I was gonna upload this chapter last Friday, but it’s pretty long and eventful, so I ended up procrastinating on the editing. Anyway, I will still be updating 4-5 times a week. Enjoy the chapter!
Liang Huai salt hailed from the sea. Seawater was inexhaustible, so salt was inexhaustible.
However, for salt to materialize, there needed to be fuel. Every year, families would amass grass in autumn for the following year’s fuel. Once these grasses were used up, they would stack up new ones.
As early as last year, when the Taizhou county yamen pushed forth the land rectification, some people couldn’t refrain from speculating the fate of those confiscated fields. Some rich households whose hidden land were seized had formulated all sorts of suppositions. They eventually hardened their minds and sent someone to inquire, with the the intent to finally purchase marsh fields through proper channels. Who would have thought they would instead receive news that the fields had long been sold?
The county yamen didn’t divulge who had bought these marsh fields, but it was reported that more than one person made the purchase after the confiscation.
The news caused an uproar. These rich households, rich salt-boilers, and merchants congregated and declared themselves allies rather than foes. However, this was merely an ephemeral alliance conceived out of spite due to the county yamen‘s land rectification.
Now, someone had very stealthily and wordlessly swiped away the fields. Who was this person, or perhaps, these people, who had done so? Inevitably, a good deal of suspicion and jealousy surreptitiously ensued, causing a series of complications. When all was said and done, the land had switched hands, so where would they get next year’s extra grass?
Huainan salterns still adopted the salt production method of spreading ash and boiling brine, otherwise known as the spreading ash method. This method was heavily reliant on brine and other resources, where not a single one wasn’t indispensable.
To roughly explain the process, they would first establish a spreading field and await the tide to seep through the earth. They would then spread grass ash over the salty earth for the ash to absorb minute particles of salt. After sunlight exposure, they would scrape the salty ash mixture and lodge it into a deep pit, and thereafter pour in seawater to yield brine. This brine would then be boiled into salt.
This method of production was fuel-efficient, generated great quantities of salt, and was widely used in major salterns.
However, as mentioned before, brine and other resources were vital to this process. These resources not only alluded to fuel needed for boiling salt, but also the grass ash used for spreading. An ancient book once said: To extract Huainan salt, use grass to boil it…… There exist red and white grasses that contain contain a salty taste, but the white ones are particularly stronger.
The white grass referred to a type of locally produced cogon grass.1 It had extremely high salinity and had the effect of purifying brine. Moreover, the salty earth of cogon grass shallows was quite exuberant, such that several other shallows cropped up within their vicinity to reap a share. The brine yielded from sun-dried cogon grass ash spread on these shallows’ salty earth bore excellent results. This type of cogon grass marsh field was generally called old marsh; new marshes couldn’t compare.
The concealed land confiscated were mostly old marshes. No wonder those rich households were anxious.
This time, however, news suddenly spread in the county that a landlord was seeking a partner. There were two ways of partnership: one was to exchange grass for salt; the other was to rent out marsh fields with salt as payment for rent.
It had since been understood that the person who purchased the fields was probably a salt merchant. Only a salt merchant had the capital to buy so much land.
In fact, there were quite a few salt merchants who did as such. Salt from salterns had to go through salt-boiling households, marsh officials, and marsh merchants. Cruel exploitation prevailed layer upon layer. The silver they had to shell out to breach every layer only kept increasing. However, if they directly asked salt-boiling households to make salt, eliminating other layers, they could save a lot of silver. Now, as long as they altogether paid the county yamen’s marsh tax and the Salt Tax Office’s salt tax, all the salt merchants needed to do was whip out their salt certificates for salt transport to pass the inspection and sampling along the road. Accomplishing all these freed them from being branded as smugglers.
However, there were very few salt merchants capable of doing so, because Taizhou’s fields were limited. Rich households guarded these fields tightly, as they couldn’t tolerate others gaining even the slightest advantage. Coincidentally, the land rectification took effect, so there became an opportune time for those certain buyers to fill up such a big hole.
