China’s Confucius Merchants

In Chinese business world, there is a word that used to be very popular and now starts to regain public attention. That is the word “rushing (儒商)”, meaning Confucius Merchants.

Why It Is Confucius Merchant Not Confucius Entrepreneur?

A merchant business: a store selling clothes

A merchant business: a store selling clothes, illustrated for the novel The Plum in the Golden Vase by an artist of Ming Dynasty

Some Chinese scholars prefer to translate “rushang” into English as “Confucius Entrepreneur”. This term may have a better echo to the contemporary Chinese business reality, but is not what rushang originally meant in China.

Entrepreneurs are the people running businesses, which could be someone who has a factory producing bamboo furniture or someone who owns a store selling bamboo furniture.

Historically in China, products producers (tradesmen) were strictly distinguished from the products traders (merchants), and the former was highly esteemed while the latter was socially suppressed.

Why Chinese Merchants Want to Associate with Confucius?

Ladies of the elite families in ancient China were normally culture lovers

Ladies of the elite families in ancient China were normally culture lovers — a color ink painting by an artist of Ming Dynasty

In the classic Chinese era, elite households were the families with a member who passed state examination hence obtained a title of scholar, or those with a royal connection, while for the merchants, no matter how rich they might be, their status were considered as beneath that of the peasants and tradesmen. These people were prevented from working at government office, and their sons were ineligible to participate in scholarly examinations to become a government official.

It was a desperate measure to keep the Chinese society away from being influenced by a profit-chasing mentality, and it was also a policy designed to encourage the development of the real economy.

For improving their social status, the merchants arranged part of the family members to be peasants, and educated themselves and some of the sons working in commerce with Confucius teachings, in order to become ethically more conscious therefore more acceptable by the society.

“With The Analects (Confucius classics) in one hand and an abacus (a traditional Chinese calculator) in the other” was the motto of the “Confucius Merchants”.

A Story of Two Confucius Merchant Families

Like many merchants in ancient China, while doing business in large cities to earn big money, Mr Wang and Mr Hu, two successful merchants of the Ming Dynasty, preferred their families to live in mountain villages Hongcun and Xidi as humble peasants. Such arrangement had a lot of merits.

First of all, their grandsons would be eligible to take scholarly exams and became officials, thus elevated family to an elite class (in classic Chinese era, money couldn’t buy everything).

And second, trading and banking were (and still are) risky businesses. Many Chinese merchants would build houses and buy farmlands in quiet rural areas once they earned some money, hence if one day they got bankrupt, they could still have somewhere to go to.

All the objectives were late proven to be well served for these 14th century merchants. One of the Hu descendants passed state-level exam and became a high official, for which a stone memorial archway at the entrance to Xidi was erected by royal decree.

A traditional Chinese street in Anhui. 

A traditional Chinese street in Anhui. The shop in the front right is selling writing brushes.

Tunxi Old Town, not far from Hongcun and Xidi, is a typical Chinese town that serves as a social and commercial centre for the surrounding villages.

Because of a large number of “Confucius Merchants” in southern Anhui like Wang and Hu families who were both scholarly and rich, the region’s stationery business was booming. Brushes, ink sticks, inkstone and paper – known as four treasures in a studio – produced in Anhui are regarded as the best in China.

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