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Mercantile Activity in Lin-An (today's Hangzhou (Quinsay)) ca. 1275

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  • kitmengleong
    Extract from Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion 1250-1276 by Jacques Gernet (translated from French by H. M. Wright), pp 84-88 The passion
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 22, 2007
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      Extract from "Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion
      1250-1276" by Jacques Gernet (translated from French by H. M. Wright),
      pp 84-88

      The passion for luxury and pleasure was particularly strong in
      Hangzhou. It was there that the court, the very high officials and the
      richest merchants had their residence. No other town had such a
      concentration of wealth. The riches and elegance of the upper classes
      and of the prosperous merchants account for the importance of the
      luxury trade. Celebrated products which were the specialities of
      various towns were on sale in the shops in the centre of the city,
      either on or just off the Imperial Way. Silks from Suzhou could be
      found there, lacquers made at Wenzhou on the south coast of Zhejiang,
      jasmine in pots which came by sea from the provinces of Fujian and
      Guangdong, fans made at Nanchang, a town situated to the south-west of
      Lake Buyang, between 4 and 5 miles from Hangzhou, renowned rice-wines
      produced in the provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu.

      Hangzhou itself was celebrated for its makers of jewellery, of hair
      ornaments in gold and in silver, of artificial flowers of combs, ob
      necklaces and pendants of pearls. Children's toys, gold brocades and
      printed books were among Hangzhou's specialities. An inhabitant
      obligingly describes for us every one of the renowned products which
      could be obtained in the city, but we shall not follow him into every
      detail. It will suffice for us to know that the best rhnoceros skins
      were to be found "at Chien's, as you go down from the canal to the
      little Qinghu lake", the finest turbans "at Kang Number 8's, in the
      street of the Worn Cash-coin" or "at Yang Number 3's, going down the
      canal after the Three Bridges". The best place for buying works of
      literature was at the bookstalls under the big trees near the
      summer-house of the Orange Tree Garden. Finally, one could get wicker
      cages in Ironwire Lane, ivory combs at Fei's, folding fans and painted
      fans at the Coal Bridge.

      The shops and workshops that specialized in well-known products made
      every effort to keep up their reputation. Some of them had been
      established for over a century.

      We must also remember the very great number of small shopkeepers who
      sold articles of everday use to the common people: cloth, dried fish,
      noodles, candles, soya sauce, etc. In contrast to the well-known
      specialist shops and workshops, these little grocery shops did not
      usually employ any staff, but were looked after by the family of the
      managers or owners.

      That there was an artificial overdevelopment of commercial activity in
      Hangzhou was clear. What we known of the prices fetched for the sale
      of shop premises points to an extreme scarcity of capital. In the 12th
      century, 25 strings of cash sufficed for the purchase of a small
      grocery business. This is a very modest sum when one realizes that the
      cash was the smallest monetary unit used in the markets. On the other
      hand, profits were high: a profit of 1% on the capital per day was
      considered normal. This economic situation was obviously very hard on
      the common people and had besides resulted in an excessive
      proliferation of shops, to which neither the government not the guilds
      seemed able to put a stop. Well-to-do family in the upper circles of
      society did not hesitate to buy a business for a son who had failed in
      the final examination, if the family influence was not powerful enough
      to get him a small government post. These shopkeepers-by-accident were
      known in the town by the name of "mandarin" (guanren), and they were
      apparently occupied in the more exclusive trades. One did not let a
      young man of good family end up as a butcher or a noodle-merchant, but
      as a pharmacist, a bookseller, a "brusher of teeth" (which probably
      meant a dentist) or a vendor of the special caps with long "ears" worn
      by scholars.

