the emperor’s fondness for Jiangnan-made objects. A sturdy stone arch that praised the moral behavior of a chaste widow from a salt merchant family constantly reminded local Huizhou commoners of the Confucian morality of female fidelity that the Qing state promoted highly. A contextualization of these objects allows us to “read” the specific political, cultural, and economic meanings embedded with them, thereby leading us to explore and understand the social environment in which these Huizhou salt merchants lived.

Rethinking the Paradigm of Status Negotiation

Careful scrutiny of the interactions between merchants and objects enables us to uncover the motivations and agenda of eighteenth-century Huizhou salt merchants. A discovery of these dimensions forces a rethinking of the conventional understanding of merchants’ activities in late imperial China.

The rise of merchants and their upward social mobility in the Ming and Qing dynasties have received extensive scholarly attention. Confucian ideology ranked merchants lowest in the “four strata of occupations” (scholar-officials, farmers, artisans, and merchants), because, according to that orthodoxy, merchants did not do honest labor but rather profit from the labor of others. Moreover, unlike the gentry, who received state-conferred degrees, merchants were not able to achieve a higher social status through academic achievement. Accordingly, merchants strove to negotiate their social status and move up the social ladder by using the examination system, clan organization, and print culture to their advantage. The social categories of merchant and scholar-official, in this context, began to blur.25

Prevailing scholarship depicts merchants as a group eager to enter the scholar-official elite or literati (shi). This portrayal explains one aspect of the crucial and sometimes fraught relationship between literati (shi) and merchants (shang). It is, however, mostly based on the written texts about merchants that literati produced. One of the most representative examples is the writing from the famous manual of connoisseurship titled Treatise on Superfluous Things (Zhangwu zhi). This manual was edited by Wen Zhenheng (1585–1645), a famed late-Ming literatus who came from a well-known scholarly family in Suzhou. As Craig Clunas elegantly demonstrates, the Treatise on Superfluous Things is a book about the “assertion of the difference between people as consumers of things.” The editor of this book aimed to use consumptions of specific things to classify people in a “hierarchically structured” society.26 Wen Zhenheng’s close associate Shen Chunze confirmed this goal in his preface for the Treatise:

Recently the sons of the rich and one or two dullards and persons of mean status have abrogated to themselves the status of “aficionados.” At each attempt at connoisseurship they utter some vulgarity, besmirching anything which comes into their hands with their wanton fumbling and grabbing, to an utter pitch of vileness. A gentleman of true tastes, talents and sentiment thus takes vows not to even mention “elegance.” Ah, it has already gone too far!27

“The sons of the rich,” as Shen stated, consumed the objects that scholarly elites used in order to emulate the life of the literati. Here Shen clearly disdains these rich people’s attempt at connoisseurship and sharply criticizes their vulgar taste. This negative description of merchants’ luxury consumption, however, was a perception of the literate elites. Indeed, as Craig Clunas has pointed out, Treatise of Superfluous Things and the texts that it replicates and modifies constitute “a discourse about . . . how [society] was perceived by the literate elite.”28 The merchants’ own voices and opinions, in other words, are missing.

In the High Qing period, some literati continued to depict merchants as a group of people who were eager to become scholarly elites. The Yangzhou salt merchants, according to these literati, “enjoyed summoning well-known scholars as a means of self-aggrandizement.” This description of merchants, as Michael Chang has argued, was a result of the literati’s effort to maintain their privileged status as men of letters “in an age marked by shifting and fluid social boundaries and increased social competition.”29 For the same reason, the dismissal of wealthy merchants’ taste in luxury consumption persisted. As the passage from Record of the Painted Boats of Yangzhou cited earlier shows, some literati were aware of the superior financial ability of merchants to consume extravagant objects. Like Shen Chunze, these literati derided merchants’ use of these luxury items as wasteful and vulgar.30 This stereotype of merchants’ vulgar taste indicates anxiety among High Qing literati over the gradually deteriorating boundary between themselves and salt merchants.31

The paradigm of literati-merchant status negotiation is built on the prerequisite concepts of social status. This paradigm assumes two clearly defined social categories: scholars and merchants, with the former enjoying higher status than the latter. Status, however, was a rather fluid concept in the High Qing period. A variety of social elements, including political privileges, economic prosperity, and social networks, provided more opportunity for men to identify themselves outside the credentials of obtaining officialdom through civil service examinations and through qualifications to speak authoritatively about classical texts. While some scholarly elites still emphasized and, to some extent, tried to reestablish this static and hierarchical relationship through their writings, the commercial elites, even when they consumed the objects that the literati used, might obtain social recognition from other resources instead of mimicking scholarly elites’ consumption habits. In its exclusive focus on the issue of status negotiation, this binary paradigm oversimplifies the lived complexity of merchants’ experience in political, economic, and cultural realms. Thus it elides the possibility that merchants might identify, understand, and enjoy themselves outside the realm of literati-merchant competition.

Given these weaknesses, the analytical framework to study merchants in the High Qing period must be rethought to incorporate what commercial families actually did. Some scholars have begun to describe this much more complicated picture of commercial families in late imperial China. For example, when the civil service examination competition became more severe, commercial families developed different strategies to maintain family prosperity and status. Arranging for one son to conduct the business was considered equally important to assigning a son to study for the exams. The Li family in Shandong province, as Susan Mann discusses, selected their brightest sons to remain at home and take charge of the family’s investments.32 Here we see that when historians focus on what the commercial families actually did, the emphasis on merchants’ desire to enter the scholarly elite is insufficient to explain their strategies. My argument is not to deny the tension between literati and merchants. Rather, my point is that, while becoming a literatus might be an important goal for merchants, it was by no means the only or even primary focus in their lives. The goals and motivations of merchants should be explored in a specific historical context and be examined in specific relationships with other social groups. The Huizhou salt merchants, as this book shows, should be placed in the political environment of the High Qing period and, in particular, in their connection with the Qianlong court.

