Low-class women dominated the marketplace. They thrived on the hustle and bustle of the most prosperous ports in Southeast Asia. They grew crops and livestock, wove clothing, made handicrafts and pottery, and transported their goods to be sold at the local market. They also held the purse strings and were the serious buyers in the marketplace. From Hội An to Hà Nội, the business of buôn bán or “buying and selling” was an almost exclusively female phenomenon in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Despite a wealth of primary sources, historical scholarship has neglected the experiences of Vietnamese merchant-women for centuries. Aside from one passing mention, the literati elite could not care less about what female merchants got up to. Thankfully, we have stele inscriptions, oral tradition, and the memoirs of foreign male visitors to help piece together their narrative.
Thus far, the narrative has been underwhelming. Historians have traditionally used Vietnamese women as a metaphor for the nation. If they did not fight against foreign invasion, there was no point talking about them. Hence, while there are hints of their presence scattered across books and journal articles, the only full-length publication on women entrepreneurs in Vietnamese history (aside from a small blog also written by me) is an unpublished conference paper by George Dutton.
So who were these women? How did they dominate local trade and how did their economic role shape their livelihood and their communities?
The early modern period in Vietnam was a tumultuous time punctured by decades of civil war and political upheaval. The three ruling houses that emerged—the Mạc, the Trịnh, and the Nguyễn—fought one another and divided the country.
During war, men were scripted for the military or for corvée labor, forcing their mothers, wives, and daughters to step up and become the breadwinners of their family.
Even during times of peace, market ventures still fell within a woman’s domain. The Confucian social hierarchy elevated the exclusively male class of scholars (Sĩ) to the top and demoted merchants (thương) to the bottom. Many men dedicated themselves fully to studying in the hopes of one day passing the imperial civil service examinations and bringing honor to their family. This meant that they were completely dependent on the entrepreneurial abilities of their mothers, wives, and daughters. On the other hand, merchants were vilified as shady swindlers who profited off the back of someone else’s hard work. The lack of social prestige accorded to merchants left the markets wide open for women to fill.
Although these factors facilitated the rise of a class of female entrepreneurs, they also put an enormous strain on women. It was physically demanding to be out in the fields, weaving and spinning or creating handicrafts, and bartering with potential customers whilst raising children.