Lecture I: Money and value in China

Here in Upstate New York during the middle of the nineteenth century, there was a Classical revival that inspired people to represent emerging American capitalism in the symbols of the ancient Greek Republic. They named towns Syracuse, Macedon, or Ithaca, and they formed fraternal Greek orders. In the face of this enthusiasm, Lewis Henry Morgan was instrumental in proposing that his fraternal order, “The Gordian Knot,” change its name to “The Grand Order of the Iroquois” and reorganize itself along the lines of the League of the Iroquois (White 1959: 3). While many were focusing on the golden age of Greece as a model for American civilization, Morgan was focusing on contemporary groups of Indians, whom he saw not as a part of civilization but as victims of its “dark frauds,” “base bribery,” and “soulless avarice” (White 1959: 3).

My theme in these lectures, which honor Morgan, begins with his penchant for finding a stance from which to criticize economic processes in his own society by seeing how differently things could work in other societies. While Morgan’s criticisms were not as thorough-going as some would like (Bohannan 1967: vi), he did succeed in attaining (at this early date) what I think is one of the most valuable things anthropology has to offer the modern world—a vantage point from which to see the inner logic of our own world by taking on the perspective of other societies constituted by different historical forces.

The difficulty of this change in perspective must not be underestimated. Marx once said that we do not see contradictions in our own society because we feel as much at home among them as a fish in water (1967, III: 729). Even if we do find a way to see the water we are swimming in, how do we manage to attain a critical vision of it without overlooking its advantages? How do we describe societies founded on different principles, the very ones that might help us see the contingent nature of our own, without romanticizing them and failing to see their disadvantages? How do we begin to conceptualize forms of social organization that move beyond both our own and other existing societies? The focus I have chosen for these lectures, namely the meaning of money, contains two major paradoxes. One of these paradoxes concerns money’s socially (integrating) function and the other concerns its socially (disintegrating) function. I will introduce both now, but my emphasis in the first two lectures on China will be on the paradox that involves the integrating and (enhancing) of human social interaction. The second paradox will play a greater role in the last two lectures. To begin with the first prong of the first paradox, Marx extolled money’s powers as the “God among commodities,” the “real community, since it is the general substance of survival for all and at the same time the social product of all” (Colletti 1975: 55). Simmel describes it as “pure interaction in its purest form” (1978: 129), exchange in a “congealed form,” “the reification of exchange among people” (1978: 176).

But the other prong of this paradox is that money can lead not toward pure sociability, but toward personal freedom: Simmel sees money as a “magna charta” of personal freedom” (1978: 286). “The lord of the manor who can demand a quantity of beer or poultry or honey from a serf thereby determines the activity of the latter in a certain direction. But the moment he imposes merely a money levy the peasant is free, in so far as he can decide whether to keep bees or cattle or anything else” (1978: 286). Whereas the medieval corporation “embraced the whole individual” (1978: 313), a money economy allows an individual to participate only to a limited degree in an association: “Money has made it possible for people to join a group without having to give up any personal freedom and reserve” (1978: 344). As a modern commentator has put it, the community of money tends to be “strongly marked by individualism and certain conceptions of liberty, freedom, and equality backed by laws of private property, rights to appropriation, and freedom of contract” (Harvey 1985: 4). In sum, the first paradox is that money leads toward (both) enhanced social exchange (and) enhanced personal freedom.

The second paradox, briefly here, points to aspects of money that are inimical to human interaction and potentiality. Money has been held to produce the “blasé attitude,” feelings of greyness about everything, because it measures everything from groceries to virtue in the same coin. Money has also been held to replace social relationships, substituting itself in our thinking for relations among people.

The other side of the second paradox is that, instead of producing greyness, confusion, and feelings of moral uncertainty, money can also produce the most intense, clear, and passionately directed feelings, especially toward the accumulation of more of itself. Innumerable commentators have remarked on the vice of avarice and the evils of greed, none more vividly than the early Protestant commentators on usury. Describing the seventeenth-century illustration in Figure 1, Blaxton compares the usurer to the pig:

Blaxton, The English usurer
Figure 1: Blaxton, The English usurer. Title page illustration.

The Covetous wretch, to what may we compare,

better than Swine: both of one nature are,

One grumbles, the other grunts: both grosse, and dull,

hungry, still feeding, and yet never full.

Resemblance from their habits may be had,

the one in furre, th’other in Bristles clad.

(Blaxton 1634: A2)

And in his commentary he adds:

The Usurer is like a Pigge, for while he liveth , he is good, and profitable for nothing, for he will be ever rooting up the earth: running thorough, and tearing of hedges: eating and devouring up good Corne, Beanes and Peason: so likewise doth the wicked swinish Usurer while hee liveth: but then the Pigge is dead, then there commeth profit by him to many; so the Usurer, when death taketh him, then the poore may have some profit. (Blaxton 1634: 47)

In sum, in the second paradox, money both confuses our perceptions of the interactions on which society is based and leads us into clearly conceived but socially harmful pursuits.

It is clear that money can perform its socially integrating and socially disintegrating functions at the same time. Both Marx and Simmel saw this. Simmel said: “Money simultaneously exerts both a disintegrating and a unifying effect” (1978: 345). And Marx concurs: “If money is the bond which ties me to human life and society to me, which links me to nature and to man, is money not the bond of all bonds? Can it not bind and loose all bonds? Is it therefore not the universal means of separation? It is the true agent of separation and the true cementing agent, it is the chemical power of society” (1975: 377).

The overall picture, summarized in Figure 2, has two parts. On the one hand, at the top of the diagram, we can think of money flowing throughout a society, moving from hands to hands, creating webs of exchange and enhancing social interaction. At the same time, it paradoxically creates possibilities of personal freedom, as it empowers individuals to spend their money in ways of their own choosing. These are the aspects of money that can help integrate us together in society. On the other hand, at the bottom of the diagram, we can think of money creating feelings of indifference: when it becomes the measure of all things, it undermines our ability to discriminate one thing from another. And paradoxically, it can also become the focus of intense desire and greed. These are the aspects of money that can help split us apart and increase the disintegration of society. My two cases, China and the United States, relate to the diagram in this way: money in Chinese society works mostly, but not entirely, to create social integration; money in the United States works mostly, but not entirely, to create social disintegration.

The movements of money
Figure 2: The movements of money.

To begin to think with me about these factors, consider a series of transactions of increasing complexity, with no implication that this series actually occurred historically. Begin with barter, transactions often found in our society among our children. My daughter offers one of the stickers in her collection, a “puffy,” of which she has many, to her friend in exchange for an “oily,” of which she has few. A minimal amount of trust is involved in this transaction. Assuming each child can examine the stickers and be sure they are genuine, there is no felt need for any particular reliance on the trustworthiness of the other because barter is a “one-off affair,” it entails no further transactions (Humphrey 1985: 51). Slightly more complex is delayed barter, where my daughter gives away her sticker today, trusting that her friend will bring another of equivalent value tomorrow. Here there has to be trust and probably prior knowledge of the person’s character (Humphrey 1985: 52).

