Han-era money tree

The Han period was a time of economic expansion. Agriculture and irrigation were improved. Advanced ironworking created strong tools and weapons. Unlike Rome, which relied heavily on slavery, the Han dynasty built its economy on the labor of free peasants that were forced to give up their surpluses as taxes. The silk trade was vital to the economy. Garments made with silk, brocades, damasks and gauze found in tombs indicates that Han weaving was done with elaborate looms.The Silk Road opened up under the Han. The Hans traded with Rome through Central Asian middlemen. see Silk Road

The Han Government owned the two largest industries in China, salt and silk, which were both helped by new technological advancements. Silk making is a difficult and time-consuming job since silk is made from the fibers of a silkworm cocoon. A foot-powered machine was developed for winding silk fibers onto a large reel, making silk production much faster and more efficient. This was particularly important since silk was so valuable in trade.[Source: Ancient China, Jennifer Barborek, Boston University ^=^]

Salt was valuable for flavoring as well as food preservation. Instead of getting salt from the sea, the Chinese learned how to mine salt from underground. Salt water, or brine, was drawn from the ground through hollow bamboo drills. The salt water was then heated until the water evaporated and only the salt remained. This was important, because now the Chinese could get salt even while not at the sea. ^=^

Good Websites and Sources: Han Dynasty Wikipedia Battle of Red Cliff Wikipedia Early Chinese History: 1) Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; 2) Chinese Text Project ctext.org ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu ; Books: "Cambridge History of Ancient China" edited by Michael Loewe and Edward Shaughnessy (1999, Cambridge University Press); "The Culture and Civilization of China", a massive, multi-volume series, (Yale University Press); "Mysteries of Ancient China: New Discoveries from the Early Dynasties" by Jessica Rawson (British Museum, 1996); “Early Chinese Religion” edited by John Lagerwey & Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: 2009) A fully annotated translation of the “Shiji” text appears in William Nienhauser, et al., "The Grand Scribe’s Records" (Bloomington), v. 1. For an overview of the events of the civil war period, see Michael Loewe, “The Former Han Dynasty,” in "The Cambridge History of China: The Ch’in and Han Empires" (Cambridge University, 1986), pp. 110-19.

Economic Prosperity Under Wen-di

Emporer Wen

Wen Di was Emperor from 179 to 157 B.C. Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Wen-di’s reputation for governmental thrift appears to have been well earned, and his reign is generally distinguished by signs of growing economic strength. The basis of this seems to have been increasing crop yields, perhaps brought about by the fact that Wen-di’s reign was the longest sustained period of general peace throughout China since the middle years of the Western Chou. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Chinese farmers, an overwhelming majority of the population, typically paid four kinds of taxes: poll tax, land tax, production tax, and corvée (for one month each year). In 168, Wen-di ordered that the most onerous of these, the production tax, be cut in half, lowering it from about six percent to about three; in 169 he abolished it altogether (although it was reintroduced at three percent after Wen-di’s death). Nevertheless, according to records made close to that time, the granaries were kept overflowing throughout Wen-di’s reign due to the strict austerity measures which he imposed on the government. /+/

“An example of Wen-di’s attitude towards government spending concerns the treatment accorded to those whom the Han had rewarded with noble ranks and estates who were not kings or significant power holders. The Han had continued the Qin practice of distributing rewards for merit according to a finely graded system of rankings. At the top of this ladder, the highest ranks were generally given Zhou titles such as "hou" (marquis) and many of these "hou" were provided with lands to whose income they were entitled. While the scale of these awards was such as to pose no threat to the power of the center, it did create a class of economic elite. Many of these nobles chose to live not on their remote estates but in the capital, the social and political hub of the empire. Since one of the services to which nobles had claim on government officers was the collection and delivery of their incomes, this meant that significant government funds had to be spent transporting tax revenues from estates to their lords in the capital.