The New Court-Merchant Network

In the eighteenth century, the Huizhou salt merchants constructed an extensive and close connection with the Qianlong emperor and his bondservants and court officials. This network was a product of the Manchu emperors’ ethnic policies in the Jiangnan area, and at the same time it allowed these merchants to obtain unprecedented privileges in the High Qing period.

In the last three decades, Qing historians have challenged the old paradigm of sinicization or assimilation in Manchu governance—the idea that the Qing completely adopted Han Chinese policies and culture. Scholars have focused on the Inner Asian traditions of Manchu political policies, understanding the Qing as a multiethnic and multicultural empire.33 As historians have argued, the Qing rulers incorporated Han Chinese culture as one part, albeit a very important part, of a model of universal rulership that was also shaped by their Inner Asian roots. No matter how deep their identification with Chinese civilization, the Manchu rulers continued to preserve their distinct ethnic identity and culture.34 Previous scholarship has demonstrated the Manchu court’s use of these political strategies and their construction of their identities by exploring their administration of the non-Han regions and their strategic policies dealing with non-Han people.

What happened to Manchus’ ruling power among Han Chinese and particularly in Jiangnan, the cradle of Han Chinese culture and the economic center of the former Ming dynasty? There is no doubt that the court adopted political strategies from the Ming to woo Han scholarly elites, including using Confucian ideologies, operating a civil service examination system, and recruiting Han Chinese scholars into its bureaucracy. The political situation in High Qing Jiangnan, however, was distinct from that of the Ming dynasty. Even during the most prosperous time of Qianlong’s reign, as Philip Kuhn shows, anxieties among Jiangnan Han commoners continued. These agitations were more or less related to the Manchus’ severe ethnic policy.35

The Manchu emperors, in this context, developed their own political strategies to project their power into the Jiangnan area. In his analysis of the intriguing relationship between the Kangxi emperor and his bondservant Cao Yin, Jonathan Spence shows how the Manchu emperor monitored Jiangnan by appointing his personal agent as salt censor to oversee salt administration in the Lianghuai area during the consolidating period of the Qing dynasty.36 By focusing on the imperial courts’ southern tours, Michael Chang demonstrates how the Kangxi and Qianlong emperors revived the practice of imperial touring “in order to assert and expand Qing ethno-dynastic rule” in the Jiangnan area.37

The institutional changes in salt monopoly polices in Jiangnan were also the product of early-Qing ethnic policies. The early-Qing emperors were suspicious about the loyalty and moral integrity of their subjects, especially in the Jiangnan area.38 In addition, Manchu rulers depended heavily on the revenue generated by salt merchants to underwrite their military victories and territorial expansion.39 Since the Kangxi reign onward, therefore, in order to resolve these problems, the Manchu government made two significant changes in the salt monopoly system inherited from the late Ming: the appointment of the new emperors’ bannermen, and in particular the bondservants, as salt bureau officials and the establishment of the head merchant position to incorporate wealthy salt merchants into management of the salt business for the government. These two changes allowed the emperors to send their personal bondservants to Jiangnan and, at the same time, helped the rulers, especially the Qianlong emperor, receive vast wealth from the lucrative salt business.40

These new salt monopoly policies in Jiangnan led to the rapid rise of Huizhou salt merchants in Qianlong’s reign. These merchants not only accumulated wealth but also obtained political privileges that they had been unable to accrue in the Ming. More importantly, the institutional changes created a new and dynamic emperor-merchant relationship. Both the Qianlong court and the Huizhou salt merchants constructed personal ties within the institution of the salt monopoly. While the emperor appointed his trusted bondservants as salt bureau officials to supervise salt monopoly affairs and fulfill the emperor’s requests, the Huizhou salt merchants established personal connections with the emperor’s bondservants by helping them on both fronts. The Qing salt monopoly system thus may be compared to a trellis: while the Manchu emperors and their officials ostensibly enforced their power through formal bureaucratic institutions, the complicated personal networks—growing like vines inside the system—allowed both the Manchu court and Jiangnan salt merchants to negotiate and pursue their own agendas.41

Historians have called attention to this connection.42 Ho Ping-ti takes note of the relationship between the Qianlong emperor and one wealthy salt merchant, Jiang Chun, in his classic study of Yangzhou salt merchants.43 In his illuminating analysis on the Qianlong emperor, Alexander Woodside describes how this “merchant-loving” emperor not only visited salt merchants’ homes when he was traveling in the Lower Yangzi area but also protected merchants’ privileges.44 Antonia Finnane notes that the imperial government bonded with the Yangzhou salt merchants through an examination system and imperial visits to Jiangnan.45 In her examination of the construction and renovation prepared for southern tours in eighteenth-century Yangzhou, Tobie Meyer-Fong demonstrates how the Qianlong emperor imbued Yangzhou’s landscape with his influence and imperial power, thereby tightening the relationship between this Jiangnan urban center and the capital. The salt merchants who financed and managed these projects played a role in mediating this relationship.46 By further focusing on Qianlong’s southern tours, Michael Chang has argued that the Qianlong court used salt merchants to counterbalance the social power of scholarly elites, seeking both to encourage and control the ascendance of commercial elites.47 This important scholarship has noted the new connections between the court and the Jiangnan salt merchants, demonstrating how the Qing emperors used these wealthy men to achieve the court’s economic and political agenda, but there has been no detailed research on how exactly these relationships worked and were constructed. Through which channels (e.g., institutional or personal, material or textual) did the merchants and the court connect? Moreover, while previous studies primarily discuss this relationship from the perspective of the court, such an approach, to some extent, elides the merchants’ own roles and muffles their voices. What role did the merchants play in their relationship with the Qianlong emperor and his bannermen and officials? What benefits did the merchants obtain through this relationship? The answer as to how and why these tradesmen established and maintained their network with the court, in other words, is unclear.

