Some Notes on Ancient Trust   -  More on particular and generalized trust

This is the third post in the series on civil society in China.

 A few notes on how trust and its lack influenced development in China.

 Trust within the government was, and is, tougher than trust within the family. Respect for Confucian values was important, but not every official had exalted Confucian status and Confucian values were often recognized only in the breach.

Debin Ma writes about celebrated intellectual reformer Liang Qicao, writing in 1896.

Liang summed up the weakness of the traditional Chinese system as rooted in distrust. As rulers cannot trust their officials, they set up multiple layers of bureaucracies to check up on each other. In the end, nothing gets accomplished as no one takes responsibility for anything. Moreover, the lower level officials were more interested in pleasing their superiors than serving their people.

Debin Ma.  Political Institutions and Long Run Economic Trajectory: Some Lessons from Two Millennia of Chinese Civilization. Center for Economic Policy Research, Discussion Paper Series No. 8791.  January, 2012, page 17. Available at


Purchase of government offices and titles and permissions was common, back to the Han dynasty. Cheating on the imperial examinations was rampant. In a period of the Qing, Chang Chung-li notes that seven or eight of ten examination students had contrived some means to cheat on the exams. Bribery, using stand-ins to take exams, identifying papers so the readers could determine the writer, and, of course, writing parts of the classic texts in very fine calligraphy on the inside of clothes or one one’s body – all were techniques that seem to provide a role model for students in China today. 

Chang, Chung-li [Zhang Zhongli]. 1955. The Chinese-Gentry: Studies on their Role in Nineteenth-Century Chinese Society. Seattle: University of Washington Press, page 192.



I wrote previously about the low status of merchants in Chinese society dating from early dynastic times. Per Avner Greif (see Institutions = Culture + Organizations, forthcoming) we see how low status of merchants and the constant threat of expropriation or extractions led to an inner-focused society, an honor society apart from the general society in which trust could be based. This is the guanxi network. Merchant networks and lineage and clan networks protected existing resources and excluded outsiders.

In Ming and particularly Qing, the central government in Beijing retreated from much direct supervision of magistrates. Local elites and clans became the locus of power, law, philanthropy, welfare, and preservation of rites and culture. Local supervision was achieved without much reference to central law or rules, using the intricacies of guanxi networks to make society function. The "small politics of reputation" pervaded social relations.

Clans and merchant groups became collectors of taxes and barriers to entry rather than promoters of commerce. Guilds were, in fact, de facto government organizations.  Kent Deng says that the governmental relation to guilds made internal firm bookkeeping and accounting a poor idea, since keeping of records exposed a company to government scrutiny. Similarly for clans – they were intermediaries with government, but for purely internal reasons. As Joel Mokyr describes the distinction -  civil associations in Europe were collectivities of interests, not of ancestors. 

Kent Deng and Luca Zang. Micro Foundations In The Great Divergence Debate: Opening Up A New Perspective.  London School of Economics, Economic History Working Paper 256.  January, 2017.  Available at


From the beginning of imperial China it was necessary for merchants to register with the government according to their field of work. Registration was not only for purposes of tax collection. From the Qin and Han dynasties, registered merchants were then the first chosen by government to serve the emperor in a military emergency; followed by, as Yang notes, those whose names had formerly appeared in the merchant registers, followed by their parents or grandparents.  The registers were eliminated late in the Tang Dynasty, but the low status of merchants and those engaged in commercial transactions survived ]through the Qing dynasty. The Song dynasty was the standout exception. The Song is considered the high point of Chinese cultural achievement.  

Joseph W. Esherick and Mary Backus Rankin, eds. Chinese Local Elites and Patterns of Dominance. University of California Press, 1990, Page 328.  Available at;;doc.view=print


Trust and trade with the foreigners

We are familiar with the Silk Road idea – that China exported silk, tea, porcelains to the barbarian west for two thousand years, in exchange for horses and wool and linen and glass. Imperial Chinese rulers waxed and waned in their support for the silk roads, but there was interest in enforcing a Pax Sinica along the routes from the Han Dynasty, and there is no doubt the Silk Roads were important trade routes and social and economic development routes all along their paths. The routes declined in importance in the 18th century, along with imperial concern for commerce. 

