Huai salt, otherwise known as Liang salt, was famous for its fine, white, light, and dense qualities.
There were four types of Liang salt, namely: Zhen Liang, Ding Liang, Shangbai Liang and Bai Liang. Of these, Zhen Liang was of the primest quality and was mostly utilized by the imperial household, high officials, and noblemen, followed by Ding Liang and Shangbai Liang. Bai Liang was the most inferior among the Liang salts, but was nonetheless of better quality than An salt and Guang salt.
Bingcha Yard was a saltern facing the Yellow Sea in the north, appertaining to one of the Shangbai Liang yards. The salt produced by this saltern accounted for two to three tenths of over ten salterns in Huainan, and was also one of the largest salterns under the Taizhou Division.
This very moment, within the saltern commissioner-in-chief’s mansion right in the middle of the said saltern, gathered were the salt dealers1 Chen Da Tong and Zou Ping, the rich salt-boilers, Sun De Xian and Shi Zhi You, as well as others. They were pleading with the commissioner-in-chief, Yang Pei Dong, to come forward and contend with Taizhou’s county yamen.
Taizhou’s county yamen were so utterly insolent that they had confiscated dozens of hectares of their marsh fields.
Although these marsh fields were low-grade land and did not produce grain, they weren’t easy to obtain. Who didn’t exhaust their minds cooking up schemes to acquire these land? However, just recently, the county yamen had been rectifying land boundaries and were strictly impartial and incorruptible. It was useless to intercede with silver, so they could only look on helplessly as their marsh fields were taken away.
It was important to know that salterns had a fixed share of marsh fields, and the imperial court calculated the annual salt tax output based on this marsh field share. As for the extra marsh fields, ones deliberately concealed from the court, the marsh grass produced on these fields every year were all basically silver to profiteers. For profit, they would either sell them to salt-boiling households, or they would ask someone to boil salt to sell privately. Just based on these, who didn’t bank on the profit flowing from these fat fields? However, the local authorities had seized these fields, which was no less akin to digging out their hearts and cutting their flesh.
Yang Pei Dong stood in front of a bird cage, holding a bird stick in his hand, teasing the crested myna inside the cage.
Chen Da Tong and the others soliloquized to their utmost, as though all they were missing were bitter tears. Much to their chagrin, the other party was very cold and indifferent.
“I’m aware of the situation you’re all yammering about. However, the county yamen is in charge of the fish scale land registry, and recorded in which are all the land within the county’s borders. Taizhou’s county yamen has not at all overstepped their authority, yet you’re all here wishing I intercede. What face do I have to contend with that County Magistrate Fan?”
“That county magistrate surnamed Fan wasn’t even present from start to finish. Only that advisor surnamed Fang was domineering and ostentatious, flaunting his prowess right in our faces. We’re here to request commissioner-in-chief to step forward. We’re also requesting your lordship to have a word with that county magistrate Fan to see if we can accommodate him. Whether it’s silver or a mansion, as long as the other party is willing, we will certainly not be stingy—just so he will stop tolerating that shameless villain surnamed Fang, who’s always transcending his limits and assuming great airs in front of us.”
Yang Pei Dong stroked his beard and said, “You all already think that the advisor surnamed Fang is domineering, unwilling to give him face. You might as well tell him directly. Why do you have to go around in circles? In the end, he is still just a private advisor who isn’t of any official rank, merely an official aide beside the county magistrate. There really is no need to be this frightened.”
Yang Pei Dong smirked and tossed the bird stick in the copper tray. “Get to the main point. Isn’t it just because they have leverage over you that you now won’t dare offend them? So after instigating this today, you want me to come forward to help?”
A maid holding a tray trod in and knelt by Yang Pei Dong’s feet. He picked up the silk handkerchief on top and wiped his hands before sitting on the luohan bed next to him.
Another maid served tea. He took the tea, brushed the froth from the top, and sipped it.
“This tea is one point hotter than usual today.”
The maid hurriedly replied, “Master, this servant has made a mistake. Next time, this servant will check it first before serving.”
