Tuesday, May 16, 2017

In which my translingual aphasia leads me to explore the origins of the term 五金行

Earlier this evening (or yesterday evening, depending on when I finish this), I was talking with someone who mentioned a store on the corner of a main street in a nearby town. I thought I knew which store it was, but instead of saying the word "hardware," I said, "Is it a five..." before I stopped myself. I wasn't thinking "five and dime"--actually I was trying to say "五金行" in English. (A more-or-less literal translation of "五金行" would be "five metals store.")

About an hour ago, I started to reflect on this and got to wondering what was wrong with me the origins of the term 五金行 were. First I checked the Chinese Wikipedia, but that didn't tell me much, though it did cite an article that's no longer available but evidently discussed a Ye Chengzhong (葉澄衷), who was known as the "hardware king" in late Qing Shanghai.This discovery led me to an English Wikipedia entry about Ye Chengzhong (!). This article links to a 2011 Xinhua News story about Ye, which tells about how he became the hardware king:
According to the book "The Century-Old Famous Factories and Stores in Shanghai" (1987), an American business man once hired Ye's boat for a ride in 1862. But he left behind a briefcase full of cash and valuables.

Ye waited for a long time for the owner to return the briefcase. When he did, he was greatly touched by Ye's honest. The American businessman helped him open the city's first hardware shop on Daming Road in Hongkou District, selling much-needed tools and suppliers to sailors and military personnel at premium prices.

As the hardware business boomed, Ye expanded into many areas, including finance, commerce, industry, shipping and education, and made important contributions before he died in 1899.
But this story, inspiring as it might be, didn't bring me any closer to finding out the origins of the term 五金行. And interestingly, according to Sherman Cochran's book Encountering Chinese Networks: Western, Japanese, and Chinese Corporations in China, 1880-1937 (University of California P, 2000), Ye's hardware store was called "Shunji Imports" (順記洋貨號)--no five metals mentioned there.

I went on to find an entry in the Chinese Yahoo! Knowledge where someone had asked why "five metal stores" were called that ("為什麼賣五金的地方要叫五金行"). According to a somewhat lengthy response to the question, the five metals are gold, silver, copper, iron, and tin (金、銀、銅、鐵、錫). The respondent goes on to say that metals that were most resistant to oxidation were the earliest to be discovered by humans and used for weapons and tools. The writer goes on to suggest a relationship between the five metals and the five elements: metal, wood, water, fire, and earth (金、木、水、火、土). Those of you interested in reading more about the five elements (or five phases), can check out Wikipedia for an introduction to Wu Xing (though I make no guarantees about its accuracy or readability).

This was all getting a little too abstract for me, though (especially since it's after 1 a.m.!), but I'm at least temporarily satisfied that even if I don't have a date for the earliest usage of 五金行, at least I have a little information on the term, which seems to be using some ancient terminology for modern purposes. An article in a 1922 issue of The Scientific Monthly also notes this interesting, ummm... element:

And that's where we'll end for now. I've exhausted most my options, including my old copy of Endymion Wilkinson. But I'm open to suggestions!

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