3: Commerce, Conquest, and Quotas: Migrants and the State in Nineteenth-Century South China
Friday, March 25, 2022
3:30pm – 5:00pm EST
Virtual Paper Presenter(s)
Steven B. Miles
Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, Hong Kong
Centered on the West River basin, this paper explores the evolving range of interactions between the Qing state and Cantonese men who moved along this important corridor linking the two provinces of far southern China. Using biographical and prosopographical examples of Cantonese active in the city of Guiping, the central transportation hub of Guangxi, I show how the range of possible interactions expanded during the nineteenth century, particularly across the disorderly mid-century divide.
Before the mid-century unrest, elite Cantonese merchants forged a cooperative relationship with Qing provincial and local officials, who generally supported Cantonese commercial interests in Guangxi. Social disorder at mid-century offered new possibilities for migrants from more marginal geographical and social spaces within the Cantonese homeland: entrepreneurs of violence sold protection, conducted piracy, and founded a rebel regime that nearly conquered the entire province, while some of their peers rose to prominence by joining the Qing reconquest of Guangxi in the 1860s. During the ensuing decades of reconstruction, quotas—both the new lijin tax and the expanded examination system—simultaneously drove Qing state building and Cantonese migration, as the institutions and credentials of the Qing state provided expanded means of socioeconomic advancement.
Representing points along a spectrum from non-state actors to state agents, Cantonese migrants who sought their fortunes in Guiping illustrate different types of overlapping and conflicting interests with the Qing state. Particularly during a period of social unrest and political instability, physical mobility though riparian space provided an arena in which such interests could be renegotiated.