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Yunnan’s Cosmopolitan Villagers: Merchants and Modernity in the Late-Qing and Republican Borderlands

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


This paper shifts our attention to the legacies of imperial and commercial expansion in late Qing and Republican Yunnan, where certain villages had a concentration of transnational trading firms. From these villages, men had long ventured abroad to trade, a practice that became ever more commonplace during the Qing commercial and imperial expansion. By the late Qing, this legacy of mobility enabled a level of familiarity with the world outside of China that placed some merchant families at the leading edge of Chinese confrontations with modernity. By focusing on the development of social and political networks, the transformation of education provided to elite children, the creation of new civic institutions, and the emerging material culture influenced by cosmopolitan tastes, the paper explores how some, privileged borderlanders did not live as if in an isolated, rural periphery but instead mobilized transnational wealth and knowledge to carve out a new, networked and politically active merchant elite. They built houses influenced by English and Burmese architecture and sent their children to university, sometimes overseas, and actively engaged in the crucial political developments of the day (joining the Tongmenghui, the expansion of state intervention in the economy). They therefore lived lives that spanned both national and areas studies borders, and their experiences suggest that our understanding of the origins of modern China must be rethought so as to include the cosmopolitan people outside of the large eastern cities.