“Soon after Wen-di ascended the throne, he put an end to this practice by ordering that all nobles, even those whose duties involved their presence at the capital, should set up permanent residences in their estates and move there. This seems to have achieved a variety of goals. It reduced government expenditures, but its greater purpose may have been to break up concentrations of the wealthy and powerful at the capital. In addition, it was a means whereby some important officers were, with great politeness, dismissed from power. For example, a little more than a year after the original order for the relocation of the nobility was issued, many families at Chang’an had failed to respond. So Wen-di issued a second order, and to show that he meant business, he had the new exodus led by his prime minister, who was himself a marquis. This was indeed a great honor for the prime minister; however, as he had returned to his estate, he was no longer very well positioned to fulfill his ministerial duties, and he was therefore immediately replaced by a man unburdened by such exalted rank. /+/

“Wen-di’s policies of austerity extended even to his own style of living. He wore coarse silk robes and limited the styles that his consorts could wear. He turned down all proposals to improve or enlarge the imperial palace, reduced the size of the imperial retinue, and when his tomb was constructed, he ordered that its fittings and grave goods be entirely fashioned from pottery, without the use of any precious metals. Wen-di was also famous for his generosity with amnesty proclamations and forgiveness of tax debts in times of need. /+/

Economic Policies of Wu-di

Emperor Wu Di (140-87 B.C.) is regarded is one of China's greatest emperors. Known as the “martial emperor," he ruled for 54 years beginning at the age of 16, and elevated Confucianism to a cultural philosophy, royal religion and state cult and presided over a period of achievement and prosperity.

Wu Di

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Wu-di’s ambitious foreign ventures, along with extensive ritual expenditures that we will discuss below, required a well provided imperial treasury. Wu-di was fortunate that his father and grandfather had been thrifty rulers of an expanding state economy. Their efforts furnished Wu-di with ample funds to initiate his various schemes. As his reign progressed, however, this cushion was soon depleted and the government had to take new measures to raise funds, some of which were controversial. All of these initiatives were designed to increase the control of the state over the economic life of China. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The "History of the Former Han" assesses the economic trends of Wu-di’s reign in the following terms: “Up to the beginning of the reign of Wu-di, the nation had passed seventy years without upheaval; excepting occasions of flood or drought, the needs of individuals and families were well supplied. The state granaries for major cities and outlying districts alike were filled to the brim, and government treasuries and warehouses overflowed with goods. In the capital, the stores of cash had accumulated by the hundreds of millions, and lain so long unused that the strings threading them had rotted away and the coins lay in piles beyond calculation. The grain of the Grand Granary rose new layer upon old, until it overflowed and spilled into the open, where it spoiled, no longer fit to eat. [Source: “Han shu”14A.1135-37 ]

“The common people, whether living in broad streets or narrow lanes, owned horses then, and they would ride out in trains along the paths between the fields, scorning any so base as to ride a mare with foal. Gatekeepers in the villages and town neighborhoods ate grain fed meat. Lowly clerks could count on retaining positions as their sons and grandsons grew to manhood, and officials were so secure that their families took their offices as surnames. People everywhere behaved with self-respect and treated lawbreaking as a weighty offense. To act with righteousness was their priority, and those who committed shameful deeds were cast out. But later, the nets of the law were slackened and some who profited by this became rich. Their control of wealth led them to arrogance and excess, to the point where thugs in the service of local magnates who had bought up lands and property would rule like tyrants in rural villages. Landowners among the imperial clan and nobles of the realm from high ministers on down competed in excess and extravagance, their mansions, carriages, and robes no longer bound by the stipulated limits of status.

“What flourishes must decline – how inevitable is the law of change! As time passed, with expenditures to maintain peace with foreign tribes beyond the borders and contention for wealth and acclaim within them, the rising pressures on conscripted labor and tax expenditures mounted in tandem until the people were drawn away from their fundamental task of agriculture.”