This book takes the perspective of Huizhou salt merchants and explores how these wealthy merchants used a wide range of objects to facilitate and strengthen their network with the Qianlong court. The “court” in this study refers to the Qianlong emperor, the bondservants of the Imperial Household Department, and the court officials. While on many occasions, the bondservants and officials followed the emperor’s orders, evidence also shows that in some cases they went counter to the emperor’s will. The “court,” in other words, was composed of members with agendas that sometimes differed. Nevertheless, the Huizhou salt merchants constructed direct and indirect relationships with these players and, at the same time, expanded their own influences in local society. They closely worked with the emperor’s bondservants, and even with the emperor in some occasions, to produce and procure refined furnishings for court use; at the same time they influenced the taste and style of luxury consumption in Jiangnan. They also spent tremendous wealth and energy to patronize genealogy and ancestral halls in Huizhou to enlarge their network with court officials, promoting luxury consumption in the countryside of Huizhou. In addition, they went through a complicated process to construct chastity arches to participate in the court’s cultivation project in their home villages, publicizing imperially recognized moral exemplars in the local community. Capitalizing on their ties to the court, therefore, the Huizhou salt merchants cast the net of their influence and connections widely. Consequently, they affected state policies, morality, taste, and consumption.

This crucial court-merchant relationship illuminates our understanding of the Manchus’ new strategies and their political influences in the cultural and economic heartland of the former Ming dynasty. The wide range of objects that these tradesmen procured or made—including fine furnishings, valuable arts, precious books, and chastity arches—demonstrates how the Huizhou salt merchants’ wealth, broad social networks, managerial skills, and refined tastes made them the perfect candidates to serve the court. The Manchu rulers not only incorporated the Huizhou salt merchants into the administration of the salt monopoly, but they also invited these wealthy businessmen, purposely or not, to participate in imperial projects, such as the Qianlong emperor’s massive court collections and moral cultivation campaigns. Through this court-merchant connection, the Qianlong emperor overcame the deficiencies of the formal bureaucratic structure, strengthened the emperor’s own control, and expanded the central government’s ruling power in both the urban centers of Jiangnan and the remote countryside of Huizhou.

Transforming Merchant Culture in High Qing

Analysis of Huizhou salt merchants’ network with the Qianlong court provides a new perspective through which we can examine merchants’ changing position in the High Qing. This issue has certainly been of interest to historians: previous scholarship has demonstrated how the political and economic changes from the late Ming to the High Qing led to the litarati’s more welcoming attitudes toward wealth and trade. The present book goes beyond this premise to posit the emergence of an unprecedented type of court-merchant relationship; to this end, it investigates the ways in which the new Manchu regime directly and indirectly reconfigured the social order, and the transformation the merchants’ position in society underwent as a consequence.48

From the late sixteenth century to the eighteenth century, more elites took paths outside officialdom for diverse reasons. Because of their disappointment with toxic court life and corrupt eunuch-dominated politics, the late-Ming elites alienated themselves from state bureaucracy and invested their energy into the welfare of local communities. The Manchu conquest advanced this trajectory. The Ming-Qing transition wars and the Manchu takeover, as Joanna Handlin Smith has argued, “loosened literati commitment to serving the state and drove scholars loyal to the Ming to forsake officialdom for other types of livelihoods.” In this context, “many writers questioned their political and social institutions and the values associated with them.”49 This trend further continued in the High Qing because the increasingly intensified tension between a growing population and the limited number of government posts forced many elites to look for alternative occupations other than being bureaucrats.

In the meantime, a changing monetary system altered attitudes toward wealth and the ideal social hierarchies. As Richard von Glahn argues in his classic analysis of the history of the god of wealth, the High Qing commercial economy demonstrated a feature of maturity and stability and thus “stood in marked contrast to the rapid oscillations between boom and bust that plagued the late Ming.”50 The concept of a god of wealth, in this context, transformed from a maleficent deity characterized by diabolical force to benign gods that became “a euhemerized embodiment of public and domestic virtue” in the eighteenth century. When the god of wealth “legitimated the prosperity enjoyed by the merchants who patronized its cult,” attitudes toward wealth shifted from anxiety to enjoyment.51 In reality, the revival of the economy after the brutal Ming-Qing transition, which galvanized the eighteenth-century commercial revolution, allowed more people to be involved in trade than ever before. By the mid-Qing era, more scholarly elite families involved themselves in commercial activities.52

The combination of these changes produced shifts in the relationship between literati and merchants. As Mary Rankin and Joseph Esherick have argued, from the late Ming to the mid-Qing era, “Literati disdain for mercantile activity eventually became more pro forma than real.” If the merchant class began to blur with scholarly elites in the late Ming, Rankin and Esherick suggest, “the social/cultural fusion of merchant and gentry elites was largely accomplished in the commercialized zones by the end of the eighteenth century.”53

This social reconfiguration provided a much more flexible and fluid space for merchants to be identified with their business background. The description of merchants’ lives in local histories and private writings began to show different features in the eighteenth century. The written records of Ming merchants often failed to mention merchants’ trading experiences and sometimes even left out their business background entirely. Unlike their predecessors, Qing merchants were more willing to identify or to be identified with their commercial activities. In the early Qing, for example, in the written record of merchant philanthropic activities these merchants’ identities became much more visible than those of the late-Ming businessmen.54

In addition to these political and economic changes, the new eighteenth-century salt monopoly policies also created spaces for the salt merchants to seek opportunities that benefited them directly. When the Huizhou salt merchants constructed relations, both material and personal, with the Qianlong emperor and his court, the merchants’ most powerful patron, this connection provided a new and powerful resource that they could use in order to gain legitimacy and recognition. These businessmen’s involvement in the salt monopoly system made them visible in the literati’s writing. The biographies composed for Huizhou salt merchants clearly point to these rich men as merchants (shang or gu in Chinese) and particularly acknowledge their assistance to court officials in managing the salt business in Jiangnan. The merchants’ participation in imperial projects also helped them receive honor from the court and win admiration from scholarly elites. For example, Wang Qishu, the famous bibliophile and Huizhou salt merchant in Hangzhou, constructed a personal relationship with the prominent court official Ji Yun (1724–1805), the chief editor of the Complete Library of the Four Treasuries (Siku quanshu), because of his contribution to the largest imperial book collection project in the Qing.

