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Mountain Medicine: Migrants, Markets, and the State in the Nineteenth-Century Cassia Trade

Tue, June 23, 2:00 to 3:55pm, South Building, Floor: 5th Floor, S525


The paper examines the production and marketing of cassia bark (guipi) along the West River basin. Cassia bark was produced in the mountains of western Guangdong’s Luoding Department and southeastern Guangxi’s Pingnan County. These areas had come under firm imperial control only in the late Ming, and Qing-era accounts still associated this mountain medicine with hill peoples whom they labeled “Yao.” Yet in the nineteenth century, the booming cassia bark trade was driven by overseas demand and it was dominated by Cantonese merchants from the Pearl River delta. Throughout the nineteenth century, complaints emanating from upriver elites, Qing officials, and foreign merchants asserted that particular Cantonese merchants monopolized this trade, forcing upriver producers to accept artificially low prices. Cantonese enjoyed their privileged position due to their greater physical mobility along the river basin and to their ability to mobilize the authority of the imperial state. The only upriver elites who effectively countered this Cantonese monopsony in cassia-producing areas were those who, through social and physical mobility, constructed kinship ties in the delta and network affiliations with officials in Guangdong. In the second half of the century, upriver producers faced additional pressures from increased taxation to fund the suppression of rebels and bandits in upriver regions, military campaigns that allowed Cantonese to reclaim economic influence upriver. In the upper West River basin, then, the reconstruction of empire occurred in tandem with the reassertion of Cantonese commercial interests and increased linkages to the global economy.