When money is exchanged for goods, the transaction seems a little like barter in that it can be simultaneous, so that trust in the other person is not necessary. But money is socially denser than barter in two ways. First, to reap the benefit of the money you pay me, I must make a further payment, and so on. Money has a tendency to circulate indefinitely (Crump 1981: 3–4). Second, like delayed barter, money entails social bonds, but even wider ones. Acceptance of money depends on “confidence in the ability of an economic community [a state, say] to ensure that the value given in exchange for an interim value, a coin, will be replaced without loss” (Simmel 1978: 178).

It follows from the ability of money to be many things at once that, in and of itself, it does not necessarily either enhance and create or diminish and destroy human relationships. Consequently, it can enter a traditional society, thick with face-to-face social relationships and based on trust and reciprocity, without destroying it. Sometimes it can be held within certain spheres of exchange (Gregory 1980: 649); other times it can be “tamed” for social purposes. My overall argument in the first two lectures is that in China the way money articulates with forms of exchange based on kinship and community has held the distintegrating potential of money in check. In lectures 3 and 4, I will follow out the consequences of money’s second paradox. To anticipate, in our own society’s relative lack of the integument of social custom, the distintegrating effects of money loom large. Even when we extoll the accumulation of money as a way of attempting to collect the social trust on which it depends, this is a mirage, in which the abstract form of social exchange is mistaken for its living substance (Nelson 1949: 135).

Let me start with a brief look at the ethnographic contexts I will be considering. The two lectures on China will focus on contemporary Taiwan, where I did fieldwork during several trips between 1969 and 1975. Taiwan was a province of China during the last dynasty, the Ch’ing (1644–1912), became a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945, and is now an independent state. Because the ancestors of the Chinese people I lived with came from southeastern China two hundred years ago, I will occasionally dip into accounts of travellers, missionaries, photographers, and ethnographers from nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century China. For comparison I will also make some reference to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which has been a socialist society since 1949. For the United States I will use various historical materials, some contemporary fieldwork I have done in Baltimore, Maryland, and some materials from the mass media.

The justification for constructing this particular comparison (China and the United States) is primarily that these are the countries in which I have done fieldwork. But there are two other reasons. First, they are tied together through the man these lectures honor, Lewis Henry Morgan. Morgan deeply influenced the Chinese Marxist historian Kuo Mo-jo, whose studies were widely published in China in the 1930s (Dirlik 1978: 137–40). When I traveled in China in 1984, a half-century later, as a member of a delegation of anthropologists and sociologists, we heard many lectures from our Chinese counterparts at academic gatherings, in which they used Morgan’s evolutionary schemes to account for the marriage and kinship systems of China’s minorities. Second, in both countries money seems to be a topic which people find utterly engrossing. Because I believe it is engrossing for quite different reasons in the two countries, the contrast helps me shed light on the subject.

In Ancient society, Morgan made a basic distinction between two kinds of societies, which he called societas and civitas. In civitas, the division of labor is highly developed and property relationships (private ownership of land and resources) come to have a “controlling influence,” “dominating as a passion over all other passions” (Morgan 1877: 6). I will try to show that even though China and the United States are both state societies with highly developed markets, they fall on opposite sides of Morgan’s distinction between societas and civitas: in China human and personal relations dominate and determine property relations, whereas in the United States property relations dominate and determine the nature of human relations—in Morgan’s words, they occupy a “commanding force in the human mind” (1877: 527).

Let me begin with a brief sketch of money and exchange in Chinese history. In China, exchange of commodities at markets and the development of money commodities are very ancient. Coins and bullion circulated as a medium of exchange from as early as the fourth and third centuries BC (Yang 1952: 1–2). By Han times (206 BCAD 220), a round bronze coin with a square hole in the middle was the standard medium for ordinary transactions. (Coins in the same general form continued in circulation for more than two thousand years, until the end of the Ch’ing dynasty in 1912 [Yang 1952: 2]. Figure 3 shows some I bought in an antique shop.) Figure 4 is a depiction of an early Han market at which similar coins would have been used. As a means of payment in large transactions, various forms of money commodities were used over time. Strong dynasties operated with gold and silver and even issued paper money from the eleventh century on, as in the Ming paper bill shown in Figure 5.

Chinese coins
Figure 3: Chinese coins. Photo by the author.
Market in the early Han dynasty
Figure 4: Market in the early Han dynasty (206 BCEAD 220).
Paper money from the Ming dynasty
Figure 5: Paper money from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644).

Throughout the premodern period, there was a steady increase in the number and density of markets at which currency could be spent, both those focused on urban settlements of permanent shops and periodic markets that depended in large part on itinerant craftsmen and peddlers. In Figure 6 we see some nineteenth-century craftsmen and peddlers: from the left a Kiangsi soup vendor, fortune teller, barber, and wood turner. In Figure 7 there is is a Hong Kong physician touting his wares. And in Figure 8 there is a twentieth-century counterpart, an itinerant pepper grinder, from Shanghai.

Nineteenth-century vendors and craftsmen
Figure 6: Nineteenth-century vendors and craftsmen from Kiangsi province.
Nineteenth-century Hong Kong physician
Figure 7: Nineteenth-century Hong Kong physician selling his wares.
Itinerant pepper grinder
Figure 8: Itinerant pepper grinder in Shanghai in the 1980s. Photo by the author.

Given the length of time Chinese have been marketing commodities and issuing currencies, many, including Max Weber and Mao Tse-tung, have wondered whether, by the end of the last dynasty, China had developed at least the rudiments, the sprouts, of capitalism. Without worrying over the definition of sprouts, it is by now clear (at least in broad terms) what the shape of late traditional Chinese society was like, and it is important for what follows that we see how it was not a fully blown capitalist system. Since ancient times, the official philosophy and policy of status rankings went in the order, from top to bottom: scholar-official, peasant, artisan, and merchant. Scholars, laboring with their minds, were most highly valued (Figure 9). Peasants, who produced wealth on which the whole nation depended for sustenance, were valued next, shown in Figure 10 sieving rice in contemporary Taiwan. Artisans, as secondary producers of wealth, came next: in Figure 11 we see a shoemaker and a blacksmith. And merchants as middle men, such as the tea dealers in Figure 12, who “depended on squeezing a profit from [their] fellow human beings” (Loewe 1968: 152), were ranked last (Ho 1964: 41–42). These rankings had practical consequences: up until the end of the Sung period (960–1279), “the law forbade artisans and merchants and their families to take government examinations” (Ho 1964: 41), the main route to official prestige and power (Twitchett 1968: 68). Figure 13 shows the individual cells in which the examinations were taken. In addition, merchants were separated from officialdom by elaborate sumptuary laws that governed what they could eat or wear, and how large or ornate their houses could be (Ch’u 1962; Twitchett 1968: 67). In reality, merchants were often able to circumvent these restrictions, as illustrated in Figure 14 (Ho 1964: 42), but the overall effect was to prevent the emergence of a bourgeoisie in the Western sense. Wealthy merchants, and they could be very wealthy, spent a large percentage of their accumulated riches trying to emulate the official elite, scholar-officials. The fabulously prosperous salt merchants of Yang-chou in the eighteenth century, despite heavy taxation of their wealth, “indulged in eccentricities and expensive hobbies, ‘dogs, horses, music, and women’; they owned beautiful pleasure gardens; they became bibliophiles, collectors, and art connoisseurs” (Balazs 1964: 52; see also Ho 1964 and Dirlik 1982: 114).

