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Complicated Matters: Commercial Dispute Resolution in Qing Chongqing from 1750 to 1911


This work is a study in three parts: the first three chapters cover the creation of early Qing policies of administration and market regulation and the implementation of those policies in Chongqing during the era when it was still an imperial frontier. The middle two chapters detail the growth and expansion of nineteenth-century institutions of market governance and municipal administration during the era of Chongqing's rise as a major center of trade in the empire. The final three chapters document how merchants employed the court in addition to the other institutions outlined in previous chapters to resolve their disputes, and how these patterns changed over time.

This study is, first and foremost, a reexamination of how central policies, local administrative conventions, and market practices combined to form a dynamic and sophisticated atmosphere for the conduct of exchange and the enforcement of economic agreements. Its major finding is that the Qing court of Chongqing relied upon several local administrative institutions - including collective responsibility units, merchant groups, and licensed brokerages - to monitor and intervene in market activity, and that the use of these institutions profoundly influenced the way that the court handled commercial disputes. From the middle of the eighteenth century, the Qing state chose not to invest in legal definitions of rights or obligations between individuals engaged in commerce, but rather to invest in administrative and legal means of supervising the local institutions that were given de facto responsibility over determining and enforcing commercial obligations outside of the court.

The decision to govern markets indirectly reflected certain basic facts about the political economy of Qing China, and continued to determine the options available to the Qing state as its interest in intervening in economic affairs increased over time. The end result of the development of eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century market institutions was that, when the Qing state did codify several laws about the market in the early twentieth century, the most important innovations it offered were not laws about individual economic interaction, but rather the composition and function of the groups by which merchants were managed. I argue that this long transition must be understood to appreciate how and why China's markets were managed differently in the twentieth - and now the twenty-first - century.

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