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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

An (almost) empty museum in Sihui

At first thought you might think that something that calls itself the Chinese Businessmen Museum would be pretty dry and boring. True, it’s housed in a rather beautiful building (well, impressive on the inside at least!) but that’s not what people tend to come here for.

Mind you, when I say “people tend to come here”, that might be somewhat egging it a bit. The place is practically empty and you can all but guarantee the museum entirely to yourself as you wander around.

Actually the name ‘Business Museum’ is a little misleading; this privately funded museum is a showcase of the Jinshang merchants from Shanxi, who were most prominent in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties.

At the reception desk they have obviously had a rethink on what to call the museum – maybe someday they will reprint their entrance tickets to reflect this too.

In days gone by, the province of Shanxi (or Jin as it is often referred to) was the birthplace of numerous successful business people. Their collective businesses became known as ‘Jin Shang’ and their development took place mainly in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Jin Shang merchants set up businesses across China, ‘ranging from silks and satins to garlic and onions’ as a popular saying went. By doing so they contributed to China's economic development. Their businesses even spread as far as Mongolia and Japan and they dominated border trade between China and Russia for almost 200 years.

One problem with this museum becomes clear straight away. The lighting is atrocious and it is often quite difficult to see what is inside some of the glass cabinets, which also reflect light from the windows, making visibility very poor. But there are plenty of nice old photos if you like that kind of thing. Here, for instance, are some camel drivers, both old and young.

Jin Shang merchants initially took advantage of the government policy of encouraging salt dealers and transported salt and grain to China's border regions.

After peasant rebellions ushered in the Ming Dynasty, there was still a military threat from the remnant forces of the preceding Yuan Dynasty. They had fled to the Mongolian grasslands beyond China's northern borders, and this had prompted the new rulers to go in for massive construction of the Great Wall and to deploy about a million troops along it. As time went by, a complete defence system was developed comprising nine military area commands with 13 garrisons operating under them.

During the Ming Dynasty, Jin Shang merchants already engaged in trade with ethnic minority people living in compact communities beyond the Great Wall in the north. In the following Qing Dynasty they became the main traders in those regions, where they enjoyed the trust of the various ethnic minority groups for the high quality of the goods and services they offered and their flexible ways of doing business.

Here are some pictures of ethnic Mongolians…

Apart from business artefacts, there are also displays of other bits and pieces, such as these rings of bells used to place round horses’ necks.

There are also plenty of printing blocks on display, used for producing bills and drafts by the Jin Shang merchants.

Some of the merchants defied an imperial ban on shipping and sailed to Japan on business during the early Ming period. During the Qing Dynasty they organised camel trains and fleets to ship Chinese goods abroad and bring back foreign goods. Through their trade in tea between China and Russia in the 19th century they became international traders and eventually dominated China's foreign trade.

As you can see, the ‘tea road’ extended a long way north and west.

And this is a photo of the end of the tea route… in St Petersburg!

Few may know that the success of Maotai, China's ‘national liquor’, can also be attributed to Jin Shang merchants. The story goes that in 1704 a Shanxi merchant named Guo was carrying out his salt business at a small town called Maotai in Guizhou province. He hired some distillery master workers from his native province, where they produced Fenju liquor, to try out a new business. Together with local workers, these workers from Shanxi succeeded in producing the now-famous Maotai by using locally available spring water, yeast of wheat and Chinese sorghum. Maotai liquor won the golden prize at the 1915 Panama World Expo, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Here you will also see an advertising sheet for Laobaifen/Zhuyeqing liquor produced by the Xinhuacun Distillery

During the reign of Emperor Daoguang (1782-1850) Jin Shang merchants created China's earliest banks known as ‘piaohao’ and soon piaohao houses were found in all major Chinese cities forming a financial network so powerful that for a time capital flow on the domestic market was said to depend on the earnings and losses of piaohao houses. The integration of commercial capital with financial capital made Jin Shang known in China and abroad as the most powerful players in China's commercial and financial undertakings. Taigu City in Shanxi province became known as ‘China's Wall Street’.

So you won’t be surprised to see loads of abacus sets on display…

… some of which are quite beautifully crafted…

… and even come in all shapes and sizes.

Also on display are record books of pawned articles – some of them are quite beautifully drawn up too.

There is also a myriad of precious seals of the Jin Shang merchants…

… not to mention these strange looking objects. What could they be, you ask yourself…

They’re actually small scales used by Jin Shang banking firms. Very neat and compact!

Now, all of these displays are on the second floor of the museum building. On the ground floor is a well lit lobby for meetings, complete with Ming-style chairs. How often it is used, I have no idea; but it is all kept spotless by an army of cleaners who far outnumber the (four) visitors to the museum.

Take subway Line 1 to the last station – Sihui East, and leave from exit A. Cross over to the south side of the Expressway, and walk due west for 900 metres. The museum’s entrance is on the south side bordering the river (south gate 2).