During the morning court, the Jianping Emperor had Gu Bi Chang’s and He Lun’s memorials intoned in front of all the officials.
Their memorials conformed to the regulations, both articulating that the root cause of official salt stagnation was the uncontrolled proliferation of private salt.
Private salt proliferation was commonplace, so the imperial court was stringent on combating it. Once caught, one would be beheaded. When it came to suppressing smugglers, people would turn over the culprits when asked, or turn over the silver when asked.
However, every year, private salt still spread unchecked, and the salt tax revenue unrelentingly spiraled down to less than half the amount of its peak.
The Ministry of Revenue’s yellow books manifested the unremitting population growth of the Great Zhou Dynasty. Could it be that these many people stopped consuming salt? Could one even live without salt?
All circled back to the beginning. Why was official salt stagnant?
In fact, no one in the entire court wasn’t aware of the reason. The stagnation was due to nothing else but these two points: private salt proliferated uncontrolled, and official salt was too expensive.
But why was official salt expensive?
For instance, in the tenth year of the reign of Jianping, the market price of one batch of official salt, roughly around 400 catties, was about 8 taels of silver. However, the actual price of salt purchased directly from the salt production area was only 600 to 700 copper coins, which was also the price at which saltern merchants bought it.1
Saltern merchants would sell it to the salt distributors for less than two taels, with a profit of one tael. They also had to allocate silver for labor, storage, transportation, and salt tax. This profit couldn’t be considered high, but it was within acceptable range.
Then, there were the salt distributors, who were salt merchants possessing salt certificates. They would purchase salt at a price of less than two taels and sell it for about eight taels, generating a profit of nearly six silver taels per batch. However, other costs had to be accounted for, such as the middleman for the certification process, transportation, labor, regular and miscellaneous taxes in silver, official filial respect to the local authorities, contributions to the imperial court, and several other good deal of expenses.
In the end, a salt merchant’s profit wasn’t high. In any case, it absolutely couldn’t stretch higher than that extent.
Salt, this thing, had been tightly grasped by the imperial court since ancient times. Even if they wanted a clear calculation of the accounts, they were handed nothing. It wasn’t that there weren’t any, but the problem was that there was no clear way of calculating.
As for officials, the official filial respect that the salt merchants offered the various yamen every year wasn’t too hefty, but it sufficed to shut the yamen up. When had salt merchants ever failed to fulfill paying official filial respect during the sampling at various checkpoints along the way?
Everyone knew that salt merchants were wealthy, the wealthiest in the world, and Yangzhou salt merchants even more so. As far as the imperial court was concerned, the salt merchants had enough wealth that rivaled an entire nation’s. Therefore, every year, whenever there was war, famine, even the construction of a new palace within the imperial city, and whenever the Jianping Emperor headed south to patrol, the imperial court would rely on the salt merchants’ contributions, which had tremendously amounted to over ten million taels of silver over the years.
Briefly put, salt merchants readily tossed out silver whenever requested. This was clear to the imperial court, clear to the cabinet and to officials of all ranks, and even clearer to the Jianping Emperor. In the end, the blame could only be planted on their own heads, so everyone could only remain mute.
Owing to this silence, the price of official salt continued to rise. The people couldn’t afford official salt and had no other alternative but to consume private salt, so private salt prevailed spreading unchecked.
All these things were inseparably interconnected, and the fault didn’t lie on merely a single person.
Faced with such an ordeal, they were doomed to be without unanimity in the court session. In fact, every time the court deliberated matters pertaining to salt tax revenues and the like, they would always end up futile.
“So don’t look down on these merchants. They may be vulgar, despicable, and profit-seeking spirits who reek of copper. In your eyes and in mine, they’re nothing but a swarm of buzzing flies, but in reality, they’re wiser than many. See, they’re not afraid of using old tactics as long as they’re good and efficient. They kept stuffing silver to His Majesty time and again, so even he couldn’t outright prosecute them. What are you afraid of?”
The Song Manor located in Jinyu lane was a three-entry residence adorned with old-fashioned furniture and decorations, not at all what was expected of the typical official residence of a dignified court elder.
In a courtyard, set up under a verdant and lush tree were a table and two chairs, seated on which were two old men playing Go.
One of them was the owner of the residence, Court Elder Song, and the other was the Vice Minister of Revenue, Sun Cheng Zhang. Both were not garbed in official robes and were homely attired. Those who didn’t know would think that they were merely rich men from somewhere, rather than high officials capable of shaking the imperial court three times with a single step.
