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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Branching Out: Studying Social Networks in Chosŏn Korea and Qing China
4: Managing Family from Afar: Gu Wenbin’s Manuals of Eternal Success
Monday, March 22, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
Princeton University, United States
How to serve and benefit from a public office? What investment yields the best returns in economic, social and cultural capital? How to maintain one’s patronage networks? The four-occupation classification of subjects --- scholars, peasants, artisans, and merchants --- had had a long history in premodern China as fundamental categories in making legislations and allocating social roles; but rapid changes in politics and socio-economic institutions since the Taiping wars saw important changes in the social ladder. A new kind of hybrid elite that crossed the boundaries of officials, gentry, and businessmen became the new norm. Contrary to the old gentry whose power derived from the state, new elites depended on the recognition of the local community for power. Challenging the amateur ideal, a hybrid elite combined expertise in local administration of clerks/runners with the national networks of an official. Some of them, like Gu Wenbin, even had an international perspective.
During his tenure as the Circuit Intendent of Ningbo (1871-75), Gu sent hundreds of letters to his son. These letters documented how he influenced his families in Suzhou, his business empire, as well as regional and national politics. Through a close reading of the letters and diaries of Gu Wenbin, this paper discusses the strategies designed by Gu for his descendants to bridge the gap from being old elites at top of the social ladder to an indispensable part of the new order.