Sorry for the lack of updates this week. I had a lot of stuff going on at work and life in general. Gonna need another short break to deal with them. Regular updates (five times a week) will resume around (tentative) October 12, Monday.
Enjoy the chapter!
The Chen family head was so incensed that he was fuming.
He was old, around seventy years of age. He appeared to be faltering on the surface, but he was actually still hale and hearty and could even manage several women a night (based on his own words),1 his awe-inspiring vigor not seeming to have detiorated the least bit.
All knew that he was greedy and parsimonious, but none had the guts to say so to his face. Because he was the oldest among the family heads present, even Jiang Fu, the head merchant, had to give him some face. Just now, however, Huang Jin Fu trampled on his pride in front of everyone.
“Jiang Fu, will you do something about it or not?”
Jiang Fu’s face was now cloudy. The Chen family head was still making a scene, imploring him to punish Huang Jin Fu. Of course he had to punish him. No matter how, it was for the sake of his own prestige. But how was he going to punish him?
It was now evident that Huang Jin Fu didn’t want to pay the floating fees and various contributions. He likewise no longer cared about the general list of shipment distributions drawn up every year. None of them even knew which road he had taken to secure a business opportunity that spurred him to abandon the family business he had inherited from his ancestors.
In fact, Huang Jin Fu wasn’t the only one who had wavered. Several others had witnessed the discord at the side just now. The things that Jiang Fu was clear about were naturally just as clear to others.
Since Huang Jin Fu dared to swing his arms and roll out in such a manner, it denoted just how profitable his new venture was, enough to even incite him to discard the business his ancestors had passed down. Either that, or perhaps Huang Jin Fu was so confident that something good would transpire in that other place and had sought better opportunities there in advance. Regardless of which reason, it was not good news for them.
This matter, they had just previously sloughed off. Even with such boisterous activity in Huaibei, they still felt that all involved were clowns not worth mentioning. Perhaps, it was now time to shift their perspective and to thoroughly reconsider what road they ought to take next.
While the Chen family head was still unreconciled, others had already excused themselves and left.
After leaving this reception hall, he looked back.
This hall had existed for nearly a hundred years, and, every year, they congregated here to discuss all sorts of matters concerning salt affairs. The original vermilion lacquer had turned brownish red through time, and although the Jiang family had been repairing it every year, the vicissitudes of time were difficult to mask no matter how frequently they had reconditioned it to keep it as it was.
It was like an old man whose youth had passed. No matter how able he appeared on the surface, he couldn’t conceal his old bearing.
Just as the others subconsciously looked back, Jiang Fu’s eyes were also fixated on something. He was not gazing at just anywhere else, but at the plaque hanging directly from the beam in the middle of the hall.
His great grandfather had personally hung this plaque back when he was still the head merchant.
“Da Zhong, do you think they’ve all been tempted?”
Da Zhong, who had just returned from sending off the Chen family head, bent his waist and replied, “Master, they’re all just grasshoppers at the end of autumn.2 They won’t be able to hop for long. There are only few salterns in Huaibei. How much salt can they even produce? It’s not like you don’t know. Since the imperial court said to test it out, just let them. Don’t mind those small merchants and their trivial troubles. If some major merchants step in, the salt in Huaibei will eventually run out.
“When that time comes, will they sing or will they not sing in this drama? If they don’t sing, they will have to face the reality that the court has already finished the framework for the reform. If they decide to sing but run out of songs, they can only reach out to Huainan. But, is Huainan a place where just anyone can reach out to? The profit may have thrilled them, but that’s only because none of them have realized that those in charge of the reform are using Huaibei as a knife to set the reform in motion. If they really reach out to Huainan, someone else will break their claws without Master having to do it.”
Jiang Fu showed a faint smile. “You’re right.”
Da Zhong could see the problem, so how could others not see? Even if the recent events had stirred their hearts, they simply observed from a safe distance.
This moment, Huang Jin Fu caused a sensation. He released news that he was going to sell the Huang family’s salt certificate privileges.
One should know that these certificate privileges were different from ordinary things. On the market, they were priceless. Ever since the salt certificate tying-up method prevailed, no one had ever heard of anyone selling hereditary certificate privileges.