Yang Pei Dong waved his hand, and then raised his eyes to the people who were there. “You put too much hope on this master. In the end, I’m only an eighth-rank official. He, on the other hand, is a lofty seventh-rank official. I’m merely an elected subofficial functionary, while he passed the imperial examination.2 Do you know the difference between subofficial functionaries and officials recruited through examination? Even if I tell you, you won’t understand. They were sent here to rectify the land, not to dig up your unsavory background. Why worry to this extent? Instead of creating a mess, how about avoiding unnecessary trouble?”
“Alright, retire. This master has yet to take a nap today. This man is old and is easily sleepy.”
Chen Da Tong and the others still had some unuttered grievances, but two servants had emerged from outside and ushered them out of the room.
Only Yang Pei Dong remained in the hall, leisurely drinking tea.
Suddenly, he sneered and threw the tea cup on the table.
At that moment, a middle-aged man in an indigo-colored casual robe strode in from outside, with beads of sweat trickling down his forehead and an anxious look on his face.
This person was the Bingcha Yard deputy commissioner-in-chief, An You Qing.
“My lord, will you really not take care of it?”
Yang Pei Dong rested askew on the luohan bed and looked at him askance. “Why should I take care of it?”
“But, Chen Da Tong and the others haven’t missed out on giving us benefits. Normally, it would’ve been fine. But if you don’t take care of what happened today, it will……”
“Will what? I think they stuffed you with silver again. You couldn’t evade them, so now you’re here to speak on their behalf?”
An You Qing laughed awkwardly, not even denying it.
“Several conflicts have arisen between the local authorities and the salterns. More than once, they’ve accused the salterns of uneven tax distribution, duplication of functions, and inadequate supervision and management. They had even sent a memorial to the imperial court requesting the abolition of saltern officials. They wanted the responsibility of levying salt taxes transferred to local officials, as well as the unfied administration of salt-boiling households. They all covet this piece of fat meat. Who doesn’t want to put a foot in it? Must we still insist on going in between? In the past ten years, the Huainan salterns that were in over twenty places had been reduced to eleven. Even so, those officials haven’t stopped, and even the salt tax has been reformed several times. Which time was it not aimed at us?
“Do you take what I’ve told Chen Da Tong and the others as deceit and evasion? Do you know the distinction between elected subofficial functionaries and officials from the regular path3? It’s precisely because the other party hailed from the regular path that they are high up in the heirarchy. They can be from the same hometown, be of the same year,4 and even have the same mentor. These are all personal connections. Do we have these connections? No! But they do, and they have formed a network. That said, if they ever scheme on this land, how much wealth can they amass? You’re pouring oil on flames without even knowing it yourself, yet you’re planning to fight them? I think you’ve been blinded by profit. You won’t even know when death is at hand!”
“My lord, why this sudden talk about death?” An You Qing broke out in cold sweat.
“Look at the various salterns. Did any of them speak up? No! Why didn’t they? You should already know who’s standing behind that one surnamed Fan. He and the Yangzhou prefectural magistrate, Du Ming Liang, are in the same department and share the same mentor. Their mentor is the dignified Minister of Revenue, Court Elder Song, who has now joined the Wenyuan Library.5 When he was titled tanhua, why didn’t he remain in the capital as a pure and noble hanlin, but was instead sent down to this place where even birds don’t shit6?
“Jostling and joyous, the whole world comes after profit; racing and rioting, after profit the whole world goes.7 Just behave honestly. This has nothing to do with us. We also haven’t committed any offense, so don’t pick a fight out of nothing to avoid troubling the higher authorities. We don’t know for how much longer I can still sit in this position.” Yang Pei Dong sighed, patted An You Qing on the shoulder, and left.
In his perplexity, An You Qing’s complexion turned alternately green and white. He brisked out with the intent to search for Chen Da Tong and the others to return their silver.
In fact, An You Qing wasn’t just returning silver, he also wanted to attempt thwarting Chen Da Tong from inciting discord.
He was different from Yang Pei Dong, who was elected by a selecting official. He was instead promoted from the local area by working himself up. He latched on to the name of deputy commissioner-in-chief, so he assisted the commissioner-in-chief in managing the salt-boiling households below.
