Gift relations and practices of hospitality have been key objects of study for anthropologists interested in the making and managing of networks of mutual assistance in China. Usually framed in the language of guanxi, such practices are crucial to understanding personal as well as business relations. Additionally, recent literature on market economies focusing on both retail and consumption stresses the need to “abandon the idea that [the market] organises meetings between agents and goods that are already present and that just wait … to meet” (Callon 2017: 180). Rather, these particular encounters are the result of multiple trajectories that shape not only marketplaces, goods, and agents, but also buyers, retailers, and customers. This article builds on these studies to closely consider the distinctive connections between the ‘market’ and ‘hospitality’. It does so in the ethnographic context of the gemstone market in China's Yunnan province and its ongoing transition to online retail. Despite this transition, and the apparent demise of ‘hosting’ as a central feature of trading practices, I maintain that hospitality remains crucial to how business transactions are performed. I thus recast hospitality as being located in—and constitutive of—the ‘market’.
Here I address hospitality as one of McFall et al.'s (2017: 2) “arts and devices of attachment,” that is, the complex social entanglements that “compose and orchestrate markets.” In following Cochoy's (2017) point that the dividing line between society and markets is unclear, as well as some of my earlier work on the performative nature of the market (Rippa 2019), I show how practices of hospitality are both constitutive of the market and produced by it. If the former process will be made clear by an analysis of in-person trading practices, the market's role in the production of particular forms of sociality will emerge from a close study of the ‘platformization’ (de Kloet et al. 2019) of the gemstone market and the persistence of practices of hospitality in its online instantiations.
This argument is aligned with much anthropological research on market economies. Far from “pure” (Tsing 2005: 21) understandings of economic markets as culture-free, anthropologists have convincingly argued that moral and social factors compose even the most developed and seemingly abstract forms of market settings (cf. Ho 2009; Zaloom 2006). This article contributes to this body of scholarship with a case study highlighting the distinctive connections between the constitution of a particular market and practices of hospitality. In the in-person retail practices I describe, hospitality thus constitutes the space—moral, in terms of mutuality, but also practical, in terms of the facilities conducive to exchanges—through which transactions take place. Traders have typically created the conditions for fruitful economic exchanges by serving tea in their shops and hosting visiting traders in their homes or in hotels. In the current online instantiations of the gemstone market, such practices are still present. More strikingly, even online the language through which transactions are performed is often one of hospitality. In the experience of gemstone traders in Yunnan, I thus argue, hospitality is inseparable from conceptions of the market and of the people involved. What are generated through these hospitality encounters are various forms of attachments between traders, customers, products, and spaces—both online and offline.
The article proceeds as follows. First, I outline the composition of the Yunnan gemstone market in Tengchong and Ruili—the main field sites where I conducted extensive ethnographic research between 2015 and 2019. In this section I describe the market's key actors and introduce the ongoing shift from in-person to online trading. I then elaborate on such trading practices in connection with the growing anthropological literature on hospitality, and with studies of social relations in China. The following two sections represent the ethnographic core of the article, respectively detailing in-person trading practices in Tengchong and Ruili, and the current online market through the example of WeChat traders and live streamers. After showing the persistence of (changing) practices of hospitality within this shift, I conclude by stressing the importance of hospitality in the production and organization of markets.
Setting the Stage: The Gemstone Market in China's Yunnan Province
China is the world's largest market for jade and amber. Most of this material is extracted in Myanmar and initially exported to China's Yunnan province through a variety of both formal and informal channels (Chang 2013; Rippa and Yang 2017). Jade (feicui) is the most important of such imports, comprising a market estimated at several billion US dollars (Global Witness 2015). The main trade center for jade is Ruili, a county-level city in Yunnan's Dehong Prefecture conveniently situated on the Myanmar border (Møller 2017). Most of these activities revolve around the Jade City (yucheng) in the Jiegao Border Economic Development Zone. Since the late 2000s, another precious commodity—Myanmar amber (hupo)—gained increasing popularity, and Tengchong, some 200 kilometers northwest of Ruili, quickly became China's main hub for the trade, due largely to its proximity to amber mines in Kachin state (Rippa and Yang 2017). Currently, Tengchong's amber market is based around two privately owned establishments: Lin Yun and Zhuo Xu. These are located in proximity to one another in a central part of Tengchong that was recently repurposed as the city's main gemstone trading area.
Until recently, the main players in the Yunnanese gemstone business were itinerant traders, variously referred to as kehu, xingshang, or keshang. Keshang can also be translated as ‘guest traders’, since ke (the same as in kehu) identifies both ‘guest’ and ‘traveler’. In the case of the Yunnan gemstone market, these two meanings are strictly interrelated, and shop owners (zuoshang, or ‘sitting traders’) often simply refer to their visiting business partners as ‘guests’ (keren). Guest traders are, in fact, frequently hosted by their business partners. As a result, they are embedded in practices and performances of hospitality that complicate their role as simple ‘businesspersons’ (shangren). While the figure of the keshang has by no means disappeared in this context, in recent years their number and importance have dramatically decreased in the face of the growing popularity of online retail. With the rise of WeChat (weixin in Chinese) in the early to mid-2010s, the figure of the ‘WeChat trader’ (weishang) became extremely popular in Ruili and Tengchong. WeChat traders are individuals who sell gemstones (as well as other products) through WeChat and other online retail platforms, thus reconfiguring the traditional role of guest traders and face-to-face retail. Even more recently, live streaming (zhibo) has taken over as one of the main arenas for gemstone sales, with thousands of individual streamers now active across Yunnan (Møller 2019; Zhu and Meyer 2021).