They could be worth a million gold!
Yangzhou’s top ten salt merchants had a tight grip on these certificate privileges because they were bestowed a great destiny. During the time Great Zhou was still laying the foundations of the imperial court, several things had to be considered and put into effect. The imperial court’s state treasury was hollow, and military affairs kept recurring and were quite costly. After inheriting the former dynasty’s salt industry, Great Zhou retrieved salt certificate privileges from several places and resold them to powerful merchants, allowing these merchants to have the qualifications to locally distribute salt.
Owing to the foresight of several family heads, this resulted in their families’ prosperity. These privileges weren’t just ancestral roots to be passed down, but were also hens that laid eggs. Who among these merchants didn’t consider these priviliges as their lifeblood? Now, however, someone was just dumping them out.
When news came out, a pandemonium erupted throughout the whole of Yangzhou.
After making sure that Huang Jin Fu was not merely horsing around, countless salt merchants, besides calling him a loser, were eager to spark a furor.
Among them were a number of scattered merchants dependent on the Huang family’s certificate privileges, salt merchants affiliated with the Huang family whose names belonged to the top ten salt merchants, and even some major merchants who weren’t in the salt industry but had long been drooling with envy.
The Huang family threshold had been trod on and broken until Huang Jin Fu finally gave a clear price.
This amount was a number that ordinary people wouldn’t dare imagine in their entire destitute lifetime. It even rendered other affluent merchants speechless and had them go as far as exhausting their family property, which was tantamount to injuring their sinews and bones. With this, the implication behind these certificate privileges became evident to the discerning eye.
Jiang Fu had persistently ordered people to compel Huang Jin Fu to explain himself, but Huang Jin Fu didn’t even acknowledge him. Instead, Huang Jin Fu fervently quarelled with a major sea merchant, a major grain merchant, and a silver exchange merchant. Jiang Fu was so infuriated, so he decided that he might as well stop caring about him. Anyway, whether the other sold his salt certificate privileges or not, as long as he wanted to make Liang Huai salt, he had to eke out a living under his hands. It didn’t matter whether he was surnamed Huang or Ma.
After half a month, the silver exchange merchant3 surnamed Chen knocked on the Jiang family’s door. Only then did Jiang Fu find out that Huang Jin Fu had sold his ancestral certificate privileges.
According to the silver exchange merchant surnamed Chen, Huang Jin Fu was very determined to sell it. Other than two-tenths of the gratuitous shares of the silver exchange business, the rest were in silver. Huang Jin Fu’s own claim was that he was not on good terms with the Jiang family that he sold the certificate privileges, but in reality, Jiang Fu knew that there were other reasons than that.
Thus, while he had a very harmonious conversation with the silver exchange merchant surnamed Chen, a shadow sprouted in his heart.
On the other end, after selling his ancestral certificate privileges and caterwauling in the ancestral shrine for half a day, Huang Jin Fu took a carriage and waded to Haizhou to look for Fang Feng Sheng.
He brought Ninth Concubine with him on this trip. Ninth Concubine couldn’t stop him from appearing as though he was mourning for the deceased.
“I staked all in one throw and even cut off all means of retreat. While sleeping last night, I had dreamt that my father scolded me for being a disgrace to the family, selling the livelihood passed down from my ancestors. In my dream, my father even chased me out with a feather duster and drove me to flee in disarray all over the courtyard……”
Feng Sheng was sitting behind a large desk, bending over to write something as she listened to Huang Jin Fu’s raucous chatter, sighing with lament.
On one side, Ninth Concubine was ashamed and restless. She wanted to yank him away but felt that she had to at least give the other person face. In the end, she had no room to advance or retreat and could only helplessly watch his ignominy as he bawled on.
When Huang Jin Fu’s outcry had waned, and after asking Ninth Concubine for a handkerchief, Ninth Concubine could no longer restrain herself.
“Sit down for me!”
Huang Jin Fu sat down.
He was still sobbing intermittently as he settled himself. Despite his hill-like physique, he really seemed a little pitiful.
Ninth Concubine was about to tell Feng Sheng something, but Feng Sheng suddenly stood up.