Because of this, he had also befriended several local rich salt-boilers and accumulated more knowledge than Yang Pei Dong.
Robbing people’s money was analogous to digging people’s ancestral graves. All the places where private salt spread unchecked, every single one of them were ridden with extremely vicious and unrestrained people. If one dared covet their silver, then one would pay with his life. Therefore, before Chen Da Tong and the others approached Yang Pei Dong, they had agreed that if the salterns were adamant in refusing to take care of the matter, they would instigate the salt-boiling households below to teach the county yamen a lesson for rectifying their land.
When An You Qing arrived, it was indeed already cacophonous.
On the public wall, a throng of people from salt-boiling households dressed in rags and tatters besieged Fang Feng Sheng’s carriage. This time, Fang Feng Sheng had journeyed with only a few yamen runners, drowning in the crowd. They blocked the carriage with a stance identical to that of a praying mantis.
“You have such big guts interfering with the county yamen’s official business. You will be punished for disorderly conduct. I advise you to leave quickly, otherwise the meals in the county yamen’s prison won’t be tasty.”
“Don’t listen to them. All these officials desire for our families, old and young, to cease living. Since we aren’t allowed to live, you cannot either!” Someone in the crowd prompted.
Seeing that the situation had reached an explosive point, An You Qing quickly intervened.
“Stop, all of you! Stop!”
With their unabated shouting, he was flustered and exasperated. Furious, he bellowed at the militia men he had brought with him, “What are you all standing here for? Hurry up and seize these people.”
These militia men were all drawn from the salt-boiling households and were specifically responsible for policing the salterns and seizing smugglers. Now, when the militia men were ordered to seize these people from salt-boiling households, it was equivalent to beating their own people. The crowd was thus stunned stupid.
When these people finally dispersed and stood spaced out at a distance, An You Qing scampered to the carriage.
“Advisor Fang must not, by all means, find it strange. These foolish people are agitating for others. Worry not, this official will interrogate them to find out who the instigators are and will certainly not let them go. As for the salterns, they absolutely support the county yamen‘s land rectificitation without any objections.”
The carriage curtain still hung low. It had not stirred even at the most critical juncture of this whole ruse.
At this time, the curtain was lifted, revealing a face wreathed with smiles, “Is that really so? Deputy Commissioner An, I had thought just now that the salterns staged such a ploy to obstruct the land rectification. After all, it truly isn’t a wise move. Injuring someone from the county yamen is tantamount to openly confronting the imperial court, and those who provoke the majesty of the imperial court usually don’t end well.”
“Of course. When this official received the news, this one hurriedly arrived, not at all expecting to be confronted with such a scene.”
“Very well. I’m also sure Deputy Commissioner An didn’t wish for this to happen. We still have to go on with the land rectification, so we really don’t have the time to stay. We’ll take our leave first. Whenever Deputy Commissioner An has free time, come see me at the county yamen. I will accompany you to drink a hundred cups of wine and return only when drunk.”
The county yamen‘s party had already made their exit, but An You Qing still had some lingering fear and broke out in cold sweat.
Chen Da Tong received the news and bustled over. Before he could even spit out words of consternation, An You Qing immediately gagged him with a reproach.
“If you guys want to die, don’t drag me along!”
“My lord, where did that come from?”
On the other end, a line of carriages and horses traveled unhurriedly.
A few yamen runners on horseback were animate in conversation.
“How refreshing to finally witness that group of people looking like they’ve eaten shit! They usually lift their nostrils high towards the sky. Whenever there’s a conflict with the salterns, our county yamen always suffers a sullen loss. I didn’t expect we would defeat them today.”
“It’s our Advisor Fang who has a lot of face. He took only over ten people with him and breezily drifted out of a dangerous place as though it was deserted. Look at how frightened that one surnamed An was.”
Within the carriage, Feng Sheng was amused. “Alright, it’s not me who has a lot of face. It’s our lord who has a lot of face. Without the lord’s deterrence, this group of people will unlikely be amenable to persuasion.”
