Lots of explanation in the footnotes. Let me know in the comments if any of them confuse you.
I changed the salt sun-drying method to solar evaporation method.
Prince Wei didn’t stay long and left the next day, as if he was just passing by, like he had said.
Feng Sheng also wasn’t in the mood to pay heed to his thoughts. It was too hard to fathom that person’s mind. She had too many things to do, so she spared no effort trying to analyze him.
However, she did open Prince Wei’s new year presents. Ensconced in the boxes were a few goods such as brush, ink, paper, and inkstone. The only thing slightly atypical was a gold hairpin. Feng Sheng held this gold hairpin and thoroughly examined it, but her head was throbbing, so she simply chucked it back in the box and dispelled her thoughts.
The third month had once again arrived. Spring had come and the flowers were in bloom.
Feng Sheng traveled frequently between Banpu Town and the salterns, and amidst this, she dropped by Yangzhou. After only five days, she returned to Haizhou.
Because of the time she spent at the solar evaporation salterns, Feng Sheng’s skin was no longer as fair and had slightly darkened to the color of honey. However, her whole person was now much healthier than before. Her stomach back then had been weak, but now, probably because of the light meals she had been eating, her appetite had increased a little, and her stomach problems were less frequent.
“Lord Fang, come and see. The salt pond is bubbling.” A dark-skinned boy with bare feet came running to Feng Sheng, who was standing on the ridges of the pond. Hearing this, Feng Sheng, not caring that her shoes would get wet, tagged after him to the salt pond.
On the boundless land ahead, one could see numerous shallow ponds made of bricks, several dozen feet in radius and hundreds of them in a row. This saltern was located in the coastal alluvial plains, which Feng Sheng and Old Wang had repeatedly surveyed prior to deciding on the location.
Old Wang was that old farmer. He was not only versed in water conservancy, but he had also been immersed in Liang Huai for many years. His knowledge on astronomy and geography was actually quite scant, but finding a suitable place to set up a saltern was a breeze for him.
As for this boy with bare feet, he was the grandson of a family whose ancestors had been from salt-producing households for several generations. His grandfather’s surname was Ma, a man instrumental in discovering the perfect brine ratio in Huainan. This time, Feng Sheng brought Old Man Ma and his grandson, Ma Xiao Hu, with her.
Feng Sheng followed Ma Xiao Hu all the way along the narrow brick-laid road. From afar, she could see several people trooping in front of a salt pond.
“Lord Fang, look.”
Feng Sheng actually couldn’t make out anything, only the bubbles swarming on the water surface in the salt pond.
The salt solar evaporation method used this time was the result of Feng Sheng’s extensive reading of ancient books, plus the wisdom she had pooled from Old Man Ma and several other age-old salt-producing households. Deep ditches and brick-laid salt ponds were built near the coast, flush with the sea water level. When the north wind blew in the severe winter and the tide flooded the ditches, the tide would block the mouth of the ditch once the salt pond was full, a phenomenon they called ‘cold wave.’
The seawater stored this time contained a high concentration of gas, but was sufficient to be utilized as brine once these gases were eliminated. After that, they only needed to draw the tide into the pond when sun was present and bask it for a few days. Once the tide bubbled, the salt-producing households would brush the pond with rakes, yielding salt.1
As said before, someone was already in the water, clutching a rake crafted from thin bamboo strips and brushing through the salt pond.
At first, it looked as though he was doing useless effort, until some white substance gradually began to pile up.
“The salt is out! The salt is out!”
Ma Xiao Hu raved in jubilation. Everyone was smiling, and their smiles reached their peak as they visually estimated the volume of salt after the initial sweep.
“Lord Fang, if this lowly old one did not estimate it wrongly, around this xiaoman,2 we can produce about one shipment of salt.”
“One shipment?” Feng Sheng was astounded.
