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What is a Comprador?

A comprador is a key figure in global trade, acting as a local intermediary for foreign businesses in a host country. They navigate cultural and economic landscapes, facilitating transactions and fostering international partnerships. Their role is crucial in bridging gaps between diverse markets. How does a comprador's influence shape global commerce? Join us as we explore their impact on international trade dynamics.
Allegra J. Lingo
Allegra J. Lingo

A comprador is an intermediary or go-between. It is derived from the Latin comparare meaning "to procure," and in Portuguese means "buyer." Today, the word is used in international business, primarily in East Asia, to describe a native individual managing European interests in China.

The term "comprador" was first used to describe a native servant in a European household in southern China. The comprador's primary duty was going to market to barter his employer's wares for needed goods. As Europeans began to develop industry and open financial institutions, the title evolved to mean a native Chinese person working for a European trading company. This employee was responsible for overseeing the native Chinese staff of guards, currency-experts, interpreters, and other needed services. The comprador position was highly coveted and open only to individuals with a great amount of education.

A native of East Asia may be tasked with managing a European company's interests in China.
A native of East Asia may be tasked with managing a European company's interests in China.

Due to the managerial nature of the position, compradors often became wealthy entrepreneurs and started their own firms and businesses. One of these men was Tong King-sing, who worked for the Jardine Matheson Company in the mid-1800s as a salesman. Drawing upon his knowledge and experiences, he published a six-volume manual titled "The Chinese Instructor" in 1862. Another notable comprador was Zhang Jiaao, who assisted in revolutionizing the Chinese banking industry in the 1920s. He later published books on railroad development and became a research fellow at Stanford University.

With the rise of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and nationalist socialism in the mid-1900s, the term "comprador bourgeoisie" was used to define merchant-class individuals who were compliant with and sympathetic to foreign economic interests. This was a contrast to the "national bourgeoisie," who were also members of the merchant class but worked towards building and strengthening the national economy. Many of the people who were working as compradors during this time fled China, worked in secret, or were imprisoned by the Red Guard.

When international business and trade regained strength in China in the 1980s and 1990s, compradors returned as well. Today, they are native managers of the East Asian offices of foreign companies and oversee all aspects of the Chinese staff. The term is now used worldwide as firms expand their business interests. Bilingualism, an understanding of culture, and managerial skills are key components to the position in this global environment. Placements are found in a wide variety of industries, including banking, mining, and manufacturing, and in countries such as Brazil, India, and Mexico.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the historical origin of the term 'comprador'?

The term 'comprador' originates from the Portuguese word 'comprar,' meaning 'to buy.' It was first used in the context of trade during the colonial era, particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Compradors were local middlemen in colonized countries, especially in China, who facilitated trade between local merchants and foreign businesses. They played a crucial role in the import-export industry, acting as agents for foreign enterprises and helping them navigate the local market and customs.

How did compradors impact local economies in colonial times?

Compradors had a significant impact on local economies during colonial times. They often accumulated considerable wealth and influence by controlling the flow of goods and information between foreign businesses and local markets. However, their role was controversial; while they contributed to the modernization and economic development of their regions, they also reinforced colonial power structures and could exacerbate economic disparities by aligning with foreign interests over local welfare.

What was the role of compradors in China's economy?

In China's economy, compradors were pivotal in the development of international trade during the late Qing Dynasty and the Republican period. They served as intermediaries between Western merchants and Chinese society, facilitating the import of foreign goods and the export of Chinese products such as tea, silk, and porcelain. Their knowledge of Western business practices and local networks enabled them to amass significant power and wealth, influencing both the economy and the social fabric of Chinese port cities.

Are there modern equivalents to compradors in today's global economy?

While the term 'comprador' is historically specific, some argue that modern equivalents exist in the form of local agents and intermediaries who facilitate international business in emerging markets. These individuals or entities often possess a deep understanding of the local business environment and culture, providing essential services to multinational companies seeking to establish or expand their presence in these markets. However, the dynamics and power structures have evolved, and the term 'comprador' is not commonly used in contemporary discourse.

Can the concept of compradors be applied to understand current international trade relations?

The concept of compradors can offer insights into current international trade relations by highlighting the role of intermediaries in bridging cultural and economic gaps between different markets. It underscores the importance of local knowledge and networks in global trade. However, today's international trade is more complex and regulated, with a broader range of actors and institutions involved. Thus, while the basic idea of intermediation remains relevant, the specific functions and implications of compradors as they existed historically are less applicable in the modern context.

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Discussion Comments

olu

Compradors were/are traitors to China. They're still around today. The highest concentration would be Hong Kong and Taiwan, followed by Shanghai on the mainland. These days, you can see them managing a Walmart or perhaps an iPhone factory on behalf of their white masters -- of course, under less than desirable working conditions.

A synonym for them can be "Uncle Tom". They are similar to the Africans who sold black slaves to the white man. These guys were, and are slime. In the early days, compradors actually sold Chinese to white corporations. That's how a lot of Chinese ended up in America building railroads. They were also sold to Latin America, South Africa and Australia. You still can actually see them around America, Canada and Australia. A lot of them went back to China to open up sweat shops.

They have no backbone or integrity. Well, the reality of it is, it would be hard to get a green card into America if you weren’t a comprador. Of course, the white elite love compradors because they assisted the west in robbing China. It would have been hard for the west to pillage China without the help of these compradors. Most famous Chinese have some kind of comprador background. Bruce Lee, William Hung, Connie Chug, Jimmy Coo, Anna Sui, Jackie Chan, Kitty Tong, Lucy Liu and Lemon Wang are all descendants of compradors. You see, they get to be "celebrities" precisely because their ancestors were compradors and helped the white man get rich, at the expense of their own people.

The Chinese can thank the compradors for how poor China is today. The funny thing about it is, all these compradors actually have a lot of fans in China today. Scary thought isn’t it? The Chinese can’t even control their own media.

browncoat

@pleonasm - I actually read a book once which focussed on a comprador who worked for a British family a short while before one of the revolutions in China. I'm not sure if it was communism though, I think it might have been one before that.

At any rate, I think the author managed to capture what it could have been like. The job would have been coveted because of the opportunities it held, but foreigners were not universally well regarded, and were often considered "less than" Chinese.

So, sometimes this would rub off on the comprador as well. I think the folk of the lower classes were particularly resentful, and of course this carried over when they did have the communism revolution.

Of course, I'm generalizing from the book I read, but it seemed very well researched.

pleonasm

It must have been an absolutely fascinating job to be a comprador back in times where it wasn't so easy to find out the differences between countries.

Imagine, living in a country that had been insular for so long, and then managing to get a job working for people who were completely alien to you and have the chance to learn their customs.

I know that the values people had about other countries back then might have made this a miserable job, but still the opportunity to learn strange new things would have been incredible.

I know, as well that it must have been a very desirable job, just because of the many perks that would go with it.

croydon

I think we have pretty much got to the stage where there are reverse compradors as well. I know that one of the things I was told at high school was that studying Chinese was a good idea, just because it would open up international job opportunities for me.

There are quite a few people from other countries who are now working in China. Or, alternatively, there are people who are hired by Chinese companies to be their liaisons in other countries. So, while there are still Chinese who act as go betweens for companies in China that are run by internationals, there are also internationals who do the same for Chinese companies in foreign lands.

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    • A native of East Asia may be tasked with managing a European company's interests in China.
      By: Kadmy
      A native of East Asia may be tasked with managing a European company's interests in China.