Nicola Di Cosmo notes that the Silk Road was not the trade superhighway that is sometimes imagined –

These views presuppose the existence of a commercial network in Central Asia in the second century bc. capable of supporting and managing a complex trade network. Yet at the beginning of Wu-ti’s reign there is no evidence of anything in Central Asia comparable to the intercontinental trade that would develop over the land and sea routes during the period stretching from the first century bc. to the third and fourth centuries ad.  Not until Wu-ti’s reign did the Chinese became cognizant of the possibilities for trade between China and Central and western Asia, even though these opportunities do not seem to have enjoyed universal appeal.

Nicola Di Cosmo. Ancient China and its Enemies, page 258


The silk roads were, in fact, central to the economies of the Asian steppe nations.  China was not the sole reason, or the main reason, for the functionality of the silk roads.

The Han conquest of the western regions, today’s Xinjiang and Gansu and Ningxia, was very much a part of a defensive strategy to defeat the Xiongnu Empire, rather than a development scheme. As Di Cosmo says, the flag did not follow the trade. The only reason for Han expansion into central Asia, around the location of the silk routes, was to eliminate the Xiongnu rival empire. Sima Qian says as much in the Records of the Grand Historian, Chapter 110.  The Han strategy was “to create a split between the Xiongnu and the states to the west which had up to this time supported them.”


The ancient feature – no generalized trust - trade as policy tool outside and inside China

What is striking in all the literature on early Mesopotamia, the Levant, the Mediterranean, and early China is the difference in Chinese attention to trade as a tool of policy.

From the time of Sargon in Akkadia, long before the Shang dynasty, a consistent theme in Mesopotamia was to promote trade. Trade was necessary to regime survival. Trade was beneficial to the empire, bringing more of what was desired into the country or capital. Classics professor Eric Cline suggests that the late Bronze Age collapse, about 1177 BCE, was so widespread because a collapse of one trading state meant collapse in trading partners. Walter Scheidel noted in Rome and China that Rome could not survive once it lost its food supply in north Africa to the Vandals. Trade and political survival were tightly intertwined. 

As I noted in section XXX of the book (note - forthcoming), writing had commercial functions in the middle east from the beginning.

The Chinese idea was significantly different. When writing began in China, its function was to serve imperial purposes and not those of trade.  Fairbank and Goldman –

From the start the governmental power of the Chinese writing system was at the ruler’s disposal. Writing seems to have emerged more in the service of lineage organization and government than in the service of  trade.

John King Fairbank and Merle Goldman. China: A New History. 2nd Enlarged Edition. Belknap Press, 2006. P. 43


For periods of time, foreign trade was prohibited. The Hongwu emperor, founder of the Ming dynasty, made private foreign trade punishable by death, and ships and docks were destroyed.  A maritime prohibition policy lasted for two hundred years, to ensure absolute control over every foreign contact and every trade relation. The policy ended only in 1568. 

When not prohibited, trade was closely regulated, and often heavily taxed. Elite goods were, of course, permitted. But trade for consumer goods was often not allowed, and traders of any sort could be executed on the emperor’s whim. There were periods of openness – the Tang and Song dynasties are the standard examples, flourishing periods of invention and art and poetry.

But the suspicion of foreigners extended to foreign goods as well.  The better way, the more Chinese way, to obtain foreign goods was to receive them as tribute from a ruler in a far-off land to the son of heaven. Even when the emperor was forced to pay tribute to nomad states – the Xiongnu, for example – the payments were considered part of an exchange of gifts rather than recognition of the value of another state. In the Ming, dozens of foreign states paid tribute to the dynasty

Li Kangying. The Ming Maritime Policy in Transition, 1367 to 1568. Harrassowitz Verlag, 2010, page 3.


Mark Elvin describes the importance of trade outside and its always tentative position in China -

Even before the foundation of the Ch’in empire in the third century BC, commerce played an important part in the Chinese economy.  But mercantile life did not put down such deep roots as it did in some other old world cultures.  In lower Mesopotamia, the activities of traders and money-lenders figured prominently in written legal codes before archaic Chinese civilization had even begun to take on distinctive shape.  We have records of partnerships, loans at interest, and deeds of sale and purchase from the Babylonia of the early second millennium BC.  For China before the Han dynasty there is nothing comparable.