The specific scholarly environment in eighteenth-century China, the rise of the intellectual movement of substantive studies (shixue), also carved out a social space for merchants to legitimize their position. From the seventeenth to the mid-eighteenth centuries, many scholars participated in discussions of substantive learning, which developed from debates about the relationship between knowledge (zhi) and action (xing).55 The proponents of substantive learning staked out a position against what they called “empty talk” (kongtan) and advocated practicality (shijian), that is, putting thought into action. As William Rowe writes, “by the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, statecraft concerns had become linked to an initially separate scholarly movement promoting practical or substantive learning, emphasizing ritual-moral correctness and, somewhat incongruously, managerial technique that often appeared amorally pragmatic.”56

The advocacy of substantive learning nourished an admiration for salt merchants’ managerial skills and practical knowledge. These skills and knowledge were materially expressed through the objects that the merchants came into contact with and contracted for. For example, the refined zitan cabinet that satisfied Qianlong’s taste could be presented to the court because of the salt merchants’ ability to locate, purchase, and produce it. Likewise, the grand and sturdy stone arch could be erected only because of Wang Xun’s ability to find the right stone and hire skillful craftsmen. The success of producing these objects demonstrated these Huizhou salt merchants’ ability to put thought into practical action, helping them to obtain applause from the court and contemporary intellectuals.

Merchants and Consumption in Eighteenth-Century China

The period from the sixteenth century to the eighteenth century in Chinese history has been known for its economic prosperity and expanded consumption. Scholars refer to this period as a second commercial revolution.57 In doing so, they follow historians of Ming China who have masterfully demonstrated that new imported Mexican silver, accelerating regional and cross-regional markets, and growing interests in luxury consumption contributed to a commercial revolution in China, especially in the Lower Yangzi delta.58 This commercial revolution continued in the eighteenth century. After the brutal economic damage caused by the Ming-Qing transition wars, the Manchu rulers’ consolidation policies laid the groundwork for rapid economic revival. The Qing soon entered a “prosperous age” and became “possibly the most commercialized country in the world.”59 Luxury consumption quickly revived in the empire, especially in the Lower Yangzi area and in Beijing.

The study of luxury consumption in the late Ming has received particular scholarly attention.60 In his groundbreaking work, for instance, art historian Craig Clunas argues that “the creation of new types of luxury goods and their wide circulation, the idea of culture itself as a commodity, the degree of attention given to the specifics of luxury consumption over a broad range of writers, the decline of state sumptuary control, and the idea that there is positive benefit in such luxury consumption” characterize the late Ming as a consumer society. The fundamental transformation of consumption patterns in late Ming Jiangnan was an “invention of taste” through which elites attempted to discriminate among commodities by valuing and ranking “things.”61 In contrast to the rich discussion of consumption patterns in the late Ming, however, very few scholars have engaged in a close depiction of the characteristics of consumer society in the eighteenth century.62

Likewise, while scholars have noted that merchants were the main patrons of luxury goods, the question of merchants’ role in luxury consumption has not received the scholarly attention it deserves.63 Wen Zhenheng’s Treatise on Superfluous Things, as discussed earlier, demonstrates scholar-elites’ anxieties caused by the new wealth’s active participation in luxury consumption. Merchants’ interactions with different kinds of expensive and precious objects in the eighteenth century, as this book shows, revealed their continued enthusiasm for extravagant things. Wealthy merchants’ presence in luxury consumption, in other words, had been acknowledged by their contemporaries from the late Ming to the High Qing. This book thus aims to extend the analysis of luxury consumption into the eighteenth century and, in particular, to analyze merchants’ role in High Qing consumer society.

As the following chapters show, the Huizhou salt merchants’ connection with the court enabled them to play an important and, to some extent, a leading role in luxury consumption. In order to prepare refined tributary objects for the court’s use, the merchants devoted themselves to producing, procuring, and collecting valuable items. When these objects traveled between Beijing and Jiangnan, they facilitated an exchange of taste and style between the capital in the north and Jiangnan markets in the south. The Qianlong emperor and his taste became popular in the Jiangnan market through merchants’ consumption. At the same time, the merchants were able to establish themselves as trendsetters because of their familiarity with court style resulting from their close ties with the Qianlong emperor and his taste.

Going beyond their consumption activities in Jiangnan urban centers, the Huizhou salt merchants also found new sites of luxury consumption in the countryside. In the rural fields outside major metropolises, these merchants consciously and consistently transferred huge amounts of money accruing to them from favorable salt monopoly policies to their rural homeland of Huizhou in order to patronize lineage-related projects. They adorned their ancestral shrines with beautiful paintings and calligraphy, transforming routinized ritual buildings into highly decorated constructions with aesthetic taste. They also erected splendid chastity arches to display the moral behavior of their proud family members while participating in court-sponsored cultivation projects. These objects functioned in effect as luxury items sanctioned by Confucian moral example. While these commercial families displayed their business success in the form of luxurious monuments that celebrated lineage and family accomplishments and solidarity, they also furthered and strengthened connections with literati and officials in Jiangnan and Beijing via the cultural and moral implications embedded in these objects.