In both Tengchong and Ruili, customers vary greatly, as traders sell to both large and small-scale retailers, as well as to private consumers. The latter are all the more relevant for WeChat traders and live streamers, while in-person transactions involve dealing mostly with middlemen and retail companies. Either way, all traders I spoke to in Tengchong and Ruili were clearly involved with multiple actors in the gemstone business, selling directly to consumers, as well as (other) WeChat traders and live streamers, and not rarely to small and large retail companies operating in other parts of China. They were also dealing with different kinds of stones: larger, more expensive, and often uncut and unpolished pieces were mostly sold through in-person exchanges, while smaller and cheaper stones and jewelry made up the bulk of online transactions. These various actors and commodities, and the relations between them, are constitutive of the gemstone market I describe in this article.
The online shift is perceived differently in Tengchong and Ruili. Tengchong, a small, traditional, and largely Han city, has a long history as an administrative, military, and trading outpost. Families here trace their histories back to the first Han soldiers who colonized the area during the Ming dynasty, and many boast generations of active involvement in cross-border trade with nearby Myanmar. In Tengchong, established and well-connected Han trading families have dominated the amber business since its inception in the early 2000s. As the bulk of the trade moved online in recent years, most of those families remain heavily involved in it, albeit largely indirectly. In particular, most do not take part in the direct retailing of gemstones; instead, they provide raw materials to online retailing companies and lease out their shops and hotels to live streamers.
Ruili, on the other hand, while not matching Tengchong's long and prestigious history, has in recent decades become China's main gateway into Myanmar. It boasts a very active Border Economic Development Zone, Jiegao, through which most cross-border trade occurs. Unlike Tengchong, Ruili's trading community is quite diverse, with many Myanmar and Myanmar-Chinese traders playing central roles in the jade business. Of late, Ruili has also invested in e-commerce activities, and its largest jade market now features a Taobao-sponsored live-stream center. Younger traders, in particular, seem to have benefited from the online transition, and many told me that when trading on WeChat or Taobao, success was less bound to one's social networks or to having powerful connections.
Despite those apparent changes in both the shape and composition of the market and its main actors, I show in this article that practices of hospitality remain central to how they are constituted. Even in the now predominant online retail, carefully curated social networks are fundamental, not only, importantly, for attending to particularly beneficial business relations, but also for the content and composition of the gemstone market itself. To show this, I now turn to an analysis of the literature on hospitality and guanxi in anthropology, before delving deeper into the ethnographic case at hand.
Hospitality, Guanxi, and the Market in China
In anthropology, hospitality—most commonly understood as the tradition of welcoming an outsider into one's home—has been addressed as a deeply ambivalent practice that foregrounds a seemingly irresolvable tension between a radical openness to outsiders and the threat that this poses to the integrity of the host's self and domain (Candea and da Col 2012: S3–S4; Pitt-Rivers  2012). In the Chinese context, etymology itself affords us an understanding of hospitality that entails a fundamentally unequal relation: that between the ‘master’ (zhu) of a space and a ‘visitor’ (ke). Here the guest, whether ‘familiar’ or ‘stranger’, is entertained yet at the same time kept at a safe distance. As Brukermann and Feuchtwang (2016: 213–225) point out, hospitality in China has been mostly understood through the guise of ritual practices, particularly with regard to the imperial ‘guest’ ritual of tribute. Additionally, hospitality has been analyzed as a key component of highly hierarchical gift relations (Stafford 2000b; Yan 1996). The practice of ‘hosting’ thus captures a crucial aspect of relatedness in China, encompassing both social values and economic needs (Chau 2006), and is thus fundamental in the making of networks of mutual assistance generally put under the label of guanxi (M. Yang 1994). This understanding is particularly evident if we look at practices of hospitality that often complement and support gift exchange (cf. Kipnis 1996). Here guanxi networks are not only sustained by gifting something, but also through invitations to visit one's house—or shop, as we shall see—and be a guest (zuo ke). In Tengchong and Ruili, such ‘comings and goings’ (laiwang) are an important part of daily life; through them, relatives (qinqi), friends (pengyou), and business partners (shengyi huoban, hehuoren, hezuoren) consolidate and expand their networks (see also Stafford 2000a). More often than not, such visits are accompanied by small exchanges of cigarettes and seasonal delicacies (fruits, mushrooms) that might have been collected on a recent trip. Yet these exchanges, while important, do not represent the main reason for the visit, which is simply to sit around (zuo yixia) and chat over a few cups of tea. While not much happens, and in fact most visits result in both guest and host playing (wanr) with their phones, such seemingly inconsequential actions and interactions are crucial to bringing the guest into the fold of the family in an informal manner, and to the cultivation of particular relations of mutual assistance.
