Hui Merchants

 

Like the Wall Street stockbrokers of today, the Hui merchants were once renowned as some of the savviest businessmen in China. The term “Hui merchants” typically refers to any businessmen that hailed from the six counties of She, Xiuning, Qimen, Yixian, Jixi, and Wuyuan, which belonged to an ancient region known as Huizhou. Their rise to prosperity began during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), when the imperial capital was relocated from northern Kaifeng to the southern city of Lin’an (modern-day Hangzhou) in Zhejiang province. Since Huizhou was located in a focal place between the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang, this meant that trade via road or river to the imperial capital was suddenly far more viable for the local people. In short, it was the capital that gave them capital!

The shortage of fertile land in the region and the overabundance of manpower meant that many farmers in Huizhou simply became merchants because they needed to make ends meet. Little did they know that their legacy would echo through the ages! They were not skilled merchants and thus their success is all the more admirable, as it was primarily due to their painstaking efforts. Initially they engaged in the trade of almost any product they felt was profitable, including tea, grain, salt, silk, wood, and paint. Fortunately for them, Huizhou boasted the ideal climate for growing and producing several famous teas, including Huangshan Maofeng and Qimen Black Tea. By the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), over 70 per cent of the population in Huizhou was made up of merchants!

After they had amassed a substantial fortune, they were able to open teahouses, restaurants, hotels, and pawnshops. During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), it was even rumoured that there wasn’t a single pawnbroker in China who wasn’t from Huizhou and that there was no place too far for Hui merchants to expand their business. They also began concentrating their efforts on manufacturing high quality goods, such as the “Four Treasures of the Study”. These four treasures, known as the writing brush, the Huizhou ink stick, the She ink slab, and Xuan paper, are still widely sold throughout the provinces of Anhui and Jiangxi to this day.

At the peak of their prosperity, they extended their influence east towards Jiangsu province, west to the provinces of Yunnan, Guizhou, and Gansu, north towards Liaoning province, and south to the provinces of Fujian and Guangdong. Once they had established their mercantile empire in China, they sailed forth to Japan, Thailand, and numerous Southeast Asian countries. It was said that their footsteps were left on almost half of the globe!

During this time, it was common for children of Hui merchants to begin their career as apprentices at the tender age of 13 and be doing business all over China by the age of 17. Talk about starting them young! They had achieved an almost mythical status, with the Hui Chronicle describing the average Hui merchant as “properly dressed, well-spoken, fully aware of price, knowing when is the good time to buy and sell, and getting extra profits from selling local goods in other places”. Unfortunately, there was one major downside to this otherwise profitable profession. According to traditional Confucian principles, merchants ranked as one of the lowest occupations in the social hierarchy.

In order to improve their social standing, many Hui merchant families invested in a good education for their children, so as to increase the possibility of them becoming scholars or government officials. Thanks to these venerable efforts, over 2,000 people from Huizhou passed the imperial examination and were able to obtain an official position during the Ming and Qing dynasties. This gave rise to a number of local sayings, such as “both father and son as ministers” or “three generations of imperial courtiers”. While these high ranking positions improved the social standing of the Hui merchant families, they also allowed these families to exert a considerable amount of political influence over the imperial government. After all, the long-term strategy of these families was to “provide funds for academic pursuits with business profits, get political positions through academic pursuits, and ensure business profits from the political positions”.

This may sound rather Machiavellian, but the Hui merchants were actually renowned for their strict moral code. They valued honesty and felt that cheating their customers would only damage profits in the long-term, as they would develop an unfavourable reputation. They ensured that their products were always of the best quality and refused to buy anything that they thought fell short of their exceptionally high standards. Once their wealth and fame had been established, many Hui merchants returned home to construct glorious mansions, ancestral temples, flourishing academies, decorative bridges, and towering archways to honour their ancestors. Yet these elegant constructions also proved to be part of their downfall.

As the Qing Dynasty collapsed and imperial rule in China came to an end, the Hui merchants lost their monopoly on the salt trade, as this had been enforced by the imperial government. Instead of investing their money in improving their other business ventures, the Hui merchants had spent it on their lavish mansions, meaning they were unable to compete with foreign factories that had adopted new technologies and become more streamlined. While China began to embrace modernity, this tragically sounded the death knell for the Hui merchants. Nowadays, all that remains of their illustrious legacy are the stunning works of architecture that they left behind.

 

Join a travel with us to discover more stories about Hui MerchantsExplore the Ancient Chinese Villages in the Huizhou Region and Explore Chinese Culture through the Ages

Culture of Huizhou

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In the south of Anhui province in China there is a beautiful place located along the Xin’an River and around Mount Huangshan which boasts well-preserved villages, a rich culture and a long history. In Ancient China this place was referred to as Huizhou. However, as Huizhou is no longer officially an administrative division now, not many people know the regions precise range.

