China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
This panel explores the choices that merchants and entrepreneurs made about identities in Treaty Port China and Hong Kong as well as in Burma and the Tibetan area of Sichuan. At this time, the often shaky Qing and Republican governments and waxing and waning European empires offered both opportunities and dangers for merchants. Some claimed new legal identities in return for political and economic advantages as Richard Horowitz demonstrates in the case of ethnic Chinese merchants who claimed to be British subjects in 1860s Fuzhou. There were also opportunities to transgress lines of ethnicity. In Yudru Tsomu’s investigation into late Qing and Republican Batang, some Hui merchants were categorized as Han, and some Tibetan political activists were related to Han merchant families. For Eurasian merchants in Hong Kong and the Treaty Ports, flexibility in identity was useful in business, although, as Catherine Ladds demonstrates, they simultaneously constructed a distinct treaty port identity. But there were also perceived dangers in the fluidity of merchant identities. Pat Giersch reveals how Yunnanese merchants in Burma reacted against the pressures of intermarriage and acculturation by promoting a modern Chinese education for both boys and girls.
The panel’s importance is in its exploration of diverse commercial centers and how similar forces–colonialism, nationalism, gender and race-- shaped identity creation and maintenance. Placing in conversation research on regions that are rarely discussed together, the panel explores choices that merchants themselves made as they navigated complex political, social and cultural situations.