As opposed to the rich households’ unwillingness, some of the salt-boiling households below were elated. The imperial court had reformed the salt tax several times, converting tax in resources to silver. Many of them had since become slaves to some rich households, rich salt-boilers, and merchants. They not only had to pay salt tax, but also had to spend silver to buy grass. Now, several rich households and rich salt-boilers had ceased making salt, and had instead asked poor salt-boilers to make salt or had taken on on a new lease of life as grass merchants.
Although the owners of these places seemed to have the same idea, just renting out the land and replacing the pay with salt sufficed to arouse the interest of many people. As long as one could rent out land, even if it was impossible to do it by oneself, one could ask other salt-boiling households to help. This was tantamount to re-enacting the fortune-generating methods of some rich households and rich salt-boilers.
Therefore, in the face of capital, people’s positions could quickly change. These people were still oppressed one moment, but a chance to turn the tide suddenly emerged, and no one was allowed to slip by.
Near a shallows somewhere settled a small village. It was said to be a village, but it was actually just a few dozen thatched-roof houses. The salt workers had no place to stay, dwelling only wherever manpower was needed.
Apparently, they were planning to use this place as a temporary gathering place. Some were still building their thatched houses, and some even brought their wives and children over.
“We all know that the one surnamed Li made our lives difficult, but we must band together like strands of a rope. I won’t talk about good or bad, nor about how hard everyone’s lives were in the past. But what I will say is that, this is our opportunity. Master Wang had told me he would rent me the land, which is basically similar to renting it to everyone. How much grass can grow on these lands and how much salt these grasses can produce, as old experts, everyone is well-aware. Aside from the quantity to be handed over to Master Wang, the rest will be ours. How is it not better than those we dig out from leftovers?
“Master Wang said he’d pay twice more than the market price for the extra salt. Calculate it yourselves. Previously, we secretly sold surplus salt to those private salt dealers. Back then, how much did we exchange the profit for silver and grain? With Master Wang’s offer, how much can we exchange now? This is our chance. Whether or not we can have a good life in the future all depends on this moment, so we should endure. Those rich households have nothing worth fearing. As long as we make joint efforts, why should we fear them?”
At the head of the village, on an iron pan stood a man with dark skin and a robust build, lecturing the people below.
These salt-boiling households had been exposed to the sun for years. They were so dark that only their teeth were visible at night, and they were also as strong as cattle.
“Brother Niu is right. We’re not afraid of them. We’re fighting them! Besides, we have the county master. The county master isn’t on their side. If things get serious, he will definitely back us up, so don’t be afraid of them. They don’t dare make a big fuss, they’re just trying to scare us!”
“Yes. Everyone, think about it. We can eat delicious meat and drink great wine. We can build tiled houses so our wives and children won’t be beaten by wind or rain, eat chaff, or live in such destitute thatched houses. Every time it rains heavily outside, it also drizzles inside.”
“We are not afraid! It’s just a game of life. Let’s play with them! Let’s see whether it’s their lives that are precious or ours that are cheap!”
“Let’s fight them!”
Seeing that he had boosted everyone’s morale, the man called Brother Niu beamed with satisfaction.
A similar scene simultaneously played out in several other places.
The rich households and rich salt-boilers immediately perceived the vicissitudes, and in a moment of desperation, decided to start off dealing with the tenants. Unfortunately, they suddenly found that the salt-boiling households, who used to be mere sheep, had transformed into wolves.
The rich households didn’t know who had instructed them. These salt-boiling households’ usual attitude was rarely unyielding. Once the rich households voiced their disagreements, the salt-boiling households even turned hostile and induced furor, or lost their temper and threatened with the court law or with the county yamen‘s judgement. Therefore, it was human nature to bully the faint-hearted and fear the stouthearted. In the past, the rich households had thought that these groups of ignorant people were foolish and slow-witted, only worthy of being treated as fish and meat2 by others. Suddenly, the fish and meat were enlightened, stupefying the rich households into confusion.
