Dear China: Emigrant Letters and Remittances, 1820-1980

Dear China: Emigrant Letters and Remittances, 1820-1980

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Qiaopi is one of several names given to the “silver letters” Chinese emigrants sent home in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These letters-cum-remittances document the changing history of the Chinese diaspora in different parts of the world and in different times.

Dear China is the first book-length study in English of qiaopi and of the origins, structure, and operations of the qiaopi trade. The authors explore the characteristics and transformations of qiaopi, showing how such institutionalized and cross-national mechanisms helped sustain families separated by distance and state frontiers and contributed to the sending regions’ socioeconomic development. Dear China contributes substantially to our understanding of modern Chinese history and to the comparative study of global migration.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520298439
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/24/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Gregor Benton is Emeritus Professor at Cardiff University. His books include Mountain Fires: The Red Army’s Three-Year War in South China and The Qiaopi Trade and Transnational Networks in the Chinese Diaspora (coedited with Hong Liu and Huimei Zhang).
Hong Liu is Tan Kah Kee Endowed Professor of Asian Studies and Chair of School of Social Sciences at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. His publications include China and the Shaping of
Indonesia, 1949–1965 
and Singapore Chinese Society in Transition.

Read an Excerpt


The Genealogy of Qiaopi Studies

In recent years, histories of migration and overseas settlement have been increasingly written, in part, from migrants' correspondence. Edited collections of migrants' letters have appeared, particularly in the United States and Australia. However, this has been conspicuously less the case for some ethnic groups — in particular, non-white groups — than for others. Most of the better-known anthologies and studies written from letters concern richer, better-educated white emigrants.

In China, however, curators have collected far more migrants' letters, absolutely and proportionately, than anywhere else in the world, generally dwarfing the efforts of their non-Chinese counterparts, including in the European countries that have fed global white migration for the last few hundred years. This achievement is all the more surprising given that China was, until recently, very poor and is still a developing country. We know of no other developing nation that has assembled an archive anywhere near as big as China's, even proportionately.

Why are the collections of white emigrants' letters smaller, less representative, and less comprehensive than the Chinese archive? The difference is partly due to the efforts of Chinese archivists in collecting and preserving these materials, and to the fact that the outflow of migrants from China dwarfed that from most other countries throughout much of modern history. However, there are several other facilitating circumstances for China's lead that are worth exploring as hypotheses in a comparative, cross-cultural perspective that may shed more general light on special features of Chinese social science and data collection. The hypotheses are as follows.

One hypothesis is that overseas Chinese seem, in certain periods, to have written home more often than other emigrants. From 1947 to 1949, Shantou alone received more than five million letters, including 140,000 in December 1947. In 1955, at the height of China's isolation, officials estimated that half a million letters per month passed between families in South China and Chinese overseas, about the same volume, proportionately, as some comparable documented groups, but greater than many. This is an unexpected finding, since a far greater proportion of Chinese migrants than those of other nations were laborers, overwhelmingly without writing skills or the letter-writing habit. One obvious reason for the large number of letters to China is that the Chinese homeland tie remained more vibrant than that of emigrants who were less subject than Chinese to discriminatory treatment and exclusionary laws overseas, with their letters as its measure. This was especially true of the Chinese in North America, who, as Madeline Hsu noted, "eagerly returned the gaze of their qiaoxiang compatriots, in part because they faced such severe rejection in their lives overseas." Studies of other emigrant groups suggest that those who wrote home were likely "to have a higher than average propensity to return," while those who sank roots overseas wrote less often or stopped writing. Overseas Chinese, too, nativized abroad, but at a slower rate than other groups, chiefly because fewer Chinese women emigrated than women of other nationalities.

Another hypothesis is that the kin of Chinese emigrants have done more to preserve the letters because of the special value placed in China on the written word. This sacred regard for characters on paper was magnified by the families' honoring of those engaged in enterprises of communal value, including going abroad on behalf of those left behind, and their keeping the tie documented.

Moreover, China's dense kinship institutions and clan associations and its relatively intrusive system of local government in recent times are good at mobilizing the resources necessary for realizing a scheme like the Qiaopi Project. Chinese officials at the local level are also driven to do so by Marxist ideology, which favors "mass history." The campaign to persuade families to make their qiaopi over to the authorities and to coax collectors into donating or copying them is waged in the local press and by researchers descending on the village to do "field work." Emigrants' families, the letters' owners, are easier to identify in China than elsewhere. Today emigrants hail from all over China, but in the past most came from a handful of counties that specialized in emigration, whereas in metropolitan countries they were drawn from a wider spread of places. The emigrants' communities in China are more rooted than elsewhere, and family papers are more likely to survive than in more mobile societies. In the People's Republic, family members of overseas migrants and one-time migrants who return to China have a collective official status, that of "domestic Overseas Chinese," which is registered in their personal files and makes them easier to trace. So their geographic concentration and higher visibility is another reason why letter caches have been easier to find in China.

