Hu Xueyan, also known as Guangyong (光墉), was a native of Chixi in Anhui Province. Born into a poor family, he experienced ups and downs throughout his life, going from poverty to great wealth and status more than once.
Hu Xueyan started his career as a merchant, rising to the third rank of the late Qing Dynasty’s Minister of Finance and Civil Affairs. Additionally, he achieved the rank of second official, for which he was bestowed a long yellow robe and a crown decorated with coral, commonly known as a “red dome”; he was therefore also known as a “red-top merchant.” As a merchant, wearing a yellow waistcoat and a red dome was a rare exception in the Qing Dynasty.
The following story of Hu Xueyan’s early life illustrates his ups and downs and how he achieved such a high status during the Qing Dynasty.
Hu Xueyan: From humble beginnings to financial mastery
After losing his father at a young age, Hu Xueyan’s family had little money. As a result, he was displaced from his home early in life. He found work as a partner in both a ham shop and a rice store, and thanks to his meticulous bookkeeping and high-level accounting skills, he entered the financial industry.
He became a treasurer for a banker surnamed Yu, and because Yu never had a child of his own and thought so highly of Hu Xueyan, he regarded him as an honorary son. Therefore, the bank, worth more than 4,000 taels of silver, after Yu’s death was passed on to Hu Xueyan.
During this time, when Hu Xueyan was just 26 years old, he worked as a money changer. He became friends with a man named Wang Yingjiu (also known as Wang Youling), who was running for the post of salt ambassador of Zhejiang Province, a very prominent and vital position.
In a bold action, Hu Xueyan used 500 taels of silver from the money changer to help Wang Yingjiu secure the post, something that Hu had not been granted permission to do.
The incident was ultimately exposed, and Hu Xueyan lost his job and all he had. To make ends meet, he had to work wherever he could find employment. Finally, after several years of hard work, he raised enough money to open his own bank.
When Wang Yingjiu assumed a governmental role as the sitting officer of the Zhejiang Maritime Bureau, he redirected public funds to be deposited in Hu Xueyan’s bank. Hu skillfully utilized the funds to lend and trade, making a significant profit.
Hu Xueyan repaid his friend’s kindness
Though Hu Xueyan had been lured by money and had done things he should not have done, when he saw the interpersonal debts that arose between people, he felt compassion for those who struggled and tried to help.
On one occasion, Hu Xueyan’s cousin stayed at an inn in Hangzhou while doing an apprenticeship. The cousin fell ill and, as a result, became burdened with unpaid rent and meal expenses. Desperate and needing money for medical treatment, the cousin reached out to Hu Xueyan for assistance. Despite Hu Xueyan’s limited salary at the time, he could not bear to witness his cousin’s suffering, so he reached out to a friend for help.
Upon discovering his friend was not home, Hu Xueyan told his wife: “Sister-in-law, I am short of money. Can you lend me five taels of silver?” The friend’s wife saw that Hu Xueyan, though he may have fallen on hard times, did not look untrustworthy, so she lent him five taels of silver.
Hu Xueyan was so grateful that he took a rattan bracelet from his wrist and said: “Sister-in-law, I’m in a bad situation now, and I don’t know when I can return these five taels of silver to you. This bracelet is not even worth one tael of silver and can’t be considered a deposit at all, but it is something my mother left to me, and I value it very highly. Please accept it as my promise to return the money as soon as I can.”
Not long after, Hu Xueyan saved up enough money to repay the loan to his friend and promptly sought him out. Upon repayment, his friend’s wife returned the bracelet, but Hu Xueyan declined the gesture. He believed that although he had settled the debt in monetary terms, he hadn’t yet repaid the kindness shown by his friend’s wife, who had been so generous with him when he was down and out.
Therefore, he said: “Sister-in-law, please hold onto the bracelet for now. I’ve repaid the five taels of silver, but I haven’t settled the debt of gratitude for your kindness. Currently, you’re in a comfortable position, and you lack nothing. Offering a few more taels of silver wouldn’t carry much meaning. I promise to reclaim the bracelet after I have had an opportunity to return a favor for your kindness.”
As fate would have it, his friend’s business later encountered financial difficulty, leading to bankruptcy. Hu Xueyan immediately extended generous assistance, aiding his friend in navigating the crisis. His friend’s wife once more offered the bracelet to Hu Xueyan, and this time, he gratefully accepted it.
Hi Xueyan understood the balance between favors and benefits. He displayed great wisdom by not just repaying the money he owed, but also repaying their kindness, demonstrating that he valued a kind deed above everything else. Hu adhered to the principles of kindness, which allowed him to develop a wide range of contacts and paved the way for establishing his vast business empire.