The circulation of these things therefore highlights salient triangular connections, both material and personal, between the capital of Beijing, Jiangnan urban centers, and the merchants’ native place of Huizhou. Not only did the actual objects facilitate these connections, but the Huizhou salt merchants’ production and consumption of these objects also propelled a reciprocal relationship among different regions and social groups involving capital, taste, reputation, and moral issues. To be sure, the changes in dynasties did not completely change the trajectory of luxury consumption in late imperial China. In the urban centers of eighteenth-century Jiangnan, such as Yangzhou and Hangzhou, merchants devoted themselves to cultural enterprises like collecting and art patronage, echoing the luxury consumption in the late Ming. However, a focus on merchants’ interaction with specific objects shows their new roles in commerce and consumption in the High Qing period. These changes in luxury consumption between the late Ming and High Qing illuminates our understanding of the second commercial revolution.

Chinese Merchant and Material Culture in the Early Modern World

Scholars of different cultures have applied material culture studies to exploring the past. The study of making, circulating, and consuming objects allows historians to examine the dynamic interaction between objects and people in different spaces and times in order to investigate interactions in consumer society, daily life, and global trade.64

Many of the merchant activities and social trends discussed in this book bear a revealing resemblance to counterparts in early modern Europe, such as the rapid rise of merchants, the emergence of merchant collectors, and the prominence of merchants as patrons of art. Like merchant collectors in eighteenth-century China, the wealthy businessmen of Europe, such as Hans Jacob Fugger (1516–1575), played an important role in the history of collecting.65 In explaining merchants’ rising influence and their interests in material objects, historians of China benefit by drawing inspiration from historians of Europe. For instance, when examining early modern Italian collectors’ devotion to collecting natural objects, Paula Findlen demonstrates that “travel, discovery, and collection all served to deepen one’s sense of identity.”66 How, I wonder, would the High Qing salt merchants have thought about their own identity in the context of their collecting obsession? Or was the question of identity even a concern? When Renata Ago analyzes the possessions owned by “the middling class” from seventeenth-century Rome, she argues that “it was not necessarily true that the end goal of this accumulation of objects was to transcend one’s social class and live like an aristocrat.”67 Ago’s challenge to the long-standing model of social emulation made me raise the question posed in this book: did the salt merchants of eighteenth-century China want to become only scholarly elites?

The patterns that emerged in China before the nineteenth century were partially caused by the growing economy and expanding trade that happened globally.68 Yet these phenomena cannot be divorced from specific local social structures, political environments, and cultural contexts. For instance, although being a collector became a phenomenon in eighteenth-century China and Europe alike, the concept of the “collector” (shoucangjia) emerged as a social category in China alone.69 The reasons behind the emergence of this social category lie in the political transformations from the Ming to the Qing dynasty, as well as the Manchu court’s empire-wide project to collect and classify books and objects, the links between which will be explored in this book.

As Dorothy Ko has argued, “While the meaning of Chinese history has to be sought in the unique context of China’s cultural and historical dynamics, its significance lies in what it can teach us about the shared richness of human experience” (emphasis in original).70 By providing this history of merchant culture in eighteenth-century China, this book enriches our understanding of the relationship between people and material objects in the eighteenth-century world—and perhaps also in the present.


1. Relying on imperial policies in court documents, records from gazetteers, my examination of the arch itself, and the information provided by local informants, I reconstructed this episode about how a Huizhou salt merchant built a chastity arch for his mother. For Lady Fang’s biography, see Lianghuai yanfa zhi [hereafter LHYFZ] (1806), 51:41a–b.

2. I chose the word “interact” here because it includes the meaning of various constructed relationships between people and objects: people not only viewed and touched arches but also thought about and made judgments based on the physical properties of objects. Scholars have used the term “interact” to describe human-object relationships. For instance, historian Leora Auslander has stated, “Historians can learn a great deal both from the objects with which people interact every day and from the insights that other disciplines bring to their study”: Leora Auslander, “Beyond Words,” American Historical Review 110, no. 4 (2005): 1044.

3. Susan Mann discusses the concept of the High Qing era in Precious Records: Women in China’s Long Eighteenth Century (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997), 19–20. Mann also traces the history of scholarly use and discussions of this term (236–237, footnote 1). I follow Mann’s dating scheme of this period, which derives from Frederic Wakeman, “High Ch’ing, 1683–1839,” in Modern East Asia: Essays in Interpretation, ed. James B. Crowley (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1970), 1–28.

4. Many scholars have argued that because of Huizhou’s natural environment, doing business became the best and most practical way for Huizhou people to survive. Huizhou merchants traded various kinds of objects, among which salt, timber, and tea were the major commodities. In general, scholars agree that the Huizhou salt merchants began to play an important role in the salt business in the late Ming. See Fan Jinmin, “Mingdai Huizhou yanshang shengyu Lianghuai de shijian yu yuanyin,” Anhui Shixue, no. 3 (2004): 5–11; Guo Qitao, Ritual Opera and Mercantile Lineage: The Confucian Transformation of Popular Culture in Late Imperial Huizhou (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), 15–19, 50–74.

5. Huizhou prefecture comprises six counties: She, Xiuning, Jixi, Yi, Qimen, and Wuyuan.

6. For statistics supporting the importance of total salt revenue of the Lianghuai and Liangzhe salt zones, see Yang Jeou-yi, “The Muddle of Salt: The State and Merchants in Late Imperial China, 1644–1911” (PhD diss., Harvard University, 1996), 97. See also Chen Feng, Qingdai yanzheng yu yanshui (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe, 1988), 74, 171.

