How a Shandong grocery store’s accounts unlocked China’s 19th century economic history

History buffs should enjoy this account by Debin Ma and Weipeng Yuan of the rediscovery of the ledgers of a 19th century Chinese grocery store, which have turned out to be one of the key sources for the economic history of the period:

In a widely used statistical manual for Chinese economic history compiled in 1955 by Professor Yan Zhongping and ten other eminent economic historians, two tables and a figure are included that provide relatively continuous annual series of copper cash/silver exchange rates and two price indices for agricultural and handicraft goods (in copper cash) respectively for the period of 1798-1850.

These three pages of highly condensed statistical series stand out as a glaring anomaly in the dark alley of Chinese historical statistics. Despite the brevity of the explanation, they have not escaped the attention of researchers: the Ningjin series appeared frequently in some of the most influential works on China’s pre-modern monetary sector and often served as the key (or only) systematic data series for evaluating China’s balance of payment crisis caused by silver outflow, leading eventually to the fateful Opium War of 1842 – a watershed event in modern Chinese history.

Embedded in the footnotes to these two tables are brief explanations of the statistical methodology of constructing the exchange rate series and the number of items included in the construction of these price indices. They also indicated that the original data were extracted from a grocery store called Tong Taisheng, located in the town of Daliu of Ningjin county in the northern part of Zhili province.

Tong Taisheng was managed for several generations by the Rong family. But the store, despite its long history, is not mentioned at all the present-day official archives of Ningjin county (in what is now Shandong province). The ledgers–more than 400 handwritten volumes–survive only because they were donated to the national archives in 1935 by a descendant of the Rong family, who was himself a historian. But the donor, Rong Mengyuan, never made use of this amazing material for any of his own historical research! Perhaps because he did not want to publicize his “capitalist” family background, and perhaps because as a loyal Marxist he was genuinely ashamed of it:

Like countless others, Rong Mengyuan re-emerged from his intellectual exile and re-established himself as an authority on Chinese historical archives with a prolific publication record in the 1980s. The new era saw a revival of academic interest in traditional China’s indigenous commercial tradition and in the explorations of private merchant business archives, often filled with tales of valuable archives discovered or rescued by sheer accident while others were lost through continued neglect.

While generations of scholars are set to benefit from the rediscovery of Tong Taisheng and other archives, when Rong Mengyuan passed away in 1985, he himself may have harboured no pride or interest in his connection with that pile of family archives he donated five decades earlier. It is curious to note that throughout the 1980s Rong Mengyuan remained a loyalist to an ideology of a bygone age and his writings then continued to be infused with the stridently leftist rhetoric of identity politics.

The full piece “Discovering economic history in footnotes” is not overly long or technical, and well worth a read.


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