It was Old Boss Zhang’s turn. The process for acquiring salt wasn’t as complicated as he had primarily thought.
All he needed to do was provide his household registration or some proof of his identity, and the Salt Distribution Commission would issue him an identification document. Printed on this identification document was the trader’s full name, age, place of residence, and appearance. After paying the salt tax to request for a ticket at the yamen, they would register the documents for future reference.
This identification document was valid for three years. If the trader wanted to sell salt within that span, all he had to do was pay the salt tax at the Salt Distribution Commission yamen for the salt ticket, then proceed to the salterns to collect the salt.
The yamen furnished three copies of the salt ticket, dispensed to each the Salt Distribution Commission, the division office, and the trader. After the trader garnered salt from the saltern, the saltern commissioner-in-chief would use an engraved seal to mark on the salt ticket the number of batches, the province of origin, and the county where the salt was to be delivered. In the course of the distribution, the ticket and the salt must not be separated; otherwise, the traders would be punished according to the crime of smuggling private salt.
Once reaching the land leading to the certified coasts, the trader would have to present the salt ticket to the corresponding salt affairs yamen of the designated port of entry. The ticket would then be submitted to the Salt Distribution Commission for verification with the yamen records.
With that, the whole set of procedures was considered complete. They were much simpler than what Old Boss Zhang had initially conjectured.
Like many, Old Boss Zhang was also concerned about the checkpoints along the road. Whether or not it was now easier to move across these checkpoints, the Salt Distribution Commission had also resolved this matter.
The authorities still had random checks carried out, but those in charge only needed to ascertain the ticket, identification, and the weight of the salt packages to ensure their legitimacy. Concerning the packaging, the Haizhou Division had to make a capital investment this time. In the past, salt was packed in huge bags and would then be repacked to smaller bags once passing the Directorate and Inspection Office. The sack for these smaller packages were made out of cloth, and salt merchants would shoulder the repacking cost.
Not to mention the loss incurred during the repacking process, the distributors had to shell out a large sum of silver for the repacking fee alone. Moreover, this type of packaging had no fixed weight and was easy to imitate, so whenever the salt crossed the dam, the Directorate and Inspection office had to weigh it again, wasting manpower and resources. This time, the Haizhou Division directly switched the material from cloth to paper, and they had the whole packing process wound up even before the salt left the salterns.
This kind of packaging was waterproof, moisture-proof, and difficult to replicate. Furthermore, it had a uniform weight of five catties, ten catties, and twenty catties, eliminating the need to weigh again over the dam. Feng Sheng had made supreme effort to come up with such an idea. The fruition of this packaging was beneficial to the fight against private salt. Just by recognizing the packaging, one could already tell whether it was private salt or official salt.
In brief, they still had to pass through the checkpoints, but the process had been simplified a lot compared to the past. Moreover, the salt tax and other miscellaneous fees that traders had to pay for had already been settled in the salt affairs yamen, and they only needed to show the salt ticket and identification to cruise through the blockades.
No matter how clearly the clerks of the Haizhou Division explained it, people would only believe if they experienced it themselves. Now, they could only use time and testimonials to prove that this salt affairs reform in Huabei was effective.
To ensure that nothing would go wrong in between, Feng Sheng also dispatched Tong Bai Hu and a cadre of Jinyiwei.
They didn’t need to do any work. All they had to do was assign one person to sit at each blockade. The Jinyiwei were the emperor’s own army. Even if those subofficial functionaries were given ten times the courage, they wouldn’t dare ignore the order from above by deliberately making it difficult for the merchants to pass the checkpoint.
Everyone was busy and working hard, and as time passed, more and more small merchants flocked to Haizhou.
Many of them had witnessed with their own eyes others earning silver after meeting up with their friends, and all this was attributed to that merchant surnamed Meng.
The transactions between different merchants were too hastily done, to the degree that they no longer paid much attention to the market and the price. A few small merchants bought Huaibei salt to bring back to their hometown. Surprisingly, however, they were able to sell them all out before leaving Yangzhou. This implied a business opportunity that many outside of Haizhou were ignorant of; those who knew were also quite secretive.
It was for no other reason than the price of salt.
As for Huaibei salt, from the Haizhou saltern to Yangzhou, since those in charge had ceased juggling the salt between merchants and eliminated other extra fees at the checkpoints, and with the implementation of the new policy, the price of salt was quite low. After tallying all kinds of exorbitant taxes, as well as human and material resource expenditures, the cost yield was only two taels per batch.
However, a single batch of Huainan salt with quantity similar to that of Huaibei had to pass the usual various checkpoints to reach the Tongyang Canal outside Yangzhou. With all kinds of other fees, the cost totaled to about four taels.
In other words, Huaibei salt was nearly a half cheaper than Huainan salt.
Perhaps only merchants with at least a little common sense could determine its signifcance. The high price of salt rendered stagnant the sale of official salt, so many people would rather risk smuggling private salt instead of selling official salt. With Huaibei salt so cheap, the traders no longer had to take great pains smuggling private salt and had instead sold Huaibei salt.