Finally, a factor special to China is the revival in popularity of stamp collecting since Mao died in 1976. Today, China has twenty million philatelists, more than a third of the world's total, and fifty thousand government-sponsored philatelic societies. Philatelists have held exhibitions both in China and abroad, where the price of qiaopi has shot up at auctions. Philatelists collect not just stamps but "covers" (franked addressed envelopes) and the correspondence they contain. The qiaoxiang are a treasure house of historic covers and their collectors an unusual ally of archivists seeking to hunt down emigrants' correspondence. This development can be seen as a special application of the Chinese Communist tradition of "mass-based" investigation, a legacy of one of the "native" branches of China's official historiography employed in the drive to collect qiaopi, whereby officials of local bureaus for overseas-Chinese affairs and village elders are mobilized to visit families and to put pressure on philatelists to make their finds publicly available to appropriate archives.

Without the combination of market forces and official propaganda, it is doubtful whether qiaopi would have survived as a substantial historical resource. In the past, before they became saleable, not everyone accorded them equal respect. Some qiaopi were allowed to rot or crumble or to become food for grubs and termites. While few emigrants' direct dependents or descendants would treat the qiaopi impiously, generational depth is a relative concept, more relevant in some classes and families than in others. Despite the adages about "brooks without a source" and pride in ancestry, Chinese families (as opposed to lineages) rarely tend to revere ancestors more than four generations above the living head.Over the years, millions of qiaopi were received in China, but only a small fraction survives. The rest, one must surmise, were thrown out after the sender's death, probably during a New Year spring-clean. There are even reports of qiaopi being used for kindling during the famine of 1959–61, when firewood was in short supply.


The growing interest in the qiaopi collection reflects changing trends in scholarship in recent years, particularly in China but also in parts of Southeast Asia. The focus of the collection, on emigrant communities in the diaspora, at home and overseas, is a welcome confirmation of the turn in Chinese historiography and social studies since the 1970s away from the rigid class approach that once ruled these disciplines, as well as a turn toward a scholarship based on evidence rather than employed to illustrate general principles.

The Qiaopi Project mirrors major changes in attitudes in China and its qiaoxiang over the past years. Between 1949 and the 1980s, few Chinese worked on ethnic and migrant Chinese communities abroad or their reciprocators in the sending regions, partly because of the stigmatization, climaxing in the Cultural Revolution, of social groups with "foreign" ties. For a long time, most of the research on Chinese communities overseas was done by non-Chinese nationals (including some of Chinese descent), and for many years it was far smaller in volume than the worldwide research on the "white" role in the great migrations. The rise of Overseas Chinese studies in China after the 1970s was a major factor in the global transformation of this scholarship. This happened because China-based researchers paid greater attention to ties to the qiaoxiang, which they studied less from the top down than from the bottom up, from the grass-roots point of view of local associations and local families. This approach was in part a legacy of Communist China's tradition of massbased, "on-the-spot" investigation. Chinese scholars had better access than foreign researchers to local records in China, as well as the language skills necessary for reading them. Whereas non-Chinese scholars looked in on Chinese communities from the outside, as objects of research, studies by Chinese scholars had the potential to become subject-centered and to show empathy with emigrants, an exercise in "native anthropology" whereby researchers study communities with which they share ties, interests, and languages. All these factors combined to focus attention, largely for the first time, on the Chinese emigrant community's own output, ranging from the publications and records of clan associations to correspondence from diaspora to hometown and back.

As the restrictions on scholarship in China fell away in the 1980s, new methods of study and new attitudes were popularized. Scholarship became not only more diverse but more local as monolithic models weakened in all spheres. This localism interacted with the strengthening of regional identities as the Chinese economy also "localized." Economic growth in the qiaoxiang and the strengthening of contacts with overseas Chinese created a material base for the funding of new regional studies in which the overseas Chinese role was often paramount. This paved the way to a new approach to migration studies in China that looked beyond class to the mentalities that drive emigrants. It also helped shift the attention of students of migration from the nation-state and the provinces, which had long been the dominant framework of its construction, to its deepest and most fundamental level, in villages, lineages, and families.

These trends coincided with the emergence of new directions in Western ethnic and migrant studies. In the 1970s scholars increasingly rejected the view of ethnicity as a closed and static property reflecting cultural inheritance, and identified it instead as an outcome of the interplay of context and ethnic interaction, in which migrants and natives use the contrasts that arise in the course of everyday interethnic contact as markers of their own ethnic self-identification. Identity came to be viewed not as static but as protean, ethnic boundaries not given but constructed. So the emphasis switched from culture to identity, engendering a new interest in the active agency of the creative subject with its narratives and imaginings. In the 1990s transnational studies emerged, with its focus not on the emigrant group in isolation but on its interactions with the diaspora and the homeland. These new trends were imported to China by Chinese returning from abroad and by the non-Chinese researchers that began arriving in China in ever greater numbers in the 1980s and 1990s. Both trends jibed with the switch in China to a radically new view of ethnic and migrant Chinese, not as inert things or a descriptive category but as makers of their own history.

