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huiguan 會館, guild halls

Jul 15, 2016 © Ulrich Theobald

Huiguan 會館, often translated as guild halls, were central institutions of guilds of merchants or trades (hangye huiguan 行業會館), either found in their hometown, or in foreign provinces, where they served to bring together immigrants from the same region (landsmannschaften, tongxiang huiguan 同鄉會館). Guild halls had one the one hand administrative purposes, and on the other served as centres for social activities, entertaining the guild members by theatre plays or carrying out ceremonies, for instance, for common ancestors (zushi 祖師) or protective deities or "saints" (shenzhi 神祇). In some instances, they also included living quarters. Being organizational centres for guilds, they also had the task to formulate rules for their business branch, and registered all members and their shops or workshops. Members of the guild had the right to borrow money, were supported financially and accompanied through all important stages in their lives, including the funeral. Last but not least, members found judicial assistance by the guild halls which was of particular importance when they lived in another province, with different legal customs.

Guild halls were found in all important cities of late imperial China. Alone in Beijing, there were more than a hundred (some sources say, more than four hundred) of them outside the southwestern Xuanwu Gate 宣武門. There one found once the Jiangxi Guild Hall 江西會館, the Fengtian Guild Hall 奉天會館, the Sichuan Guild Hall 四川會館 and the Guild Hall of Hunan 湖南會館, which still exists today. The oldest known institution, the Wuhu Guild Hall 蕪湖會館 in Beijing, was founded during the Yongle reign 永樂 (1403-1424) of the Ming period 明 (1368-1644). The most important type of merchant guild halls were the Shanxi Guild Halls 山西會館, where the long-distance merchants and bankers from that province organized themselves in foreign cities. In some cases, the merchants or tradesmen from two provinces joined in one institution, like Shanxi and Shaanxi (Shan-Shaan huiguan 山陝會館) or Hubei and Hunan (Hug-Guang huiguan 湖廣會館).

In many cities, surviving guild halls served today as museums. Donations and fees by the members allowed the authorities of many guild halls to construct lavishly decorated buildings. Most had a central hall (zhengting 正廳), a shrine (citang 祠堂), a theatre (xilou 戲樓, xitai 戲臺), and some even a guild school (xueshu 學塾). In Beijing, there were also guild halls of state officials and members of the gentry, so-called examination halls (shiguan 試館). After the Ming period, the importance of these halls declined. The difference between landsmannschaft-type halls and merchants halls was not always clear, because it was commonly the case that merchants from the same place of origin like to organize themselves in foreign places. In Fuzhou 福州, for instance, the paper producers (and sellers) from Dingzhou 汀州 and Shanghang 上杭 joined in the Dingzhou Guild Hall 汀州會館.

Sources:
Fu Yiling 傅衣凌 (1992). "Huiguan 會館", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 415.
Lanzhou daxue jingji xi 蘭州大學經濟系 et al., ed. (1986), Jianming jingjixue cidian 簡明經濟學辭典 (Lanzhou: Gansu renmin chubanshe), 515.
Yang Lingyu 楊玲玉 (1992). "Huiguan 會館", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Jianzhu yuanlin chengshi guihua 建筑·園林·城市規劃 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), 210.
Zhao Yulin 趙玉林, Wang Huazhong 王化中, ed. (1990). Jingjixue cidian 經濟學辭典 (Beijing: Zhongguo jingji chubanshe), 699.
Zhongguo baike da cidian bianweihui 《中國百科大辭典》編委會, ed. (1990). Zhongguo baike da cidian 中國百科大辭典 (Beijing: Huaxia chubanshe), 337.