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In Session: Markets, Imperial Politics and Trans-Mobility
Markets in People in Late-Qing Siyi, 1850-1920
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
12:00pm – 1:30pm EDT
Stanford University, United States
From the mid-nineteenth century, most Chinese laborers bound for American and Canadian railroads, Australian mines, and Caribbean plantations poured out of the Pearl River Delta’s “Four Counties” or Siyi region. Siyi played a unique role as the central node on a vast overseas commercial and migratory network, while also remaining subject to the involutionary pressures of the late-Qing peasant economy. As the regional economy became ever more commercialized over the period of mass outmigration and concurrent rise of a remittance economy, Siyi saw the rise of elaborate markets in goods and land – and in people. A trade in prisoners and hostages from endemic interlineage and interethnic warfare fed the so-called “coolie trade” to North America, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia; meanwhile, desperate households sold both sons and daughters into a regional network of brokers and middlemen. Drawing on Qing and Republican legal records, Overseas Chinese periodicals, and newly available contracts for the sale of children, this paper will trace how the shipping networks, labor markets, and maritime empires of the Pacific world intersected with the longstanding habits, institutions, and pressures of the Qing economy to shape a market in people that transformed local and regional configurations of power and economic clout. In mapping this market and exploring the lives of those it ensnared, this project will contribute to our understanding of the complex interplay of the local and trans-Pacific forces of change that came together in Siyi, profoundly impacting the nature of China’s integration into the Pacific world.