In the previous chapter, I translated the word 引窝 as ‘salt certificate bases’, ‘bases’ here being the plural for ‘basis’. It completely slipped my mind that ‘base’ is also a noun with a plural form, so it’s now confusing.
This 引窝 is basically the proof (or basis) that salt merchants can get salt certificates to transport and sell (or distribute) salt. This is passed down from generation to generation, and only the top major salt merchants own these. This is the reason why they monopolize the salt industry. However, some of them rent these out to smaller merchants at a fixed price, so they don’t have to trouble themselves with the distributing and can earn a lot of money just renting them out.
After a thorough deliberation, I’m now changing the word ‘basis’ to ‘privilege’, so the whole term is now ‘salt certificate privilege’ (which I might later on shorten to ‘certificate privilege’). Anyway, only these certain salt merchants have the privilege to distribute salt, so it’s the most suitable word I can think of.
Anyway, if you’re still confused, just drop a comment.
Upon hearing the news, everyone thought it was a sham.
They didn’t need salt certificate privileges to distribute salt? What did they want them, salt merchants, to do? However, some people gradually ceased laughing, because someone unbelieving of idle chatter actually prowled Haizhou.
This said man was a cotton merchant. Last year’s cotton harvest failure rendered useless a year’s worth of his toil. With insufficient capital and complete dependence on the unreliable weather just so he could provide for his family, his heart constantly churned with anxiety. He wanted to try if he could forge through in the brokerage business, knowing full well that the season’s harvest could no longer support a year’s worth of needs. Who would have thought that he would catch wind of Huaibei’s new policy?
While everyone else merely gabbed on about the said policy, he ventured to Haizhou with a meager amount of silver, the idea of harvesting cotton still ingrained in his thoughts. Contrary to his expectations, he actually obtained a batch of salt.
That batch of salt now ferried through the canal outside the city. As a cotton merchant, not once had he experienced making salt. Now that he was in the trade, he nonetheless adopted a train of thought similar to when he was still producing cotton——when he was incapable of selling all the goods by himself, he would find someone to eat up a part of his share.
Hence, he once more returned to the brokerage business where news of the new policy had originated. Frequently maundering about this place, he was inevitably acquainted with several of its patrons. Some small merchants with a bit of success in the brokerage business were curious about his whereabouts on the days he was absent. How come they hadn’t seen him around recently? He stupefied everyone by answering that he had obtained a batch of salt, and that he was seeking a partner or someone willing to eat up a part of his share.
The brokerage business centered on trading, so several merchants congregated here on the off chance that a batch of goods would crop up, from which they could earn a lot of silver. Therefore, news quickly circulated, and it only took a cup of tea’s time for it to reach the ears of some other small merchants.
None believed that salt was easily attainable, so they badgered the cotton merchant to show them. Thus, the cotton merchant surnamed Meng rushed to the ports outside the city with the crowd, along with two official brokers from the brokerage business.
After boarding the ship, he trudged towards the storehouse, in which were indeed neatly stacked bagged goods.
From its exterior, they deemed the bags to be crafted from light brown paper, on which were printed the huge word ‘salt’, along with characters of the Haizhou Division and the saltern’s name and seal.
Such a packaging was unprecedented, for one should know that when salt was transported from salterns, they were placed in large cloth bags, then repacked to smaller ones after passing through the Directorate and Inspection Office. However, no matter the process of repacking, cloth bags were always used, never paper bags.
Someone reached up and touched it. The brown bags were indeed made of paper.
“Is this salt?”
“Do you think it’s sand? It’s not like we’ve never seen an immortal jump before,” someone scoffed.
Peeved, this Merchant Meng stepped forward to jerk out a bag of salt, and with bare hands attempted to tear it open a few times. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t budge. The person beside him handed him a pair of scissors, which he used to neatly cut open the salt package.
Once opened, it revealed shining white salt.
Heh! This roused everyone’s eyes. Did this mean that they could really obtain salt?!
“The Huaizhou salt affairs yamen recently implemented this type of salt package. Absolutely no one is allowed to open it along the road. For this, I paid the salt affairs yamen some silver, and they shipped it out this way. Let’s quit talking nonsense. Does anybody want this batch of salt? If it wasn’t for a few certified coasts allowing the distribution, I wouldn’t have any other means of releasing this stuff.”
“This——” The group of small merchants all stared at each other.
This very moment, a loud shout erupted from the back, “I’ll take the stuff, all of it!”
Heh, who had such a great airs?
The crowd turned their heads to look. It was actually a small merchant called Liu Jin Ya.
He was nicknamed as such because of the two gold teeth embedded in his mouth.1 He was notoriously cunning in the brokerage business. People often said that if there was no benefit, they wouldn’t rise early. Immediately jumping out to buy everything, this person sure was good at doing business. He was bold but not reckless and had keen insight, and he never focused on a specific line of business. What silver? His days were not too bad and were much more comfortably off than this bunch of extremely bitter small merchants.
“Liu Jin Ya, stop showing off!”
“Who cares whether I’m showing off or not? I’ll take this batch of goods. Go, let’s quit chattering nonsense with this bunch who are merely empty talk. Say, are these smuggled goods to trade privately or will they go through the brokers?” Liu Jin Ya sucked on his teeth and swaggered towards Merchant Meng, blatantly ignoring the two brokers standing on the side wearing ugly expressions because of his phrase, ‘smuggled goods to trade privately’.
In truth, if Liu Jin Ya and the others truly were to privately trade smuggled goods, the two brokers plainly couldn’t do anything to them. Merchant Meng didn’t even approach the brokerage business to list his goods for sale, so they couldn’t draw a commission.
