Pingyao – the forgotten banking hub of the Qing dynasty

How things change. The places we associate with finance in today’s China are Shanghai and Hong Kong, but in the first half of the 19th century, the finacial centre lay was Pingyao [平遙], a town in Shanxi: it was here that Rishengchang Draft Bank [日昇昌票號] issued China’s first cheques in 1823. For a brief moment, Pingyao was the Qing Empire’s financial hub. Last week, The Economist published an article about the town then and now:

The city lay on the path of a lucrative trade route. The bank’s manager spied a business opportunity when he saw silver shipments passing each other in opposite direction. He replaced pricey security, wagons and pack animals with a clearing house.

The bank spawned around 50 competitors across Shanxi (nearly half in Pingyao) with hundreds of branches across the empire. At the time Chinese bankers were held in lower esteem than peasants and tradesmen. They tried to keep staff honest by making them pledge their homes and even to surrender their families as slaves if they committed fraud; investors had no control over the banks’ daily operations.

Pingyao’s old town centre is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.



Yan Lianke on famine advice and today’s China

The New York Times recently published a short piece by Yan Lianke [ 閻連科 ], the author of Dream of Ding Village [《丁莊夢》] and Lenin’s Kisses [《受活》]. As you might expect, his description of modern China is rather bleak, even compared to the horrors previous generations in mainland China experienced – Yan was too young to remember much of the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward but recalls what his mother told him about survival:

Holding my hand, my mother pointed to the white clay and yellow earth of the wall, and said, “Son, you must always remember, when people are starving to death they may eat this white clay and elm tree bark, but if they try to eat that yellow earth or the bark of any other kind of tree they will die even faster.”

As many other writers who lived through the Mao era, Yan doesn’t have much good to say about contemporary China, but offers little in terms of solutions. For him, it might be about survival, though – the last writer to offer any alternative is still locked up in prison.

The Economist on India’s Chinese Minority

Nowadays, China–India relations are awkward at best, but it wasn’t always that way: Asia’s two giants used to be intimately linked together through the trading network of the British Empire. For instance, there used to be a sizeable minority of Indians here in Shanghai back in the day.  And The Economist ran an interesting little piece on the Chinese minority in India in their latest issue:

Georgie Ling, a chef, says that when his father arrived in Calcutta in the early 20th century, Chinese “lived like kings”. Chinese migrants had begun coming to India in the late 1700s, setting up the first sugar refineries. Then the British, who pressed exports of Indian opium on China in order to pay for purchases of tea and to plug a huge outflow of silver to China, brought back carpenters and tea-plantation workers to Assam in India’s north-east. Most Chinese were Cantonese-speakers from Guangdong in the south. A century ago, they numbered about 100,000 in India. Calcutta’s Chinatown won fame for its red lanterns, exotic food and drug dens.

Now, there are only about 4,000 Indians of Chinese descent left.

BBC Radio 4: The Battle of Talas (In Our Time)

For those of you who are interested in Chinese history, you might want to check out the latest episode of BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time, hosted by Melvyn Bragg: this week’s topic is the Battle of Talas in AD 751 – when the forces of the Arab Abbasid Caliphate defeated the Tang Dynasty’s army. On the panel are Hilde De Weerdt  (Leiden University), Michael Höckelmann (King’s College London) and Hugh Kennedy (SOAS).

In Our Time is minimalist live talk radio – no music or edits, just a forty-minute introduction to a given topic by experts in the field. Best of all, the entire archive of this excellent radio programme is available as a free podcast (both iTunes + Android/RSS).

A Random《禮記》Quote on a Wall

When I was walking around last night I came across this quote on the wall of a middle school:

“Isn’t that classical Chinese? I thought Mao got rid of all that.” The quote was attributed to 《禮記·中庸》, which is the “The Doctrine of the Mean” from The Book of Rites. I had to look it up, even if I knew it wouldn’t be worthwhile; whenever there’s a quote like this, it’s invariably something that an ultra-conservative octogenarian back in the early Zhou dynasty thought would be a great way to round off a graduation speech.
And yes,  that was the case this time as well. I found a decent bilingual version of  “The Doctrine of the Mean” translated by A.C. Muller. It turned out the two lines are spliced together from different parts of the text.  The first part, “栽者培之”:

We can also know that Heaven develops each thing according to its preparation. Thus, Heaven nourishes the growing sprout, and throws down the leaning tree.

The second part, “雖愚必明”:

If someone else gets it in one try, I will try one hundred times. If someone else gets it in ten tries, I will try one thousand times. If you are able to follow this Way, then even if you are stupid, you will become enlightened.

So basically, this is the message: ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re not the brightest crayon in the box: you’ll eventually learn something if you work hard, and those who work hard will be rewarded’.

The school, by the way, is Peiming Middle School [培明中學], founded in 1925. It’s name comes from the ‘pei’ and the ‘ming’ from the quote above.