Mark Elvin. Patterns of the Chinese Past.  Stanford University Press, 1973, page 164.


In the Song, trade was promoted and great prosperity came for the people. But in the subsequent Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, trade was again relegated to a low status. “We have no need of your manufactures” is what the Qianlong emperor told Lord McCartney in 1793, when Britain was perceived as just another tributary state, coming to offer honor to the Son of Heaven. This was more than just imperial conceit expressed to a foreign mission.  It was an expression of jingshi, the classical Chinese term to order the world and to repair the world institutionally, in favor of Chinese suzerainty. 


Box -

During the eighteenth century, the British, the leading traders with China, became increasingly dissatisfied with the inconveniences and limitations of their trade agreement. The East India Company petitioned the Chinese emperor several times for a liberalization of China's policy. After repeated failures, the government sent an official envoy from King George III himself to the imperial court. Thus, in 1792 Lord George Macartney arrived in Peking (modern Beijing) with a letter from the king to Emperor Ch'ien Lung (now Qianlong, lived 1711-1799, ruled 1735-1796), requesting British diplomatic representation at the imperial court, an easing of trade regulations, and the opening of more Chinese ports to trade. The emperor rejected all the British requests for the reasons he stated in the following letter.

Excerpts from the second edict of the Qianlong Emperor to King George III of England, 1792 -

... Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There is therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.

But as the tea, silk and porcelain which the Celestial Empire produces, are absolute necessities to European nations and to yourselves, we have permitted, as a signal mark of favor, that foreign hongs [groups of merchants] should be established at Canton, so that your wants might be supplied and your country thus participate in our beneficence. But your Ambassador has now put forward new requests which completely fail to recognize the Throne's principle to "treat strangers from afar with indulgence," and to exercise a pacifying control over barbarian tribes, the world over. Moreover, our dynasty, swaying the myriad races of the globe, extends the same benevolence towards all….

Consider, moreover, that England is not the only barbarian land which wishes to establish ... trade with our Empire: supposing that other nations were all to imitate your evil example and beseech me to present them each and all with a site for trading purposes, how could I possibly comply? This also is a flagrant infringement of the usage of my Empire and cannot possibly be entertained….

The distinction between Chinese and barbarian is most strict, and your Ambassador's request that barbarians shall be given full liberty to disseminate their religion is utterly unreasonable…. In that event your barbarian merchants will have had a long journey for nothing. Do not say that you were not warned in due time! Tremblingly obey and show no negligence! A special mandate!

 Available at


It was in the Ming that Chinese invention and exploration stopped. What ingenuity could be demonstrated was given over to getting around prohibitions on trade, foreign or domestic, and avoiding the terror of the emperors. The terrors were not confined to the general populace. A Confucian scholar was beheaded for questioning an element of Confucian thought (Li Kanying, page 24).  One might think of this period as similar to the period of witch burning in Europe, or the inquisition – a radical reactionary interpretation of doctrine that served the existing powers, striking fear into the hearts of millions. 


No generalized trust means only particularized relations – and no civil society

What is interesting is the different shape moral views take in China and the US. We say that civil society is necessary for democracy, and civil society – the ability of strangers to come together for common purpose, particularly in contradistinction to the government – requires an ability to trust strangers. Trust-at-a-distance is, in fact, characteristic of America. We can take the car into a mechanic, far from home, and expect service to be done properly and be charged fairly. This is characteristic of an extensive civil society, but also of rule of law, ability to access the legal system, national businesses, extensive advertising, freedom of the press, and freedom to demand equitable treatment, even outside the law. This ability to trust, by the way, was by no means always characteristic of America, civil society or not.

All these characteristics are less salient in China. Despite the growth of a modern society, and modern institutions, China is still more of a caveat emptor society. This is confounded by some business surveys, those that ask Chinese about trust.  China, the reports say, has high levels of trust. That too, is confounded by other surveys showing that China has low levels of trust. Well, which is it?  Both could be true.

High trust in the family and extended family network and in relationships – this is the way most businesses have been built in China. Mistrust of the outsiders – that is also the way most businesses have been built in China. Social capital is not part of the equation.


Next: Faith and Trust - in whom can you trust? epistemological pessimism and optimism