She personally went outside to ask someone to switch out the tea. After the person changed the tea for all three of them, she peered at Huang Jin Fu and said, “Alright, Master Huang, don’t pretend you didn’t strike a good deal out of this transaction. You’ve even exchanged the privileges for two-tenths of Long Ri Sheng’s4 gratuitous shares, which is not at all worse than trading salt. Just with those dividends, you can eat lying down. You won’t even finish eating them all up in your lifetime. Don’t talk about how the Huang Family is ‘outwardly strong but inwardly weak.’ The silver Long Ri Sheng paid you can suffice to solve the urgent matters that have long exhausted you. There’s enough silver for you to escape a life of tasteless food and pitiful abandonment. What are you dissatisfied with?”
Feng Sheng’s frank explication completely caught Huang Jin Fu off-guard. Feeling slightly uncomfortable, he retorted, “Can that be the same? The privileges were supposed to be ‘forever, for a hundred years.’ My Huang family could still have passed it down a few more generations for them to live steadily. Now that I sold them, I feel like I’ve swapped out the fellow providing our meals. No one knows what the future will be like.”
“Even if you hold on to it, what’s the use? It might not be worth anything after a while,” Feng Sheng very nonchalantly replied as she sipped her tea.
It was precisely this kind of attitude that made Huang Jin Fu unable to see through the person in front of him.
The other was merely an advisor, yet she was exceptionally adept at trickery and had even greater capabilities than one could imagine. She appeared very inconspicuous and enigmatic, but everything she had ever done were major events that could quake the other side.
To outsiders, Fan Jin Chuan was the one who presided over the Liang Huai Salt Administration Reform; however, Huang Jin Fu knew that more than seven-tenths of the operations were by this own person’s hand.
Fan Jin Chuan, on the other hand, was just a kid who hadn’t even grown all his hair.
“I don’t care. Fang Feng Fu, you encouraged me to sell the certificate privileges, so I’m holding you accountable!” Huang Jin Fu burst out, actually having the nerve to play the rascal.
Such a huge creature playing a rascal, it really made people unable to watch. Ninth Concubine wanted to cover her face and drag him away.
Feng Sheng picked up a piece of document, stood up, and said, “I naturally can’t speak without keeping my word. I requested this document from Lord Fan with his great seal stamped on it. We will have to bother Master Huang with the salt shops. Also, please be careful. Strive to make your ‘forever, for a hundred years’ become worthless as soon as possible.”
Huang Jin Fu was first stunned, then sniggered, and after taking the document and reading its contents, he chortled even more freely. “What a way to make ‘forever, for a hundred years’ become worthless! I like Advisor Fang’s words. With your words, I, Old Huang, will have to fight to the death. They laughed at me for selling my certificate privileges, saying that I’ll be begging them to make a living in the future. Let’s see who’ll beg after this!”
Huang Jin Fu uttered those final words through gritted teeth. Afterwards, he rolled away like a gust of wind, forgetting even Ninth Concubine.
“What are Concubine’s plans for the future?” asked Feng Sheng as she escorted Ninth Concubine out.
“What other plans can I have? I’ll accompany him to look around first. I’ve always been stuck in Yangzhou managing the business. Now, I can finally roam around and have a proper look.”
“Each scenery is different on the north and south of the Yangtze River. Traveling around is a good thing.”
When she reached the door, Ninth Concubine refused to let Feng Sheng send her out even further. She was already down the steps, but suddenly turned around to say, “Actually, he wasn’t that aggrieved. The night he sent the things out, he was very excited, so excited that he couldn’t sleep all night.”
Feng Sheng didn’t expect that Ninth Concubine would take the initiative to tattle on Huang Jin Fu. She couldn’t help but laugh and reply, “In life, you always need a little motivation to live happier.”
“What you said makes sense.”
Watching Ninth Concubine’s back disappear from her line of sight, Feng Sheng shook her head, chuckled in spite of herself, and returned to the room.
In Huainan, everyone was waiting for Huaibei salt to deplete, but contrary to their expectations, shiploads of Huaibei salt ferried out from Huaibei and distributed to the land within the vicinity of the certified coasts.