Of course, there were those who provoked conflict and fought them, each side with casualties.
The salterns were unable to intervene in dealing with the casualties, as only local authorities were authorized to handle them. Fan Jin Chuan personally came forward to deal with the cases. Naturally, none of the rich households were in charge. All who incited tumult below were arrested and imprisoned, and those above who instigated them also weren’t dealt with leniency.
For a time, the whole of Taizhou was in a state of panic. All knew that the sky was changing.
“Advisor Fang’s move of taking away the firewood from under the cauldron3 is compelling!” Gou Qing praised.
It wasn’t just compelling, it was tantamount to changing the entire situation of Taizhou in one fell swoop.
In fact, Fang Feng Sheng couldn’t have made it so complicated. She stubbornly took the long route by leasing the land to the poor salt-boilers, which was equivalent to tying these people to her chariot. If those recalcitrant rich households wanted to create something out of nothing, they now had to weigh whether or not they could withstand public wrath.
After all, those who had the ability to tenant the land couldn’t be ordinary poor salt-boilers. At the very least, they were reckoned to be the best and most cohesive among the poor salt-boilers. Fang Feng Sheng’s move was akin to finding herself a group of hired thugs, so the matter of ‘a strong dragon couldn’t overpower a local snake’4 was completely non-existent.
Feng Sheng laughed and said, “I can’t accept such praise from Inspector Gou. I thought this was something you would have expected. After all, even though we’re collaborating, I have to first clear away all the obstacles, right?”
It was the truth. With Gou Qing’s personality and scheming, he was actually sounding out the course of events the moment he concurred with Feng Sheng. He had a commanding view from a good vantage point, sitting back and waiting for Feng Sheng to brandish her strength and finesse.
The land rectification was one, and Prince Wei’s intervention was another, but these alone were not enough. There were also the machinations towards the rich families and rich salt-boilers. These matters seemed small, but in fact, what obstructed major events was precisely these minor details. How many people had died because of these mere trifles? Did they think that, just because they had silver and people, they could progress unimpeded? It was truly laughable.
“No, I didn’t expect it. Well, the correct thing to say is that I didn’t expect Advisor Fang to do something that would surpass my expectations.” A strange light flashed in Gou Qing’s sight as he gazed at Feng Sheng, whose eyes brimmed with emotion.
“Then, have I surpassed your expectations in a good or bad way?”
“Excellently, no doubt.”
“That’s good! Since Inspector Gou is satisfied, I’m relieved. I hope our first collaboration goes smoothly.”
“It will definitely go well.”
“I’ll excuse myself first. There’s still some official business at the county yamen.” After toasting Gou Qing with tea instead of wine, Feng Sheng stood up.
“Official business? Lord Fan is truly making full use of you. Advisor Fang is busy with important matters outside all day long, yet the county yamen still bothers you with those trivial matters.” After his initial astonishment, Gou Qing released a sarcastic chuckle.
Suspiciously trying to worm facts out of her, he couldn’t easily fool Feng Sheng. She just gave a hollow laugh, displayed a helpless appearance, and fled in a hurry.
It wasn’t that Feng Sheng was on official business. It was just that, unknown as to which of his tendons was pulled recently, Fan Jin Chuan had been grabbing her to teach her a few things.
Feng Sheng couldn’t refuse. When she followed Fan Jin Chuan to be his private advisor, she had used the pretext of consulting him for her scholarly pursuits.
Since one had said so, one could only bear the suffering. Now, Feng Sheng not only had to be under Fan Jin Chuan’s direction for two hours every day, but she also had to write an eight-legged essay5 for him to review.
“Worthy Brother, you’ve finished reading the Four Books and Five Classics,6 but the essay you made is truly a spectacle too horrible to endure. As the saying goes, read a book a thousand times, and it will reveal to you its meaning. This foundation of yours is truly too lacking and needs polishing. You must be thoroughly acquainted with these books to the extent that you can recite them backwards. Only then can you write essays without any extra effort……”
Feng Sheng had rushed back before Fan Jin Chuan arrived, and the sweat on her forehead still hadn’t dried completely. At this point, she was listening to him harping on her from above, but her consciousness was wandering, fixating on her cooperation with Gou Qing and mulling over any possible oversights.
