Chinese Guilds from the 17th to the 20th Centuries: An Overview

by Christine Moll-Murata, from the book, Return of the Guilds, edited by Jan Lucassen, Tine De Moor and Jan Luiten van Zanden, pg. 213-247

  • Terminology
    • gongsuo
    • huiguan
    • gongshangye tuanti
  • Functions: hostels, hostels, restaurants, entertainment centres, and palces of reference for those seeking work
  • Process of ‘formalisation’ of Suzhou guilds (by Qiu Pengsheng)
    • Individual artisans or merchants mobilize colleagues on grounds of common home, religious beliefs, and the necessity of mutual help, to form a group. They raise funds for a meeting place and seek the recognition of local administration. In a second step, the group negotiates and formalizes measures for the protection and use of its common property.
  • The origins of the Chinese guilds established in the 16th century can be found in associations of travelling merchants, aliens who with increased geographic mobility and trade between regions started to settle down nearer their sales markets. Such autonomous initiatives stand in stark contrast to earlier types of business associations (hang, zuo, tuan) which had been installed by order of the government since the 18th century.
  • Aims 
    • The new types of guilds from the 16th century onwards… was rather to regulate access and homogenize markets and opportunities for the benefit of their members, since private markets and interregional trade had expanded greatly during the late Ming.
    • One of the first aims of such associations (new guilds) was to support each other with information and bypass local brokers and middlemen, and guilds most often formed huiguan and were based on the membership criterion of common geographic origin.
  • A marked difference between Chinese and European guilds is the fact that it was not necessary to be a formally registered citizen of a particular city or place in order to become a guild member, but – at least for the huiguan type – it was necessary to belong to a particular place of origin. 
  • Functions and Internal Organisation
    • Chinese (guilds) combined economic, social and religious functions.
    • Economically, they regulated wages and prices and tried to secure monopolies in their territories by inclusion of all the actors in the trade. As a rule, guild regulations stipulated that rather than keeping newcomers out, everybody in the trade should be forced into guilds. Other important tasks were to secure access to raw materials and the training of the labour force.
    • The economic role of the Chinese guilds has been interpreted in two divergent ways. One view is that they enabled merchants to make a profit by reducing transaction costs, the costs incurred through brokers for example, and therefore expedited trade and production. The other view is that by restricting the number of players and generally curbing competition, they impeded the free flow of trade and in due course stifled the rise of capitalism.
    • The social functions of the guilds included the provision to members of welfare facilities such as communal cemeteries, elementary schools, and some relief of poverty, as well as municipal services such as firefighting, policing and maintenance of general infrastructure including streets and bridges… They might provide entertainment in the form of theatrical productions of processions for guild patrons.
    • Religious: in Hankou for example, virtually every guild was a religious fraternity too (William Rowe)
    • Qing guilds were organised into management boards: ‘rudimentary democrazy, authoritarianism and customary law’ (Peng Nansheng)
      • In guilds of (large) size(s), directors and managers had to deal with financial matters and the allocation of expenses for building and maintenance of guild houses and other things such as cemeteries and schools, or arranging sacrifices, theatrical performances, plenary meetings, or banquets. 
    • Characteristics: guilds were local in character and field in operation; their general objective was to conserve the welfare of all the members of the respective groups; in the guild, the relationship between employers, employees, and apprentices was close and personal; the intention of the guilds was to limit unrestricted competition between members; they exerted solidarity against opposing bodies, such as other guilds, customers, or employers, and the administration, and they owned corporate property derived from contributions by the members. (John Burgess)
    • Similarities with European guilds: economic. cultural and religious functions varied in expression rather than in substance, but the differences seemed greater in the fields of training, education, and qualification, and the inclusion or exclusion of artisans or merchants because of gender or geographic origin, and most conspicuously, the political and legal setting of the guilds.
  • Relationship to the government
    • Bradstock: craft guilds were sanctioned by local authorities, and that in fact their main rationale was to assist the government in the administration of commerce and crafts, and especially to control unruly elements.
    • Peng Zeyi: intensified control of guilds by local governments in the mid-19th century
    • Morse: ‘The guilds were never within the law: they grew up outside the law; and as associations they neither recognised the law nor claimed its protection.’
    • Qing legislation does not include any provisions on guilds:
      • Handicraft regulations (jiangzuo zeli) issued by the central government for the officials who managed state building and production contain no references to guilds, although the artisans recruited from the open market were certainly organized into guilds.
      • Informal existence was possible.
    • Regional variance
    • William Rowe: more instances of government support for guilds
      • All-Hankou Guild Confederation… not common in other Chinese cities with high concentrations of guilds
  • Towards the 20th century
    • Qing state: reforms… the need to foster commerce through the chambers of commerce. The government allowed the chambers to be organized and to have their leadership recruited from and elected by elite merchants
    • After Qing: Republican governments in Peking and Naking tried to strengthen state control of commerce and industries and by their legislation gradually eliminated the traditional forms of association
  • 1918 regulations on industrial and commercial association
    • Establish new associations for industries and commercial branches which until then had had no associations
    • Craft guild people… felt a crisis approaching – not only in the form of mechanization, but also the threat to their self-determination posed by the authorities. 
    • For skilled labourers, membership of the occupational guild was obligatory. The guilds collected fees, set levels of wages, an did not allow for individual wage agreements.
    • The trade unions, mostly organised by the Communist Party or the Guomindant… supercede(d) completely the traditional ways of labour organisation
      • Labour unions united several trade branches
      • Power and decision-making structures in unions were more democratic (compared to) pre-existing guilds masters… decided among themselves questions of price fixing, wages, or hours of work.
  • 1927 regulations on craft associations
    • The new regulations formally put an end to the traditional craft guilds… they… should be reorganized and should then report to the authorities. That ruling was to be applied to all production enterprises, regardless of whether they were mechanized or handicraft manufacturers.
  • Guilds in transition
    • These new (trade) associations had less autonomy than the guilds
    • Belonging to an association brought little or no benefit
    • After the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the last remaining traditional guilds were phased out.