Salt batches were divided into ten shipments according to the region. Each shipment contained around 200,000 batches, each batch weighing about 300 catties of salt. That was to say, around xiaoman alone, using the salt solar evaporation method, they could achieve in around a month’s time what the three Huaibei salterns could previously yield in a year.
“You didn’t estimate wrongly?”
Old Man Ma showed a smile. “With this old man’s experience boiling salt for so many years, this one can estimate the approximate amount of catties by visual inspection, so this one shouldn’t be wrong in the estimation.”
“Good!” Feng Sheng clapped her hands and fell into a state of euphoria as she paced back and forth on the pond edge, seemingly mulling over something. After a while, she promptly stopped and fled in large strides.
Ma Xiao Hu wanted to call out to her, but his grandfather balked his attempt.
“The lord has something to do. Don’t bother him.”
The sky was beautiful, and the weather remained clear and cloudless the following days.
The solar-evaporated salt heaped up in mountains, growing monumentally higher by the instant, accumulating more and more. Everyone started out excited to the point of being unable to control themselves, but qualms gradually bred in their minds.
Why didn’t the lord look for someone to distribute the salt?
After waiting a few more days, the salt distributor finally arrived.
Huang Jin Fu followed Feng Sheng all the way, grumbling as he plodded. When they reached the vicinity of the salt ponds, the carriage wouldn’t fit, so they could only trudge on. However, Huang Jin Fu was fat, and he was the type of person who would sit but absolutely refuse to stand. Making him traverse such a long distance, it didn’t take long for him to find it unbearable.
Feng Sheng paid him no mind and just trekked ahead.
“What the hell is this place? What did you bring me here for?”
Soon, Huang Jin Fu was able to discern what this place was when mountains of salt hove into his view.
Not many people who could be great salt merchants were idiots, and Huang Jin Fu soon realized the relationship between the salt and these damned ponds. He pointed to the salt ponds, then to the salt mountains.
“This, this is what came out of this?”
Feng Sheng laughed. “Never mind where they came from. Do you want this salt?”
Huang Jin Fu was still somewhat vigilant. “Official or private? No, Lord Fan is still poking around in Yangzhou thinking of who to attack first, and you dare come here to sell private salt?”
“Who told you this is private salt? It’s naturally official salt.”
Upon hearing this, Huang Jin Fu immediately raised his eyebrows. “Since it’s official salt, then I don’t want it. If I wanted official salt, can’t I just get it elsewhere? If official salt really was worthwhile, would I even run to this remote and desolate place?!”
“You should at least give me some face.”
“That won’t do. Face isn’t as important as one’s life and family possessions. Don’t make fun of me. Don’t you know that I’ve been unable to make ends meet these days? I’m very close to putting my own oily body in the pan to fry and extract a bit of oil.”3
Observing this harrowing expression of his, Feng Sheng’s face turned solemn. “Well, I won’t keep you in suspense. Although it’s official salt, this time, this official salt is different from the usual. You only need to give me silver to purchase the salt. No, hand it over to the Haizhou Division. I’ve already asked Lord Fan for the documents. You only need to take the tickets and ship out the salt.”
“Ship out? Easy to say! Advisor Fang, you’re an old acquaintance, so I won’t hide it from you. We salt merchants are rich, but the silver in our pockets don’t last that long. Consider salt, for instance. When asking for a salt certificate, I have to go through these three: application, submission, and verification. Along the road, there are four ways to cut corners, such as straightening, passing, sending, and confirming, not to mention the leather tickets, mast seals, cinnabar forms,4 and other such tricks.
“Just maundering around the Yunsi yamen to deal with various clerks, I have to run to at least nineteen rooms. The documents are moved around at least over a dozen times, and I have to pass through various yamen gates more than twenty times. With each visit, I peel off a layer of skin because of layers of cruel exploitation. To be honest, if I hadn’t inherited this career from my ancestors, one passed on for more than a hundred years, do you think I’d be willing to do this? Why couldn’t I be a grain merchant or a tea merchant? If I could, do you think I would really follow my ancestors’ career?!”