When the levees of the Yellow River were breached in 132 B.C., floods occurred in 16 districts and a new channel was opened in the middle of the plain. Ten of millions of peasants were affected. The break remained for 23 years until Emperor Wu-di visited the scene and supervised its repair.

New Taxes and Coinage and State Monopolies Under Wudi

Dr. Eno wrote: “Wen-di had abolished the tax on production, retaining only poll, property, and labor taxes. Under Jing-di, the tax on production had been restored, but at the low rate of three percent. In order to finance his military expeditions, Wu-di raised the rate of the poll tax and instituted a series of new taxes, including a sales tax, a tax on vehicles, and new areas of property tax. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University

Han-Era coins

“Prior to the reign of Wu-di, coinage was the product of a combination of government and private minting. Naturally, coinage was a potentially profitable way of financing government projects. By debasing coinage (through changing the alloys used or slightly reducing the size) the government could create more cash for itself. Wu-di ordered that all coinage henceforward be a government monopoly, thereby ensuring that there would be no competing mints that gave better value in their coins, or shared the profits of debasement. /+/

Apart from the monopoly on coinage, the Han government also imposed state monopolies on two lucrative and growing industries that had previously been largely under private control: salt and iron. Both salt and iron were extracted from mines and emperor Wu-di ordered that all such mines pass into the hands of the government. /+/

“From the late Warring States period on, salt and iron had become the most profitable manufacturing industries in China. By placing them under government monopoly, Wu-di was insuring for his court enormous revenues and influence on the economic life of China. The monopoly policy, however, became a flashpoint of political controversy, as it violated several features of the Confucian view of proper government. /+/

“Confucians were consistent in their belief that the only truly healthy forms of economic activity were the cultivation of crops and the manufacture of silk. While Warring States thinkers such as Xunzi had reconciled these ideas with much more complex views of economic life, there was during the early Han a substantial group of Confucian scholar-officials whose economic views were rooted in the Neolithic. They viewed Wu-di’s endorsement of “legalistic” policies such as the monopolies as a form of apostasy. /+/

“These issues did not fully emerge into view until six years after Wu-di’s reign, at which time a grand court debate was convened that pitted these Confucian conservatives against their technocratic enemies (all of whom were, by then, graduates of the Confucian academy!). These “Salt and Iron Debates” were recorded in summary transcripts that we possess today. They are excellent sources concerning the gradual dismantlement of many of Wu-di’s policies, but since they fall beyond the close of this course, we will not consider them further. It is sufficient to note that the monopolies and associated economic policies were largely responsible for growing Confucian disaffection with Wu-di during the course of his long reign.” /+/

Debate on Salt and Iron in 81 B.C.

Han-era knife coins

The Record of the Debate on Salt and Iron in 81 B.C. records the arguments made by the two sides in a debate on government fiscal policy during the Former or Western Han dynasty (206 B.C.-8 CE). The debate took place in the court of the Han Emperor Zhao in 81 B.C.. Government officials, led by Lord Grand Secretary Sang Hongyang, and a group of Confucian scholars gathered to debate the economic policies of the preceding emperor, Emperor Wu Di (r. 141-87 B.C.). The most famous of these policies were state monopolies on two important goods: iron and salt. [Source: “Sources of Chinese Tradition”, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 360-363, Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

According to the “Record of the Debate on Salt and Iron” during Court of Emperor Zhao, 81 B.C.: “The literati responded: We have heard that the way to govern men is to prevent evil and error at their source, to broaden the beginnings of morality, to discourage secondary occupations, and open the way for the exercise of humaneness and rightness. Never should material profit appear as a motive of government. Only then can moral instruction succeed and the customs of the people be reformed. But now in the provinces the salt, iron, and liquor monopolies, and the system of equitable marketing have been established to compete with the people for profit, dispelling rustic generosity and teaching the people greed.

