August 29th, 2013 | Written by



Any trader knows that personal contacts matter. But before the age of telecommunications, enforceable commercial codes and standardized measures, it was even more important to have some non-business ties with your partners, agents and opposite numbers in other ports. So all over the world, trade was organized through networks of people who shared the same native place—and thus a dialect, a deity (or several) to swear on, and other trust-inducing connections. Genoese, Gujaratis, Armenians, Jews (though for the latter the shared “native place” had long been lost) and others fanned out across the world and linked its cities to each other.

The Fujianese diaspora, based on China’s Southeast Coast, has been among the largest and most durable of these. (In 1984, Fujian’s Pujiang county had 1,026,000 residents—and more than 1,100,000 known descendants abroad.) It also has an unusual feature. While most other trading diasporas were purely urban, Fujian also sent millions of its children to clear land and grow crops elsewhere—from the Chinese interior to Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and California. Yet, oddly enough, the two diasporas had little to do with each other until the late nineteenth century, and then largely under the aegis of Western colonialists.

Fujian has long been crowded and rocky, so that, as one Chinese official put it, “men have made fields from the sea.” It has been a center of boat-building, fishing and trade for more than 1,000 years. Even after deforestation forced boat-building to move to places like Thailand, Fujianese remained the principal shippers and traders of Southeast Asia. Many also became tax collectors, harbor masters and financial advisers in the region’s kingdoms, and later in Europe’s colonies there. As transportation improved in the nineteenth century, the networks extended farther—most of the Chinese who came to gold-rush California, for instance, came not from the counties hardest hit by poverty and violence, but from counties in Fujian and neighboring Guangdong whose commercial networks gave their sons access to superior information and start-up capital for venturing abroad.

Fujian also produced agricultural migrants who fanned out across both China and Southeast Asia. Here, too, the home base’s resources could help in getting started, and important skills could be transferred to new locations. Fujian has grown sugar for hundreds of years, and Fujianese brought the crop (and/or new ways of growing it) to many new places: Jiangxi and Sichuan in the Chinese interior, Taiwan, Java and parts of the Philippines. Indeed, Fujianese were so known for their skill in growing sugar that Europeans deliberately sought them out as sugar growers for their plantations, from Sri Lanka to Cuba to Hawaii.

Where Fujianese farmworkers went, a few Fujianese merchants usually followed—providing retail goods (including the right kinds of rice and condiments, and sometimes opium), credit and help sending money back home. But given how strong Chinese merchant groups were in Southeast Asia, the vast undeveloped tracts of potential farmland, and the crowded conditions back home, what is striking is that the two diasporas weren’t more tightly linked—in particular that Chinese merchants very rarely tried (except on Taiwan) to develop overseas farms with labor from home. As early as 1600, Chinese Manila was as big as New York or Philadelphia would be in the 1770s, and there was plenty of unused farmland nearby but no significant rural Chinese settlement. Why?

One simple but important factor was that the Chinese state would not support such ventures. It appreciated that commerce helped keep South China prosperous, but distrusted those who would leave the center of civilization for long. The compromise was a ban on people staying abroad over a year—a mere inconvenience for merchants (who sometimes had to pay bribes to return after two trading seasons), but a very strong deterrent for farmers, who would have to stay abroad much longer before their travels paid off and they could return home rich (as sojourners generally hoped to).

Just as importantly, the Chinese state’s indifference to colonization meant that its subjects overseas had little security. Anti-Chinese violence was not infrequent, and though the Qing occasionally made gestures in support of their “good” subjects who were abroad temporarily, they would not even do that for “bad” subjects who had been gone longer. The best security for Chinese overseas was the ability to run and/or make payoffs—both much easier for a relatively liquid merchant than for even a very successful farmer.

Not only was the Chinese state unwilling to flex its muscles to provide law and order for its subjects abroad, but neither would it help merchants do so themselves. European countries, of course, licensed private companies (the East and West India Companies, for instance) to themselves use force, conquer overseas areas, provide government and move in settlers. And as the Zheng family showed, Chinese merchants had the skills to do that, too. What they didn’t have, though, was any incentive. European companies that bore the high start-up costs of creating a colony could recoup those costs because they had a guaranteed market back home for whatever exports they could generate: tobacco, sugar and so on. Even when high taxes and profit margins were tacked on, the goods faced very little competition in Europe. Revenue-hungry governments gladly kept out other countries’ colonial exports, and climate and geography decreed that there would be no home production of sugar or tea. But the Chinese state was under less pressure to increase its revenues—it had no neighbors of comparable might and ran big budget surpluses through most of the 1700s. Even if it had wished to work with overseas merchants to create a stream of heavily taxed colonial imports, it would have found this difficult: China had tropics within its borders and grew plenty of sugar and other overseas goods. Faced with domestic competition, people exporting back to China could not charge spectacular mark-ups, and so had no reason to risk lots of money starting overseas settlements that would eventually increase their supplies.

Things changed after 1850, when European colonial rule became more secure and demand back in industrializing Europe soared. Then a new generation of overwhelmingly white investors took the steps to match sparsely populated tracts of the tropics—from the newly drained Mekong Delta to Hawaii—with vast numbers of Chinese (and Indians) whose farming skills were cheap since they had so little land back home to farm. Fujianese traders were involved again—as labor recruiters, grocers, pawnbrokers, writers of letters home—but not as the prime movers, and not as the people who profited most from the sweat of their countrymen. Having lost the chance to create new “homelands” for themselves, these two Chinese diasporas would both spend the next century as essential but underpaid helpers of those who were aggressive enough to do so—for a while.

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