Mentioning these things, Huang Jin Fu cried hot and bitter tears and grieved to his utmost.
After listening, Feng Sheng also felt distressed.
Only after Huang Jin Fu finished lamenting did she say, “Just say whether or not you believe in me.”
“This——” Skeptical as he was, Huang Jin Fu nonetheless deliberated. By relying on this Advisor Fang, he had garnered a lot of private salt and other gains these past few months. But how could he say such words out loud?
“I naturally believe in Advisor Fang.”
“Then, just pay the silver for the ticket to fetch the salt. Nevermind, you can hand over the silver later; ship out the salt first. I guarantee that you won’t have to worry about your trip. Moreover, I’ll help you get rid of the floating fees and other things on the road, but don’t ask for sky-high prices when you finally distribute the salt to the respective areas. If that happens and you can’t sell the salt, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Huang Jin Fu was unconvinced. “Advisor Fang, just say it clearly. What do you mean!?”
“Haven’t you all been guessing how those above plan to take you on? This is it.”
“This, like, what? Why can’t I understand?”
“Soon, you’ll understand.”
Horrified, Huang Jin Fu snatched the salt ticket and left.
The alleged salt ticket was no different from a paper salt certificate, only the material had changed, as well as the words inscripted on it. Those so-called salt certificates were roughly divided into two kinds: one was the copper salt certificate, and the other was the paper salt certificate requested from the Salt Distribution Commission every time salt was distributed out.
The copper salt certificate was proof of how salt merchants could ‘forever a hundred years, depend on their holdings,’5 the characters on which carved on a copper plate by the imperial court’s Ministry of Revenue. Every ten years, there were only ten such salt certificates in Liang Huai, all within the grasp of the top ten salt merchants. If one owned this certificate, one had the right to distribute salt in certain places. As for the small salt merchants beneath the major salt merchants, they all depended on this piece of copper salt certificate.
As for the paper salt certificate, a salt merchant possessing distribution qualifications would purchase the said certificate at the Salt Distribution Commission. The amount of salt they could carry depended on the salt batch produced by the salterns. They would then distribute the purchased salt to the designated sale areas, wherein each checkpoint along the way would require this paper salt certificate.
Now, Fang Feng Sheng issued him a salt ticket, functioning likewise as a salt certificate. However, this time, he paid all the fees and taxes in one go as he purchased the ticket at Yunsi, spending no extra silver for any other miscellaneous fees. Having ommitted all the previous procedures of straightening, passing, sending, and confirming, as well as the leather tickets, mast seals, and cinnabar forms, he naturally eluded layers of exploitation.
This was nothing. What appalled Huang Jin Fu even more was that this new type of salt ticket did not require him to own salt certificate privileges to be able to purchase it. Furthermore, just about anyone could make a purchase. As long as one paid silver to the Salt Distribution Commission to buy the salt ticket, one could distribute salt.
“You’re all insane!”
Thus was Huang Jin Fu’s comment, to which Feng Sheng disapproved.
However, he now couldn’t care less that his salt certificate privileges, one handed down for several generations, might not be worth much in the future, because Fang Feng Sheng had promised him that because of their close affinity, he would be in charge of the first batch of the test trials.
If he did well, after the dissemination of the new policy, all matters related to the business could be left for him to handle. Just because of this sentence, Huang Jin Fu ran faster than a rabbit. Whether he would become a mayfly crushed to death by a great mansion on the verge of collapse, or rise with the tide by taking advantage of the opportunity depended on this.
Of course, Huang Jin Fu didn’t thoughtlessly accede. Regardless of the possibility of its success, he had nothing to lose anyway. If it were accomplished, he would use the eastern wind to get on the first boat.6 If it weren’t, it would not be difficult for him to turn his face and deny it.