Therefore those who pursue primary occupations [farming] have grown few and those following secondary occupations [trading] numerous. As artifice increases, basic simplicity declines; and as the secondary occupations flourish, those that are primary suffer. When the secondary is practiced the people grow decadent, but when the primary is practiced they are simple and sincere. When the people are sincere then there will be sufficient wealth and goods, but when they become extravagant then famine and cold will follow. We recommend that the salt, iron, and liquor monopolies and the system of equitable marketing be abolished so that primary pursuits may be advanced and secondary ones suppressed. This will have the advantage of increasing the profitableness of agriculture.

Han Government Defends State Monopolies on Iron and Salt

According to the “Record of the Debate on Salt and Iron” during Court of Emperor Zhao, 81 B.C.: “His Lordship [the Imperial Secretary Sang Hongyang] replied: The Xiongnu have frequently revolted against our sovereignty and pillaged our borders. If we are to defend ourselves, then it means the hardships of war for the soldiers of China, but if we do not defend ourselves properly, then their incursions cannot be stopped. The former emperor [Wu] took pity upon the people of the border areas who for so long had suffered disaster and hardship and had been carried off as captives. Therefore he set up defense stations, established a system of warning beacons, and garrisoned the outlying areas to ensure their protection. But the resources of these areas were insufficient, and so he established the salt, iron, and liquor monopolies and the system of equitable marketing in order to raise more funds for expenditures at the borders.

“Now our critics, who desire that these measures be abolished, would empty the treasuries and deplete the funds used for defense. They would have the men who are defending our passes and patrolling our walls suffer hunger and cold. How else can we provide for them? Abolition of these measures is not expedient! “His Lordship stated: In former times the peers residing in the provinces sent in their respectiveproducts as tribute, but there was much confusion and trouble in transporting them and the goods were often of such poor quality that they were not worth the cost of transportation. For this reason transportation offices have been set up in each district to handle delivery and shipping and to facilitate the presentation of tribute from outlying areas. Therefore the system is called “equitable marketing.” Warehouses have been opened in the capital for the storing of goods, buying when prices are low and selling when they are high. Thereby the government suffers no loss and the merchants cannot speculate for profit. Therefore this is called the “balanced level” [stabilization]. With the balanced level the people are protected from unemployment, and with equitable marketing the burden of labor service is equalized. Thus these measures are designed to ensure an equal distribution of goods and to benefit the people and are not intended to open the way to profit or provide the people with a ladder to crime.

“The literati replied: In ancient times taxes and levies took from the people what they were skilled in producing and did not demand what they were poor at. Thus the husbandmen sent in their harvests and the weaving women their goods. Nowadays the government disregards what people have and requires of them what they have not, so that they are forced to sell their goods at a cheap price in order to meet the demands from above. … The farmers suffer double hardships and the weaving women are taxed twice. We have not seen that this kind of marketing is “equitable.” The government officials go about recklessly opening closed doors and buying everything at will so they can corner all the goods. With goods cornered prices soar, and when prices soar the merchants make their own deals for profit. The officials wink at powerful racketeers, and the rich merchants hoard commodities and wait for an emergency.

“With slick merchants and corrupt officials buying cheap and selling dear we have not seen that your level is “balanced.” The system of equitable marketing of ancient times was designed to equalize the burden of labor upon the people and facilitate the transporting of tribute. It did not mean dealing in all kinds of commodities for the sake of profit.

Billions of Coins from Han Dynasty Mints

Chinese cash coins from the Han Dynasty—known as wu zhu coinage— are quite plentiful despite being over 2,000 years old. Although there are rare types and varieties, most are quite common and command a low price despite their age. The reason for this is that billions of them were produced at a massive Han Dynasty mint in Shanglinyuan from brick and clay molds. The ruins of Shanglinyuan are a few miles from the Han dynasty capital city of Chang’an. The ruins of both places date from 206 B.C. to A.D. 9, the period of the rule of the Western Han dynasty. [Source: Richard Geidroyc, World Coin News, December 11, 2012 =]