“Worthy Brother, Worthy Brother Fang!”
Feng Sheng snapped back to her senses. “Brother Zi Jin.”
“If you’re inattentive, how will you fare in the next provincial examination? How can you live up to the noble ambition you made in the first place?” Fan Jin Chuan lamented with such mournful ardor.
“Brother Zi Jin, I’m not inattentive.”
“Then what was this brother saying just now?”
Uh, about that, Feng Sheng really didn’t know.
“Look, where do you think you’re being attentive? You will write two sheets of eight-legged essays today as punishment. I’ll hand you the topic later. I’ll tell you again what I’ve told you before, Worthy Brother needs to be more diligent.”
After all this, Feng Sheng finally focused all her attention on the matter. Fan Jin Chuan was really without compunction or mercy. If he were to catch herself distracted again, he might punish her with three or four sheets of eight-legged essays.
Because of official business, Fan Jin Chuan strode out to the front court, leaving Feng Sheng to write the essay alone.
In her past studies, Feng Sheng hated eight-legged essays the most. She used to just copy indiscriminately, as there were too many restrictions and fetters that she was most impatient with.
“‘Is it possible that a man should not be equal to this bird? In the Book of Poetry, it is said, ‘Profound was King Wen’? What’s the relationship between the man and the bird and King Muwen?7 This pedant assigned such a tricky topic. This kind of ruthless combination is a bit too much.”
Zhi Qiu was grinding ink for Feng Sheng on one side. Seeing her mumbling and displaying some indignance, she couldn’t resist saying, “Young Master, if you don’t want to write, then don’t write. It’s not like we’re taking the exam anyway.”
Feng Sheng hesitated before replying, “We know, but he doesn’t, and he took the trouble to teach me. If I do it half-heartedly, I’ll be blamed for failing to recognize others’ good intentions.”
After that, Feng Sheng also realized that her anger was somewhat senseless, so she regained her composure and jotted down the topic.
On the other end, Fan Jin Chuan didn’t actually leave. He stood outside listening to Feng Sheng rain curses at him for his choice of topic before he led Xiao Qi away.
“My lord, you know Advisor Fang doesn’t like eight-legged essays, yet you still give him such topics time and again. You’re clearly deliberately angering him.”
Fan Jin Chuan revealed a wisp of a smile. “I’m not deliberately provoking his ire, but I think his foundation in writing essays is too poor, so I’m letting him write and learn more. Don’t you think he’s been running outside too much lately? His heart isn’t quiet, so his spirit is unpeaceful. He needs some tranquility to recuperate his mind.”
However, Xiao Qi felt that his own lord was suspicious of employing his own position to get even for a private grudge. All knew that Advisor Fang had frequently been running out with Inspector Gou. His lordship furnished ‘learning proficiency for officialdom is not a bad thing’ as an excuse, as if to prove that he wasn’t utilizing his superiority to avenge a personal wrong. Xiao Qi was nonetheless truly unconvinced.
Xiao Qi faltered a bit before asking, “My lord, don’t you think your attitude towards Advisor Fang is too strange?”
“What Inspector Gou and Advisor Fang have, that’s their own private matter. For you to intercept mid-way would be a bit…… too meddlesome……” Speaking until here, Xiao Qi shrunk his neck, but still plucked the courage to continue, “You’ve always been against such acts, but you can choose to ignore it. You mustn’t forget about Old Madam, who is still waiting for you to get married so she can hold your grandchildren in her arms.”
After saying that, Xiao Qi lowered his head, not daring to meet Fan Jin Chuan’s eyes. Don’t think that just because Fan Jin Chuan was an upright scholar and tried never to offend anybody, he wouldn’t lose his temper. Anyway, Xiao Qi had witnessed it, and it was quite terrifying.