More importantly, Huang Jin Fu understood the current situation of salt merchants better than outsiders, and he wasn’t the only one who could attest to it. In the recent years, the number of salt merchants who depended on their salt certificate privileges had sharply decreased, which was a precursor to the impending collapse of the Liang Huai Salt Administration.
Either the imperial court could choose to sit idly by and let private salt run rampant, resulting in the steep decline of salt tax revenues, or they could choose to completely smash the scale of operations and revive it themselves.
Owing to the official document issued by the Haizhou Division, Huang Jin Fu’s batch of salt smoothly departed Haizhou. After passing through several hurdles, there was inevitably some chaos. However, the salt ticket had the official seals of the Haizhou Division and the Liang Huai Salt Distribution Commission, the personal seal of Second Assistant Zou, and the official seal of the acting local commander, Fan Jin Chuan’s; also alongside him were people from the Haizhou Division yamen, so he was indisputable.
This batch of salt finally coursed through the canal and landed ashore. At the same time, the news of Huaibei serving as a test site for the salt administration’s new policy also circulated.
News first broke out in Yangzhou’s largest brokerage business. Where there was business, there would always be an abundance of brokers. The brokerage department acted as intermediaries, playing a role in evaluating prices and communicating with merchants, and even extending to the business of acting as agents, as well as storing, paying for goods, and collecting business taxes.
When opening a brokerage business, one must have the local authorities approve it by means of a brokerage license. Those running them were commonly known as official brokers. Yangzhou salt merchants being the number one most extravagant in the world, as well as the local economic prosperity, also led to the extreme prevalence of brokerage businesses.
This time, after the news erupted, not only one brokerage business, but hundreds of them in Yangzhou City were blathering about it. What had initially been a private greeting between a broker and a close merchant somehow resulted in the unbridled dispersal of information.
It was said that Huaibei became the place for the new policy’s pilot scheme, and anyone well-off could proceed to the Haizhou Division to buy salt tickets and distribute salt.
Furthermore, to encourage merchants, Huaibei’s new policy raised the weight of each batch of salt from 350 catties to 400 catties, but the price remained the same.
Not counting some of the other odds and ends in the new policy, these two alone were enough to stagger people. So, did the new policy entail that salt certificates were no longer necessary to distribute salt, and they only needed silver to obtain salt tickets, which now served as the qualification for salt distribution?
Prosperous merchants were not only the salt merchants. Those watching the yamen gates always saw how extremely well-off those inside were, so several people wanted to enter the salt industry. However, they were hopeless without salt certificate privileges and had no choice but to rent salt certificate privileges7 from certificate merchants, which they deemed unsavory.
When news flared up, one could well imagine the commotion it ensued.
Look, some sister said that she couldn’t understand the purpose of the salt certificate, so I’ll explain it.
The Ming and Qing Dynasties adopted the salt certificate tying-up method for a long period of time. The so-called salt certificate tying-up method probably meant that in order to control salt, for a long time, the court contracted the qualifications of selling salt to several large merchants (I’m using the more popular term here). The predecessor of salt certificate tying-up method was the more famous equitable exchange method in history. During the Hongwu period of the Ming Dynasty, due to the shortage of military food at the border and the delayed delivery, the Ming ancestors used salt certificates to commission large merchants to transport grain and horse fodder to the border. The frontier big boss would then exchange them with a corresponding amount of salt certificates (in fact, to put it bluntly, they were utilizing civilian resources to work for the imperial court, basically free labor).
Later, due to the proliferation of private salt for various reasons, official salt became insufficient, and merchants were unable to receive salt for a long time, leading to an accumulation of a lot of certificates. In order to reduce the accumulation of certificates, in the reigning year of Wanli Emperor in the Ming Dynasty, they implemented the tying-up method. The salt certificates from the merchants were collected and registered into booklets divided into ten syndicates, where every year, one syndicate would be from the accumulated certificates, while the other nine syndicates would become new certificates. The booklet allowed all merchants to always use it as their ‘holdings’, and new certificates would be issued every year according to the old numbers in the booklet. When one’s name was not recorded in the booklets, one was not allowed to join. From then on, the right to buy, transport, and sell salt all belonged to the salt merchants. Furthermore, it was hereditary.