Generally speaking, there are seven counties that were considered part of Huizhou prefecture: Tunxi (Huangshan City), Shexian, Xiuning, Qimen, Yixian, Jixi and Wuyuan (in Jiangxi Province). Shenxian was the capital of Huizhou.

Huizhou has a documented history that is nearly 2,000 years long. Hui culture, which originates from Huizhou, integrates Confucianism, clan culture, and mercantilism. The best expression of these Hui values is in Hui architecture, which is still visible in every existing Hui village. Due to the fact that the Hui culture grew and thrived predominantly during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties, most of the old villages and towns still exist and nearly all of the residential houses are still in use.

  1. Xin’an Li theory (Confucian Moral School)

Xin’an Li theory, the study of inheriting and explaining Confucian theory, was at the core of Huizhou culture.

Confucian theory has always been the main essential principle in China. Chinese people follow it as their standard of conduct. Although many of the Confucian schools were damaged or destroyed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the influence of Confucian principles still exists everywhere in modern Chinese culture.

As the Huizhou region was a particularly rich area during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), the Huizhou people could afford to focus more on education. There was a famous scholar named Zhuxi (1130-1200), whose ancestral home was in the Huizhou region, and his studies were founded in Xin’an Li theory. During the Ming Dynasty, there were 52 colleges and 462 old-style private schools in Huizhou. A large number of Huizhou people, all of them male, received official government positions by passing imperial examinations and thus the foothold that Huizhou gained in the imperial court through these government officials increased its power as a region.

The Xin’an Li theory derives its name from two sources: Xin’an was the name of the river which ran through the Huizhou area, and Li in Chinese roughly translates to mean ‘principle’. More precisely the term Li refers to the principles taken from Confucian theory, for example the concept of filial piety. Xin’an Li theory argued that human beings should follow the heavenly principles and eradicate human desires.

Thanks to the Xin’an Li theory, Huizhou was an area famous for loyally honoring two traditional Chinese virtues: filial piety and feminine chastity.

Filial Piety:

tangyueIn China, because of the influence of Confucianism, filial piety has always been regarded as an absolute necessity for any human being. In traditional Chinese opinion, the family is far more important than the individual. So in Confucian theory people must always consider the whole family first, especially the parents, rather than indulging their own feelings or needs.

Traveling in Huizhou presents you with the opportunity to listen to many stories that focus on and praise filial piety. When traveling in Huizhou you can also visit some large memorial archways with architecture that is themed after the concept of filial piety.

 Feminine Chastity:

In ancient times, chastity was considered the most important virtue for a woman to uphold and we believe that there are still many people who hold this opinion in modern China today. The appearance of Xin’an Li theory in the Huizhou region meant that women in this area suffered more under the rules of chastity.

Most of the men in the Huizhou region travelled out of the village to do business, and thus left their wives at home to serve their parents and raise the children. They might only come back once a year, or sometimes even less frequently. It was without question that, no matter what, the wife must remain chaste whilst the husband was away. Once her honor was threatened, she had to die rather than be violated to express her loyalty to remaining chaste. If a woman’s husband died young, the only way for her to properly remain a morally upright and chaste woman was to become a widow for the rest of her life.

You will find many archways that use and praise the theme of feminine chastity in their architecture, and many stories use this theme as well. For example, there are 94 memorial archways in Shexian, among which 34 of them honour the concept of feminine chastity.

     2. The Clannish concept

When you visit the Huizhou region, you will find the most important buildings there are the Ancestral Halls. There are usually several Ancestral Halls in one village, each one connected to a different family. Some villages just have one Ancestral Hall, and thus almost all of the people in the village will have the same family name.

ancestor hallThe Ancestral Hall is a kind of memorial temple for a clan to worship their ancestors. In Huizhou, many big families were made up of immigrants. They had different reasons to leave their hometowns and to finally settle down in the Huizhou region, the most common reason being the war. There were also a group of immigrants who were originally officials allocated to the Huizhou region but who didn’t leave after their tenure expired.

So why did they choose Huizhou as their final destination? And why did they prefer to stay there rather than go back to their hometown? We don’t think they had decided on Huizhou as their final destination when they first immigrated. But on their journey, after seeing so many different places, the Huizhou region undoubtedly seemed the most appealing and thus won prize place as their new and final home. If you look at a map of China, you can see that the most famous mountain in China, Mt. Huangshan, is located in the middle of the Huizhou region. In this region, mountain stands beside mountain and river crosses river. Thus it is considered a good place to settle down according to Chinese Feng Shui theory (an old philosophical and somewhat superstitious system that aims to create a better life by managing the surrounding environment), and what’s more, there were plenty of fields and a fruitful climate for farming.