Merchant Meng hesitated before saying, “Better let the brokerage business handle it.”
Athough they had to pay the brokers a commission, it was more secure through their hands.
Hearing this, the two brokers’ faces immediately lit up in triumph, and they gallantly instructed the two what procedures they needed to do going through the brokerage business.
These procedures were by no means easy. At least, the brokers didn’t take silver for nothing. They first helped inspect the goods, and then asked Merchant Meng to provide the salt ticket, identification, and other documents to prove that he had obtained the salt through legitimate means. They first collected the payment for the goods from Liu Jin Ya. Because the goods were not easy to inspect, the brokers specially resealed the salt package and first withheld half of the payment. Within three months, if nothing about the goods was amiss, and Liu Jin Ya didn’t file a report to the brokers, Merchant Meng could swipe away the rest of the payment.
Everyone was satisfied!
With the silver finally in his hands, even if it was only half the supposed amount, it still exceeded the capital he had invested. The cotton merchant surnamed Meng was also finally relieved, but he didn’t take a break and hurried to Haizhou with his silver banknote in his pocket.
Finally, the sweet taste of success!
For a time, all the small merchants who witnessed the transaction that day dashed away to announce to their friends their plans of journeying to Haizhou. Other merchants who received the news also swarmed one after another.
“Old Boss Zhang, forget it. This salt isn’t easy to get. Let’s go back.”
On the street diagonally across the Haizhou Division yamen stood two people, old and young.
The old one was this Old Boss Zhang, who actually wasn’t that old, but was in his forties, while the younger one was in his twenties. Both were garbed in coarse brown hemp clothes, with large broadswords pinned to their waists. Judging from the dust and frost on their faces and their shabby clothing, they seemed to be hired escorts from some bodyguard business.
“Didn’t those officials advertise that anyone, regardless of status, can come here and purchase salt tickets, so long as the distribution port complies with the court’s regulations?”
“You heard those officials. If those officials say that the sky is clear, will you believe them?”
Old Boss Zhang was somewhat hesitant, gritting his teeth as he replied, “Whether or not the sky is clear, how will we know without asking? Our destination this time just happens to require passing through a salt distribution port, so I’ll take some with me. Regardless of whether it’s one or two batches, I want to at least make a bit of profit.”
The young one sighed and ceased circumventing, entering the yamen together with Old Boss Zhang.
He actually knew why Old Boss Zhang was working so hard. He had a sick wife at home, and his family was heavily in debt due to the money he had spent on several years of medicine. Escorting was toilsome, and earning money this way was especially exhausting, so these hired escorts who usually traveled extensively would take some goods with them and sell them all around the country in passing.
Salt being very profitable was common knowledge to most people, but no decent person dared touch private salt, cognizant of the fact that once caught, the authorities would seize their property and would have them executed. Hence, hearing that the yamen was issuing salt tickets for personal distribution, Old Boss Zhang was quite tempted.
The two of them approached the yamen.
In truth, common people were usually disinclined to enter the yamen. There was once a saying: the yamen gate is wide open, yet with only right on your side but no money, do not go inside.2 In the hearts of the people, entering the yamen was a big deal, especially since the yamen’s facade was all but congenial.
The threshold was nearly half a meter high, and the building stood tall, deep and serene, horrifying if seen from outside. With no one to lead the way in, it was even more daunting, for fear they might take the wrong path and get reprimanded. Who would have thought that, upon their entrance, just after they wend past the screen wall facing the gate, they would see a particularly lively hall on the slope? The excitement was comparable to other places. A throng of people trooped outside the door, but no one knew what they were doing there.
Old Boss Zhang and his companion asked around, and only then did they find out that these people had heard of the new policy and deliberately came over to inquire about its truth.
Most of these people were of the same nature as Old Boss Zhang, who usually traveled extensively, or were guest merchants, cloth merchants, and tea merchants. Because they were all small merchants, they sold other goods in passing. If they could sell salt this time, then it would be another source of income.
“Don’t panic, don’t panic. Just stay on queue. I’ve been standing here for a while. With patience, things will come to pass. When about ten people are gathered, someone will lead them down to the salterns for business. I can see people grinning from ear to ear as they leave,” explained a man in front of Old Boss Zhang.
Hearing this, Old Boss Zhang’s heart was half-relieved, the other half still disconcerted, and would probably remain as such until he was given something tangible of significance.
On the corner of the hall stood two people, Fang Feng Sheng and Second Assistant Zou.
Because Second Assistant Zou wasn’t wearing official robes, no one in the queue paid attention to the old fellow. Instead, they would steal glimpses of Feng Sheng from time to time and marvel at this man’s outstanding temperament.
“Uncle Zou, from outside the gate, I observed that there are still only few who dare enter this yamen. Most of them leave after a moment or two of watching. Why don’t we set up a shed outside especially to handle the issuance of salt tickets and other affairs? But I don’t think a shed will suffice. Although the circumstances of the future are unknown, I still think it will be better to set up both a shed outside the gate and a room at the side.”
“That’s a pretty good idea. The yamen‘s threshold is too high and deters the common people.”
“Then, let’s split the work? The three salterns there, you, old man, should also handle one or two. This matter of building a room at the side, I’ll have the people below take charge.”
“Alright, let’s split the work.”
1 金牙 (jīn yá): lit. gold tooth. His nickname literally means gold tooth.
2 This is satirizing greedy officials. Even if the common people had a reason to come to the yamen, like seek justice or file a case, but didn’t have money to bribe officials, then it was useless to come in.