The Co-hong and the Company: The Emergence of Quasi-Governmental Institutions in Eighteenth Century Canton

Nicholas Christopher Drake


In the late 1750s, the English East India Company, which had been trading in China for years, attempted to test the limits of the China trade by expanding outside of Canton (Guangzhou). This attempt inspired a violent backlash from the ruling emperor, Qianlong, who officially restricted all foreigners to the port of Canton. China’s history has long been one of foreign interactions and influences; the eighteenth century China trade was no exception. Throughout this century, powerful Western companies sent ships to secure Chinese silk, tea, and porcelain. At the time, these interactions often represented the extent of economic foreign relations between China and the West. Consequently, these trading companies, particularly the English East India Company, gained great power as quasi-governmental institutions (QGI). QGIs are representatives of their respective states that lack official connection to said state’s government as a ministry or department might, but, which fulfill a basic need the nation has with its government’s approval. In response to the perceived threat presented by the incursion of European QGIs like the East India Company, which were in part vehicles of informal empire, the Chinese emperors began to endow China’s merchants with greater and greater power. This eventually facilitated the formation of China’s own QGI known as the Co-hong. This study attempts to examine the parallels between the Co-hong and the East India Company, arguing that both may be conceived of as QGIs. It asks what a QGI is and how such an entity may influence its own and foreign governments while remaining distinct from the official bureaucracy. In pursuit of this goal, this study traces the development of the Co-hong, from its inception in 1720 to its full realization as a QGI in 1760 through the records of the English East India Company and the Qing Dynasty. It also draws on the body of secondary work that has been conducted on the eighteenth century China trade. This study argues that the Co-hong’s formation was the result not only of pressures from the Chinese government, but also those deriving from foreign QGIs, specifically the East India Company. Furthermore, it contends that the emergence of the Co-hong as a QGI in 1760 can be explained by the influence of the East India Company and by its perceived threat to China if left unopposed. Thus, QGIs are shown to form out of the tensions unofficial foreign relations engender.


China; East India Company; Trade

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