Figure 9: Nineteenth-century scholars.
Sieving rice in Taiwan
Figure 10: Sieving rice in Taiwan. Photo by the author.
Nineteenth-century shoemaker
Figure 11: Nineteenth-century shoemaker and blacksmith.
Nineteenth-century tea
Figure 12: Nineteenth-century tea dealers.
Nineteenth-century individual cells
Figure 13: Nineteenth-century individual cells for the governmental examinations.
Merchants wearing furs
Figure 14: Merchants wearing furs and silk.

When merchants did invest wealth rather than spend it, their preferred asset was farm land, and this was so even when urban investment promised greater profits (Balazs 1964: 52; Rawski 1972: 123) (Figure 15). Land may have been regarded as a secure investment, or a prestigious one, but it was not treated, as it often is in our society, as a means of maximizing returns. Rents were often held at a constant amount, and decisions related to production were left up to the tenant (Rawski 1972). Merchant owners were not using “capital” to “transform the nature of agricultural production” (Dirlik 1982: 114). The state had a heavy hand in controlling economic activity when it did arise. As Balazs has put it, “Any sign of initiative in the [merchant] camp was usually strangled at birth, or if it had reached a stage when it could no longer be suppressed, the state laid hands on it, took it under control, and appropriated the resultant profits” (1964: 41).

Aerial view of terraced
Figure 15: Aerial view of terraced rice fields.

A requirement for the operation of capitalism is that laborers, without other means of livelihood, meet employers in a labor market, where their labor is bought and sold for a wage. There clearly was wage labor in China, but this does not mean there was a “systematic tendency toward the creation of wage labor” (Dirlik 1982: 114). “Production by wage labor still constituted only a minor part of agrarian production. Well into the twentieth century, the predominant form of agrarian production in China continued to be small-scale household production, with the peasant family as the unit both of production and consumption” (1982: 115). For capitalism to flourish, two conditions must coexist: workers must offer their labor to others for a wage, and those to whom they offer it must so control land and other resources that the worker is compelled to sell his labor in order to eat (Eric Wolf 1981: 47–48). In China there were customary impediments to the sale of land. Land inherited from the ancestors was regarded as an estate held in trust by the family head. He did not own it as an individual, nor could he sell it on his own (Sung 1981: 365–66). In a real sense the land was not separate as an alienable thing from the kin group which tilled it. Land and family formed a virtually inseparable unit.

The family could also combine agricultural production with cottage industry without creating the conditions for capitalism (Dirlik 1982: 115). And although merchants might be involved in investing in such industry, they rarely organized it directly, “rather they would coordinate a multiplicity of small producers” (Elvin 1975: 103), like the silk reelers in Figure 16 and the Shanghai embroiderers in Figure 17.

Nineteenth-century silk
Figure 16: Nineteenth-century silk reelers.
Nineteenth-century embroiderers
Figure 17: Nineteenth-century embroiderers.

One lesson should be drawn from this sketch of late traditional China: elements of a capitalist economy can exist without implying that the whole system of capitalism as we know it is present. As Arif Dirlik puts it, “What are sprouts of capitalism in one place are not sprouts in another” (1982: 124). This lesson applies equally to Taiwan, even though it is held out by anthropologists and development economists alike as the success story of world capitalism. Certainly as an anthropologist living in a rural area an hour south of the capital city, it was easy to imagine I was witnessing the development of a capitalist economy, commonplace as it was to see and hear about wage labor in factories or shops, bank loans, businesses starting and failing, calculations of monetary wealth on every hand, and endless talk of profit and loss. Even the somewhat arcane ritual symbolism I was mostly interested in at first had money right in the middle of it, as in the mixture of the five grains, money, and nails (representing sons) that is carried in the funeral procession in a wooden rice measure (Figure 18). In the funeral procession, the rice measure is held by the eldest son (Figure 19) and its contents are thrown out over graves to let the ancestors know specifically what their descendants desire.

The five grains in a rice
Figure 18: The five grains in a rice measure in Taiwan. Photo by the author.
The eldest son holding the rice
Figure 19: The eldest son holding the rice measure in Taiwan. Photo by the author.

Yet amidst these forms that seemed very familiar were others that mystified me. Take, as one among many examples, the practices surrounding the celebration of Chinese New Year. I could understand how it would be important for all members of the household to spend this time together, often traveling long distances from jobs elsewhere to be sure of this (Feuchtwang 1974: 114). I could also understand the sending off of the kitchen gods to heaven—one is pictured behind the stove in Figure 20 and in close-up in Figure 21—so these earthly subordinates in the hierarchy of gods could report to their superiors in heaven on the conduct of household members in the past year. To ensure a good report, the mouth of the paper image of the kitchen god would be smeared with sweet rice (in the old days it was opium) before this paper image was dispatched by burning to the realm of the gods. But I was puzzled by the emphasis around New Years on settling debts. Was this a counterpart in the economic realm of cleaning out the house and washing all the bedding and furniture that we see occurring during the New Year period in Figure 22? Was it imperative that all debts be settled? Why the urgency?

Kitchen god behind the stove
Figure 20: Kitchen god behind the stove in Fukien province. Photo by the author.
Close-up of image of kitchen
Figure 21: Close-up of image of kitchen god in Fukien province. Photo by the author.
New Years house cleaning
Figure 22: New Year’s house cleaning in Taiwan. Photo by the author.

Looking back to nineteenth-century accounts of money at New Years only raised more questions. One observer makes it plain that borrowing and lending must come due at New Years:

Each separate individual is engaged in the task of trying to chase down the men who owe money to him, and compel them to pay up, and at the same time in trying to avoid the persons who are struggling to track him down, and corkscrew from him the amount of his indebtedness to them! The dodges and subterfuges to which each is obliged to resort, increase in complexity and number with the advance of the season until at the close of the month, the national activity is at fever heat. (Smith 1970: 155)

Another describes the strength of the social custom:

It is universally regarded as a great disgrace not to be able to pay one’s debts on the last day of a year. The law does not require debts to be paid at this time, but established custom requires it and the demands of custom are more inexorable and authoritative than the voice of the law. … The debtor would not be trusted during the following year unless he paid up his debts in the present. He would be known as a man who did not pay his accounts at the end of a year. … His reputation would be ruined. (Doolittle 1865, II: 86–87)

If the sanctions forcing debtors to pay off their debts by New Years were so strong, the urgency of the creditors seems unreasonably great:

After daylight on the morning of New Year’s, [a creditor] occasionally may be seen going about the streets in search of [his debtor] with a lighted lantern in one hand and his account in the other. He does not recognize or admit the fact that it is daylight. With him it is still dark, and in proof of this he carries his lantern, with which to see his way while in pursuit of his delinquent customer. According to custom, he may still pursue his debtor [only] if he carries a lighted lantern, as he would be obliged to carry one were it indeed night. (Doolittle 1865, II: 88)

The assumptions behind the practice? “If a debt is not secured then, it will go over till a new year, and no one knows what will be the status of a claim which has actually contrived to cheat the annual Day of Judgment” (Smith 1970: 155). What kind of debts are these that dissolve unless collected by the “rounding of the year”? This one practice, whose logic is so foreign to our own way of using money, can serve as a loud warning bell that the presence of money itself tells us little about how it will be used. What we must do is examine empirically the wide social context in which money moves around Chinese communities.