In the literature on post-reform China, there has also been a fair amount of discussion of the ritualized hosting that accompanies business relations and formal occasions (Chau 2019). Known generally as yingchou or goudui, such practices revolve around hosting and entertaining business partners through banqueting, drinking, karaoke singing, and often commercial sex. As a number of ethnographic studies demonstrate, entertaining is crucial to the establishment of mutually beneficial guanxi-type relationships and is an integral component of business and bureaucratic ties (cf. Osburg 2013b; Uretsky 2016; Zhang 2001).
Traders in Tengchong and Ruili are engaged in some of the same ritualized hosting practices. Despite the fleeting nature of such relationships, by hosting and entertaining guest traders, business relations become embedded in patterns of social reciprocity and exchange. Here, hospitality is not only constitutive of personal relations of mutual benefit, but also of particular markets. By hosting fellow traders, retailers in Tengchong create the conditions for fruitful economic exchange—which in turn dictates which stones are moved, how, and for what purpose. To show this, I begin by focusing on a few particular places (the ‘home’ and the ‘shop’) and practices (making tea, sharing food, festival celebrations) in which such relations of hospitality are performed, and the market “compose[d] and orchestrate[d]” (McFall et al. 2017: 2).
Hosting for Profit: The Tengchong Gemstone Market
When we first met in 2015, Wang Jiafu was a busy young man. The male heir to a wealthy Tengchong business, he was in charge of running the Wang family's two main gemstone shops. He was also heavily involved in the gemstone market that Tengchong authorities hosted every fifth day to attract customers and play up the city's reputation as a major destination for the gemstone trade. These days, most of Wang Jiafu's business was in amber, which he bought from Myanmar traders. In Tengchong, he sold to regular customers, but for the most part he was handling large quantities of stones for retailers from out of the province. Representatives and middlemen would come to Tengchong and deal with him in person. He would host some at a hotel that his family owned. Others, he would set up in one of Tengchong's best hotels. Fast forward a few years to 2019, and Wang Jiafu was mostly occupied with being a father. One of the two Wang family shops was now closed on most days, while the other hardly saw any clients. Wang Jiafu had even given up on the city market. During one of our most recent encounters, he told me that few traders travel to Tengchong these days, and good customers are rare. On the one hand, he explained, the Chinese economy is not going well. On the other hand, online retail has largely taken over the gemstones market. Although he was not directly taking part in the online business, he still profited from it. The hotel where he used to host guest traders is being rented out to a live-streaming company. Now 30 to 40 live streamers use the premises to sell amber online, day and night. Besides renting out the rooms, Wang Jiafu himself also provides some of the amber that is sold in this way.
Gemstones are brought into China by either Chinese or Myanmar traders. There are many different arrangements according to which traders can work independently, on commission, or as part of a group of partners pooling resources. In all cases, each stone (shi) is individually assessed and either carved in loco or sold uncut on the Chinese market. It is not unusual for a single stone to change hands several times before it is cut and sold. Until a few years ago, most of these exchanges occurred within shops (dian) set up by traders in Jiegao/Ruili and Tengchong. Shops are owned by an individual, a family, or a group of partners, and vary in size from a simple table in a mall or market (shichang, where the practice is generally known as baitan) to a small hole-in-the-wall or a heavily decorated and expensively furnished 200–300 square meter premises. Here, sellers pay regular visits trying to dispose of their merchandise, often a raw stone just brought in from across the border. Shops are also the places in which Chinese guest traders come to purchase stones that they then resell around the country. The shop, as such, plays a fundamental role in traders’ economic and social networks.
In the case of Wang Jiafu described above, as in that of many family-owned shops in Tengchong and Ruili, the shop is an extension of the house. Wang Jiafu often had his kids around, and his shops were always scattered with toys. At various times throughout the day, family members visited him there and sat around the main table, drinking tea and chatting. Wang Jiafu had most of his meals at the shop, often in the company of his wife and children, and occasionally his father and mother. “Come to my shop” (lai wo dian) and “stay for a while” (zuo yixia) were frequent invitations he made to his friends upon meeting them around town. As I witnessed on numerous occasions, Wang Jiafu's shop was also the place where, after a few cups of tea, people were invited to the family house to be properly treated as guests, zuo ke. In this sense, while representing an extension of the home, the shop maintained a hybrid function: a domesticated business space, yet not quite an intimate space. Nevertheless, in conjunction with the hotel that the Wang family had set up above it, the shop played a fundamental role in allowing long-term business relations to be performed.
