The phrase Huizhou merchants refers to the merchant associations that developed in six Huizhou counties (Shexian, Xiuning, Wuyuan, Jixi, Yixian, and Qimen). For three hundred years during the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing Qing (1644–1911) dynasties, they were the largest business groups in China.
Historically, the aboriginal inhabitants in Huizhou were the Shan Yue tribal people. The level of their economic development fell far short from that of the Central Plain, and the differences of their cultural practices were even greater. Toward the end of the Eastern Han (ca. early third century) and during the Three States period (220–280), the Wu state (established by Sun Quan) defeated the Shan Yue. The Han from the Central Plain began a large-scale migration to the Huizhou area. They brought advanced technology and culture with them, and they also promoted the development of the local economy and culture. During the Song (960–1279) and Yuan (1271–1368) dynasties, some influential merchant groups began to emerge in Huizhou and by the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), Huizhou merchants had expanded their influence to the entire realm. By the middle of the Ming dynasty, Huizhou merchants, had extended their businesses in all trades. This prosperity continued until the mid-Qing (ca. eighteenth century) but gradually declined from the latter part of the dynasty and continued through the Republican period (1911–1949) on account of social unrest and foreign invasion. Nevertheless, they still remained influential and were successful at adapting to modern capitalism.
Their activities stretched from Huainan (literally “south of the Huai River”) in the east to Yunnan, Guizhou, central Shaanxi, and Gansu provinces in the west, to northern Hebei and eastern Liaoning in the north, and to Fujian and Guangdong provinces in the south. The merchants even traveled to Japan, Siam (modern Thailand), and other countries. However, despite their far-flung trade network, their businesses were concentrated in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River.
There were seven sources for their capital: joint stock, secured debt, marriage, assistance, inheritance, labor, and bureaucratic.
There were two trade associations—the Huizhou Guild and the Huizhou Merchants Association. The Huizhou Guild was set up in various places where Huizhou merchants resided. The guild was exclusively used as a gathering place and a hostel for traveling Huizhou merchants. The Huizhou Merchants Association was an organization established on the basis of the various enterprises in which the merchants were engaged. It thrived during the reigns of the Qianlong (r. 1736–1795) and the Jiaqing (r. 1796–1820) emperors.
Huizhou merchants engaged in a wide variety of industries, including salt, secured debt (pawn brokering), tea, lumber, grain, silk, pharmaceuticals, lacquer, publishing, and catering. They generated huge amounts of wealth which formed the economic foundation for cultural development in Huizhou.
Thanks to the wealth created by the merchants, culture and education flourished in Huizhou, as evidenced by the large number of students who passed the imperial examinations. High achievements were reached in other fields such as medicine, engraving, seal carving, drama, arts and crafts.
Huizhou merchants were characterized by their abundant capital, their engagement in a wide range of activities, their management of various industries, long-lasting prosperity, and their promotion of culture. They were one of the largest and most influential conglomerates in China. The profits that the Huizhou merchants generated elsewhere all flowed back to Huizhou. With these profits, they started to construct large and exquisite buildings that have been enjoyed for generations.
Huizhou merchants prospered in all industries and talented people emerged in every field. Representative famous Huizhou merchants include Jiang Chun (1721–1789) and Bao Zhidao (1743–1801) of the Qing dynasty; Wang Lizheng (1827–1895), the founder of the Wang Yutai Tea Shop; Wang Kuanye (1866–1924), the leader of the Shanghai textile industry, Yu Zhiqin (b. 1847), the leader of Shanghai pawn shops; Wang Tiyu (1868–1941), the father of Western medicine in China, and Zhang Xiaoquan (nd) of the long standing shop Zhang Xiaoquan Scissors. Among the Huizhou merchants, the most outstanding businessman was Hu Xueyan (1823–1885), also known as the "red-topped hat businessman."