But her words, the yamen runners couldn’t understand. All they knew was that, when the lord had assigned them outside, the land rectification was repeatedly obstructed, but Advisor Fang nonetheless powered through unhindered.
Thus, whether it was due to the advisor’s face or the lord’s face was all a matter of opinion.
“Alright, you bunch of brats, stop laughing. We still have one last Fengli Yard left. When this saltern’s taken, we can go back,” Leader Wang said.
As soon as they heard that they could return, the several young yamen runners were elated and rejoiced.
Feng Sheng was no exception. She inevitably showed a few smiles. After all, they had also been out for more than a month, and the winter solstice was fast approaching.
There’s no mistake in the timeline between the winter solstice here and the capital; the events were happening simultaneously. After all, Fan Jin Chuan couldn’t just do nothing for several months after submitting the memorial. The memorial was submitted way before the winter solstice, but with no response, they commenced the land rectification.
Remember when Zong Yue checked the time stamp on FJC’s memorial on Chapter 31 and discovered that it had been sitting their for quite a while without the Jianping Emperor paying mind to it? I’m guessing the land rectification happened right before that.
Last chapter, FFS said something along the lines of: salterns won’t care about these rich salt-boilers. This chapter has proven exactly that.
Also, just to clarify, the imperial court calculates salt tax yield based on marsh field shares because the grass produced by these fields, as fuel for boiling salt, are directly proportional to the salt produced. Just saying it again in case anyone else is confused.
Don’t know why this chapter made my head hurt. Probably because of the info dump and the long dialogues.
1 垣商: lit. wall merchants. But it doesn’t make sense in this context, so I freely translated it as ‘salt dealers’. I think these are merchants who have been appointed by officials or the ministry to transport salt, to sell salt, and to obtain salt tax by paying for the salt upfront. Basically, salt dealers.
2 杂流选官 : subofficial functionaries elected by selecting officials. Basically, they’re sub officials who are selected by other higher-ranking officials, and they don’t necessarily need to have passed the imperial exams.
正科: Baidu says this is the imperial exam system for the Ming and Qing dynasties, which the novel is based off of.
3 正途: Regular Paths into officialdom; specifically, via regular recruitment examinations, via graduation from the hierarchy of state schools, and by reliance on inheritance privileges; as distinguished from less esteemed and less promising paths, such as promotion from status as a suboffîcial functionary or purchase of official status.
4 Literally of the same year. Similar to students of the same year in modern times. These scholars prepare for the imperial examination through studying in an academy or through a personal or shared mentor. The ‘year’ could also refer to the same year they take the imperial examinations. It was mentioned in Chapter 18 that very few scholars are admitted to the court examination, the highest level of imperial examination, so it’s easy for them to get acquainted. During the imperial exam, because it’s held in a specific province, scholars from different places congregate in the same area, like staying in the same inns, etc. Hence, some scholars become familiar with each other, similar to how Fang Yan met Sun Qing Hua. Officials who haven’t taken the imperial exam can’t build these type of connections.
The Grand Secretariat was nominally a coordinating agency but de facto the highest institution in the imperial government of the Ming dynasty.
The most senior one was popularly called Senior Grand Secretary (首輔, shǒufǔ). The Grand Secretaries were nominally mid-level officials, ranked much lower than the Ministers, heads of the Ministries. However, since they screened documents submitted to the emperor from all governmental agencies, and had the power of drafting suggested rescripts for the emperor, generally known as piàonǐ (票擬) or tiáozhǐ (條旨), some senior Grand Secretaries were able to dominate the whole government.
Grand Secretaries, having merely an upper fifth-rank, nominally ranked under various Ministers. However, the Grand Secretaries were usually given other high-ranking posts of regular administrative agencies, such as Ministers or Vice Ministers. (Source)
Remember the grand seal relinquished to FJC in Chapter 23? Almost all officials have those. However, as far as I know, Grand Secretaries don’t keep official seals because they already hold enough power. Hence, Court Elder Song can be the Senior Grand Secretary (non sealkeeping) and the Minister of Revenue at the same time.
6 鸟不拉屎: lit. (a place where) birds don’t defecate; fig. god-forsaken, remote and desolate