The family-owned hotel, such as Wang Jiafu's, is an interesting place for discussing relations of hospitality in the context of business connections in China. Most of the wealthy Tengchong gemstone trading families I interacted with in the course of my fieldwork owned at least one hotel or guesthouse. The family hotel clearly had a double function: it was a business investment in itself, but also a space where business partners were generally allowed to stay free of charge, as ‘guests’ of the family. When not entirely for free, and particularly for business partners who needed to stay long term, trading families were always keen to arrange an affordable rate. This put the guest into a particular relation with the host—one that needed to be balanced out via reciprocation. As Wang Jiafu articulated explicitly, the reciprocation was generally achieved through business partnerships, such as purchasing gemstones from the family of the host and introducing them to other potential customers. By hosting guest traders, moreover, families such as the Wangs maintained a certain balance and stability in the relation between guest trader, host family, and the broader business community within which they acted. Hosting thus played a key part in the maintenance and development of economic and social profitability. Rather than an irresolvable tension between openness and its threatening nature, hospitality was instead productive of ‘mutually beneficial’ (gongying) social relations, as traders often put it to me in a rather formal tone.
Hosting guest traders at the family hotel was not the only mechanism through which business relations were maintained, strengthened, and performed. Other important mediums for cultivating such networks in Yunnan were tea and food. The issue of commensality is anything but new in the literature on hospitality and exchange in anthropology, and sharing food has been interpreted as a way of redistributing resources, cultivating (social, economic, kinship) relations, and resolving conflicts. In Yunnan's gemstone market, hosting a banquet and taking business partners out for a meal were important ways of securing and maintaining guanxi networks. What is more, tea played a fundamental role in Yunnan's culture of hospitality in the context of trade relations. To this end, virtually every gemstone shop in Tengchong and Ruili featured an area for brewing and serving tea to guests. This could be as simple as a tray with a couple of teapots and some glasses, or as elaborate as an imposing carved redwood ceremonial tea table worth a small fortune. Regardless, upon entering a shop, Chinese guest traders, friends, and family members were regularly asked to sit down and have some tea.
Tengchong's hosting culture also needs to be understood against the town's historical background, and how this is mobilized by traders such as Wang Jiafu. As mentioned above, Tengchong's role as a major trading outpost goes back several centuries, and many of its currently residing families claim to be able to trace their lineage to the soldiers who built a Han enclave here in a largely non-Han environment (Hill 1998; Li 2017: 23–53). Today, Tengchong residents spare no effort in stressing their Han heritage and belonging—a claim to Han-ness strictly connected to the special place that Tengchong occupies within China. As Wang Jiafu's father put it in the course of celebrations at his house for song gui (the last day of guijie, the Hungry Ghost Festival): “We are more traditional than other places in China, because we are close to the border and there are many ethnic minorities here.” Celebrations like the Hungry Ghost Festival, during which the spirits of ancestors are believed to come out to dwell in their descendants’ homes, fundamentally reflect the claims to a Han identity, as well as to the territory—to Tengchong as a part of China, and to the ancestors’ connections with it. In this framework, the act of ‘hosting’ the ghosts of ancestors is a core aspect of Tengchong families’ understanding of their being Chinese, and a major component of their striving to ‘live’ their traditions and claim their Han-ness. Everyday practices of hospitality are crucial to Tengchong people's (Tengchong ren) pride in their ability to maintain and reproduce a particular tradition, in being ‘good Han’ despite—or perhaps, because of—the town's distance from the main centers of Han culture. As such, the art of hosting transcends its limited ‘ritual’ relevance during festivities such as guijie, or its business value in the gemstone market, representing instead a key element of what it means to be civilized (see also Feuchtwang 2019).
These overlaps between ritual practices and commercial relations are an important feature of hospitality practices in the Tengchong context. In what follows I show how practices of hospitality are not only constitutive of social relations, but also a major factor in how markets are formed and organized. To do so, I first detail the online shift that the Yunnan gemstone market is currently undergoing before discussing its implications for trading practices centered around various forms of hospitality.
Online Retail and Ruili's Jade City
Lanlan was born in the Wa hills of northern Myanmar at a time when this territory was under the control of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB). Lanlan and her family eventually fled Myanmar after the CPB collapsed in 1989, and like many others found refuge in Ruili, a few hundred kilometers to the north. Lanlan attended school there, and Mandarin—a language neither of her parents spoke—became her first language. After finishing high school, she began to work odd jobs around Ruili, first selling fruit on a street market, then waitressing at a restaurant. She managed to save some money and, with 6,000 yuan in her hands, decided to try her fortune in the jade market. This was in 2013, when the market was growing at an ever-quickening pace. Lanlan rented a small stand (tandian) at the Jade City, in Jiegao, for 2,000 yuan, and spent the other 4,000 buying her first batch of jade. She sold it all within the first month, making more than four times what she had invested. With that, she bought more jade and slowly grew her business. Now she manages two stands, one at the Jade City and one at the Border Gate Gemstone City, a smaller shopping venue for tourists near the border gate with Muse. Hundreds of young women of mixed background (who are generally referred to as hunxue, or ‘mixed blood’) like Lanlan have made small fortunes in the jade business. Their success lies not only in knowledge of the stones and of a number of different languages spoken in this border area, but also in their skillfulness in operating online, selling through WeChat and live-streaming channels. This, Lanlan told me the last time we met in 2019, is the reason her business was going better than the year before, despite a general slowdown in China's economy: “If you know how to sell online [wangshang mai], there are still good opportunities [jihui].”