I will attempt to do just this in the rest of my talk tonight, focusing on three contexts: labor, marriage, and rotating credit societies. In each case we will see practices that look at first like our own “earning money,” “buying things,” “making profit,” or “investing capital.” But in each case, when we have exposed the inner logic of these practices, we will see that money is not being used in ways we might assume: these practices may appear to be sprouts of capitalism at the very least, but I will argue that they are not. Money circulates in Chinese communities in ways premised on an entirely different logic than that of capitalism: it concentrates on the first paradox we discussed earlier, building pure interaction and allowing personal liberty at the same time.

We begin with labor. That hallmark of capitalism, wage labor, is certainly present in Taiwan, for example for those workers who put together the components of our finest stereo systems and the seams of our designer clothes. Yet what people do with these wages has a very unfamiliar look. By and large all members of the family that shares a stove are expected to pool their wages by turning them over to the household head, receiving in return an allowance deemed adequate to meet necessary cash expenses (bus fare, lunch, etc.). It is not that there are never conflicts over these arrangements—there often are. But the general principle is: no “individual” profit, rather collective accumulation out of which individuals receive a share according to need. In this way, even money tainted, so to speak, by capitalist relations of production in factories in which labor is broken down into minute portions and measured and paid by strict time-keeping can be brought within the sphere of family time (Hareven 1982).

How much more should this be so for money paid for labor done within a single village, which escaped the kinds of measures of efficiency and productivity that were characteristic of factory work. The usual rural unit of labor was the “kung,” which means the amount of labor one person does in one day, whether transplanting seedlings or harvesting rice. There were wide variations in starting and ending times, number of breaks, intensity of effort, and productivity (Fei and Chang 1948: 30–31). These were not things the employer had it within his power to control, in contrast to a modern factory. The employer–laborer relationship was to some extent a relationship between whole persons. If work was not strictly controlled, neither was it strictly limited: laborers could be ordered to do errands, child care, or other household tasks (Su and Lun 1978: 210). Neither was payment limited to a standard “kung”/money ratio. Meals were expected in addition to wages (Fei and Chang 1948: 32; Su and Lun 1978: 210). In Taiwan it was customary to provide five meals a day to rice harvesters like those in Figure 23, in addition to the day’s wage. Although there might be a general supposition that better pay or meals ought to produce better work, what that better work consisted in (faster? more thorough? longer hours?) could not be strictly controlled by the employer. One paid what one could and hoped for the best.

Rice harvesting
Figure 23: Rice harvesting in Taiwan. Photo by the author.

A current Taiwan case described by Sung Lung-sheng illustrates how money was absorbed by the family, whether its source was the factory or the village:

The three generation extended Cheng family was headed by Cheng Piao, who was then 70 years old. He and his wife had seven married sons and 40 grandchildren. The family was dispersed in three separate houses. … There was a stove in each of these houses, so each residential group constituted a commensal unit.

The three wives in the first house rotated cooking responsibilities on a five-day cycle, as did the three wives in the second house. The inhabitants of the third house ate by themselves. … [Everyone’s] rice came from the family store house, and their vegetables came from the family garden. Cheng Piao went grocery shopping every day, and delivered meat, fish and other foods and necessities to each house on a per capita basis. He also controlled the income from the family’s land and knitting machines. … His first son was a part-time bricklayer in the vicinity, and his second son was a foreman in a coal mine and the manager of a small variety store. All the money these sons earned was handed over to Cheng. At the end of each year, Cheng gave a sum of money for new clothes and shoes to each according to the numbers and ages of the children in each. He also paid all marriage and educational expenses. (Sung 1981: 368–69)

In sum, although labor may be done in the private relationship of a wage earner to an employer, the money so earned can be pooled into a collective sum of common substance. This raises a question about the identities of the persons involved. Do they see themselves as private, separate independent selves coming together in a contractual arrangement, or do they see their common membership in a collectivity as constitutive of their personhood?

A Japanese scholar, Shuzo Shiga, has explicated traditional Chinese concepts of personhood, by which “during the father’s lifetime the son’s personality is absorbed into the father’s, while after the latter’s death his personality is absorbed into that of his son. Father and son are a continuum of the same personality, not two beings in mutual rivalry” (1978: 119–20). For this reason, it was no accident that the classics speak of father and son as “one body (I t’i)” or one breath (I ch’i)” (1978: 122). These old notions seem to bespeak the lack of an isolatable private self; instead they speak to a personhood constituted by membership in a common kin group. I know of no systematic examination of whether this has changed dramatically in modern Taiwan. My own field experience indicates it has not. For example, people commonly referred the cause of bodily illness to discord in the kin group. One day my assistant said she was sick. Thinking she meant she felt physically ill, I offered medicine and a trip to the doctor. She did mean she felt sick, but it was because her father and brothers had quarreled. Because her personhood was constituted by membership in the family, discord in the social “body” had to mean discord in hers.

At this point we have seen that debts, wages, labor, and personhood in contemporary Taiwan are not defined as they would be in a fully capitalist system: they are more like plants of another variety than sprouts of capitalism. Keeping in mind these hints about the logic of money and how it functions in China, let us move on to the exchanges of goods, money, and people involved in marriage and, second, exchange of goods and money in rotating credit societies.

First, then, a look at marriage. How do families that figure descent only through males obtain a wife for a son? In particular is there any sense in which the money and goods transferred from the groom’s family to the bride’s family at the engagement and wedding should literally be regarded as a “bride price,” as China anthropologists have often claimed they should be? Is she being bought by one family and sold by the other? It is clear that unless stringently legislated otherwise, as it was for a time in the PRC, the usual pattern is for an exchange of goods and money to accompany the bride transfer. What happens is that gifts of clothing, jewelry, special cakes, and pork, together with a substantial amount of cash, are sent to the bride’s family for the engagement ceremony. In Figure 24 goods are carried on open trays in Taiwan. In Figure 25 they are piled up in front of the bride’s house, and in Figure 26 behind the bride. Money in the form of paper bills is displayed openly on trays just as other goods are. At the wedding itself, the money sent by the groom is used up in its entirety to buy the dowry: household furnishings, cloth, clothing, and jewelry for the bride.

Gifts being brought
Figure 24: Gifts being brought to the bride in Taiwan. Photo by the author.
Gifts to the bride
Figure 25: Gifts to the bride in Taiwan. Photo by the author.
A bride with gifts arranged
Figure 26: A bride with gifts arranged behind her in Taiwan. Photo by the author.