According to the records kept of big families in Huizhou in the late Ming Dynasty, the most populous clans were Wang, Cheng, Wu, Hu, Bao, Li, Fang, Xu, Jiang and so on. Each family started with one ancestor and expanded over centuries to create hundreds or perhaps even thousands of new families.

huizhou villageThere are two main principles denoted in the clannish concept in Huizhou:

  • All of the people in the clan should take care of each other. Since the clan was basically one big family, all of the members of the clan were relatives. If someone in the clan got into trouble, the whole family should help them.
  • The clan was responsible for handling all of the important affairs and resolving all of the disputes among its members. Usually each clan had an elder (an older man) as their leader, who would make the final decisions for the whole clan. If members had disputes, no matter what they were about, they could ask the leader to give the final judgment.

     3. Mercantilism

There is no doubt that the success of the Huizhou merchants provided the foundation for the booming growth of Hui culture. The Huizhou merchants have more than 600 years of history behind them. In the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), the imperial capital moved to Lin’an (now Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province), which was not far from Huizhou and easy to transport merchandise to both by road and by river. According to some historical records, Hui merchants were engaged in trade practically everywhere by the beginning of the Southern Song Dynasty. They traded in tea, ink, paper and all manner of goods. In ancient Huizhou, it is said that, on average, a boy in his twelfth or thirteenth year had already begun doing business as an apprentice of his relatives in the same clan. Huizhou merchants usually focused on small scale trades, but tried to make the best quality products. The Huizhou Chronicle describes Huizhou merchants as “properly dressed, well-spoken, fully aware of price, knowing when is the good time to buy and sell, and getting extra profits from selling local goods at other places.” ( These records were taken during Jiajings reign (1796 – 1821) in the Qing Dynasty.)

Huizhou boasts the perfect climate for producing several famous teas, including Huangshan Maofeng and Qimen Black Tea. So tea has always been one of the most important goods exported for sale from Huizhou. .

However, Huizhou people apparently were not only capable of trading in natural produce, but also manufactured good quality products by using superior technology in order to occupy and dominate the Chinese market. The writing brush, ink stick, paper and ink stone, referred to as“the four treasures of the study”, were star products in the Huizhou region. Even now, they still produce the best ink and paper you can find in China.

The booming period of economic growth caused by the Hui merchants took place during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties, and that is the reason why most Hui villages are composed of houses built in these two dynasties. In ancient China, no matter how rich you were, businessman as an occupation was still not considered as good a title as official or scholar. To enhance the social standing of their family, some Hui merchants used their wealth to purchase official positions, and almost all Hui merchants chose to provide their predecessors with a good education. Their wish was to hopefully promote more of their family members into positions as officials and scholars, and this practice produced many Hui officials and scholars during the Qing Dynasty.

     4. Hui Architecture

When talking about Hui culture, it is inevitable that one should make mention of the fantastic Hui architecture. Not to mention that the Hui architecture is the most extant and well preserved type of Hui art that we can see nowadays.

In ancient times, the standard of residence permitted was officially stratified according to the house owners’ social position. Any houses constructed beyond these restrictions were considered an offense and the owners would be punished accordingly. Thus, according to these laws, merchants could not build large or luxurious houses for their families. However, the cunning Hui merchants found another way to show their wealth.

Brick-sculpture, woodcut and stone carvings are considered the three essential artistic components of Hui architecture. In a wealthy family’s mansion, you can find beautifully carved decorations everywhere – on beams, windows, pillars, doors and even walls. You will find vivid animals, people, flowers; you may even find that some of the carvings depict stories.

The richer the family was, the more elaborate and delicate the carvings were that decorated their mansion. The price of a piece of very good brick-caving product by a skilled craftsman might be equal to the price of an acre of field.

A typical Hui residence was a compound comprised of four two-story buildings on four sides of an inner courtyard or patio. The roofs of all of the buildings were on an incline towards the inner courtyard in order to drain any water towards the patio. Hui people believed in water as a symbol of or metaphor for wealth. So they wanted all of the rainwater to flow into their inner yard, in order to symbolize and hopefully foreshadow wealth coming into the family.

The traditional Hui dwelling is a closed compound, with solid and high walls to guard against theft. There are only small windows on the walls for aeration. The outer walls are called ‘horse-head walls’ and they are painted white with black roofs. These high walls function to prevent the spread of fire.

Discover more about the Culture of Huizhou on our travel: Explore the Ancient Chinese Villages in the Huizhou Region

Discover Huizhou Culture in perfectly preserved ancient villages

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Experience a romantic journey in a beautiful mountainous region.

Customer’s expectations about the tour:

Say, for example, a young lady is very interested in ancient Huizhou culture. She wants to visit the beautiful villages in Huizhou that have maintained their old buildings very well, and she also wants to learn about Huizhou culture and history. Not to mention she also, understandably, wants to behold the most beautiful mountain in China – Mount Huangshan.