While those major salt merchants still hadn’t made any waves, some small salt merchants had long been like cats sniffing out a fishy smell and rushing on like a swarm of hornets. Fearing they would attract attention and offend others, they ordered people to privately collect salt from the market. Huaibei salt, along with the salt tickets, cost merely two taels, and the traders could earn an income as long as they paid no more than three taels.
Once some small merchants obtained salt from Huaibei, the salt sold out even without leaving Yangzhou, opening their eyes to how feasible such a business was. Large merchants did large transactions, while small merchants did small transactions. Thus, there were people traveling between Haizhou and Yangzhou, to the point where they completely hinged their business on this.
Knowing that business opportunities were fleeting, and understanding that this kind of business was not long-lasting, several small merchants, to secure as many transactions as possible, actually drove day and night without sleep and even ordered people to queue at the Haizhou Division yamen. The reason was that, as the salt in Huabei gradually rose to fame for its high quality and low price, more and more people were flocking to Haizhou. Fang Feng Sheng’s words before that there were not enough places to handle the Huaibei salt affairs were actually realized.
Now, the Haizhou Division yamen had become a scene in Banpu Town, and many people actually lined up outside the gate. Meanwhile, Second Assistant Zou and Feng Sheng came forward to discuss with the local authorities and opened up several other places in town to build storehouses for salterns.
In addition to the solar evaporation saltern Feng Sheng and the others had set up, three other salterns were now also in the process of reconstruction. Everything was thriving in the right direction, just like the flowers growing through the cracks on the stone road, exhibiting their own exuberant vitality.
Where there was sunshine, there would naturally be shadows. Although Huaibei produced less salt than Huainan, flood afflicted the former, while drought struck the latter. However, drought was drought. With the monumental changes happening everywere, it was unlikely that only one person would lose his livelihood. The subofficial functionaries subjected to affliction couldn’t rebel against the orders of the Division they were subservient to. They also didn’t dare disobey the imperial envoy, but it didn’t mean they had no backing.
Regardless, the filial respect they paid wasn’t any less than normal. When something went wrong, they would naturally look for backers. Like this, they sought one backer after another, eventually pinning their hopes on those higher up. Unfortunately, the ones usually in charge became less available.
They naturally found it necessary to first hunt for the main culprit, Fan Jin Chuan. However, all Fan Jin Chuan had to say was that the imperial court was urgently pressing to reform the salt administration. This was of highest priority, and it was no small thing, so he dared not take any reckless actions and could only choose to go along with the pilot scheme for the new policy.
Was it wrong?
It wasn’t wrong. What was wrong was touching other people’s moneybags!
The offended party hurled at him all sorts of numerous fabricated excuses, countless snide and stern arguments, and endless pestering. However, this only illustrated Fan Jin Chuan’s temperament akin to a stunned donkey. Regardless of how glib your tongue is, I will hold on to my own reasoning and ignore everything else.1
Memorials and account books clamoring to impeach him surged from every place. Every day in court, they broached the subject of the Liang Huai Salt Administration, and these discussions centered on nothing more than Fan Jin Chuan running amok with such stark audacity.
However, since the Jianping Emperor had intended to deal with the Liang Huai Salt Administration, just a few casual words definitely couldn’t slant him.
Fan Jin Chuan’s approach also greatly satisfied him. That man guarded against pride and impatience and had his feet firmly planted on the ground. He also knew that he had chosen Huaibei as the breakthrough point. Had he touched Huainan forthright, perhaps the court would not be in such a tepid state now, and even the Jianping Emperor could no longer resist the pressure then.
Since they were still testing the new policy, then they should first give it a shot.
If the Jianping Emperor said so, then that was all there was to it.
Located on the outskirts of Yangzhou City was a very spacious garden called the Jiang Garden.
Any Yangzhou local would know that this Jiang Garden was the Jiang family’s garden.
And this Jiang family was the head of the top ten salt merchants.
The classification of salt merchants was extremely complicated. There were factory merchants, dam merchants, transport merchants, scattered merchants, certificate merchants, head merchants and plenty more, of which the head merchants had the greatest power. Every year, the head merchants were the leading merchants who determined the shipment amount and collected the salt tax revenue for the imperial court. They apportioned all public and private floating fees and various contributions, and were basically half-official and half-merchant.
The Jiang family was a hereditary head merchant family and had close contacts in the imperial court and local authorities. The Jiang family’s backer was not a certain official or a certain influence, but the current Majesty himself.
As early as several generations ago, the Jiang family head had carried the reputation of ‘a commoner befriending the Son of Heaven.’ Since then, every time the emperor journeyed to Jiangnan, the Jiang family would welcome him without reservation. Not to mention, whenever the imperial court experienced a mishap, the Jiang family would actively dole out silver for disaster relief, military expenditures, and other such matters. The successive patriarchs of the Jiang family had official titles granted by the imperial court, an extremely glorious honor.
But whenever good happened, bad must follow; if there was prosperity, there must be decline, and this was one of such.
Jiang Fu had long had a foreboding. The past few years, the Liang Huai Salt Administration had been experiencing one stubble after another, as such, something was bound to happen sooner or later. While waiting for the Jianping Emperor to take action, he was still rather unperturbed. When Fan Jin Chuan first arrived at the Salt Distribution Commission yamen, other salt merchants were extremely anxious, but he was calm and unruffled.