Most Taiwan villagers I asked asserted that if things work out this way it cannot be considered buying and selling the bride. One said, “In a sense we do expend goods to buy the bride. But, no matter how much we give, we still owe a debt to her parents and grandparents for giving birth to her. If it weren’t for them, she would never have existed.” The inextricable connections between a woman and the bodies, lives, and efforts of her family do not allow her whole being to be compensated by a single payment, no matter how large. It was only when people imagined what would happen if the usual exchanges failed to take place that they spoke of buying and selling. If the bride’s family sends fewer goods with her than the bride price would buy, it is called “taking money from people”; if a bride comes from a very poor family that sends no dowry, it is called “buying” her (Rubie S. Watson 1985: 131). Or if the groom is flawed in some way, talk of buying and selling can enter. My landlady said there was no hope of arranging a regular marriage for her son because he had been in prison and was already thirty-nine years old. “The girl’s family can demand as much money as they want for an engagement fee, let them just make money off of it, and our family will pay. They won’t have to send a dowry at all. We will just buy a daughter-in-law.”

I think it is plain that a marriage with the full panoply of rites and exchanges, where neither partner has been married before, is not thought of as a market transaction in which one party profits. The term for such an ideal marriage is Ming-mei jeng-ch’u: “taking in marriage in a beautiful and correct way.” The term used for “taking in marriage” in this phrase is ch’u. It differs by only one element—the female radical—from the homophone ch’u, and this homophone’s meaning has to do with choice and movement in space. Another main term used in referring to marriage is a classic performative like “promise,” where one’s actions and words in and of themselves constitute a change in status. The term is tso, and it means “to make, to be, to act as, to do.” In the phrase Tso sim-pu it means to “make a daughter-in-law” or betroth a girl to one’s son. Terms for the goods that move back and forth also carry no implication of monetary recompense or profit. P’ing-chin, “engagement gold,” is the term for all the goods sent to the bride’s family and its basic meaning is to “invite by presents.” What is stressed is the necessity for a prior relationship to be established between two families if a major marriage is to occur. Thus the phrase P’ing tse wei ch’i means “one cannot become a legal wife except by betrothal exchanges.”

In contrast to all this is the term I have translated “buy,” used when the bride’s family sends too small a dowry or none at all. This term in Taiwanese is khit (Mandarin ch’i) and its dictionary meaning is not to “buy” but to “beg or entreat.” Its sense, I think, is that the usual relationship of roughly equal social standing between affines is missing, and one side or the other is greatly socially subordinate, because of bad behavior (my landlord’s son had been in prison) or serious poverty. What is happening in ideal marriages is that rights in the woman are being transferred from one family to another—rights in sex, reproduction, and labor. The money and goods that move to and fro establish a literal connection where one may well never have existed before, they allow both families to display their wealth, and they endow the bride with the material basis of her conjugal unit. This was so even when, until it was ended by law in 1949, China carried on a large market for the buying and selling of human beings: children for adoption or slaves; women for secondary wives, concubines, or slaves (James L. Watson 1980). One Hong Kong man objected to the possibility that a girl purchased as a child and intended to marry a son of the family could ever be considered a major wife: “How can a little daughter-in-law … be a proper major wife if you buy her like a piglet in the market?” (James L. Watson 1980: 244). But in marked contrast, major wives were not “bought,” they were “brought” into marriage (1980: 241, 232).

Further evidence that marriage gifts are different from market purchases is that when women’s monetary contribution to the family goes up, as it has in both Taiwan and the PRC, there is no corresponding proportional rise in the bride “price” in relation to dowry. In 1985 Margery Wolf found “no evidence that this increased ‘value’ for women has been expressed in bride prices … bride price and dowry are both present and … have increased at an equal rate. I have no doubts about the uses to which the bride price was put: it was plowed back into the dowry, and parents claimed much more was added besides” (1985: 179).

So far I have spoken of the movement of goods and money back and forth between the affines as if its job were to open a road of interaction between them. In speaking of gift exchange in New Guinea, Gregory describes how

Gifts of high rank create major “highways” that connect people of high rank, gifts of low rank create minor by-ways that connect people of low rank, while middle ranking gifts connect the highways and by-ways to form an extremely complicated network for roads complete with major junctions, minor junctions, fly-overs, roundabouts, one-way avenues and cul-de-sacs. (1982: 57–58)

In a sense Chinese marriage includes gifts of all degrees of importance, from pigs and gold to candy and small amounts of cash, which taken together open a thoroughfare between the new affines. The fathers of the groom and the bride are hosted by the groom at a feast several days after the wedding: it is the gift exchange that creates affinity, for once the initial engagement gifts have been accepted, neither the bride’s family nor she herself can back out.

Money and goods move back and forth between families, opening roads of interaction. Some of this money and one substance in particular—gold—seem to distill out of exchange. These distillates capture the two sides of the money paradox we began with, because they both are pure embodiments of exchange and, as we will see, enable personal liberty. As such they are altogether unlike the “profit” that distills out of the circulation of money in capitalism. The first precipitate is a fund of cash that belongs to the bride. It would usually be made up of gifts from friends, a portion of the engagement fee, or a portion of the bride’s inheritance from her natal family (Cohen 1976: 170). This money is the woman’s private fund, and can be used as she wishes, to buy special things for her children, to invest (Cohen 1976: 180), or to keep as a secret emergency fund (1976: 178). It stands as a reminder of the woman’s shared identity with another family, and as a marker of her separation from her husband’s family. Separate in substance as a product of an unrelated man’s seed, she and others like her are the only ones in Chinese families who have privately controlled wealth (McAleavy 1955: 546; Shiga 1978: 118; Freedman 1979b: 258).

The second precipitate of the marriage exchange besides cash may be a store of gold. This gold, in the form of jewelry—earrings, rings, hair ornaments—usually comes in part from the groom’s engagement gifts (James L. Watson 1980: 231; Rubie S. Watson 1985: 129). Unlike the wedding cash, which the bride might spend or invest, this gold was treated as treasure. The ornaments might be worn on special occasions, but they would ordinarily be locked in the bride’s top dresser drawer and they would not be sold unless she was desperate.

I think that this golden precipitate of exchange has to be understood in part as an emulation of state power and status. For centuries in imperial China only the central government could legitimately accumulate gold and silver in its treasury. Hoarding gold, taking it out of circulation in this way, was necessary to anticipate future expenses, since there was no notion of deficit financing (Yang 1952: 4–5). Similarly, elaborate sumptuary laws limited the wearing of gold ornaments and other precious metals and jewels to officialdom. As late as the Ch’ing dynasty, “Women of the common people could possess only one gold hair ornament and one pair of gold earrings” (Ch’u 1965: 141). In Taiwan, small god’s temples, like the one for the earth god shown in Figure 27, or large ones, like the one in Figure 28, are modeled on a nineteenth-century official’s Yamen—his place of business and residence. Ancestral hall roofs are decorated and shaped in a way prohibited to commoners but allowed officials in the Ch’ing dynasty (Figure 29). Given the continuing resonance with nineteenth-century marks of prestige, it should be no surprise that gold would be treasured in the locked drawer of a bride’s dowry dresser as a sign of her family’s status and power.

Village earth god temple
Figure 27: Village earth god temple in Taiwan. Photo by the author.
Large temple in Taiwan
Figure 28: Large temple in Taiwan. Photo by the author.
Ancestral hall in Taiwan
Figure 29: Ancestral hall in Taiwan. Photo by the author.