His head remained depressed as he let his imagination briefly run wild. He only looked up when he felt that there were no further movements from the other party, only to discover that Fan Jin Chuan had disappeared without a trace.
He looked around, wiped a handful of sweat, and muttered, “Old Madam, I risked my life to get the word across. Of what’s left to do, I won’t bother anymore.”
After saying that, he scampered away to search for Fan Jin Chuan.
I used to think that for seawater to yield salt, all you had to do was keep boiling it and then afterwards dry it. Actually, seawater has insufficient salt content, so such a method would require as much fire as possible to produce adequate amount of salt. In fact, to make salt from seawater, it needs purification. Ancients said that extracting salt from brine would solve this issue.
I just wanted to supplement the spreading ash method for those who found it a bit confusing, and for those who actually care to understand the salt-making process.
Honestly had to do a bit of research. My good friend StackedSnowflake, who has contributed a lot this novel’s translations, made it very easy for me to understand.
As per the author’s note above, seawater alone doesn’t have enough salinity to produce heaps of salt. If they relied only on seawater, they would need to expend a lot of effort and resources, so there naturally had to be other ways.
Grass ash is literally what it is. It’s ash made from grass. The author doesn’t say how it’s produced. It’s reasonable to assume that they burn the grass to make ash, but there might be some other way, so I’ll just leave that open. I felt like the author left out some stuff in her explanation. She wasn’t kidding when she said ‘roughly explain’ lol.
Borrowing this paragraph from the above narrative: “To roughly explain the process, they would establish a spreading field and await the tide to seep through the earth. They would then spread grass ash over the salty earth for the ash to absorb some minute particles of salt. After sunlight exposure, they would then scrape the salty ash mixture and lodge it into a deep pit, and thereafter pour in seawater to yield brine. This brine would then be boiled into salt.”
This spreading field is an empty field where they literally just let the seawater from the tide seep through the earth, so the earth becomes salty. According to Baidu, salt particles attach themselves onto the grass ash, separating the salt from the salty earth. Therefore, they spread grass ash on the earth so the ash can absorb these salt particles. They now have a damp salt-ash-earth mixture, but all they need is the salty ash. Since it’s easier to scrape ash from the earth when it’s dry, they expose it to sunlight. This way, more salt particles from the seawater shrivel up and attach themselves onto the ash. After which, they now have a very salty ash mixture. This mixture is lodged into a deep pit, where seawater is poured in thereafter. Seawater is naturally salty, and the salty ash mixture even more so, yielding a very salty brine. Once it’s boiled, it produces heaps of salt.
The brine-boiling stage probably looks like this:
1 Cogon grass look something like this:
2 鱼肉: lit. fish and meat; a metaphor for employing violence to bully and humiliate. Fish and meat are treated as goods and slaughtered, a metaphor for powerless to resist.
3 釜底抽薪: take away the firewood from under the cauldron — a fundamental solution; adopt full measures; cut the ground from under one’s foot; cut the ground on which someone stands
4 地头蛇: a local snake — a rascal familiar with the place; a local tyrant; a local bully. Basically saying that no matter how powerful you are, once you get chucked into a new place you’re unfamiliar with, the local thug will always overpower you.
5 八股文 (bā gǔ wén): The eight-legged essay was a style of essay in imperial examinations during the Ming and Qing dynasties, often focusing on Confucian thought and knowledge of the Four Books and Five Classics, in relation to governmental ideals. (Source)
6 四书五经: The Four Books and Five Classics are the authoritative books of Confucianism in China written before 300 BC. The Four Books are: Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean, Analects, and Mencius. The Five Classics are: Classic of Poetry, Book of Rites, Book of Documents, I Ching (Book of Changes), and Spring and Autumn Annals.
7 This is an excerpt taken from The Great Learning, one of the Four Books, translated by James Legge. ‘Profound was King Wen’ in pinyin is ‘mù mù Wén Wáng’. Feng Sheng probably mistook the other ‘mu’ as part of his name, as Mu could also be a Chinese surname.