Sources - Guilds - China

Description of sources 

Stele inscriptions

Stele inscriptions constitute a specifically Chinese source of guild materials. Steles were meant to be publicly accessible and to represent enduring norms that were intended for “eternal transmission to posterity”, as a stereotyped inscription on top of most steles maintains. Guild statutes, prohibitions, and acts of donation were typically recorded on these stones that usually stood either in the courtyards or in the interior of guild halls. Steles were often inscribed on both sides, with the main message on the front side and the names of the donating guild members and their contributions in silver tael or copper cash on the other.

Since they were intended as public manifestations of the collective action of the guilds, steles often record the way the guild members would like to present themselves to a more general public, or to the authorities. Therefore, members of the state bureaucracy were often invited (and paid) either to compose the texts or provide the calligraphy that would be carved into the stone.

Stele inscriptions have been published for some of the cities with the highest concentration of guilds: Twice for Beijing (Pekin kōshō girudo shiryōshū, materials collected in the 1940s by the Japanese historian Niida Noboru and his team, and Ming Qing yilai Beijing gongshang huiguan beike xuanji, compiled by Li Hua and others), for Suzhou, (Ming Qing yilai Suzhou shehui shi beike ji, edited by a large group of researchers from the Suzhou Historical Museum, the Suzhou Teacher’s College, and Nanjing University), and for Shanghai, (Shanghai beike ziliao xuanbian, edited by historians from the Shanghai museum). All these texts have been edited and punctuated. In a few cases, stele inscriptions have been published as facsimiles — that is, as ink rubbings from the stones — but they are not limited to guild materials (Beijing tushuguan cang Zhongguo lidai shike taben huibian, 1991, 60 vols.). General collections of epigraphic materials may occasionally include guild text, such as for instance a collection of Shanxi epigraphic writings, Jinzhong beike xuancui (2001). 

Legal texts from administrative and judicial proceedings

While some of the solutions to legal conflicts were also inscribed in stone, especially if they related to entire guilds, individual cases that reflect particular applications of the law can be found in this source type instead.

The best known text group in this respect is the documents from the Baxian (Chongqing) archives. They concern, mainly, conflicts between particular guilds or groups within larger networks, but also issues of apprenticeship.

The published and edited collections Qingdai Qian Jia Dao Baxian dang'an xuanbian and Qingdai Baxian dang'an huibian: Qianlong juan only show a small part of the extant Baxian documents that can be consulted in Chengdu. As district archives and their legal proceedings in the Qing dynasty become more accessible (Karasawa et al, 2005), the source materials should become – in the course of time – more readily available. 


Specimens of guild historiography are not known before the nineteenth century. Belsky refers to an early work for a Changsha guild house (Changjun guan zhi, 1825), but other works date from later years in the nineteenth century; for Hankou, Rowe (1984) used the gazetteer of the Shanxi and Shaanxi guild house, Hankou Shan Shaanxi huiguan zhi (1896) and Belsky lists about thirty other huiguan gazetteers and materials (Belsky 2005, 289-91).

A most important source type that specifies the locations of guild houses, and sometimes gives more information on dates of establishment and details of membership, is local historiography, and more specifically, local gazetteers. They are especially useful if extensive coverage is the aim of research. The pioneering work in this respect was He Bingdi’s 1966 Zhongguo huiguan shi lun [Study on the history of Chinese guild houses], which provided information for many of our database entries. Later, this was extended for Sichuan by Lan Yong (1995 and 1997) and for the Yangzi delta by Fan Jinmin (1998). According to Belsky, the 18-volume Japanese gazetteer series Shina shōbetsu senshi added to this number of huiguan;  and it should be noted that earlier on, the Decennial Reports of the China Imperial Maritime Customs also published systematic overviews of the guilds in the treaty port cities from the late nineteenth century onwards. 

Early social surveys

Some of the most important sources on Chinese guilds are the social surveys that were started in the 1920s. The pilot studies for Beijing were conducted by Sidney Gamble, John Stewart Burgess and their Chinese colleagues (1921). Burgess later published a monograph, The Guilds of Peking (1928), that formed the basis for all later research on the Beijing guilds. Niida Noboru and colleagues extended this in the 1940s, by not only collecting stele texts, but also leading interviews with representatives of the traditional guilds that were then in a state of decline. The results of Niida’s investigations were published between 1976 and 1983. Imabori Seiji, who also participated in Niida’s project, travelled to Hohhot or Guisui at the Sino-Mongolian border, and conducted field research on the entire social setting, including guilds (1955, republished in 2003). A further outstanding example is Dou Jiliang’s 1943 study on the Chongqing common-origin associations, including huiguan. These early endeavours formed the basis for later empirical research carried out in the People’s Republic of China. 

Websites and illustrations

With rising interest in rediscovering traditional and modernizing commercial activities before the adoption of Socialist economic programs and the crushing of “national capitalism”, an increasing number of Chinese socioeconomic historians are devoting their interest to guild and huiguan studies. The concomitant intensification of tourism and the easy access to the internet and photographic equipment explain why photographs of guild houses often figure on blogs. One website, Zhongguo huiguan wang 中国会馆网 (Chinese huiguan web), is exclusively dedicated to huiguan and can serve as a quick reference for recent publications and illustrations of guild houses and huiguan.



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