Because of the low price of Huaibei salt, it now sold well in the six provinces of Jiangsu, Anhui, Jiangxi, Hunan, Hubei and Henan. After all, those who feared trouble could now consume official salt, while not many were willing to consume private salt.
Local traders were also very fond of Huaibei salt. In the past, because there was no clear distinction between official and private salt, when the traders reached the Military Inspectorate for road inspection, they had to take great pains to clearly elucidate the origins of the salt they were carrying. In the end, they had to stuff them with benefits. Over time, coupled with the increasing price of official salt, they found it more profitable to sell private salt despite its illegality.
Huaibei salt and salt tickets were inseparable. Road inspections no longer frightened them, so they were naturally more willing to sell official salt.
At the same time, the Liang Huai Salt Distribution Commission released news that they would set up salt shops in the lands neighboring the certified coasts. Once the salt shops were ready, traders from all over the country would no longer have to travel exhaustively to the salterns and could instead purchase salt locally.
When the news dispersed, it ensued another uproar.
Time quickly entered the tenth month. Along with the simultaneous transport of grain tax and silver into the capital, this year’s silver from the salt tax revenues were also escorted over.
However, this year, the Liang Huai salt tax revenues were sent separately, one batch from Huainan and one batch from Huaibei.
Drawn from the Ministry of Revenue’s calculations, Huainan salt was gravely stagnant and yielded only 1.3 million taels this year, but Huaibei salt hit a record high of 3.2 million taels in contrast.
Last year, Liang Huai’s salt revenue added up to only 3.5 million taels, and Huaibei’s contribution was close to negligible. This year, there was an increase of one million taels. The effectiveness of the new policy could be seen at a glance.
The Jianping Emperor was greatly pleased and praised Fan Jin Chuan, who had gone to the capital to report to the higher authorities, carrying with him the salt tax revenues. Fan Jin Chuan also orated about the current situation of the Liang Huai Salt Administration’s new policy. The main crux of which was that, there was a huge backlog of salt, but no salt merchants were available to sell them. What should they do with these accumulated salt batches? Why not give some of them to Huaibei to clean up? Once apportioned to Huaibei, what should Huainan do?
After all, one place was the new policy’s testing site, while the other wasn’t. Huainan and Huabei were now separated from each other, each with their own policies. Whether or not the new policy had any drawbacks still needed to be tested, so the two should not be mixed together.
The Jianping Emperor soon offered a solution to the problem. Since Huaibei salt sold well and Huainan salt sold poorly, the salt backlog in Huainan would be shipped to Huaibei to help clear up the accumulated salt batches. The quantity and even the salt tax revenues of the salt sold by the Huabei province would fall on Huabei, not Huainan.
After receiving the imperial edict, the first thing Fan Jin Chuan did was write to Feng Sheng in Haizhou to inform her of the good news.
The major salt merchants and salt officials in Huainan had been waiting for Huaibei to spin a cocoon around itself as the salt ran out. However, the current situation was not only self-defeating, but it also became a wedding dress they had made for others. One could only imagine the pleasant surprise they would feel once news would reach them.5
Just some ramblings.
Sometimes I think the author is too lazy to come up with names. I hate how similar Huang Jin Fu’s and Jiang Fu’s names sound. I was confused half the time I was translating scenes with both of them in it. They share the same ‘Fu’ character. The silver exchange merchant surnamed Chen and the Chen family head literally share the same ‘Chen’ character. There have also been around eight or so very minor characters surnamed ‘Wang,’ and around four or so surnamed ‘Sun.’
1 This was literally in parenthesis in the raw.
2 秋后的蚂蚱: lit. a grasshopper at the end of autumn (idiom); nearing its end; be on one’s last stage; the days are numbered
3 Basically a merchant who owns establishments where they exchange their silver to banknotes, like today’s money exchange.
4 Probably the name of the silver exchange business.
5 作茧自缚: lit. to spin a cocoon around oneself (idiom); enmeshed in a trap of one’s own devising; hoist by his own petard
作嫁衣裳: lit. to make a wedding dress for a rich miss on her behalf (idiom); to work hard in vain for other people while gaining absolutely nothing.