“My heart has been feeling uncomfortable lately. If His Majesty has no intention of acting, why make a scene?” Sun Cheng Zhang twirled a Go stone in his fingers, hesitant to put it down. He looked at Court Elder Song and anxiously asked, “Could His Majesty be brewing something?”
Seeing that Sun Cheng Zhang hadn’t yet devised a move, Court Elder Song took his tea and drank it. “Don’t think too much. Aren’t you aware of His Majesty’s character? If it’s nothing, he naturally won’t bother. If there really is something and he remains unbothered, when someday the history books record the common people’s remarks, what do you think they will say? It’s not that His Majesty is unbothered. He actually attaches great importance to it, but the civil and military officials are all useless, so what else can he do?”
These words were too sharp. Anyway, even if Sun Cheng Zhang understood it in his heart, he was also unable to voice it out. He peered at Court Elder Song. Court Elder Song had said that his head was lost in various fancies and conjectures. What about himself? Shouldn’t his heart be just as apprehensive? With Court Elder Song’s personality, how could he spew such treacherous and disgraceful words?
“Brother Si An, you’re also confused.” Sun Cheng Zhang put down his Go piece and shook his head with a bitter smile.
Court Elder Song remained unspeaking, but his pair of old brows furrowed.
After a while, a servant from the Sun family trotted in to report that a pressing matter transpired at home, and that the master should return. Sun Cheng Zhang departed, but before leaving, he requested to have the Go board sealed up for safekeeping so they could resume the next time.
Court Elder Song dawdled in the courtyard for a moment and had his eldest son, Song Zheng, called over.
“How is Mei jie’er‘s2 pregnancy? The recent heat has been unbearable. Let Sun-shi make a few more trips to the East Palace. Make sure to be careful and proper.”
“Father, there’s nothing wrong with Mei jie’er‘s pregnancy. It’s just that, she isn’t at the best age for pregnancy, so it doesn’t appear to be going well. But with imperial physicians watching over her, nothing will happen.”
Court Elder Song nodded, a bit unconvinced, and then asserted, “This pregnancy must be kept. If it wasn’t for the fact that she couldn’t keep her first two pregnancies, why would we take great pains over this?”
“Father, it truly isn’t good to interfere with the affairs of married women in the rear court.”
“No matter how you put it, isn’t it just that she’s useless?! You tell Sun-shi that if something goes wrong with this child of hers again, Mei jie’er isn’t the only daughter in the family. His Majesty bestowed this marriage to the Song family. My Song family’s hundred-year clear name could be completely obliterated by a single mistake, so none can be tolerated.”
“As for the Huang family, tell them to restrain themselves. If they really end up annoying His Majesty……”
The rest of the words, Court Elder Song didn’t finish, but Song Zheng understood the meaning.
Located in a large, picturesque garden somewhere in Yangzhou, on the stage stood an opera actor costumed as an elegant young woman singing a play.3
This theatre was truly breathtaking. It was built on water, and a pool of lotus flowers separated the stage and the seats. The breeze gently blew, and the lotus fragrance permeated the whole place. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that it was paradise on earth.
“Master, a letter arrived from the capital. It was delivered to the madam.”
“Was it sent back by Eighth jie’er?” Half-leaning on a lounge chair was the Huang family’s head, Huang Jin Fu. With a physique akin to a small mountain, he was clad in a python-patterned robe strewn with the ‘silver’ character.
“Did she suffer some sort of grievance in the Song family again? Or did the Song family once again concoct various pretexts to ask for silver?”
The master was too straightforward. The steward wiped his sweat out of helplessness. “None of them. Eighth Miss wanted to tell you that the wind direction in the court hasn’t been right lately. Master should exercise restraint to avoid running into a cannon.”
“The wind direction isn’t right. What ‘the wind direction isn’t right’? When has the wind direction ever been right?!”
The steward shrank his neck and replied in a tiny voice, “It’s said that His Majesty lost his temper several times because of the stagnation of official salt.”
Huang Jin Fu sat up straight, but because he was too fat, there was no way he could independently do so. The steward scurried over to assist him. When he finally managed an upright position, both he and the steward were perspiring.
“Does that mean we should all exercise restraint? Yangzhou’s salt merchants aren’t just the Huang family. What if someone else takes over my business the moment I obey and restrain? Exercise restraint, exercise restraint. They’re all just a bunch of vicious and greedy old vermin. The dishes haven’t even arrived yet, but they already started cursing. Each and every one of them is avaricious and insatiable, yet pretends to be a man of noble character and unquestionable integrity. Stinky! Truly too stinky!”
