The Guildhall and its levels of space

The Craft guilds of the 19th century played an important role within Shanghai’s urban space, combining a multitude economic, social, and religious functions. The centre of these urban networks was the guildhall, a building which would come to symbolism the power and prestige of Shanghai’s guilds. Unlike in Europe, the guilds of Shanghai were based off of native place as well as occupation, operating as the focal point for migrant communities. The social makeup of the city was altered, perpetuating a sense of separation within the city due to the discriminatory nature of the guilds’ geographic outlook. This sense of separation was not just limited to the mental sphere of collective identity, manifesting itself within the physical parameters of the city, as seen in the preference of guild members to only frequent tea houses within the vicinity of their guildhall.[1] It can, therefore, be seen that socially the guildhall influenced the habits and perceptions of Shanghai’s urban craftsmen.

Yet, the guildhall didn’t just operate as a social nexus, it also possessed a spiritual role. Temples could be found within most guildhall complexes, dedicated to a patron saint or deity, with active worship still being recorded within guildhalls in the 1920’s.[2] John S. Burgess and Niida Noboru have challenged the religious role of Chinese guild. However, Timothy Bradstock states that this is because they misunderstood certain sources, leading them to believe that a lack of religious practice within certain guilds indicated an unconformity when it came to possessing a spiritual purpose.[3]  Instead, Bradstock explains that a lack of religious practice was often associated with a lack of funds. A problem which does not seem to apply to Shanghai when the supposed architectural splendour of the guildhalls are considered.[4]

The architectural design of these buildings was important, as it was a testament to the power and influence of a guild, becoming a rallying post for the community that the guild had created. The importance of the guildhall as a rallying post is reflected in the decisions made within it, such as to protest or to strike, decisions which would shape Shanghai as the guilds were often surprisingly effective when they chose to mobilise around a cause. For example, the Siming gongsuo guild was able to resist attempts by the French concession to seize its land in 1874 and again twenty years later.[5] Guildhalls acted as the nerve centre within a web of influence, not only acting as rallying points but also as a bastion of protectionism. Economic activity within craft industries was controlled through the guilds. Price and wages were regulated as well as materials, labour and training. Guilds, for instances, often fixed apprenticeships to a three year period, limiting workshops to just one apprentice at a time.[6]

Guildhalls impacted Shanghai on multiple levels, defining the lives of the urban craftsman as well as the city itself. Guildhalls were not just symbols of guild power but also a vital apparatus in their system of control. The conclusions of the revisionist historian, S. Oilgive, seem to be, therefore, entirely invalid as these guilds were neither ineffective nor inflexible.[7] In fact, guildhalls were so significant to the guild members themselves, that when painters in 1914 got locked out of their guild by the Chinese government, a city wide strike was organised by other guilds in support.[8]

[1] Elizabeth J. Perry, Shanghai On Strike: the Politics of Chinese Labor (Stanford,1993), p. 37.

[2] J. S. Burgess, ‘The Guilds and Trade Associations of China’, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 152 (1930), pp. 75-76.

[3] Christine Moll-Murata, State and Crafts in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) (Amsterdam, 2018), p. 330.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Perry, On Strike, pp. 45-46.

[6] Moll-Murata, State and Crafts, p. 329.

[7] S. R. Epstein, ‘Craft Guilds in the Pre-Modern Economy: A Discussion’, The Economic History Review 61:1 (2008), p. 159.

[8] Perry, On Strike, p. 23.


Burgess, J. S., ‘The Guilds and Trade Associations of China’, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 152 (1930), pp. 72-80.

Epstein, S. R., ‘Craft Guilds in the Pre-Modern Economy: A Discussion’, The Economic History Review 61:1 (2008), pp. 155-174.

Moll-Murata, Christine, State and Crafts in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) (Amsterdam, 2018).

Perry, Elizabeth J., Shanghai On Strike: the Politics of Chinese Labor (Stanford,1993).

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