Online ISSN : 2424-2616
Print ISSN : 0018-2478
ISSN-L : 0018-2478
The Functions of Fellow-Regional Guilds in Modern Urban China : The Case of the Ningpo Guild and Its Disposition of Deceased Urban Migrants
Hiroyuki Hokari
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1994 Volume 103 Issue 2 Pages 217-243,313-31


In this paper, the author considers the primary functions of "fellow-regional" (同郷) guilds in China's large cities and how their functions changed, in order to examine the question of assimilation within the urbanization of modern China; As a case in point, the author has chosen to study the practices of the Shanghai-based Ningpo Guild (四明公所) concerning disposition of the corpses of its deceased members. From as early as Tang and Song times, China's cities grew in size by virtue of migration of craftspeople and merchants from the outside, to an extent that these newcomers came to occupy over half of the urban population: Population movement, both rural-to-urban and inter-urban, gave rise to social bonding based on common places of origin and kinship, resulting in the formation of fellow-regional guilds. With respect to the disposition of the dead, it was traditionally desirable in China that one be interred in his place of origin. This custom gave rise to the problem of how the bodies of deceased urban migrants would be preserved while waiting transport back to their birthplaces. Furthermore, both philanthropic organizations (善堂) and fellow-regional guilds took positive action to maintain contact with places of origin through welfare-oriented activities, and thus contributed to the stability of China's Confucianist-based society. Fellow-regional guilds took advantage of the vertical integration of society based on Confucianist morality, that was promoted by the government, as well as horizontal native-place town ties to raise their social positions. In such services as looking after the dead until they could be transported back to their places of origin, the fellow-regional guilds also functioned to integrate the warp and weft of Chinese society and became a longstanding cultural institution symbolizing the characteristic features of Chinese urbanization. At the end of the Qing period, the Ningpo Guild, which was an organization of fellow-regionals from Ningbo, became very active in such social services concerning the dead. However, these practices came into conflict with the attempts by the French Concession to "modernize" urban mortuarial customs. Accepting the challenge posed by European culture, which had modernized its public health systems under pressure from repeated plagues, Chinese cities for the first time took up the problem of holding the dead for transport as a "modernization" issue. The Ningpo Guild was discouraged from continuing its duties of holding corpses in the Concession but the whole mortuarial system evolved in accordance with Chinese custom, resulting in an insufficient solution to the basic public health problems involved. This modernization movement brought about other changes in guild organization, as the call for more public health sciousness caused more participation by lower class Ningbo migrants in the Guild. This fact suggests that the Ningbo. migrants to Shanghai, by continuing traditional corpse disposition practices suitable to their own daily lives, never really settled down as genuine Shanghai citizens. With the funereal reforms carried out after 1949, cremation became the major corpse disposition practice in urban China; bringing about a further weakening of ties between city residents and their hometowns. As migrants settled into the ways of their new urban homes, the problem of what to do with their dead was more easily solved. This state of affairs led to the natural disappearance of the historical role played by fellow-regional guilds in urban China.

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© 1994 The Historical Society of Japan
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