With the growing importance of technology in the gemstone market and the emergence of e-commerce as a major retail force, the relations I described in the previous section were bound to change. With them, the very spaces—shops, homes, and hotels—through which they were carried out underwent major transformations. Since about 2016, many such shops have closed as e-commerce has gained prominence over people-to-people transactions. At around this time, the figure of the WeChat trader (weishang) emerged as a key go-between for the social world of personal relations, shops, and stones, as well as the virtual world of online shops, ratings, and express delivery (kuaidi). Further, the more recent explosion of live-streaming (zhibo) retail has contributed to a radical change in the Yunnan gemstone market. This section details this recent shift by addressing the case of the Jade City in Ruili and its famous live-streaming market.
With over 22,000 square meters divided into a half-dozen large showrooms, an average of 6,000 traders come to the Jade City every day to baitan—to set up a stand and sell their products. The price of a stand at the Jade City, around 1,600 yuan per square meter per month, is rather high by Ruili's standards. Yet this is where buyers concentrate (the Jade City claims to receive at least 10,000 visitors every day), and in this corner of Jiegao busloads of tourists empty daily, providing hundreds of potential new customers who rarely visit any other jade retail center in town. A significant part of the business, however, does not necessarily take place through personal encounters within the confines of the Jade City itself. Most traders manning their stands from the early morning until late afternoon also spend a significant part of the day attempting to sell products online, mostly through WeChat. During one of several visits to Lanlan's stand in the Jade City, for instance, I found her taking pictures of a few rings she was selling. She had put four of them on her fingers and was trying to get the right light to take a picture that would best show the quality of the jade. “Look, this is what we do all day, take pictures [pai zhao],” she remarked as she saw me coming toward her. She posted the picture on WeChat right away, adding the weight and size of the stones, as well as the material in which they were set (usually silver or white gold). Sometimes she would also create short videos of particular stones or pieces of jewelry to post online. The same evening, as Lanlan, I, and a couple of mutual friends (and fellow traders) were having dinner at a Myanmar restaurant in town, she proudly showed us on her phone the payment for one of the rings—adding that she would be treating us to dinner in order to celebrate.
Weishang is not the only way to do online business. Jiegao's Jade City has become especially famous as the main center for live-stream retail. On a normal day, hundreds of live streamers, or zuo zhibo de (lit., people who ‘do’ live streaming), walk around the market's thousands of stands, holding up their phone(s) to show online customers the market, in search of the right match. Live streamers stop at a particular stand, either looking for something specific or showing what is available. If interested, an online user can ask questions and perhaps start bargaining for the right price. Most gemstone e-shops or live-streaming platforms (zhibo pingtai) are hosted by Taobao Live (a separate app launched by the Alibaba company), China's main live-streaming platform for retail. While there are several other platforms used by live streamers across Yunnan's gemstone markets, I was regularly told that Taobao offers more guarantees for both buyers and sellers. Scams, which are a frequent occurrence in this kind of business, are more tightly monitored on Taobao, making it a prime destination for both customers and their live-streaming go-betweens.
Building on the growing success of this kind of online retail, the Jade City has established the ‘Jiegao Jade City Taobao live-streaming base’ (Jiegao yucheng taobao zhibo jidi), generally simply known as the ‘live-streaming market’ (zhibo shichang). On an introductory panel placed at one of the entrances to the Jade City, live streaming is defined as the new ‘shining point’ (liangdian) of the Jade City, with close to 3,000 people involved in it. The live-streaming market was inaugurated in September 2018 as the result of a collaboration between Taobao and some of the main Ruili-based jewelry companies controlling the Jade City, particularly through the mediation of the Ruili Gemstones and Jade Association (Ruilishi bao yu shi xiehui). The ceremony was attended by local Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders, and the market has been endorsed by both the Ruili municipality and the prefectural government as a way to inject new ‘vitality’ (huoli) into the gemstone market (Ruili Today 2018). While live streamers walk the Jade City at all times of the day, this market is especially active in the evening and well into the night.
At particular stands, a group of streamers can work together. While one is live streaming, others manage a number of smartphones, iPads, and computers, acting as ‘customers’. In zhibo slang, they are tuo-ing the price up: they pretend to be interested in purchasing so as to generate traffic on a given live-streaming channel and hence bargain the price higher than the market rate. This is plain ‘cheating’ (pian), they tell me, but everyone does it. Thinking back to my previous discussion of hospitality, in this technique of inflating prices the stranger-customer is akin to ‘the captive guest’ that Katherine Swancutt (2012) describes. As in Swancutt's case among the Nuoso, the guest of the live stream—the customer—is not prompted to reciprocate or to alternate roles with the host, but is rather considered “more like property (or an extension of the host's personhood) than an associate or friend” (ibid.: 104). With tuo-ing, too, certain relations of trust must be maintained (no streamer wants to get a reputation as a cheater), but guests are not invited to join a personal circle of connections, nor are they expected to reciprocate. Rather, they are ‘captured’ in what the host hopes will become a long-term beneficial relation advantageous to the business.
