The term Jinshang is a tribute given to these Shanxi merchants for their achievements in building China’s commercial culture. Although they lived in closed residences, their sense of business possibility was not restricted.
Early in the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476BC), China was still an agricultural society with an undeveloped commodity economy. Salt, at that time, was a necessity in people’s daily lives, moreover, it was the most important commodity. In virtue of the abundant salt produced in Shanxi, the earliest Shanxi merchants arrived on the historical stage.
However, it was during the Ming and Qing dynasties that the Jinshang reached their period of great prosperity. Their footsteps not only covered China but reached Japan, Southeast Asia, Arabia and Europe. Their business interests ranged from salt, iron, cotton, silk and tea to various financial endeavours, including pawnshops, private banks and account bureaux.
In China’s long history, agriculture was always regarded as primary activity while engaging in commerce was despised. “But once we have a better idea of Shanxi’s social situation in the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), we will be clear about why Shanxi people went against the common social practice and into business,” said professor Xing Long from Shanxi University.
The population of Shanxi had reached 4 million in the early Ming Dynasty, which was equal to the population of Hebei and Henan provinces.
On the other hand, Shanxi was a place lacking in land. The contradiction between a large population and poor land with few natural resource forced many people out of Shanxi to acquire what they needed in life by doing business.
Relying on nothing but their primitive vehicles, Shanxi merchants criss-crossed much of China about 400 years ago.
But in a society deficient in efficient commercial regulations, it was not easy for just a few people to achieve great success in their business. What held Shanxi merchants together and made them a strong force was their common adoration of Guan Yu, a respected general of the State Shu in the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-280). In the commercial halls established by Shanxi merchants, a place to worship Guan Yu could always be found. They adored Guan Yu not simply for his military talents but for his loyalty and honesty, which were two crucial virtues for doing business.
Wang Xian was a wealthy Shanxi merchant, who once went home to visit his family after succeeding in a business venture. When he discovered the fraudulent business practices of his family members, he brought all of them to the Guan Yu Temple and examined their measuring rods in front of the image of Guan Yu.
In his later years, Wang ascribed his success in business to four Chinese characters “Yi Yi Zhi Li以义制利”, meaning being loyal and honest was more important than making money. Wang’s words had a great influence on many Shanxi merchants. They began to regard doing business as no less important than being scholars or officials.
Until the late Qing Dynasty Shanxi merchants still monopolized a number of commercial activities in China. For instance, it was through the development of trade between China and Russia that Kyakhta near the Russian-Mongolian border grew up into a thriving commercial city.
And this trade was for a long time monopolized by Shanxi merchants. However, this strong commercial group approached the end of its days just as China entered the modern era.
On their way to success, most Jinshang dared to go forth from their closed residences, traveling from one place to another to expand their businesses. But when their wealth had been accumulated, they would rather maintain what they inherited from their predecessors than restart new businesses.
They seldom invested their money in modern industry. Much of their money was buried in the ground or used to build luxurious residences.
During the War of Resistance against Japan (1937-45), a great deal of silver was found buried on Qiao family property by the Japanese army. China’s traditional culture greatly influenced the merchants’ ways of dealing with wealth.
In the traditional culture, merchants was placed at the bottom of the whole social body. Any conception related to profit was discriminated against by the common social ethics, which hindered the further development of these merchants.
Today, the luxurious residences left by the Jinshang have become attractive tourist sites. Surrounded by strong brick walls, most of the rooms in these mansions have no windows. This kind of closed architecture is very suggestive of a closed psychology, perhaps providing additional clues as to why this once dynamic social group finally disappeared from the historical stage.