An arrangement whereby a local intermediary helped foreigners conduct trade, the compradorial system was used in various parts of East Asia. It was most prevalent in China, where it originated in the late Ming dynasty (1368–1644), but came to prominence in the early 1800s during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). The term "comprador" derives from the Portuguese word for "buyer" (compradore). When the monopolistic cohong (or Canton) system was abolished in 1842 after the first Opium War (1839–1842), compradors replaced the traditional Hong merchants as the main commercial intermediaries between Chinese and Western traders.
Even after the abolition of the cohong monopoly, many obstacles hindered free trade: linguistic and cultural barriers, currency differences and complexities, different weights and measures, and varying commercial and social customs. The compradorial system became more prevalent after the second Opium War (1856–1860), which opened more Chinese ports to foreign trade. Western firms also used Chinese compradors in Japan, mainly at Nagasaki (the only place Chinese merchants had been allowed during the Tokugawa period [1603–1867]) and Yokohama. When Japanese firms started to trade in China at the end of the nineteenth century, they also relied on Chinese compradors.
The compradorial system was indispensable for the rise of Sino-foreign commerce. Hired for their honesty and reliability but mainly for their ability to provide customers, compradors were critical links between Chinese commerce and foreign firms. Because foreign firms owed much of their success to their compradors, they competed for the best compradors. The incentive for hiring a comprador for even a short period was great because a foreign firm generally kept in close touch with its comprador after he eventually became an independent merchant, thereby further widening the firm's range of potential customers. Some Western company officials were so dependent on their compradors that they were hardly aware of how their businesses in China functioned below the highest levels of operation.
By the end of the nineteenth century, compradors were among the richest men in China. Famous compradors include Zheng Guanying (1842–1922), who after working for Butterfield and Swire became a prominent merchant in his own right and in the late 1800s called for China to use commercial warfare to strengthen its modern economy; Zhu Dachun, the comprador for Jardine and Matheson in Shanghai from the 1890s to 1900, and one of the wealthiest men in China; and Robert Ho Tung (He Dong) (1862–1956), the Eurasian comprador for Jardine and Matheson in Hong Kong from 1883 to 1900 and the richest man in the colony.
The terms "comprador" and "compradorial" have also been used pejoratively to describe any type of economic or political collaboration with colonial or neocolonial exploiters—not only in Asia, but also in Africa and Latin America. This usage derives from criticism in the 1920s of the compradors as the running dogs of imperialism. Chinese Marxist scholars have generally viewed the compradors as a result of China's unique semicolonial, semifeudal state and as spearheads of the economic imperialism that drained China's wealth, stifled Chinese-owned enterprises, and upset China's traditionally self-sufficient economy. They argue that the comprador system was not simply an economic arrangement, but a tool for suppressing Chinese nationalism and weakening China's sovereign rights.
The system eventually fostered a giant class of merchants and officials who ultimately helped foreign firms influence China's economy and government in the late 1800s and early 1900s. According to this argument, through their compradors the foreigners were able not only to open Chinese markets, but also to penetrate traditional guilds, hongs, and other commercial organizations, force the Qing government to implement Western-style enterprises, and ultimately to control most of China's largest industries, exports and imports, and shipping.
For scholars who believe that international trade and investment was beneficial to China's economic development, however, the compradors are heroes rather than villains. As the first Chinese to invest in modern enterprises, they were crucial to China's industrialization and economic modernization. They created external economies, promoted a national market, stimulated mercantile nationalism, and channeled Chinese savings into modern investments. Furthermore, because the compradors eventually became the rivals of the Western firms, they ended up curbing foreign economic intrusion.
The compradorial system began to decline in the early 1900s, mainly because foreign merchants became more knowledgeable about China while Chinese merchants became more experienced in foreign trade, but also because the development of modern banking and credit services made the system less necessary. Still, most foreign companies in China continued to rely on Chinese managers or Chinese agents, whereas the compradorial system survived in Hong Kong until after World War II (1939–1945).
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Huang Yifeng, et al. Jiu zhongguo di mai ban jie ji [The Comprador Class in Old China]. Shanghai: Renmin chubanshe, 1982.
Nie Baozhang. Zhongguo maiban zichanjieji de fasheng [The Emergence of the Chinese Comprador Class]. Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexue chubanshe, 1979.
Smith, Carl T. "Compradores of The Hongkong Bank." In Eastern Banking: Essays in the History of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, edited by Frank H. King, 93-111. London: Athlone Press, 1983.