Relations that are based on mutuality are those between live streamers themselves, as well as those between live streamers and traders who provide them with stones and jewelry. Here, once again, hospitality plays a key role: traders frequently invite live streamers out for lunch and dinner, either in small eateries near the Jade City on in larger restaurants in town. Additionally, hosting includes some of the ritualized entertaining practices outlined above, and traders like Lanlan often take live streamers out to long nights at local karaoke bars. Importantly, these are not occasional events. Rather, large dinner parties and evenings in private karaoke rooms are regular outings for traders such as Lanlan and a constitutive part of their business. These exchanges, as in the yingchou or goudui practices mentioned above, create relations of trust and mutual aid that materialize daily when particular live streamers need new stones and jewelry pieces for their customers. I have often seen live streamers picking up a set of jade necklaces from Lanlan's shop and even asking her to ship them directly to their e-customers without checking the quality of each piece, reflecting the relations of trust that have been established over time. As I detail in the next section, this exemplifies how hosting remains a crucial component in forging and renewing networks of mutual assistance, and how this cuts through both in-person and online trading practices.
Reassembling the Gemstone Market: Hospitality and the Platformization of Chinese Society
Mr. Chen always seems to act as if he were the busiest man in town. A short, sturdy Sichuanese in his mid-forties, he moves frenetically around Tengchong's amber market with his phone in one hand and a cigarette in the other. A chain smoker, his upper teeth are yellow, and he coughs relentlessly—yet generally blames it on Tengchong's rainy weather. Mr. Chen moved to this corner of Yunnan in 2013 and soon got involved in the amber business. “My company,” he says proudly, “is already the biggest in Yunnan. We employ 20 people, all from Myanmar, carving amber for us full-time.” His factory (gongchang), as he calls it, is situated a short ride from Tengchong's main amber trading center. He points next door to the newly opened Tengchong Amber Museum, another of his creations: “This is the only museum entirely dedicated to amber in China today—and one of very few amber museums in the world.” The museum fills two small rooms on two separate floors, yet it is fairly comprehensive and displays some interesting pieces of amber jewelry from the Ming and Qing dynasties. It also details, through a number of panels, the history of the trade in Tengchong, the locations of the mines in Kachin state, and the reach of the global amber business today. After a thorough visit and a few cups of tea in the museum, we swiftly move to the factory, where a dozen Myanmar workers are busy carving pieces of amber to make necklaces. Mr. Chen explains that each worker is paid between 1,000 and 3,000 yuan per month, on top of accommodation and food. Eventually, Mr. Chen and I sit down for a brief moment, sipping some tea as he smokes yet another cigarette. I ask him how China's economic slowdown, of which all traders I talked to complained, was affecting his business. “You see,” he replied, “the Tengchong government supports me. They won't let me close down [tamen bu rang wo guan].”
The growing importance of live streaming in trading practices reflects a broader trend within China, one that de Kloet et al. (2019) call the ‘platformization’ of Chinese society. While signaling how online technology and its widespread availability through affordable smartphones and data plans has dramatically altered Chinese society in less than a decade (cf. McDonald 2016; Wang 2016; G. Yang 2011), ‘platformization’ also hints at how the ubiquitousness of such technology in everyday life is shaping economic, social, and cultural practices alongside the medium through which they occur. As illustrated in the previous section, the Yunnan gemstone market has been deeply shaped by this ongoing transition. As I describe now, this has led to different outcomes for established trading families compared to small-scale entrepreneurs.
Let me start with Wang Jiafu. After WeChat and, later, live streaming became the main means of gemstone retail, Wang Jiafu and many other wealthy Tengchong and Ruili families have taken a largely passive role in the trade. Although Wang Jiafu still reaps a handsome profit by renting out the family hotel to live streamers and supplying gemstones, while occasionally selling some himself on WeChat, his role as a direct seller has faded. One of his two family shops has effectively shut down, while the other hardly sees any customers walk through its doors. To be sure, China's economic slowdown and the CCP's anti-corruption campaign have severely impacted Wang Jiafu's wealthiest customers. Online retail, on the other hand, generally involves cheaper stones, an area Wang Jiafu does not bother dealing with. As he put it to me while discussing the matter in the summer of 2019: “Everyone can do zhibo because you only need a little money to start.” Furthermore, when dealing inexpensive pieces, one requires less expertise on the quality of the stones and the carving work, and need not have the social capital necessary to handle high-end customers.
