Abstract: The Contingent Business Relationship That Soured: Shanxi "Piaohao" and the Qing Dynasty, 1850s-1911

Luman Wang


Shanxi "piaohao" (remittance firms) originated from a hinterland province, yet conducted enormous interregional remittance transactions for big merchants and the central and provincial governments of the Qing dynasty in both coastal and hinterland regions, from the 1820s to the 1910s. My study of piaohao contributes a distinct case study to the interaction between the central state and Chinese merchants in late imperial China. The piaohaos' unique interaction with the Qing dynasty—serving without being regulated—was possible only when the empire required less financial sovereignty. After the Qing transformed into a modern nation-state at the turn of the twentieth century, however, piaohao could no longer maintain their semi-public, semi-private financial status while still serving the state without being supervised. Historians have either focused on the self-interested and volatile policies of the Qing dynasty toward merchants, and hence the danger of over-dependence on the government, such as the grain merchants in the eighteenth century, and the Tianjin salt merchants during the eighteenth to the early twentieth century; or on the self-made merchants who could achieve production and technological breakthroughs without getting involved with the government, such as the salt producers from Sichuan province in the late nineteenth century. In contrast, Shanxi piaohao distinguished from all of the aforementioned cases by standing midway between overreliance on and independence from the Qing. Different from the Tianjin salt merchants who could not gain profits without the government, piaohao accumulated the initial financial capital and established interregional financial networks through overland trading activities. Furthermore, they not only turned down the financial offers of the state, but also rejected the state's financial regulation at the turn of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, unlike the salt producers in Sichuan described by Madeleine Zelin, piaohao would not have risen to national prominence if they had not provided remittance services for the Qing government.