No Town without a Hui Merchant

2010-12-08 作者: China Today   信息来源: China Today

Hui merchants were one of the ten powerful merchant groups in China during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911), and exerted a strong influence in the country’s business circles for about 300 years. It is said that it was natural in the past for most Huizhou male adults to choose business and trade as their means to make a living because Huizhou was a mountainous area with limited arable land and overabundant manpower. Hui merchants rose to commercial prominence as early as the middle of the Ming Dynasty and maintained this status to the end of Emperor Qianlong’s reign (1736-1796) in the Qing Dynasty. During that period of time over 70 percent of Hui males were engaged in business and Hui merchants topped all the merchant groups across China in terms of their population, economic power and the spectrum of their trading activities. Their traces can be found everywhere around the country, and a saying even went: “there is no town without a Hui merchant.”

Their business was mainly tied to the trade in salt, tea and wood, but included pawn-broking; the tea business is still flourishing today. Huizhou has been a famous Chinese tea production area since the Tang Dynasty (618-907), with three of the Ten Great Chinese Teas being produced here, namely Huangshan Maofeng, Houkui Tea of Taiping County and Keemun Black Tea. Its thriving tea business was due in part to the fine natural environment which guaranteed the tea quality, and in part to the efforts of Hui merchants. By the end of Emperor Qianlong’s reign of the Qing Dynasty, Huizhou merchants’ tea was the most popular foreign export. The following two figures might demonstrate the relative economic power of Hui merchants at the time: the total assets of the Hui merchants who engaged in salt trading in Yangzhou reached 40 million taels of silver, while the national treasury altogether held around 70 million taels of silver.

Hui merchants were deeply influenced by Confucianism. Guided by Confucian philosophy, they valued honesty and morality in their business dealings. They made profits based on the Yi rules (Yi in Confucianism means duty or righteous behavior), and paid strict attention to learning new things and accumulating experience. Education, and repayment of one’s hometown were righteous activities by the standards of successful Hui businessmen. After they had made their fortunes and returned home, they were bent on establishing academies and schools and involving themselves with projects in the public good. But no matter how rich they became, the traditions of diligent accounting and thrift prevailed all their lives; most Hui merchants started their business from nothing and they firmly believed that spendthrifts could never build up family wealth.

In the late Qing Dynasty change came about: due to a series of unfavorable policies adopted by the Qing government, the keen market competition fueled by foreign counterparts, and the impediment of traditional but backward operation methods, the businesses run by Hui merchants were gradually eclipsed. Today only Tunxi Old Street, with its many old and well-preserved shops, vividly evokes images of the prosperity they once knew here. Situated in Tunxi District of Huangshan City and dating back hundreds of years, this is one of the best-preserved pedestrian commercial thoroughfares in China. Its construction was initiated in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and it gradually evolved into Huizhou trading center during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Many beautiful old shops still stud both sides of the street, with their backyards used as workshops or residences.

Over ten time-honored brands still exist on Tunxi Old Street, including the Tongrende (a traditional Chinese medicine seller that opened in 1863 in the Qing Dynasty), and the Yubutou Tea House (engaged in tea production and sale since 1875 in the Qing Dynasty). Visitors wandering along the street can find various products that bear the imprints of the Hui culture, including teas, ink, ink-stones, bamboo carvings, brick carvings and woodblock prints.