7. The concept of merchants’ “scholarly counterparts,” whom I also refer to as literati or scholarly elites, was rather vague in the High Qing period. The decreasing ratio of official positions to exam candidates, as well as an increasingly expanding market system, led many educated male elites to take up different occupations, such as serving as secretaries or private tutors and sometimes even conducting business at some points in their lives. The term “scholarly counterparts” in this book refers to the people who were recognized through their appointments as officials or scholarly work or whose primary goal was to obtain appointments as officials through civil service examinations.

8. As scholars have indicated, merchants used various resources to “open arenas of activity outside the state-sanctioned paths of degree acquisition, office holding, and Confucian scholarship”; Joseph W. Esherick and Mary Backus Rankin, “Introduction,” in Chinese Local Elites and Patterns of Dominance, ed. Joseph W. Esherick and Mary Backus Rankin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 9.

9. Quoted in Michael G. Chang, A Court on Horseback: Imperial Touring and the Construction of Qing Rule, 1680–1785 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 244.

10. Li Dou, Yangzhou huafang lu (hereafter YZHFL; Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1960; reprinted in 2004), 166. Wang Yushu’s son, Wang Changxin, was a head merchant. For more information about the Wang family, see Ming Guang, “Cong Jiamei yuan dao Jiufeng yuan: Yangzhou yanshang shiren Wang Yushu fuzi kaolüe,” Yangzhou Daxue Xuebao 14, no. 4 (2010): 97–102. For more examples on the Qianlong emperor’s comments on merchants’ gardens, see YZHFL, 268.

11. YZHFL, 148–150. Ho Ping-ti translated the longer version of this paragraph in “The Salt Merchants of Yang-Chou: A Study of Commercial Capitalism in Eighteenth-Century China,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 17, no. 1–2 (1954): 155–156. I adopt Ho’s translation here with minor changes.

12. Ho, “The Salt Merchants,” 155.

13. Xu Chengyao, Sheshi xiantan (1936; reprint, Hefei: Huangshan shushe, 2001), 830–831.

14. I first heard the story about how the four wealthy salt merchants from the Huang family built the stone bridge “sanyuan” for their mother from local villager Huang Yaxian in May 2002. Huang called these four merchants “the four ingots” (sida yuanbao) because of their financial strength and their privileged status in the village. Later I found out that Li Dou also called these four merchants “four ingots” in his book. YZHFL, 290.

15. Ann Smart Martin, “Material Things and Cultural Meanings: Notes on the Study of Early American Material Culture,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, 53, no. 1 (1996): 5.

16. Anne Gerritsen and Giorgio Riello, “Introduction: Writing Material Culture History,” in Writing Material Culture History, ed. Anne Gerritsen and Giorgio Riello (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 2.

17. Martin defines objects as “complex bundles of individual, social, and cultural meanings grafted onto something that can be seen, touched, and owned.” She argues that objects “symbolize and communicate intangible ideas, build relationships, and proffer pleasure.” Ann Smart Martin, Buying into the World of Goods: Early Consumers in Backcountry Virginia (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 9. Archaeologist Ian Hodder also rejects the idea that material culture only reflects culture. Hodder argues that material culture “is imbedded in culture” and “it is symbolic, active, and communicative.” For a summary of Hodder’s argument, see Ann Smart Martin and J. Ritchie Garrison, “Shaping the Field: The Multidisciplinary Perspectives of Material Culture,” in American Material Culture: The Shape of the Field, ed. Ann Smart Martin and J. Ritchie Garrison (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997), 14–15.

18. Martin, Buying into the World, 9. Some scholars view artifacts as “reflections of culture.” They share the underlying premise that human-made objects have an inherent and attached value and that this value reflects the cultural beliefs of individuals who made or used these objects. By studying material productions, scholars can therefore “discover the beliefs—the values, ideas, attitudes and assumptions—of a particular community or society at a given time”: Jules David Prown, “The Truth of Material Culture: History or Fiction?,” in History from Things: Essays on Material Culture, ed. Steven Lubar and W. David Kingery (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), 1. Also see Jules David Prown, “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method,” Winterthur Portfolio 17, no. 1 (1982): 1–19. For a summary of views toward the relationship between objects and culture and the development of material culture studies, see John Kieschnick, The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 15–19.

19. Arjun Appadurai, “Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value,” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 5.

20. Igor Kopytoff formulated the concept of the “culturally informed economic biography” of an object, demonstrating how an object’s cultural status changes as the relationship between the object and the market shifts. Igor Kopytoff, “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process,” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 64–91. For the criticism of Kopytoff’s study of the social life of things, see Janet Hoskins, “Agency, Biography and Objects,” in Handbook of Material Culture, ed. Chris Tilley et al. (London: Sage, 2006), 74–84; and Judith Zeitlin, “The Cultural Biography of a Musical Instrument: Little Hulei as Sounding Object, Antique, Prop, and Relic,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 69, no. 2 (2009): 395–396.

21. Hoskins, “Agency,” 74.

22. Zeitlin, “The Cultural Biography,” 396.

23. For a summary of recent studies on material culture and history, see Gerritsen and Riello, “Introduction,” in Writing Material Culture History, 1–13; quotation is on 2. Some historians have even gone further and argue that “objects not only are the product of history, they are also active agents in history.” Auslander, “Beyond Words,” 1017. Jonathan Hay argues that luxury objects even “think with us materially” to create pleasure and in turn function as decoration: Jonathan Hay, Sensuous Surfaces: The Decorative Object in Early Modern China (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2010), 13, 61–89.

24. A contextual approach, proposed by Ian Hodder, might be useful for historians to study objects. See Martin and Garrison, “Shaping the Field,” 14–15.

25. For a detailed discussion of the fluidity of the status system, see Ho Ping-ti, The Ladder of Success in Imperial China: Aspects of Social Mobility, 1368–1911 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1962), 53–86.