In fact, to put it plainly, the salt certificate privileges were the distribution qualifications, and the salt certificates were proof that merchants who possessed these distribution qualifications could purchase salt from the Salt Distribution Commission.
As for the new policy, from Huang Jin Fu, you should know by now that the high price of official salt was due to the floating fees and the other miscellaneous fees. Merchants who wanted to make silver would definitely not engage in non-profit trading. Layers of cruel exploitation from every place exhausted all their silver. The official filial respect and every contribution required by the imperial court, all had to be added on the price of salt. However, the cost of salt was too high, and ordinary people couldn’t afford it, so they could only consume private salt. If the official salt was unsalable, it would be stagnant.
In this chapter, Feng Sheng’s new policy saves the process of going through all sorts of hurdles along the way. When salt merchants buy salt tickets, they have already paid enough for all kinds of fees that should be paid, so they don’t have to give silver in other places and can avoid being cheated by people of authority. At the same time, some of the procedures are eliminated, so they will no longer be manipulated in the middle.
This is equivalent to saying that there was no Administrative Service Hall in the past, so you have to run each department next to each other depending on what procedures you go through. With the administrative service hall, everything is done in one stop. This analogy is a bit inappropriate, but it probably means that.*
Another advantage of the new policy is that, without the salt certificate privileges, anyone can buy salt with a ticket. That is to say, it’s destroying the monopoly of the salt merchants possessing salt certificates, so those other merchants who had the ability to do business could do business.
* The Administrative Service Hall (in mainland China) is probably like one huge place where you can process all documents from different government offices or agencies so you don’t have to run to different places. Huang Jin Fu was complaining about how he kept running around to process documents, but Feng Sheng eliminated that process, so the ease of obtaining salt tickets is probably akin to how the Administrative Service Hall provides documents in one go.
1 They don’t boil salt anymore so I’ll just call them salt-producing households (which was what I should’ve called them from the start!). Also, the gas they’re talking about here refers to the unwanted fuel gas substances produced from evaporating seawater.
2 小满: Xiaoman or Lesser Full Grain / Small Full, 8th of the 24 solar terms. The 24 solar terms, based on the sun’s position in the zodiac, were created by farmers in ancient China to guide the agricultural affairs and farming activities. The 24 solar terms reflect the changes in climate, natural phenomena, agricultural production, and other aspects of human life, including clothing, food, housing, and transportation.
3 This analogy is probably about how you run out of oil to cook meat, so you cook it without oil and depend on the fat rendered from the meat. He’s saying that his funds are depleted and he’s exhausted all means to sustain his business and family.
4 平, 上, 去, and 入; 皮票, 桅封, and 朱单: Honestly tried my best translating these to make them make sense, but it isn’t that relevant to the plot so I guess it’s fine. Also can’t find them at Baidu for some reason, so I just stuck to literal translations.
6 借东风: lit. to use the eastern wind (idiom); fig. to use sb’s help
7 引窝 (yǐn wō): Literal translation doesn’t make sense at all. After thorough research, in ‘The Rise and Fall of a Public Debt Market in 16th-Century China’ by Wing-kin Puk, they’re called ‘salt certificate basis’ in his Glossary,
so I’ll be using this.
Okay, ‘basis’ is a confusing word, so I’m just gonna replace it with the word ‘privilege’.
This paragraph may confuse you. Those who could enter the salt affairs yamens were merchants with salt certificate privileges, etc. so others always envied them, since salt = silver = prosperity. Those who really wanted to get into the salt industry would rent salt certificate privileges from other merchants who had these certificate privileges. However, they could still be considered ‘prosperous’ because they could sell salt after renting the certificate privileges. Hence the first sentence, “Prosperous merchants were not only the salt merchants.”