Richard Geidroyc wrote in World Coin News, “The wu zhu coinage type reformed the imperial coinage, which had degenerated into an unreliable coin with no standardized weight or diameter. The word “zhu” represents 100 millet seeds. Beginning sometime around 118 B.C., the wu zhu coinage became standardized. The cash coins from this time would continue in this general format until the end of the imperial period in China in the early 20th century. Wu Zhu type coins would be produced for the next 700 years. =

“It is known the coins were cast rather than struck. Coins in contemporary Europe and the Near East were being struck. Liu indicated the Shanglinyuan mint site yielded what are described as brick molds with circular impressions imbedded and a square protrusion at the center of each, likely for the hole at the center of the cash coins. The brick molds are red, gray, and brown. The coinage type was adopted and used by later dynasties until the modern era of the 20th century. Cash type coins have been found throughout Southeast Asia, Japan, and Russia. =

mold for making coins

Lauren Hilgers wrote in Archaeology Magazine, “Archaeologist Liu Rui picks up a brick which date to the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - A.D. 9). Each brick has one or more circular impressions on its face, and further dusting reveals a square protrusion at the center of each circle. It is an iconic shape in Chinese archaeology—the outline of the country's longest-lived currency, the "Wu Zhu" coin. These are molds for casting the coins that helped unify China and build the Silk Road, which connected the region to the rest of the world. Liu is the head of an ongoing excavation at a Han Dynasty mint, a gigantic ancient factory located in Shanglinyuan, a few miles from the ruins of the Han capital of Chang'an. "We have discovered Wu Zhu coins in tombs all over China, but we have never excavated a site like this," says Liu. "We don't yet know the full story of how the Wu Zhu coin was minted." To him, the bricks provide a new way to look at the empire's vast wealth and an opportunity to study the lives of the workers and artisans that once kept the sprawling factory—and the empire it supplied—running. It is estimated that during the Western Han, around 28 billion coins were minted. They remained in use for 700 years, as other dynasties adopted the currency and continued minting the coins, which have been uncovered in sites as far afield as Southeast Asia, Japan, and Russia. [Source: Lauren Hilgers, Archaeology Magazine, November-December 2012 ||||]

This wasn't the only Han Dynasty mint that has been found. Gary Ashkenazy wrote in Primal Trek, “Chinese archaeologists recently excavated approximately 3,500 kilograms of coins, as well as more than 100 clay coin casting moulds, from the ruins of an ancient Chinese mint dating from the 1st Century A.D. according to several newspaper reports. The coins were found at a site in the town of Huoluochaideng in Ordos City which is located in north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. The discovery was made after local police cracked three theft cases in August, 2012. Information obtained from the tomb robbers identified the location of three underground vaults, according to Lian Jilin, a researcher with the regional Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology. [Source: Gary Ashkenazy, Primal Trek, January 1, 2013]

“According to archaeologists, the ruins of the coin mint dates to the period from the reign of Emperor Wu (156-87 B.C.) of the Western Han Dynasty to the reign of Wang Mang (A.D. 9-23) of the short-lived Xin Dynasty. The newspaper article states that the discovery of such a large quantity of coins in one hoard is a rare event. The digging is taking place at three pits. One site has revealed a fairly well-preserved kiln which was used to produce the clay molds needed to cast the bronze coins. A kiln used to cast the coins was also discovered but it apparently is not as well-preserved.

“In the “kiln room” and surrounding area were found more than 100 clay molds used to cast coins. The molds date from the period of Wang Mang. Seven of the molds have the Chinese inscription shi jian guo yuan nian san yue. Shi jian guo refers to the first era of Wang Mang's reign. The inscription thus dates the coin molds to the third month of the first year of Wang Mang's reign which would be the year 9 AD. The clay molds include those used to cast the most common coins of the reign of Wang Mang, namely da quan wu shi “large coin fifty”), xiao quan zhi yi (“small coin value one”), and huo quan (“wealth/money coin”).

