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  • On a Shoestring:Small-Time Entrepreneurs and the International Market for Chinese Curios, 1921–1949
  • Di Yin Lu (bio)

Some call Shanghai the origin point for the Chinese antiquities diaspora: the early twentieth-century phenomenon where large shipments moved from mainland China to homes and institutions across North America, Europe, and the Middle East. Scholars have explored this collecting boom through the perspective of art history, literature, history, and law.1 Studies have portrayed China’s art dealers and curio markets through the lens of museums and collectors in the United States, Western Europe, and Japan, concentrating on the protocols of self-presentation that drive the business of buying and selling art objects.2 These studies describe China’s dealers and regional art markets using an elite-centric model (Fig. I), in which dealers are affluent proprietors whose command of value creation held collectors in awe, and whose associates are either dealers of similarly affluent stature or overseas elites whose collecting ambitions ran parallel to the imperialist drive in Western Europe and the United States.3

Oral historical, archival, and statistical evidence from Shanghai, however, indicate that dealers of Chinese art had a more complicated profile. Some were elite: dealers whose shops resembled scholarly studios or fine department stores, and who wielded sufficient social and economic capital to broker deals for well-heeled collectors. The majority of dealers who drove the Chinese antiquities diaspora, however, were traders and shopkeepers—small-timers who catered to urban commoners. These individuals belonged to the same guild as their more elite brethren, frequented the same markets, appraised each other’s merchandise, and signed contracts with the same jade, agate, wood, and paper craftsmen’s guilds. This article argues that curios peddlers, elite dealers, and overseas buyers co-created Shanghai’s antiquities industry. While elite dealers had the financial and social capital to move fine art out of the country, they could not perform these actions without partnering with small-scale entrepreneurs in local guilds. Overseas buyers also had to work with low-level traders, particularly when sourcing the ceramic, jade, and lacquer curios that made up the core of their business. Together, these disparate individuals drew raw materials from China’s borderland regions, scoured the homes of fallen literati, and traded with multiple levels of society: from curbside peddlers to British nobles.

The creation of the Shanghai Curios Traders’ Association,4 the regional art dealer’s guild, integrated urban street peddlers into Shanghai’s international antiquities industry. The history of the guild members, however, has been flattened by a culture of exclusivity. The Shanghai Curios Traders’ Association’s small-time peddlers have been written out of mainstream history by a number of factors, including collectors’ selective memories, other dealers’ pretensions as connoisseurs, and the guild’s largely non-elite status. This article explores guild members’ variegated social and economic backgrounds and discusses the curios traders’ roles in both the domestic and international arenas. It combines archival findings about Shanghai’s pedestrian life with new discoveries about cultural categorization in countries as disparate as Britain, France, the United States, and Japan.5 The expansion of Chinese art collecting during the mid-twentieth century was more than an elite-driven phenomenon. Shanghai’s antiquities industry thrived because of its diverse participants, pedestrian-driven street culture, and extensive guild infrastructure. Professional ties sustained small-scale traders through difficult years, while migration and new entrepreneurial practices both adapted to and altered existing collecting trends.

This account of Shanghai’s antiquities industry concentrates on the first half of the twentieth-century. It begins in the 1920s, when Muslim migrants created Shanghai’s first curios traders’ guild. As new entrepreneurs, customers, and goods poured into Shanghai during the Second Sino-Japanese War, guild members forced all newcomers to join their association. This strategy enabled guild members to profit. This article also examines the ways in which the guild sustained members during a period of extraordinary difficulty—the collapse of Shanghai’s antiquities markets in 1945. [End Page 87] It shows how members of the Shanghai Curios Traders’ Association shaped Chinese art traders’ identities, as well as existing channels of distribution for domestic and international trade.

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pp. 87-102
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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