Comparatively, the rise of online retail seems to have benefited small-scale entrepreneurs such as Lanlan to a greater extent. Born to a migrant family, like many other young women in Ruili, Lanlan did not have any personal ties with an established trading family, and her ‘mixed’ background made it hard for her to find a suitable husband. Today, however, she runs a successful business, is engaged to a small-scale jade trader from Henan, and is thinking of investing in an apartment. In her case, the Internet has proved to be not only a source of opportunities, but also a way out of asphyxiating power relations. Selling through WeChat, which provides most of her revenue, Lanlan claims to be able to circumvent many of the obligations toward local officialdom that the guanxi economy entails. Her place of work, to be sure, is not equipped with the paraphernalia required for ‘hosting’ certain guests—expensive tea sets, sofas, or a cabinet with imported liquors. Furthermore, she does not make any particular effort to engage the authorities. As she once put it: “That kind of guanxi is a lot of trouble [hen mafan].”
It would, however, be wrong to conclude that, with the shift to online retail, the importance of networks of mutual assistance—and of practices of hospitality in producing and sustaining them—has faded. In Tengchong, since the amber trade reached considerable proportions in the early 2010s, the local county government has invested significant resources in its development (Rippa and Yang 2017). A central area of the city was designated as the focal point, and a large warehouse was converted into an amber trading center. While this project was carried out by a private company (Lin Yun), the move was heavily subsidized by the local county government. Another market space, Zhuo Xu, co-owned by Mr. Chen, was later added to the complex and inaugurated in 2018. Together, these two markets numbered between 400 and 500 active stands in 2019. The city of Tengchong has also been sponsoring a gemstone market that takes place every fifth day, as mentioned above, for which some traders make the trip from Ruili and other nearby towns. Lastly, in 2018 a new College of Jewelry opened on the outskirts of town, and Tengchong was named ‘China's Amber City’ (Zhongguo hupo zhi cheng) for the period 2019–2021. This particular ‘official’ support is rooted in personal relations between entrepreneurs and state officials, often performed through various types of entertaining and socializing. In Tengchong, not unlike other parts of China (Osburg 2013a: 51–55), this ranges from inviting officials out for dinner to presenting them with presents and even inviting them to children's weddings. As Wang Jiafu told me on the day of his sister's nuptials, which I too was attending: “My sister doesn't actually know half of the people here. They were all invited by my father—they are his relations [ta de guanxi].”
Additionally, the technology used in online retail is in itself profoundly embedded in the language of hospitality and guanxi-making practices. To begin with, online money transfer in China, a key innovation for weishang businesses, was largely popularized through the introduction of WeChat's hongbao function in the wake of the 2014 Lunar New Year. Traditionally, hongbao are red envelopes used to gift money at weddings and other special occasions, such as new year celebrations. With the WeChat function, such money transfers soon exceeded the solely ritual aspect of gift circulation and became used primarily to pay for goods and services. ‘Red envelope’ transfers on WeChat are limited to 200 yuan, but larger transfers are possible via WeBank (Tencent's ‘digital bank’) and other online financial platforms. Nonetheless, in Ruili and Tengchong, traders often refer to such transfers as hongbao. This usage implies that red envelope exchanges remain permeated with meaning and intimacy (McDonald 2019), and involve the production and accumulation of symbolic capital. This is particularly significant for exchanges occurring between traders, live streamers, retailers, and WeChat traders. These are rarely one-off transactions, but rather recurrent economic relations based on trust and the expectation of future reciprocation through collaborations and partnerships.
In live-streaming sales as well, there seem to be idioms and practices of hospitality at play. First of all, each live stream is hosted on a particular platform and by a particular streamer, brand, or company. These are very often carefully curated spaces, known as ‘live stream rooms’ (zhibo jian), and streamers (zhibo zhu, or bo zhu, lit., ‘live-stream host’) are charismatic characters valued for their ability to establish a connection and solicit trust from customers. Moreover, as I showed with the example above, live streamers often collaborate and help each other out by boosting one another's live stream, or indeed conspire to tuo-ing prices up. They not only share a common workspace (in the Jade City) or company for which they work, but also cement these relationships by eating out together and spending late evenings at local karaoke bars and nighttime food markets. While some of these practices might seem rather generic, as in inviting each other for a quick lunch at a food stand near the Jade City, others are akin to the ritual hosting of yingchou and goudui practices. For particular business partners, or to celebrate a successful deal, live streamers and traders like Lanlan often mobilize a large network of contacts to host a ‘lively’ (renao) evening in a karaoke bar. Here, through singing and numerous drinking games, relations and business networks are strengthened and expanded. Live streamers also develop particular relations of trust with their ‘captured’ audiences, and, as a result, many customers often follow the same daily broadcast, increasing the streamer's visibility and reputation. In this case, hosting does not imply reciprocation, but nevertheless establishes a continuous relation that can be exploited for economic purposes.