The final resting place of such gold might well be the grave, if the woman chose to be buried in her ornaments. As an aside that will be important later, bones are generally another sort of lasting gold-like residue of human activity. In parts of southeastern China and Taiwan, several years after death, a specialist is hired to collect up all the bones of the deadout of the grave, organize them, and place them in a ceramic urn. A specialist is hired to collect up all the bones, organize them, and place them in the urn (Figure 30). Family members, including women, rub away the fleshy residue on the bones and clean out the skull (Figure 31). This preserves the bones and allows them to be moved about as descendants try to capture good geomantic forces that will bring them sons, wealth, and peace. It is surely no accident that the urns are called “gold pots” and that the bones in a good geomantic location are said to glow softly within.

Collecting the ancestral
Figure 30: Collecting the ancestral bones in an urn in Taiwan. Photo by the author.
Cleaning the ancestral
Figure 31: Cleaning the ancestral bones in Taiwan. Photo by the author.

Gold acts as a precipitate of exchange, an embodiment of value. Gold ornaments are buried with the bones, and the golden “bone pots” are meant to last in the grave forever. Money, in contrast, continues its role as road-opener, circulator, even after death, and between the living and the dead. In a dramatic illustration of this, it is still customary in present-day Taiwan, as it was in the nineteenth century, to suspend a coin from strings attached to the coffin so that the coin hangs for a time in the mouth of the corpse. After the coin is withdrawn, it is presented to the eldest son of the deceased, who “treasures this coin, and hangs it on his neck as an amulet” (Dore 1966: 47). As money moves between the dead and the living, and between affines, we see how it represents “congealed exchange,” pure interaction. We have also had a glimpse of its personally liberatory aspect, as it gives women their own private wealth.

The last context in which I will examine exchange and the circulation of money from person to person is the rotating credit society. Called hui in Chinese, this institution is documented for almost all parts of traditional China and flourishes today in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and among overseas Chinese. Although these societies have been seen by anthropologists as sprouts of capitalism, “proto-banks,” with which peasants learned the credit arrangements and manipulations of money made necessary in capitalism, I will argue that money circulated in them in ways premised on an entirely different logic than that of capitalism, the same logic, in fact, that we saw money followed in marriage: building pure interaction and allowing personal liberty at the same time.

First let us look at the range of variation in the forms credit associations take. At the simplest end is a kind of rotating pool of money made up of contributions from the members of a club and shared by each of them in turn. A more complex version builds in the principle that those who take the money soonest pay more and those who take it last pay less. As this was described to me in Taiwan, in a $50 group, every member—say there are nine—contributes $50 to the head at its first meeting, for a total of $450. At every meeting afterward, there is a bidding for who will take the pot. The member who bids the highest figure is saying he is willing to pay this amount for the privilege of taking the money at that meeting. Say on the second meeting the highest bid is $10. This bidder then gets a full $50 from the head, and $50 minus his bid of $10 or $40 from the eight others for a total of $370. As meetings go by, the number of members paying in the full $50 would increase each time. Overall, the first several bidders appear to be paying interest, and the last several appear to be receiving it. However, I would like to argue the participants may not have seen it this way at all.

To understand how they did see it, we first have to realize how the movement of money from member to member in these groups depended on a history of good faith and trust. As Fei and Chang observed in the mid-twentieth century, “The functioning of this system depends on the invariable discharge of their obligations by the subscribers, and this is secured only by existing ties of friendship and kinship” (1948: 120–21). Yet the ties of kinship people preferred may not include their closest ones. Fei and Chang found that villagers tended to join societies with friends and affinal relatives (through marriage) rather than patrilineal kin. They comment that close agnatic relatives should assist one without “such special devices” (1948: 120). Since close agnates like brothers are bound by their common substance to a shared identity, one brother demanding payment from another was seen as impossible (Fei 1939: 267).

The same went for more distant agnates: “We were acquainted with a man who complained bitterly because his uncle was insisting that he pay his assessment on time. Kinship ties are built on the principle of mutual help, and it is not well to attempt to exploit them in ordinary business transactions” (Fei and Chang 1948: 121). The corporate nature of the kinship group does not allow individuated interests to form. In contrast, money in its personally liberatory aspects is at work in rotating credit societies. Both women, who had no right to that estate, and sons, whose fathers would not be likely to give them a portion of the patrimonial estate for a personal reason, could accumulate funds through rotating credit societies. In fact, one frequently hears querulous remarks from anthropologists that women dominate these institutions: Myron Cohen found that fully 25 percent of the members of the societies in his village were women (1976: 181). And of course, the money they invest is often precisely their private hoard of wedding cash.

But is the money men and women invest in these societies seen as leading to profit at someone else’s expense? Gregory makes a key point about different types of accumulation. There is the accumulation we are accustomed to in capitalism (m–mʹ) in which money seems to make more money, and in which the accumulation can go on indefinitely. But there is another kind of accumulation in which the “prime” is not seen as profit, but rather is seen as creating an obligation to engage in another interaction at a later time (Gregory 1982: 53). In the later interaction, of course, the “prime” may circulate on to someone else within the same community, and so not lead to any one person accumulating more than anyone else. As in the illustration above, if in gift exchange, A gives B $100 and later receives back $110, the additional $10 creates an obligation for A to continue the gift exchange. In contrast, in a capitalist system, the increment of $10 finishes off the transaction, because it is regarded as interest, or payment for the use of the original $100 over time.

In the literature on rotating credit systems in China, there are many strong statements that participating in rotating credit societies did entail future obligations (Kulp 1925: 191). The need to have a community of people willing to join as members when one needed a large sum of money kept the head or early takers from defaulting: Fei, an ethnographer who worked in China in the 1930s, points out that “Reciprocity is … an essential consideration. The defaulter will find it difficult to organize his own society in case of need” (1939: 270). Correspondingly, joining a credit society organized by others in their time of need ensures that they will feel obligated to join yours in your time of need. Emphasis is not on the abstracted sums of interest paid and received, but on the tangible need for a pooled sum of cash. In some cases rotating credit societies were only allowed to serve those needs that did not interfere with community solidarity. Fei makes this clear: marriage or funeral ceremonies were acceptable, “But productive purposes, such as starting a business or buying a piece of land, [were] not so regarded” (1939: 268). In other words, using the accumulated profits to increase stratification within the community was not permitted.

In spite of these ways the credit society could be made to have a leveling function, it is clear it could, if permitted by the community (and this happened in Taiwan and among overseas Chinese), also serve to accumulate more resources in the hands of some than of others, and could lead to capital formation. This supports the idea that these societies were ways in which peasants learned to operate complex financial transactions, deal with profit, interest, credit, and record keeping, and so stood them in good stead to occupy a commercial niche in Southeast Asia (Freedman 1979a).

Even though hui have the potential to function like banks, assisting the process of capital accumulation, and splitting communities into richer and poorer, we must not be too fast to assume this was always the case or even the intention. In the uses of hui described for Taiwan, for example, these societies function in an environment in which they are strongly disapproved of by the Nationalist state. As an aside here I want to look briefly at the relationship between local accumulations of wealth and the state because it will allow me to make some key comparisons later. The opposition of the state to credit societies is ostensibly because of the risk of default without guarantee (Stites 1982: 269), but probably more realistically it is because of the loss of interest paid to the financial sector, largely dominated by the state (Silin 1976: 23), In this sense, individual Taiwanese may prosper, but in the larger picture, Taiwanese are prospering at the expense of outsiders felt to be collective adversaries.

