Excerpt from Salt by Mark Kurlansky, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Salt

A World History

by Mark Kurlansky

Salt
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2002, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2003, 496 pages

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The legalist faction had a new idea about salt. The first written text on a Chinese salt administration is the Guanzi, which contains what is supposed to be the economic advice of a minister who lived from 685 to 643 b.c. to the ruler of the state of Qi. Historians agree that the Guanzi was actually written around 300 b.c., when only seven states still remained and the eastern state of Qi, much under the influence of legalism, was in a survival struggle, which it would eventually lose, with the western state of Qin.

Among the ideas offered by the minister was fixing the price of salt at a higher level than the purchase price so that the state could import the salt and sell it at a profit. "We can thus take revenues from what other states produce." The adviser goes on to point out that in some non-salt-producing areas people are ill from the lack of it and in their desperation would be willing to pay still higher prices. The conclusion of the Guanzi is that "salt has the singularly important power to maintain the basic economy of our state." By 221, Qin defeated its last rivals, and its ruler became the first emperor of united China. China would continue to be ruled by such emperors until 1911.

The proposals in the Guanzi, which became Qi policy, now became the policy of the Qin and the emperor of China. The Qin dynasty was marked by the legalists’ tendency for huge public works and harsh laws. A price-fixing monopoly on salt and iron kept prices for both commodities excessively high. It is the first known instance in history of a state-controlled monopoly of a vital commodity. The salt revenues were used to build not only armies but defensive structures including the Great Wall, designed to keep Huns and other mounted nomadic invaders from the north out of China. But the harsh first dynasty lasted less than fifteen years. The Han dynasty that replaced it in 207 b.c., ended the unpopular monopolies to demonstrate better, wiser government. But in 120 b.c., expeditions were still being mounted to drive back the Huns, and the treasury was drained to pay for the wars with "barbarians" in the north. The Han emperor hired a salt maker and ironmaster to research the possibility of resurrecting the salt and iron monopolies. Four years later, he put both monopolies back into place.

China at the time was probably the most advanced civilization on earth at what was a high point of territorial expansion, economic prosperity, and trade. The Chinese world had expanded much farther than that of the Romans. Rome had an empire by conquest, was at the zenith of its power as well, but was menaced by the Gauls and Germanic tribes and even more threatened by internal civil wars. The Chinese had first learned of the Roman Empire in 139 b.c., when the emperor Wudi had sent an envoy, Zhang Qian, past the deserts to seek allies to the west. Zhang Qian traveled for twelve years to what is now Turkistan and back and reported on the astounding discovery that there was a fairly advanced civilization to the west. In 104 b.c. and 102 b.c., Chinese armies reached the area, a former Greek kingdom called Sogdiana with its capital in Samarkand, where they met and defeated a force partly composed of captive Roman soldiers.

In China the salt and iron monopolies, whose revenue financed many of these adventures, remained controversial. In 87 b.c., Emperor Wudi, considered the greatest emperor of the four-century Han dynasty, died and was replaced by the eight-year-old Zhaodi. In 81 b.c., six years later, the now-teenage emperor decided, in the manner of the emperors, to invite a debate among wise men on the salt and iron monopolies. He convened sixty notables of varying points of view from around China to debate state administrative policies in front of him.

The central subject was to be the state monopolies on iron and salt. But what emerged was a contest between Confucianism and legalism over the responsibilities of good government—an expansive debate on the duties of government, state profit versus private initiative, the logic and limits of military spending, the rights and limits of government to interfere in the economy.

Salt by Mark Kurlansky. Copyright Mark Kurlansky 2001. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Walker Books. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher.

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