When analyzed through such lenses, both Wang Jiafu's and Lanlan's experiences of the online transition remain largely embedded in and shaped by particular guanxi-making practices in which hospitality plays a key role. Wang Jiafu remains deeply involved with online retail: his family has gained a reputation as a fair business partner and is well connected with the local government. This social capital is still a valuable asset, even when not used in direct engagements with buyers. Conversely, Lanlan constantly borrows stones from established traders and sells to her live streamer friends. To do so, she needs to carefully cultivate good relations with multiple actors around the marketplace. Even when selling on WeChat, she relies on her contacts as well as their networks, and she is often introduced to potential buyers through friends and acquaintances. Hence, in a way, she is constantly attending to different yet overlapping circles of guanxi, each centered around a particular institution or technology. More broadly, my experiences with WeChat traders in Tengchong and Ruili echo recent scholarship (cf. Martin 2017) suggesting that being a WeChat trader can require extensive personal networks, social capital, and levels of trustworthiness. The circulation of gifts, frequent commensality, entertainment, and continuous exchanges of pictures, videos, and voice messages all point toward efforts to maintain and promote networks of mutual assistance.
In this article I have analyzed an understanding of markets that goes beyond mere economic terms to show how practices of hospitality are embedded in—and constitutive of—the gemstone market in Yunnan. In doing so, this article contributes to a more fine-grained understanding of some of the consequences of the platformization of Chinese society for specific markets. In particular, I have shown that despite the apparent demise of hospitality as a central feature of the trade, practices of hosting remain crucial to how the market is constituted. In doing so, I have demonstrated that the cultural and social importance of hospitality in business practices should not be discounted when looking at online markets. Instead, hospitality should be recast as central to the production and organization of such markets.
In both in-person and online exchanges, hosting continues to involve “the production of collective affects and the accumulation of symbolic capital” (Candea and da Col 2012: S11). Yet besides (re)producing good relationships, and counter to the notion of hosting as a ‘threat’ to the host domain, the tension implicit in practices of hospitality is also productive of attachments between traders, customers, and products, and of both physical and virtual exchange spaces. As such, hospitality needs to be understood as generative of markets themselves and thus of shifting trading spaces, relations with exchanged goods, and institutions. Hospitality cuts through these various aspects of the market and rearranges them in particular ways, from the highly institutionalized cooperation with Taobao, to Mr. Chen's factory and amber museum, to live streamers’ tuo-ing practices.
In more traditional market spaces, such as the shop and family hotel I observed with regard to Tengchong, practices of hospitality underscored and enabled particular business relations, in turn shaping market transactions. By hosting guest traders, Tengchong families created the conditions for fruitful economic exchange and the accumulation of symbolic capital. As detailed in the literature on hospitality in China addressed above, hosting here serves as a mode of reaffirming and re-establishing a trading family's economic and moral position within the market. The online transition I described in the second part of the article reveals the persistent importance of social reciprocity, lineage obligations, and local community networks. The Jade City and the Tengchong amber market, for instance, both of which feature live-stream facilities and weishang businesses, are the result of tight collaborations between local authorities and powerful traders, as well as large corporations, in the case of Jiegao and Taobao. These connections, as the cases of Mr. Chen and Wang Jiafu show, are deeply rooted in practices of hosting and entertaining outlined above. Even in online retail, as demonstrated with the example of live streamers, hospitality still functions as a particular ‘device of attachment’. It strengthens relations among traders, retailers, and live streamers who work together, but also creates the conditions for ‘capturing’ a particular customer base. Furthermore, much of the language employed in online transactions remains one of hospitality. Even with the drastic reduction of onsite retail and the seemingly decreasing importance of ritual practices of hospitality and entertainment, it is clear that guanxi networks remain central to how business is conducted.
Importantly, however, the example of the gemstone market shows how hospitality should not be solely understood as a critical aspect of relatedness in China, one that is particularly relevant for the production of networks of mutual assistance. Hosting, in its more ritualized in-person instantiations as well as in online transactions, is not only productive of mutually beneficial social relations. In cementing and shaping such relations, hosting is also conducive to how markets themselves are arranged, and thus to the creation and organization of commodity exchanges. The stones that are moved, how they are moved, between which actors, and in which places—these dynamics are all dictated by particular social relations. The analysis of hosting practices offers a precious lens through which we can understand how such relations are made, and how they are shifting under changing circumstances.
Additionally, this focus on hospitality in market practices provides an important analytical perspective on the complex relations between everyday practices and the increasing role of online retail. These experiences are not unique to the Chinese case or to the gemstone market; they are shared to different degrees by trading communities across the world. Hospitality remains central to how many such communities understand and experience the challenges of an increasingly digitized market economy, and should be considered in scholarly analyses of such transformations.
I am grateful to Tim Oakes, Carolin Märtens, and Roger Norum for their insightful comments and useful discussions, which helped shape earlier versions of this article. Special thanks go to Hans Steinmüller and Martin Holbraad, whose constructive feedback aided in later revisions. I would also like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their engaging comments and suggestions. Research and writing for this article received support from the Henry Luce Foundation (“China Made” project) and the Volkswagen Foundation (“Environing Infrastructure” project, reference number 96110).
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