Highlights of the trip:

  • Visiting buildings and courtyards built in the Huizhou style;
  • Seeing first-hand the Huizhou style of woodcutting, brick cutting and stone cutting art in Huizhou architecture;
  • Discovering the history of the Huizhou merchants;
  • Witnessing the special layout of Hongcun village;
  • Taking in the most amazing scenery at Huangshan Mountain;
  • Sampling authentic Hui cuisine;
  • Experiencing first-hand the ink making technique indigenous to Huizhou.

Notes:

  1. Please read more about the Huizhou region by following the link, there you will find lots of useful information about Huizhou culture, architecture, historical attractions and other interesting facts about the Huizhou region.
  2. The example we have posted above is just there to give you a rough idea of how we can help you customize your travel in China. We will customize each tour for every customer on request.

Itinerary:

Day 1: Arriving in Shanghai

Your English-speaking guide will be waiting for you outside the “Arrival Gate” in Shanghai international airport. From there, you will be driven to the hotel. After you’ve checked in and had a short break, there will be a welcome dinner for you.

Day 2: From Shanghai to Shexian

We will take the fast train to Hefei City, the capital of Anhui province. It will take approximately three and a half hours to get there.. After a quick lunch, we will transfer to another train from Hefei to Shexian. Shexian was once the capital of Huizhou in ancient times. On arrival we will have authentic Hui cuisine for dinner and we will stay at a traditional Huizhou style hotel.

shexian

Day 3: Tour in Shexian

Your guide will treat you to several interesting stories about this ancient town and point out to you the various, distinctive features of Hui architecture. We will then take you to visit the famous Tangyue Memorial Archways and Xuguo’s Stone Archway. You may feel somewhat moved by the stories about the Tangyue Memorial Archways, which are predominantly about the miserable lives led by women in ancient times. You may also be interested in visiting the small ink workshops which sit along the Xin’an River.

If you prefer, we will leave you alone to wander the town for a while.

JixiDay 4: From Shexian to Jixi, Tour in Jixi

We will leave Shexian in the morning, and arrive at Jixi after traveling for about 30 mins.

Authentic Hui cuisine originated from Jixi, so you know we will have a good dinner there. However, before this delicious dinner, we will have a whole day to visit the town. We will also go to visit Hushi’s1 former residence in a village nearby.

黄山Day 5: A Trip to Mount Huangshan

We will go to Mount Huangshan in the morning. It will be a tough day full of climbing, but we are sure you will see why Mount Huangshan is the most famous mountain in China.

There is an amazing old high street in Tunxi (now called Huangshan city). We will spend our evening there and also have dinner there.

 

宏村

Day 6: From Huangshan to Hongcun, Tour in Hongcun

Considering you will probably need more rest after all of the previous day’s climbing, we will depart a bit later the next morning. But don’t expect to leave too late, unless you have no desire to visit the most spectacular village in the Huizhou region – Hongcun.

It will take us less than two hours to travel to Hongcun. Please don’t forget to look out and enjoy the landscape outside your window as we travel to our destination. You may just regret you weren’t able to hike there instead.

We will introduce you to the specially designed water usage and water storage system unique to Hongcun. You will be amazed to find that in Hongcun flowing water is used like an air conditioner to cool down each house in the summer.

西递Day 7: Tour in Shexian and Xidi

The first half of the next day will be left for you to enjoy this fantastic village alone. You can go up a nearby hill to take a picture of the whole village, and you can also take a look at their tea fields on the way.

We will leave Shexian before lunchtime. Then we will have a simple lunch in Yixian, which is a bigger town and thus an easier place to find better food. After that we will go to Xidi. It will only take us about 20 minutes to travel from Yixian to Xidi.

Xidi is bigger than Hongcun and there you will be provided with a professional guide similar to the ones you have had at other points of the tour.

屯溪老街

Day 8: Tour in Xidi, Back to Huangshan city

Once again you will be allowed to enjoy the beautiful village of Xidi by yourself for roughly 2 to 3 hours (as per your request). Then we will leave Xidi and go back to Huangshan city.

In the afternoon, we will spend a few happy hours shopping on Tunxi’s old high street, which is the place where we had dinner two days ago.  If you want to buy some special souvenirs related to Hui culture, we can give you useful advice on what to buy and help you make your purchases.

The last dinner we will have together in Huizhou will be very special and unforgettable. Initially we didn’t order the most delicious signature dishes available in Hui cuisine on our first visit to the old high street because you would have needed normal food to recover your energy after climbing Mount Huangshan. But today, on our last night in Huizhou, we will help you discover the essence of Hui cuisine.

 Day 9: From Huangshan to Shanghai

We will take the train and transfer again at Hefei city. Then, on arrival in Shanghai, we will have a farewell dinner.

 

For more information about Huizhou culture, please read the article entitled “Culture of Huizhou“.