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Shuo Wang

Wu Bingjian and his Friends. The relations network of a Chinese merchant in the early 19th century

Personal Information


Shuo Wang

Name:    Wang, Shuo
Place of birth:    Changsha / P.R. China
Date of birth:     02.06.1981

Academic Career

Since 06/2011
Scholarship holder of the post graduate program „Freunde, Gönner, Getreue” of University Freiburg

Participation in the conference „Migrating Ideas of Governance and Bureaucracy in Asia and Europe since the Early Modern Era” in Peking. Speech on „The Canton System and the Qing Administration”.  

Since 04/2010
Ph.D. student of Prof. Dr. Sabine Dabringhaus, Department of History, University Freiburg. Research theme: Wu Bingjian and his friends. The relations network of a Chinese merchant in the early 19th century. 

04/2004 – 02/2010
Study at the University Heidelberg, Department of History (1. Major: Medieval and Early Modern History, 2. Major: German as Foreign Language.)

Master paper: “A foreign ideal ruler. The Chinese emperors during the early Enlightenment in Germany”, Referee: Prof. Dr. Thomas Maissen.

02/2003 – 02/2004
Study at the Studienkolleg of University Potsdam

03/2002 – 01/2003
German language intensive course at the Prolog Language School in Berlin

Arrival in Germany

09/2000 – 10/2001
English studies in Guangzhou (Canton), China
(Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, Faculty of English Language and Culture)

General qualification for university entrance in Zhanjiang, Guangdong Province, P.R. China 


„The Canton System and the Qing Administration. A window, that didn´t want to open?“, in: Richter, Susan (ed.), Migrating Ideas of Governance and Bureaucracy in Asia and Europe since the Early Modern Era, Heidelberg: Springer, 2011. 

Work Expierences

Practicum in editorial office of the Campus Publishing House (Campus Verlag) in Frankfurt 

Correspondent during the conference „Migrating Ideas of Governance and Bureaucracy in Asia and Europe since the Early Modern Era” in Peking

04/2008 – 08/2010
Research Assistant and translator in Cluster of Excellence „Asia and Europe in a Global Context”, University Heidelberg (Research Project A4: Governance & Administration, The Fascination of Efficiency)

PhD Thesis Project

Wu Bingjian and his Friends. The relations network of a Chinese merchant in the early 19th century

Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Sabine Dabringhaus

The meaning of friendship with respect of group-relations should be researched in my project, namely a case study on Wu Bingjian (1769-1843, Chinese: 伍秉鉴, also known as Howqua), one of the leading merchants of the mercantile community in Canton in the early 19th century. Also in China there was a transitional phase, during which the first indications of a profound change in society and state became noticeable. This change was associated with an increasing confrontation with the west. Since the merchants in Canton, namely the so-called “Hong Merchants”, were commissioned to take charge of the foreign trade since the early 18th century, they were an important connection between the late imperial China and the west. In order to fulfill their role as mediator, they must establish and maintain their relationship with their foreign trading partners as well as the circles of the Qing court and other Chinese merchants. This double role makes them particularly interesting for a research about friendship and social relations within the framework of the post graduate program of University Freiburg.

This project focuses on the relations-network of Wu Bingjian, who was recorded in “The Rich and How They Got That Way” as one of the 50 richest persons in the last thousand years. He lived in the last decades before the Opium Wars in the middle of the 19th century, as China was forced to open for the foreign trade. But Wu had his most successful years during the 1820s and 1830s, as the decline of the Canton System already became visible and most of the Hong Merchants went bankrupt. This is the historical context, in which Wu had established a diverse network of social relationship, which is not yet researched, but should be of vital importance for his success. 

Since Wu Bingjian, just like all other Hong Merchants, must mediate between the Chinese government officials and foreign traders, he had to operate at three levels: with his competitors, namely other Chinese merchants, with the local government officials, who seemed to be a kind of patronages to him, and finally with his foreign trading partners in intercultural context. This network consisting of three groups of actors determined the social position of a Hong Merchant and his prestige within the merchant class. Furthermore, he was also a mirror reflecting the worldview of a Chinese merchant at that time.

Relations are of course not always friendship. How to differentiate these two terms in thought and action by the merchants in Canton is one of the leading questions of my project. In addition, it should be clarified that how large was the proportion of instrumentalized – usually asymmetric – contacts within a mercantile relations network. How can we recognize or define a friendship and it´s affective side? What kind of values and principles of behavior were relevant for the various actors in this network? How could Wu Bingjian, who was reliant upon the patronage of the Qing government as well as good contacts with his European trading partners, protect himself in case of conflict? Since traditional China had little legal protection for merchants and the regulation of trade was not really anchored in any codes of law, personal relations (incl. friendship) often functioned as a kind of protection. In this context it must be found out, how did the European, who were characterized by the Enlightenment and the perception-transition from “Sinophilie” to “Sinophobie” and hold another comprehension of social relationship, judge their relationship with the Chinese? With other words: To what extent can we differentiate the Chinese and the western values of friendship during the early 19th century?  

  • Postadresse:

    Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg
    DFG-Graduiertenkolleg 1288
    c/o Historisches Seminar
    Rempartstr. 15 - KG IV
    79085 Freiburg 
  • Besuchsadresse:

    Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg
    DFG-Graduiertenkolleg 1288
    Erbprinzenstraße 13
    79098 Freiburg
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