In Ch’ing China, if peasants had to go outside the community to get credit, they could get locked into exploitative relations with dominant classes: “During the slack season before harvest, … labor was abundant but food was often scarce. Hence an extensive, rather complex system of credit was integral to the agrarian economy. This was an important mechanism for tying seemingly independent owner-cultivators to the dominant classes in a dependent relationship” (Stacey 1983: 23).Borrowing money from members of the dominant classes might avoid trouble with other dominant sectors like the state. However, where rotating credit societies could provide the loan, no such dependent relationship need develop.

I have made a similar argument for pigs: that they too were means local populations used to keep resources from the state. Pigs are a kind of precipitate of household productivity, as gold is of exchange, because they turn garbage into valuable pork. In Taiwan there are festivals involving the raising of enormous pigs, called “Honorable Pigs,” that are elaborately decorated (Figure 32), offered to the gods (Figure 33) by large communities, and then locally consumed in feasts. For generations, governments have been arguing that these activities waste valuable resources, and trying various ways to legislate them out of existence. The contest is between the state, which would like pork marketed to provide tax and to keep the price low, and the local community, which would like to put on convivial feasts and invite friends and kin, consuming the pork locally (Ahern 1981). Pork and money kept in circulation or consumed in local systems build defensive links among equals at the expense of exploitative links with dominant classes or institutions.

Decorated Honorable Pigs
Figure 32: Decorated “Honorable Pigs” in Taiwan. Photo by the author.
Display of Honorable Pigs
Figure 33: Display of “Honorable Pigs” in Taiwan. Photo by the author.

Turning from this aside about the state to other aspects of the hui, we can see ways which they are not so much profit-generating devices as devices to translate from one sphere of exchange (cash) to another (commodities that people could produce directly). For example, in one kind of society the head collects, say, $5 from ten associates for a total of $50. “Perhaps a few weeks or a month later, he invites them all to a feast, which costs him about five dollars. This is his first repayment on the installment plan. The organizer does not pay back in cash but in the feasts which he provides at a cost equal to the amount paid to him by each member” (Kulp 1925: 190–91). The author of this account attempts to calculate the profit and loss involved in these exchanges, but I am not sure it is appropriate. What is happening is that small amounts of cash are pooled for the use of each member in turn. But in addition the head is able to exchange $50 worth of rice, vegetables, and meat for the $50 cash. In a village where most of these items could be grown in the course of normal subsistence activities, this amounts to converting the use value of food into the exchange value of cash.

The significance of the transition from goods to money is that certain things could not be obtained without cash. Dealing with government officials and market purchases usually required cash; weddings necessarily entailed the presentation of cash in the engagement fee. Rent in Taiwan is usually paid in cash, and in the Ch’ing, although most rents were paid in kind (grain), a minority of rents in all areas had to be paid in money (Perkins 1969: 105). Since most of these needs for cash only arose from time to time, circulating through the community, rotating credit societies were extremely well suited to handle them.

The central question I am trying to get at is: how did people think of the money that circulated and accumulated in these credit societies? Let me begin to look directly at the imagery and language in which people spoke of these groups. First there is the question whether ordinary participants understood the mechanism of rotating credit societies. Sometimes it is the foreign observers who have the problem: as one put it, rotating credit societies seem “confusion worst confounded, and the maze appears too intricate to the European observer, as he sees in his mind’s eye each member transformed, after the first month, one by one, from a lender into a receiver, a borrower, and a payer-back” (Ball 1925: 598). It is precisely because the invariant dominant–subordinate relations we associate with borrowing and lending are absent here that foreigners have difficulty grasping the mechanism. But rural Taiwanese I knew could explain it in a moment.

By far the most complex use of hui described in the literature is the New Guinea Chinese system, and its participants seem to have a simple mnemonic for expressing the different positions they can have in different hui: hui are said to be made up of a “head” and members, known as “legs.” “A Hui ‘leg’ who has yet to draw his fund is considered to have a ‘living hui” whereas the ‘leg’ who has already drawn it is said to have a ‘dead hui.” The object of joining many hui is “always to keep a ‘living hui’ and a ‘dead hui’ so that a businessman can maintain the necessary capital, absorbing interest from the yet needed living hui as a way of saving and maintaining one’s reputation” (David Y. H. Wu 1974: 574, 581).

This use of a metaphor comparing hui to a living organism—with head and legs, living or dead—is a clue for where to look next. Organic metaphors to describe credit societies abound: Doolittle gives us the “snake-casting-its-skin club,” which applies to a club in which members pay the head equal amounts at one time and receive back their portions in turn at stated intervals, “just, as it is said, the snake sheds or casts its skin gradually, or at regulated intervals” (1865, II: 150). Then there is the “Dragon-headed club,” in which first payments are larger than later ones, just as the dragon’s head is larger than its body (1865, II: 150).

In general, organic metaphors were commonly used to describe economic relationships in China. The basic occupational categorization that ranked agriculture over commerce is explained in the Classics as the difference between the “root” occupation—agriculture—and the “branch” occupation—trade (Kuhn 1984: 20). A Ch’ing writer uses the metaphors of flowers and grass to describe the difference between wealth and poverty:

Wealth and high status are like flowers. They wither in less than a day. Poverty and low status are like grass: they remain green through winter and summer. But when frost and snow ensue, flowers and grass all wither, and when spring breezes suddenly arrive, flowers and grass flourish. Wealth, high status, poverty, low status; being born and being extinguished; rising and declining: this is a principle of heaven and earth. (Quoted in Kuhn 1984: 25)

The significance of these metaphors from natural processes will become clear only when we have looked at how peasants described usury. It goes without saying that interest rates from a landlord or money lender were far higher than the rates prevailing within credit associations (Yang 1952: 97; Tawney 1966: 62; Young 1974: 113). In his famous study of Kaihsienkung, Fei describes how a peasant, desperate to get money to pay his land tax and avoid prison, might borrow from a professional money lender. The amount was set in terms of mulberry leaves, a main crop in this silk-producing area. Money was lent when there were no leaves, and so the rate was set arbitrarily at, say, 70¢ a picul (133 pounds). It was collected when due at the market price of leaves at that time, say $3.00 a picul. Peasants called this “living money of mulberry leaves” (Fei 1939:276). If the debtor could not pay, he might “change to rice,” hoping to be able to pay when the rice crop came in. If not, he had to hand over the title to his land. Collection was enforced by violence, or direct reprisals, such as taking a child for sale into slavery. The ultimate recourse of the debtor was to commit suicide at the door of the money lender, which would set his revengeful ghost upon the man, a sanction that was “to a certain extent effective in preventing the usurer from going too far” (1939: 279). It is no wonder the villagers called their money lender “Skin tearer.”

In other parts of China similar practices of gross profiting by lending money or grain at an extremely high rate of return were called “cultivating grain flowers” when grain was lent and “cultivating sugar flowers” when sugar was lent (Leonard T. K. Wu 1936: 64, 68). Note that although organic metaphors were used for these forms of usury, much as they were for rotating credit societies, the processes spoken of in usury do not exist in nature! Neither grain nor sugar bears flowers, nor do mulberry trees bear living money. In contrast, the metaphors that describe credit societies belong to common organically related parts of bodies such as a head and legs, or a snake and its skin.