The master initiated a fire, so the steward could only busily wave his hand to have the others withdraw. The entertainment immediately ceased, and all retreated like birds and beasts scattering in succession.
“Master, you should also quell your anger. Drink some tea to clear internal heat.” The steward solicitously handed over the tea.
Huang Jin Fu slapped it away, and the good Ru kiln teacup shattered into flowers on the ground. Watching such an expensive object destroyed just like that, it made the steward want to wring his hands.
“This master can’t dissipate the heat. The official filial pay to the salt distribution yamen for this month hasn’t yet been sent up, and the silver for the prefectural magistrate yamen’s food stipend is also urgent. There’s also silver for official cultivation,4 soldier’s pay, water transport charges, state refuge and care for the ill and poor, orphanages, free schools, and Xiaolian Hall’s5 portion. This master is merely a merchant stinking of copper. I’m now unexpectedly helping the imperial court raise officials, yet they want me to exercise restraint? If I don’t have silver to pay them official filial respect, they turn hostile as quickly as turning pages of a book!”
The more Huang Jin Fu spat out, the more livid he grew. He broke teacups and tea saucers, and elicited disaster to the tea table and some small furnishings.
“Official salt is stagnant? Doesn’t this master, this great Buddha, also supply official salt? With one batch of salt, how many layers of skin do they want to peel off? Without relying on private salt smuggling, how would this master be able to provide for them? If they want restraint, they should look for the Jiang family. This master is only at the bottom of the list of Yangzhou’s top ten salt merchants.”
Having annihilated all available objects, Huang Jin Fu’s fire finally dwindled. The steward, who had retreated into a corner, conscientiously skipped out and said, “Master, the letter also stated that you should socialize more with His Highness Prince Wei. Prince Wei led a secret decree to Yangzhou, yet he’s been biding his time. It’s still unknown what his purpose is, but for the sake of planning long-term, we nevertheless need to be clear about his purpose. Only then can things be smooth and steady.”
Upon hearing this, Huang Jin Fu extended his arm again to wreck something, but unfortunately, the rest had been obliterated. He tried to jut out his foot to kick the steward, but he stood more than ten feet away from him. In desperation, he thrust out his clutches to the last thing he could find——the lounge chair.
Until the lounge chair collapsed on the ground with a loud thud, he felt comfortable at last.
Reaching his hand out, the steward handed him an enamel snuff bottle. He opened and sniffed it before saying, “Prince Wei isn’t that far off from becoming a monk, staying at the Daming Tempe all day long to participate in meditation. Should this master still go to the Buddhist monk temple to find him? I’m willing to go if the other person will eventually accommodate me. The silver, women, and antiques we sent out, he returned them all. Furthermore, this person turns hostile as quickly as rummaging through a book, and his temperament is indecipherable. This master has been unable to find the right person to bridge us together.”
The steward asked, “Master, he returned them just like that?”
“Returned just like that!” After saying that, Huang Jin Fu changed his tone again, “Are you that stupid or foolish that you still need this master to teach you? Those above definitely won’t return presents just like that, but Prince Wei did, so let them think of a way themselves. As for those above, let’s proceed with the old practice. They talk, we listen. Whether or not we do something, it’s not up to us yet.”
“Yes,” the steward complied, paused, and continued, “Master, this lowly one thinks we should adapt to Prince Wei’s tastes. Perhaps, what we find good, Prince Wei doesn’t. Isn’t giving presents about touching the bottom of the other person’s heart?”
Huang Jin Fu was stunned for a moment and was suddenly spirited. “Any idea what Prince Wei likes?”
The steward shook his head.
“Then that will do. The other person doesn’t want silver nor antiques. Do the descendants of the imperial family still lack these? As for women, I’d already given away the best thin horse, one so precious that this master himself couldn’t even bear to enjoy.”
The steward laughed, and his otherwise honest-looking face had contorted into a vulgar grin.
“Master, Yangzhou’s thin horses are famous all over the world, but they have to meet a master who likes them. What if Prince Wei’s tastes are different? Don’t fault this lowly one for saying this. This lowly one isn’t saying that he doesn’t like them. Maybe if we send a plumper young girl…… hehe……”
Huang Jin Fu rubbed his chin, his small eyes twinkling. “Send someone to Datong. Get a few of the highest-quality goods back from there. If it doesn’t work out this time, this master can’t do anything about it.”