26. Craig Clunas, Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991), 73.

27. I adopt Craig Clunas’s translation here (Superfluous Things, 74).

28. Clunas, Superfluous Things, 73.

29. Historians have argued that confusion between merchants and gentry certainly occurred in the Qing dynasty but remained incomplete. In this context, some literati “articulated an acute sense of social distinction between genuine ‘men of culture and learning’ (shidafu) and mere social climbers with money.” Michael Chang provides a nice summary on this matter: A Court on Horseback, 245–250; quotation is on 249.

30. For other descriptions of salt merchants’ luxury lifestyle, see YZHFL, 148–150. Ho Ping-ti cited this paragraph in The Ladder of Success, 158–159. As Ginger Cheng-chi Hsü claims, “This same passage is frequently used as a classic example of the conspicuous consumption of Chinese merchants in general.” Ginger Cheng-chi Hsü, A Bushel of Pearls: Painting for Sale in Eighteenth-Century Yangchow (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001), 14–15.

31. Michael Chang also argues that the Qianlong emperor characterized merchants as “accustomed to luxury and waste” to meet his own political agenda including appealing to scholarly elites: Chang, A Court on Horseback, 245–246.

32. Susan Mann, Local Merchants and the Chinese Bureaucracy, 1750–1950 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987): 70–93.

33. Most relevant to this study are Evelyn S. Rawski, “Reenvisioning the Qing: The Significance of the Qing Period in Chinese History,” Journal of Asian Studies 55, no. 4 (1996): 829–850; Pamela Crossley, A Translucent Mirror: History and Identity in Qing Imperial Ideology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); Mark C. Elliott, The Manchu Way: The Eight Banners and Ethnic Identity in Late Imperial China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001); and Joanna Waley-Cohen, “The New Qing History,” Radical History Review 88 (2004): 193–206.

34. Pamela Crossley argues that “in a universalist order of the sort constructed by the Qing,” the labeling of “Manchu” and “Chinese” is meaningless. However, she agrees that “portions of the institution derived from the khanship that arose in the northeast. They survived and were valued for what they were.” Therefore, she claims that “as universalists, the eighteenth-century Qing rulers, and the Qianlong emperor in particular, were cognizant of the diverse sources of their order and were meticulous in expressing them.” Pamela Crossley, “The Rulerships of China,” American Historical Review 97, no. 5 (1992): 1483.

35. Philip Kuhn, Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), 1–72, particularly 49–72.

36. Jonathan Spence, Ts’ao Yin and the K’ang-hsi Emperor: Bondservant and Master (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 166–212.

37. Chang, A Court on Horseback, 27.

38. Kuhn, Soulstealers, 51–59.

39. Alexander Woodside, “The Ch’ien-lung Reign,” in The Cambridge History of China, vol. 9, ed. John K. Fairbank (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 272–273.

40. Lai Hui-min discusses in detail how the Qianlong emperor and his Imperial Household Department strove to receive economic profits from Jiangnan salt merchants; sometimes the emperor even took the money that was supposed to go to the state. Lai Hui-min, “Qing Qianlong chao de yanshang yu huangshi caizheng,” in Ming Qing Dang’an yu lishi yanjiu guoji xueshu yantaohui lunwenji (Beijing: Xinhua chubanshe, 2008), 918–938. Preston Torbert also mentions the economic relationship between salt merchants and the Imperial Household Department. Preston Torbert, The Ch’ing Imperial Household Department: A Study of Its Organization and Principal Functions, 1662–1796 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), 103–110.

41. I borrow this metaphor from political scientist Andrew Nathan’s study on factionalism in the CCP’s politics. Andrew Nathan, “A Factionalism Model for CCP Politics,” The China Quarterly 53 (Jan.–Mar. 1973): 44. See also Ben Hillman, “Factions and Spoils: Examining Political Behavior Within the Local State in China,” The China Journal 64 (July 2010): 1–18.

42. Joseph Fletcher, “On Future Trends in Ch’ing Studies—Three Views,” Ch’ing-shih wen-t’i 4, no. 1 (1979): 105. Joseph Fletcher has already asked, “On whom, besides the emperor’s servants (eunuchs, bondservants, bannermen, and scholar-officials), did the emperor rely to support the interests of his central government against the interests of the landowners? . . . To what extent was the court in unacknowledged touch with merchants and other unofficial elements?” Scholars have also argued that the salt monopoly system provided a mechanism through which the wealthy Jiangnan salt merchants and the government could cooperate with each other. See Thomas A. Metzger, “The Organizational Capabilities of the Ch’ing State in the Field of Commerce: The Liang-Huai Salt Monopoly, 1740–1840,” in Economic Organization in Chinese Society, ed. William E. Willmott (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1972), 9–45.

43. Ho, “The Salt Merchants,” 159–161.

44. Woodside, “The Ch’ien-lung Reign,” 239–241, 272–273. Woodside argues that state economics fundamentally determined the ties between salt merchants and the emperor. The phrase “merchant-loving” appears on 267.

45. Antonia Finnane, Speaking of Yangzhou: A Chinese City, 1550–1850 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2004), 118–127.

46. Tobie Meyer-Fong, Building Culture in Early Qing Yangzhou (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 165–195.

47. Chang, A Court on Horseback, 219–259.

48. Tobie Meyer-Fong has pointed out the importance of understanding merchants’ changing positions in Manchu’s new regime. Tobie Meyer-Fong, “Review of A Bushel of Pearls: Painting for Sale in Eighteenth-Century Yangchow,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 62, no. 2 (2002): 466.

49. Joanna Handlin Smith, “Social Hierarchy and Merchant Philanthropy as Perceived in Several Late-Ming and Early-Qing Texts,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 41, no. 3 (1998): 417–451; quotation is on 423. Yu Yingshi also points out that the Ming-Qing transitions wars forced more elites to conduct business. See Yu Yingshi, Zhongguo jinshi zongjiao lunli yu shangren jingshen (Hefei: Anhui jiaoyu chubanshe, 2001), 208–209.

