March 02, 2006

Hankow: Commerce and Society in a Chinese City, 1796-1889, William T. Rowe

Rowe was writing to demonstrate that Weber and his followers were wrong about many factual matters in late imperial Chinese urban society. This implies that Weber etc. may not have proven their theories about ?what's necessary for industrial capitalism to emerge?. Personally, since we only have the one case of i.c. actually emerging, the rest of the world having caught it like a flame or a disease, I'm dubious that we could possibly prove any such theories, so I'd rather have detailed descriptions with some narrative verve. I read this as a bridge between Fernand Braudel and Hong Kong wushu movies, and it was good dry fun.

Most of it details the kinds of organizations that formed in Hankow while it was the trading center for much of China (the comparable US city is Chicago, for its commodities, its transshipping, and its distance from governmental and banking centers). I gather that Weber believed that China never had a bourgeois consciousness, never had a group of burghers who could run their city for mercantile ends. On Rowe's description, this is pretty easy to refute; merchant families lived for generations in their chosen cities, built mansions and institutions, sent sons into officialdom, organized and died in militia defenses. Weber was perhaps misled by the legal identification of everyone with a home village. Rowe points out that many families moved their legal identification to their trading cities, and some went back and forth or even maintained two (illegally) to gain advantages in the school districts (apparantly also a constant of capitalist/mercantilist societies?).

What strikes me more, but I don't remember Rowe mentioning, is that the spoken language from distant regions of China was mutually incomprehensible or nearly so [check this]. Of course people would seek out language communities, as the Knights Templar sorted themselves into langues. However, they were also sorting themselves into trade communities, often starting as "rope traders from Shansi" or something, and the trade communities tended to grow and join into the all-Hankow rope organization. The trade communities were usually recognized by the government, and seem to have spent much of their time on weights & measures and on market organization. (Also they had tremendous feasts and built glorious theaters and guild halls.) A third-generation Hankow merchant might have belonged to both a regional and a trade association, in which case perhaps Hankow invented matrix management.

There's a whole other argument I would like to see about the different interaction between "divine right of kings" and "mandate of heaven" and commerce. The imperial government seems to have had, in theory, a more practical and friendly attitude towards trade than Europe's governments had had in the, say, sixteenth century; I can't tell if they were as mercantilist [even in a loose sense] as England's government was at the time. If so, why did England so reliably have the whip hand? Lots of this book is about the English, mostly, traders forcing themselves progressively deeper into China, and misunderstanding some of the organizations they were dealing with, and pulling huge swaths of agriculture from food production into the world tea market and then decamping for Indian tea.

Braudel has some hypotheses about why Europe won in A History of Civilizations, I think, but I can't remember his conclusion.

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Posted by clew at 10:27 PM
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