The significance this would have for Chinese is of course not that a natural “law” had been broken. Rather, these events, if they occurred, might well be taken as evidence of a sign from Heaven to high officials that all was not well in the empire. As Joseph Needham says, “The Chinese were not so presumptuous as to suppose that they knew the laws laid down by God for non-human things. … The Chinese reaction would undoubtedly have been to treat … rare and frightening phenomena as chhien kao (reprimands from heaven), and it was the emperor or the provincial governor whose position would have been endangered” (Needham 1956, II: 575). Thus we see there may possibly have been a rebellious connotation to peasants comparing usury to the sort of thing that might be read as a “reprimand from Heaven.” Marx noted that capitalists see the interest-bearing aspect of money as its natural property, “much as it is an attribute of pear trees to bear pears” (1967, III: 392). In China pear trees bearing pears would also be seen as a natural property of the tree. But grain-bearing flowers would be taken as a sign that something was awry in the cosmos.

Let us return to New Years debt settlements, which began this lecture. Doolittle describes the dire consequences of failing to settle one’s debts to village shopkeepers: “Instances occur when debtors, in despair of being able to pay their debts at the close of the year, and being too proud to bear the disgrace and other consequences of a failure to do so, commit suicide” (1865, II: 86–87). One might wonder if defaulters in a rotating credit society could be brought to the same pass, and indeed they can. David Wu describes a suicide following a spectacular collapse (1974: 581). Others describe somewhat less dire consequences: in Hong Kong if one is in arrears for a long time and does not make contributions by the time the credit society’s term is up, one is considered laan or “washed up,” “rotten” (the same word is used for spoiled fruit), and will not be able to join any credit society in the future. The debtor “may or may not feel he must leave town. In any case, the judgment against him is unreserved and final” (Young 1974: 111). These suicide cases—from default on a debt to a shopkeeper or from default on a credit society debt—result when, so speak, fruit rots, or in other words, someone fails to carry out the forms of everyday sociality expected in local communities. The relationship between the credit society members can be represented by an ordinary thing like fruit, and like fruit, if a member defaults, he will be thrown away.

Encapsulated within these two types of suicides are the two aspects of money we have discussed: a person who cannot meet debts to village shops by New Years or who defaults on a rotating credit society shows his failure to carry on the social trust embodied in money, the trust that the money will travel ceaselessly between people and so help make up the multiple roads of contact that society is comprised of. Losing your reputation means losing others’ willingness to include you in these activities, and insofar as your personhood is made up of membership in these groups, if you fail in your obligations to them, you really do cease to exist.

In great contrast is the suicide following the rapacious money lender’s seizure of property, described by Fei. This is the face of money that is capable of infinite accumulation at the expense of others. This, expressed as a reprimand from Heaven—flowering grain or money-bearing leaves—is condemned by the revengeful spirit of the debtor’s hungry ghost.

Speaking of Southeast Asia and other Asian societies, Clifford Geertz argued that rotating credit societies could run the gamut from an institution with “diffusely social motivations, attitudes, and values as controlling elements” to one with “explicitly economic aims and modes of operation.” In my view the whole point about Chinese credit associations is that they bound together in one institution the two faces of money, its social interaction aspect and its individuation aspect. Even in cases where the individuating aspect became a lever by which some could ultimately profit more, as long as people participated in these groups, they were bound by many social considerations. There is no discrimination between “economic” and “non-economic” problems and processes and acting “differentially with respect to them” (Geertz 1962: 261) because both were caught up in the same orbit, bound together in the same institution. Perhaps only when the economic and noneconomic are separated can grain flower and mulberry trees bear money.

I began this lecture with ways China was not a capitalist system before the end of the last dynasty. I have spent most of my time showing how contemporary Taiwan is not a fully blown capitalist society either, because of a variety of local institutions that hold the operation of money and markets within strict bounds. (Next time we will see how in other respects people struggle against the state to increase the operation of markets.) Before ending, I would do well to mention that the PRC has no intention of replicating a full capitalist system either, even though Deng Xiaoping was voted by Success magazine as 1985’s “outstanding achiever” (Salisbury 1989: 286).

Despite the glee with which Americans are greeting the opening up of China as a market for American goods (Farnsworth 1986), it is clear China’s current leaders are accepting only a limited amount from the market economy. In recent years neither labor nor natural resources are being treated as commodities, planning is still central, although somewhat more flexible, and the ideals of socialism still “constitute the yardstick by which the long-term efficacy of the market mechanism is to be measured” (Hsu 1985: 455). As evidence, the state has acted to enforce injunctions against price-cutting because it might hurt a fellow firm, and to prevent firms from withholding technical information from others (1985: 448).

We may or may not admire these efforts to keep firms from hurting one another, but we can at least see them as similar to the other cases we have discussed. In China today, the state is forcing social issues to predominate over economic gain for individual firms. In nineteenth-century China and Taiwan, social and economic issues were often inextricably bound together by the concepts of shared substance and shared property, the connection between marriage and exchange, and community governance of rotating credit societies. In all these contexts, which I have chosen to emphasize at the expense of others such as usury, taxation, and rent, Morgan’s “passion for property” was simply not permitted to become a “commanding force in the human mind.”

Although I have said almost nothing about the United States today, I have not forgotten that my four lectures are meant to form a set, the purpose of which is to construct a comparison with our own society. Next time we will look at the meaning of Chinese ritual offerings of money to the gods and at further glosses of theirs on the risks they see involved in capitalist processes. By the end of that lecture, we will be ready to look at the meanings in our own society: of money, imaginary money, gold, and pigs; personhood, value, suicide, and murder; our metaphors of money’s magical ability to increase, of how capital grows, and both gustatory and bellicose metaphors of how firms begin, develop, and end.

All this is the better to understand the dense meanings deposited in money, which in Western history have a particularly dark and sinister aspect. For example, there is Chaucer’s and Dickens’ juxtaposition between money and excrement: Chaucer focusing on an “overweening desire for money which lands most people in the filth of hell” (quoted in Sedgewick 1985: 164); and Dickens on “organic corruption which lay festering in the values that money set, the awful offal of Victorian standards” (Davis, quoted in Sedgewick 1985: 163). And Edgar Allen Poe’s juxtaposition between money and the horror of death in “The Gold Bug,” of which it is said, “I never saw anything like it before—unless it was a skull, or a death’s head—which it more nearly resembles than anything else that has come under my observation” (1889: 13). (No friendly Chinese bones glowing softly in their pots here!) And finally Shakespeare’s juxtaposition between usury and consumption, even cannibalism, in The Merchant of Venice, where Shylock describes his bargain thus:

Let the forfeit

Be nominated for an equal pound

Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken

In what part of your body pleaseth me.

(Act 1, Scene 3)

One of my main questions in the next three lectures will be: what happened in the development of Western civilization to set loose the side of money connected with evil and destructive forces at the expense of the side of money connected to sociability and the many roads of human exchange?