This new Chinese research not only brings new and previously unexplored issues into focus but will enrich the voluminous literature that has emerged in the West since the 1990s on transnational Chinese migration. Most of this literature lacks an international and comparative angle, as do the studies that have appeared in China written from Chinese archives. Many Western studies on Chinese emigration and overseas settlement are based on statistical data, chiefly economic and demographic, derived from official sources and viewing emigrants from an etic perspective — from the outside and above. The new Chinese research is into history from below, an emic perspective on the "people without history," and its focus on transnational as well as domestic networks goes beyond the conventional nationstate paradigm and helps further a new approach to ethnic and migration studies based on the idea of "inbetweenness" — the realization that migrant identities are created and livelihoods pursued on multiple sites. Qiaopi studies are an exemplary model of this approach. Only a handful of studies have appeared in non-Chinese languages on qiaopi, which are barely known outside China, except in parts of Southeast Asia. One aim of this study is therefore to bring the existence of the qiaopi archives and (in the course of critical analysis of them) the new Chinese research findings to the attention of non-Chinese scholars working in this field.

Jao Tsung-i played an instrumental role in the emergence of qiaopi studies as a field of research. A historian from Chaoan in Guangdong, he stressed the importance of studying qiaopi in a lecture given at the Center for the Study of Chaoshan History and Culture in November 2000. (Chaoshan was a major site of the qiaopi trade and has by far the biggest qiaopi archive, comprising some two hundred thousand qiaopi in the hands of official and private collectors as well as a substantial collection of associated materials.) In his lecture, Jao explained the importance of qiaopi as historical documents and pointed out their value as a supplement to official documents. Jao is also credited with founding Chaozhou (Teochew) studies, which have been the subject of many international symposia in recent years and have a base in Shantou University funded by Li Ka-shing, a prominent Chaozhounese entrepreneur based in Hong Kong. This connection illustrates the close link between the rise of regional or area studies in China and the shift away from a single focus on class analysis. Other scholars who, like Jao, approach China from a regional perspective include David Faure and Helen Siu (1995) and, in Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and Xiamen, Chen Chunsheng, Liu Zhiwei, May-boChing, Choi Chi-cheung, and Zheng Zhenman. The latter group collaborates on South China studies (Huanan yanjiu), which combine interdisciplinary explorations of Guangdong and Fujian with fieldwork and archival research (including on qiaopi).

There is exceedingly little documentation on the qiaopi trade before the mid- to late nineteenth century and practically none in China, where it was ignored and went unrecorded by officials for whom emigration was for centuries a crime or a peripheral matter of marginal importance. It was not until 1860 that the Chinese authorities lifted restrictions on emigration, gradually began to recognize the need to protect Chinese overseas (though not, at first, to much effect), and started officially recording overseas trade, including remittances. Chinese remittances first attracted attention from politicians, government officials, and scholars not in China but overseas, particularly in North America, where they featured in state reports, political debate, journalism, and scholarship in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In the interwar years, Japanese investigators collected a large amount of data on remittances. In China perhaps the first public notice of the phenomenon was by Xie Xueying, whose Shantou zhinan ("Shantou guide"), which appeared in 1934, included a description of the qiaopi trade. In 1937 the Chinese version of Emigrant Communities in South China, by Chen Ta, divided the remittance industry into five regional groups (based in Fujian, Guangdong, Chaoshan, the Hakka counties, and Hainan); similar work by him followed later. In 1943 Yao Zengyin published a study on the remittance trade in Guangdong, and in 1947 Zheng Linkuan (Cheng Lin K'uan, 1947) published a book on remittance in Fujian. Also in 1947, Jao Tsung-i compiled Chaozhou zhi ("Chaozhou gazetteer"), a pioneering work that analyzed the qiaopi trade alongside transport and foreign trade.

In the first three decades of the People's Republic, qiaopi studies reached their nadir. They only started to pick up in the late 1980s, when Shantou was declared a Special Economic Zone and new work began appearing, especially by the 1990s, some of it done by philatelists. Deng Xiaoping's new policy of reform and opening up led, in the qiaoxiang, to exchanges between qiaopi scholars in China and the diaspora as well as the start of systematic study and the formation of specialist institutions, inspired by the scholarly and patriotic vision of Jao Tsung-i. In 2003 Jao called for the setting up of a qiaopi museum, which came into being in 2004. In 2010 the Chaoshan Qiaopi Archive was announced, and it was quickly followed by qiaopi-related museums in Meizhou and Jiangmen in Guangdong and Fujian.


Excerpted from "Dear China"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Gregor Benton and Hong Liu.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Maps and Tables,
Foreword by Wang Gungwu,
1. The Genealogy of Qiaopi Studies,
2. The Structure of the Qiaopi Trade and Transnational Networks,
3. The Qiaopi Trade as a Distinctive Form of Chinese Capitalism,
4. Qiaopi Geography,
5. Qiaopi and Modern Chinese Economy and Politics,
6. Qiaopi, Qiaoxiang, and Charity,
7. Qiaopi and European Migrants' Letters Compared,
Appendix: Selected Qiaopi and Huipi Letters,

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