“The archaeologists point out that the discovery of such a large coin producing operation confirms that Wang Mang had lifted the order issued by Emperor Wu which prohibited the commanderies (prefectures) from minting coins. Based on the size of the mint site and the coin hoard, Huoluochaideng must have been one of the important northern cities during the Western Han and Xin Dynasties. From the inscription found on a bronze seal discovered in a nearby grave, the area was known as the “West River Agriculture Commandery” during this period.

Agriculture During the Han Dynasty

brick depicting rice husking

The history of agriculture in China has been one of constantly improving crop yields through innovations, improvements in techniques and intensification. The resulting surpluses have allowed the population to grow.

Han farmers were supposed to grow enough food for their own families as well as help stock the shared granaries. They were also expected to provide one month of free labor to the government to build canals and roads. Important advancements that improved agriculture included: 1) the chain pump, which made it easier to move water from low irrigation ditches up to the fields; 2) stronger iron plows, made possible by advancements in iron quality and production; and 3) the invention of the wheelbarrow, enabling farm workers to push heavy loads rather than carry them.[Source: Ancient China, Jennifer Barborek, Boston University]

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Chinese emperors and their officials were keenly aware of the importance of the agricultural economy. A flourishing and well-managed agriculture meant a satisfied people and a large surplus, which the imperial government could use to support its rulers, bureaucrats, and armies and enable it to offer famine relief from stored grain supplies when necessary. A weak and poorly managed agricultural economy harmed not only the people, but also the emperor and his government.

Emperor Wen’s Edict on Agriculture, 163 B.C.

In 163 B.C. when harvest were below was what was expected, “the Han Emperor Wen (ruled 180-157 B.C.) was evidently concerned about the stability and productivity of Chinese agriculture. Accordingly, he called upon his officials to devise systems of economic management that would raise productivity and increase the government’s ability to extract and store surplus grain from the rural economy.

Emperor Wen issued the edict below in 163 B.C. In the edict, he describes a problem, ponders some possible causes of the problem, and asks his officials to suggest solutions. “For the past several years there have been no good harvests, and our people have suffered the calamities of flood, drought, and pestilence. We are deeply grieved by this, but being ignorant and unenlightened, we have been unable to discover where the blame lies.[Source: “Sources of Chinese Tradition”, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 354, Asia for Educators, Columbia University]

“We have consideredwhether our administration has been guilty of some error or our actions of some fault. Have wefailed to follow the Way of Heaven or to obtain the benefits of Earth? Have we caused disharmony in human affairs or neglected the gods that they do not accept our offerings? What has brought on these things? Have the provisions for our officials been too lavish or have we indulged in too many unprofitable affairs? Why is the food of the people so scarce?

“When thefields are surveyed, they have not decreased, and when the people are counted they have not grown in number, so that the amount of land for each person is the same as before or even greater. And yet there is a drastic shortage of food. Where does the blame lie? Is it that too many people pursue secondary activities to the detriment of agriculture? Is it that too much grain is used to make wine or too many domestic animals are being raised? I have been unable to attain a proper balance between important and unimportant affairs. Let this matter be debated by the chancellor, the nobles, the high officials, and learned doctors. Let all exhaust their efforts and ponder deeply whether there is some way to aid the people. Let nothing be concealed from us!”

Memorial on the Encouragement of Agriculture

Chao Cuo, a high-ranking official, offered the suggestions below in 178 B.C. Emperor Wen approved of these suggestions and put them into practice, with remarkably successful results. Chao Cuo’s “Memorial on the Encouragement of Agriculture” reads: The reason people never suffered from cold or famine under the rule of the sage kings was not that these kings were capable of plowing to provide food or spinning to make clothes for them. It was that they opened up for the people the way to wealth. Therefore although emperors Yao and Yu encountered nine years of flood and King Tang seven years of drought, there were no derelicts or starving within the kingdom, because provisions had been stored up in plenty and all precaution taken beforehand. [Source: Chao Cuo’s “Memorial on the Encouragement of Agriculture’ 178 B.C.. “Sources of Chinese Tradition”, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 354, Asia for Educators, Columbia University]