      Yet houever great the amount of this small-scale trade might be, the
      main part of Hangzhou's commerce consisted in the provisioning of its
      inhabitants, so vast in number for that period. We have seen that
      there were about fifteen big markets out side the ramparts for the
      main articles of consumption. The rice-trade alone, which, we may
      recall dealt each day in several hundred tons of this cereal, provided
      occupation for a whole crowd of big dealers, agents, shopkeepers,
      porters, makers of scaks. It was a most complex organization, and yet,
      according to one inhabitant of the town, everything went without a
      hitch and without disputes, despite the scale of operations. The
      varieties of rice were countless, and it was quite an art to be
      conversant with all of them. Let us mention, among other kinds, the
      early and late varieties, new-milled rice, husked winter rice, first
      quality white rice, rice with lotus-pink grains, yellow-eared rice,
      rice on the stalk, ordinary rice, glutinous rice, ordinary yellow
      rice, short stalked rice, pink rice, yellow rice and old rice. The
      wholesale and retail trades were separate, and the same was probably
      the case for other articles of main consumption such as pork and fish.
      "Let us now speak," says the author of a description of Hangzhou in
      1275, "about the shops of the rice-merchants in the city and in the
      suburbs. Each shop-owner consults the heads of his guild about market
      prices. It is they who are the direct suppliers of the rice (which has
      been ordered from them), and it goes on sale immediately. The
      shopkeepers (receive their deliveries before paying for them and) come
      to an arrangement with the heads of the guild about the date of
      payment. BUt there are also small agents who attend the markets and
      operate a personal delivery service to their clients, the shopkeepers.
      There is also, outside one of the gates of the city, a rice-market
      (nearer to the centre of the city than the big rice-market) where a
      cluster of 30 to 40 agents do business with their clients and take
      their orders.

      Merchants, artisans and member of all professions were grouped into
      guilds similar to that which existed for the rice-rade. There was an
      amazing variety of these guilds: jewellers, cutlers, gilders,
      gluemakers, dealers in antiques and objets d'art, dealers in crabs,
      olives, honey, ginger... Even the doctors, soothsayers and scavenger
      had their guilds. Some of the trade bore fanciful names. The
      bootmakers, for instance, were called "the companions of the double
      thread", the keepers of bathing establishments "the companion of
      fragrant water", and the jewellers "the companions of the abrasive
      powder".

      Local guilds of this kind often corresponded to the actual grouping
      together of certain trades in particular districts of the city, and
      term for guilds was originally applied othe streets in a market where
      all the merchants or artisans belonging ot the same trade were to be
      found. In Hangzhou some trade were still localized in one particular
      part of the city. Thus, the stretch of the Imperial Way which lay
      between the Sweet Harmony district and distrcit known as
      South-of-the-markets was called the "pearl-market" because of the
      large number of jewellers' shops in this neighbourhood. Further north,
      between the Five-span Pavilion and Officials' Lane was the
      money-changers' quarter. Their shops occupied both sides of the
      streets. There they dealt in precious metals, salt-exchange bills and
      other kinds of promissory notes. They displayed, piled up on their
      stalls, articles in gold and silver and also copper coins.

      Those trades which were not grouped together in the same street had
      their guilds nevertheless, for these were numerous advantages in
      forming an association of this kind. Each one was presided over by a
      "head" or a "dean", and they exercised a general control over their
      members, came to the aid of those in need or who had no family, and
      insisted upon each member's absolute integrity. Arab merchants who
      visited China int he 9th century or later were unanimous in extolling
      the honesty of the Chinese merchants. "The Chinese," says one of them,
      "are scrupulously honest in the matter of money transactions and of
      debts". And Marco Polo for his part is of the opinion that "both in
      their commercial dealings and in their manufactures they are
      thoroughly honest and truthful". No one ever went back on his word,
      and in so far as manufacture of goods was concerned, the State saw to
      it that certain standards were complied with. Since the guilds were
      religious associations of a kind, or at least associations modelled on
      the same pattern, they had their annual feast-days in honour of their
      patron saints, who might be legendary being or deified heroes. On such
      occasions, the members met together for a banquet, towards which each
      member tcontributed his quota, and they exhibited their chefs-d'oeuvre.

      One of the principle advantages of forming trade guilds was that they
      provided merchants and artisans with a means of regulating their
      relations with the State. It was to the heads of guilds that
      government authorities applied when making requisitions of any kind,
      whether of goods from the shops or of artisans from the workshop. In
      this way, official intermediaries ensured that fair prices and fair
      wages were paid.
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