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

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A World History

by Mark Kurlansky

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

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Though the identities of most of the sixty participants are not known, their arguments have been preserved from the Confucian point of view in written form, the Yan tie lun, Discourse on Salt and Iron.

On the one side were Confucians, inspired by Mencius, who, when asked how a state should raise profits, replied, "Why must Your Majesty use the word profit? All I am concerned with are the good and the right. If Your Majesty says, ‘How can I profit my state?’ your officials will say, ‘How can I profit my family?’ and officers and common people will say, ‘How can I profit myself?’ Once superiors and inferiors are competing for profit, the state will be in danger."

On the other side were government ministers and thinkers influenced by the legalist Han Feizi, who had died in 233 b.c. Han Feizi, who had been a student of one of the most famous Confucian teachers, had not believed that it was practical to base government on morality. He believed it should be based on the exercise of power and a legal code that meted out harsh punishment to transgressors. Both rewards and punishments should be automatic and without arbitrary interpretation. He believed laws should be decreed in the interest of the state, that people should be controlled by fear of punishment. If his way was followed, "the State will get rich and the army will be strong," he claimed. "Then it will be possible to succeed in establishing hegemony over other states."

In the salt and iron debate, legalists argued: "It is difficult to see, in these conditions, how we could prevent the soldiers who defend the Great Wall from dying of cold and hunger. Suppress the state monopolies and you deliver a fatal blow to the nation." But to this came the Confucian response, "The true conqueror does not have to make war; the great general does not need to put troops in the field nor have a clever battle plan. The sovereign who reigns by bounty does not have an enemy under heaven. Why do we need military spending?"

To which came the response, "The perverse and impudent Hun has been allowed to cross our border and carry war into the heart of the country, massacring our population and our officers, not respecting any authority. For a long time he has deserved an exemplary punishment."

It was argued that the borders had become permanent military camps that caused suffering to the people on the interior. "Even if the monopolies on salt and iron represented, at the outset, a useful measure, in the long term they can’t help but be damaging." Even the need for state revenues was debated. One participant quoted Laozi, a contemporary of Confucius and founder of Daoism, "A country is never as poor as when it seems filled with riches."

The debate was considered a draw. But Emperor Zhaodi, who ruled for fourteen years but only lived to age twenty-two, continued the monopolies, as did his successor. In 44 b.c., the next emperor, Yuandi, abolished them. Three years later, with the treasury emptied by a third successful western expedition to Sogdiana in Turkistan, he reestablished the monopolies. They continued to be abolished and reestablished regularly according to budgetary needs, usually related to military activities. Toward the end of the first century a.d., a Confucian government minister had them once more abolished, declaring, "Government sale of salt means competing with subjects for profit. These are not measures fit for wise rulers."

The state salt monopoly disappeared for 600 years. But it was resurrected. During the Tang dynasty, which lasted from 618 to 907, half the revenue of the Chinese state was derived from salt. Aristocrats showed off their salt wealth by the unusual extravagance of serving pure salt at the dinner table, something rarely done in China, and placing it in a lavish, ornate saltcellar. Over the centuries, many popular uprisings bitterly protested the salt monopoly, including an angry mob that took over the city of Xi’an, just north of Sichuan, in 880. And the other great moral and political questions of the great debate on salt and iron—the need for profits, the rights and obligations of nobility, aid to the poor, the importance of a balanced budget, the appropriate tax burden, the risk of anarchy, and the dividing line between rule of law and tyranny—have all remained unresolved issues.

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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