50. Richard von Glahn, “The Enchantment of Wealth: The God Wutong in the Social History of Jiangnan,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 51, no. 2 (1991): 714.

51. As Richard von Glahn argues, because of unstable currency and undeveloped social institutions that would accompany the economy’s rapid growth, the late-Ming Jiangnan economy “was robust, but also highly volatile.” In the eighteenth century, in contrast, the exploitation of Yunnan’s copper mines helped establish “the reliability of currency and stability of prices.” The growth of trade associations and welfare institutions provided necessary support to a growing and expanding market system. Richard von Glahn, “The Enchantment of Wealth,” 712–714.

52. Mary Backus Rankin and Joseph W. Esherick, “Concluding Remarks,” in Chinese Local Elites and Patterns of Dominance, 331.

53. Rankin and Esherick, “Concluding Remarks,” 331. Yu Yingshi discusses the elites’ changing attitudes toward merchants from the sixteenth century to the eighteenth century. Yu, Zhongguo jinshi, 191–217.

54. See Smith, “Social Hierarchy,” 420–426.

55. The discussion of the relationship between knowledge (zhi) and action (xing) began in the Song dynasty (960–1279) with Zhu Xi’s commentary on the Doctrine of the mean and grew fiercely controversial in the late Ming as disciples of Wang Yangming criticized Zhu Xi orthodoxy. For a detailed discussion of zhi-xing debate and shixue, see William Rowe, Saving the World: Chen Hongmou and Elite Consciousness in Eighteenth-Century China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001), 109–152, esp. 133–137.

56. William Rowe, China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2009), 59.

57. The first economic revolution lasted from the late Tang (618–907) to the Song dynasty (960–1279). From the late eighth century to the Song, China experienced steady population growth, a move away from strict government control of the marketplace, a corresponding increase in economic specialization and commercialization, an increase in interregional and foreign maritime trade, and rapid technological innovation and urbanization. Patricia Ebrey, Cambridge Illustrated History of China, 2nd edition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 141–144; and Joseph P. McDermott and Shiba Yoshinobu, “Economic Change in China, 960–1279,” in The Cambridge History of China, vol. 5, ed. John W. Chaffee and Denis Twitchett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 321–436.

58. Timothy Brook, The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

59. Rowe, China’s Last Empire, 122.

60. Craig Clunas, Superfluous Things; Joanna Handlin Smith, “Gardens in Ch’i Piao-chia’s Social World: Wealth and Values in Late Ming Kiangnan,” Journal of Asian Studies 51 (1992): 55–81; Li Wai-yee, “The Collector, The Connoisseur, and Late Ming Sensibility,” T’oung Pao second series, vol. 81, fasc. 4/5 (1995): 269–302; Wu Jen-shu, Pinwei shehua: Wan Ming de xiaofei shehui yu shidafu (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2008); Zhang Changhong, Pinjian yu jingying: Mingmo Qingchu huishang yishu zanzhu yanjiu (Beijing: Beijing daxue chubanshe, 2010).

61. Clunas, Superfluous Things, 171.

62. By focusing on the decorative arts for domestic consumption from the late Ming to the High Qing, Jonathan Hay has provided an illuminating discussion on how luxury objects interacted with human beings and functioned as a privileged source of pleasure. Hay, Sensuous Surfaces.

63. Joanna Handlin Smith has asked the question of merchants’ role in the late-Ming commercial revolution. She points out that “rich merchants may have introduced new consumption habits to the bureaucratic elite.” Joanna Handlin Smith, “Review of Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China,” Journal of Asian Studies 51 (1992): 885–887. Smith herself briefly discussed how a late-Ming salt merchant, Wang Ruqian, used his beautiful garden to gain access to literary circles. Smith, “Gardens,” 73–74. Several scholars have studied merchants’ patronage from the late sixteenth century to the eighteenth century. See Zhang Changhong, Pinjian yu jingying; Jason Chi-sheng Kuo, “Huichou Merchants as Art Patrons in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries,” in Artists and Patrons: Some Social and Economic Aspects of Chinese Painting, ed. Li Chu-tsing (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1989), 177–188; Jonathan Hay, Shitao: Painting and Modernity in Early Qing China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2001), 19–23, 42–50; and Hsü, A Bushel of Pearls, 17–63.

64. For a recent summary of material culture studies in the early modern period (1500–1800), see Paula Findlen, “Early Modern Things: Objects in Motion, 1500–1800,” in Early Modern Things: Objects and Their Histories, 1500–1800, ed. Paula Findlen (New York: Routledge, 2013), 3–27.

65. Mark Meadow, “Merchants and Marvels: Hans Jacob Fugger and the Origins of the Wunderkammer,” in Merchants and Marvels: Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe, ed. Pamela Smith and Paula Findlen (London: Routledge, 2001), 182–200.

66. Paula Findlen, Possessing Nature, Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 294.

67. Renata Ago, Gusto for Things: A History of Objects in Seventeenth-Century Rome, trans. Paula Findlen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 8.

68. In the past decade, many historians have explored global interactions by looking at how commodities were made, circulated, and consumed across national boundaries and even continents. Following are a few examples: Timothy Brook, Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (London: Bloomsbury, 2008); Caroline Frank, Objectifying China, Imagining America: Chinese Commodities in Early America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011); Anne Gerritsen and Giorgio Riello, “Spaces of Global Interactions: The Material Landscapes of Global History,” in Writing Material Culture History, 111–133.

69. I thank Paula Findlen and Alex Stateman for their very helpful discussions on collecting and commercialization in early modern Europe. This concept of “collector” will be discussed in detail in Chapter 3.

70. Dorothy Ko, Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in Seventeenth-Century China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), 25.