This article explores the changing depiction of the merchant and the mercantile in the early Qing. A figure of much anxiety and mistrust in the late imperial imagination, the traveling merchant moves things out of their proper place—through both his movement of goods across space and his own mobility across social strata. In the early Qing play Shiwu guan 十五貫 (Fifteen Strings of Cash), however, the merchant's facilitation of the circulation of money and man does not trouble the social whole as much as constitute it. The merchant-hero breaks through narrative and economic impasses, directing capital away from the dead ends of hoarding and incest and toward the creation of productive marriages. In recuperating the merchant as a moral subject and his circulation of money as a moral act, Shiwu guan offers new possibilities for the construction of selfhood both onstage and off.

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