The cooperation between Feng Sheng and Gou Qing sailed quite smoothly, and their friendship naturally grew even better.
This time, Gou Qing bid her to go to Yangzhou, saying that he wanted to introduce her to a salt merchant.
This was something Feng Sheng had been planning for a long time, so it was impossible for her not to go. She brought Dao Qi, Hu Si Niang, and six other people to Yangzhou to meet up with Gou Qing.
To avoid arousing suspicion, the two journeyed separately.
Who would have thought that, as soon as they reached Yangzhou, they would encounter a setback and be assailed by a group of people?
The opponents were too numerous and well-trained. They weren’t their match at all, and they also couldn’t tell if they had been struck by some sedative musk. Feng Sheng fainted, and when she awoke, she found herself in a strange place.
She was in a room decorated in majestic splendor with all the extravagant furnishings.
When Feng Sheng woke up, she was still a little fogged. With great difficulty, she waited for the dizziness to pass before she realized that she had actually changed into women’s robes.
She hurriedly hopped out of bed and looked around.
That same moment, two maids filed in from outside. “Miss, you’re awake?”
“What is this place and who are you?” One really couldn’t blame Feng Sheng for her apprehension. It was all just so weird. What about Dao Qi and the others? And who had switched out the clothes she was wearing?
“This is the An Garden, and this servant and the other are maids serving you.”
“Who owns this garden? Why have you captured me here……”
It was apparent that the two maids knew nothing, so Feng Sheng’s questions were all left unanswered.
By this time, someone had lifted the glazed bead curtain, and a person strode in.
He had a tall stature. Clad in a dark brocade robe, his body exuded an air of nobility, yet his handsome face was condensed. It was precisely Prince Wei, Zong Yue.
Prince Wei: Hey, you refuse to listen to the warning? Then this prince will step in!
Salt merchants have never relied on official salt to earn silver, but instead use their qualifications to engage in private salt trade. The court is not stupid. The collected tax is enough for the salt merchants to eat a whole pot. How could the court allow salt merchants to have wealth equivalent to that of an entire nation? However, rats have their own ways, and snakes have their own ways.
There are so many types of merchants, so I’ll expound it a bit here.
Saltern merchants were appointed to salterns to purchase the produced salt. After which, they sold the salt to salt distributors, who specialized in storing salt. These salt distributors would transport the salt out of the salterns, then sold the salt at certified coasts (or designated sale areas).
Saltern merchants went by many names. At Changlu, they were called 坨商 (Tuo Shang); at Huainan, called 垣商 (Yuan Shang, previously translated this as ‘salt dealer’); at Zhejiang, called 廒商 (Ao Shang); and at Hedong, called 坐商 (Zuo Shang). All were basically saltern merchants, with names exclusive to their respective provinces.
‘Salt merchants’ is a broad term. Saltern merchants, salt distributors, etc. are just specific types of salt merchants.
I find the whole thing funny. The court knows that these salt merchants are the reason why private salt is overflowing, yet they rely on them for silver. Similarly, official salt is expensive because of the miscellaneous and exorbitant fees the salt merchants have to pay, 80% of which fall into the hands of officials. The salt merchants resort to selling private salt, taking advantage of their qualifications so it appears ‘legal’ on the surface. They’re just leeching off of each other, so the court can’t reach a consensus. They’re truly at a deadlock. I can imagine how annoyed the Jianping Emperor is.
1 One catty (斤, jīn) is roughly 0.5~0.6kg. 1 silver tael (两, liǎng) is around 1000 copper coins (文, wén) around the Qing Dynasty.
2 姐儿 (jie’er): lit. elder sister. If a parent is speaking, it could be considered a term of endearment for a daughter.
3 青衣 (qīng yī): young woman role in Chinese opera. Male actors who specialize in playing dan are referred to as nándàn (男旦); the practice arose during the Qing dynasty due to imperial prohibitions against women performing on stage, considered detrimental to public morality. In the early years of Peking opera, all Dan roles were played by men.
4 养廉银 (yǎnglián yín): lit. silver to cultivate and to maintain incorruptible virtue. Officials, aside from fixed salary stipulated according to their position and rank, every year would receive a separate amount silver in the Qing dynasty system. Basically a bonus.
5 孝廉 (xiaolian): Two examination subjects in Han, later a single subject in Ming and Qing; successful second degree candidate; filial piety and clean record—criteria for selecting officials