However, with everyone else sitting and observing Huaibei salt, he became rather apprehensive, because no one knew better than him what the position of the Jiang family as head merchants was based on.
The Jiang family did not need to transport and sell salt every year. Just based on their position as head merchants, they remained affluent simply because they were in charge of collecting tax revenues, floating fees, various contributions, and other affairs. If Huaibei’s new policy would be smoothly put into effect and eventually touch Huainan, would the Jiang family continue to be head merchants?
With this, he especially invited all the subordinating salt merchants to assemble in the Jiang Garden to discuss official business.
In the garden, located somewhere beside the pond was the reception pavilion, wherein every inch of the gold-lined furniture was of the highest-quality red sandalwood. The furnishings were also extremely luxurious, but without losing their low-key imposing style.
On the main seat sat Jiang Fu, and on his left and right were five seats, with a total of ten seats.
These ten seats had not changed for many years. There had always only been ten people. Regardless of how many salt merchants rose in the Liang Huai area, they were all dependent on the power of these ten people.
Of the ten people here, who among them couldn’t shake Yangzhou three times with a single step?
However, today’s discussion began with an attack on Huang Jin Fu. Unlike those small merchants, Huang Jin Fu’s deeds were still eye-catching no matter how subdued it was. Jiang Fu now caught wind of it, completely aware that Huang Jin Fu and Huaibei were exchanging flirting glances.2
Huang Jin Fu flatly denied this at first, then pushed the blame to the people under him. Now wary of Jiang Fu using him to kill the chicken to warn the monkey, he simply smashed to pieces the pot that had already cracked.3
Anyway, all knew that he, Huang Jin Fu, was utterly shameless and cared little about face.
“Then, is Great Master Jiang insinuating that we won’t get any of the silver directly sent to our hands? If we don’t earn silver, after paying the taxes, where will we get the silver for the floating fees and various contributions we hand over to you?”
Jiang Fu was over ten years older than Huang Jin Fu. This year, he was not yet fifty, so he hadn’t yet reached the age where people could refer to him as ‘Great Master.’ This Great Master was not just any other great master, but a title. Historically, the family heads of the Jiang family were addressed as great masters by the salt merchants beneath them. The ones below were masters, so the ones above were naturally great masters.
“Then, based on your words, you handed over those floating fees and various contributions for my sake?” Jiang Fu’s face was long and slim. He emanated a scholarly air, with a style smilar to that of a Confucian merchant. However, at this time, Huang Jin Fu enraged him so much that his beard flew up.
“I didn’t mean that. Those were just casual words, but if that’s how you understood them, then so be it. Great Master Jiang, you know that my words usually lack tact, so don’t take them seriously.”
“I think you’ve gone wayward. Our families have always been of the same breath and branches, advancing and retreating together. Now, you’re secretly distributing salt from Huaibei. You didn’t even give us prior notice. More importantly, you didn’t inform me, this head merchant. Aren’t you at fault?”
Others whispered to each other’s ears and nodded their heads in succession, as if affirming that Huang Jin Fu’s move this time was truly inappropriate. Huang Jin Fu was most likely driven into a corner, eliciting apprehension, so he simply broke the already-cracked jar. “Then let’s assume that I’m at fault. Great Master, just tell me, how will you deal with me?”
“Just have him relinquish a shipment worth of salt to divide it among the rest of us before the next annual meeting takes place,” someone suggested. The speaker was the ‘too stingy to pull out a hair,’ usually known as the iron rooster, family head of the Chen family. This person was so miserly that his skill of haggling over every coin was awe-inspiring. One couldn’t help but wonder if he spent every night sleeping on a bed covered with silver.
“Old man surnamed Chen, don’t go overboard. Are you trying to pull out all the hair on my head?” Huang Jin Fu raged.
Jiang Fu went on, “Jiang-mou thinks this is a good proposal. What do you all think?” He asked everyone, but he aimed his gaze at Huang Jin Fu, clearly using him to kill chicken to warn the monkey.
Huang Jin Fu cackled in fury, sprung up, and riled, “Do whatever you want. Do you really believe that your damned shipments are still worth something? It just so happens that this daddy doesn’t have the silver to pay for this year’s floating fees and various contributions, so go collect them yourselves. I won’t accompany you!”
After that outburst, he actually cupped his hands and sauntered away in such resolute fashion that everyone was stunned on the spot.
1 This was written in first person.
Also to explain the temperament of a stunned donkey:
It refers to a person with a specific kind of temperament. Someone straightforward in speech, but doesn’t argue when something angers him. When he has something to say, he’ll say it to a person’s face but never plot against the person. The common people find this person a noble person, and they’ll find this person’s conscience very honest. Could be considered a true friend, a true brother, a worthy person to befriend.
2 This is literally what it says, and I thought it was hilarious so I kept it.
3 破罐子破摔了: lit. smash a pot to pieces just because it’s cracked (idiom); write oneself off as hopeless and act recklessly