model of a rice paddy

“Poverty is bred of insufficiency that is caused by lack of agriculture. If men do not farm, they will not be tied to the land; and if they are not tied to the land, they will desert their villages, neglect their families, and become like birds and beasts. Then although there be high walls and deep moats, strict laws and severe punishments, they still cannot be held in check. When one is cold he does not demand the most comfortable and warmest garments; when one is starving he does not wait for the tastiest morsels. When a man is plagued by hunger and cold he has no regard for modesty or shame.

“Among the traders and merchants, on the other hand, the larger ones hoard goods and exact 100 percent profit, while the smaller ones sit lined up in the markets selling their wares. Those who deal in luxury goods daily disport themselves in the cities and market towns; taking advantage of the ruler’s wants, they are able to sell at double price. Thus though their men neither plow nor weed, though their women neither tend silkworms nor spin, yet their clothes are brightly patterned and colored, and they eat only choice grain and meat. They have none of the hardships of the farmer, yet their grain is ten to one hundredfold. With their wealth they may consort with nobles, and their power exceeds the authority of government officials. They use their profits to overthrow others. Over a thousand miles they wander at ease, their caps and cart covers filling the roads. They ride in fine carriages and drive fat horses, tread in silken shoes and trail white silk behind them. Thus it is that merchants encroach upon the farmers, and the farmers are driven from their homes and become vagrants. At present, although the laws degrade the merchants, the merchants have become wealthy and honored, and although they honor the farmers, the farmers have grown poor and lowly. Thus what common practice honors the ruler degrades, and what the officials scorn the law exalts. With ruler and ruled thus at variance and their desires in conflict, it is impossible to hope that the nation will become rich and the law be upheld.

“Under the present circumstances there is nothing more urgently needed than to make the people devote themselves to agriculture. To accomplish this one must enhance the value of grain. This may be done by making it possible for the people to use grain to obtain rewards and avoid punishments. If an order is sent out that all who send grain to the government shall obtain honorary rank or pardon from crimes, then wealthy men will acquire rank, the farmers will have money, and grain will circulate freely. If men can afford to present grain in exchange for ranks, they must have a surplus. If this surplus is acquired for the use of the ruler, then the poll tax on the poor can be reduced. This is what is known as reducing the surplus to supply the deficiency. … Ranks are something that the ruler may dispense at will: he has only to speak and there is no end to them. Grain is something grown on the land by the people and its supply is continuous. All men greatly desire to obtain high ranks and avoid penalties. If all are allowed to present grain for supplying the frontiers and thereby obtain rank or commutation of penalties, then in no more than three years there will be plenty of grain for the border areas.

brick depicting a market scene

“The reason people never suffered from cold or famine under the rule of the sage kings was not that these kings were capable of plowing to provide food or spinning to make clothes for them. It was that they opened up for the people the way to wealth. Therefore although emperors Yao and Yu encountered nine years of flood and King Tang seven years of drought, there were no derelicts or starving within the kingdom, because provisions had been stored up in plenty and all precaution taken beforehand.

An enlightened ruler will encourage his people in agriculture and sericulture, lighten the poll tax and other levies, increase his store of supplies and fill his granaries in preparation for flood and drought.

“Thereby he can keep and care for his people. The people may then be led by the ruler, for they will follow after profit in any direction like water flowing downward. Now pearls, jewels, gold, and silver can neither allay hunger nor keep out the cold, and yet the people all hold them dear because these are things used by the ruler. They are light and easy to store, and one who holds them in his grasp may roam the world and never fear hunger or cold. They cause ministers lightly to turn their backs upon their lords and the people easily to leave their villages; they provide an incentive for thieves and a light form of wealth for fugitives.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated June 2022

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