These so-called accumulated batches could refer to salt batches in any of the following instances: those whose taxes had not been paid for; those piled up in storehouses or in certified coasts but had not been distributed; and those whose main taxes had been accomplished, but the batches had not been withdrawn.
Simply put, the Salt Distribution Commission would draw up a list of shipments at the beginning of each year and would determine the salt output of the year in advance based on past practices and the amount in the head merchant’s report. Prior to drawing up the shipment list, the salt merchants had to pay the main tax for the shipments and to withdraw their allotted batches.
It might seem as though the Salt Distribution Commission expended a lot of effort to forfend overproduction and overstock, but in fact, all these were merely superficial. Since the shipment amount had to be determined long before the shipment list was drawn up, there was naturally a lot of room for maneuvering. The Salt Distribution Commission discussed business by using the previous years’ experiences as convention. Even if the salt merchants did not want to claim their allotted batches, they could not do so.1
It was up to the head merchant to coordinate with the major scattered merchants below so the amount on the report submitted to higher authorities would not appear ugly on the surface.
It was a deadly cycle, and this was the reason why Feng Sheng had previously told Huang Jin Fu that he should have been grateful for her interference. Official salt was so costly that it was rendered unmarketable, but in order to make the shipment list appear favorable on paper, the head merchant had to allocate to scattered merchants a certain number of batches, which none of them even wanted.2
After paying the main tax, they had to hand in various miscellaneous taxes during the course of the salt transport, as well as the official filial respect after transporting it out. If they could sell the salt, then it would have been fine, but that wasn’t usually the case. Therefore, every year, some salt merchants who had paid the main taxes preferred not to withdraw their batches of salt. Feng Sheng’s objective was precisely to clear up these accumulated batches.
After the imperial edict permitting Huaibei to help Huainan clear up the accumulated batches was announced, Feng Sheng awaited Fan Jin Chuan’s return and commenced the preparations. Unfortunately, Fan Jin Chuan was delayed in the capital for a few days, and it was already the eleventh month when he journeyed back.
Once Fan Jin Chuan returned, he sent directive documents to the two branch offices in Taizhou and Tongzhou. The two divisions made no comment nor complaint, but they also remained listless and unmoving. Exasperated, Fan Jin Chuan had no choice but to write another letter.
This time, there was a response. Both divisions claimed that they were smoothing things out and discussed with Fan Jin Chuan about their means of distributing the accumulated salt.
These two divisions intended to let the Huaibei Division transport the goods by themselves. They would not be responsible for the distribution, and Huaibei would be wholly accountable for the accumulated batches. In due course, the credit would naturally fall on Huaibei, and Huainan would have nothing to do with it.
This made their emotions churn.
His subordinates were exasperated, and as the superior, Fan Jin Chuan could only placate them. However, Fan Jin Chuan, although assigned to command the Liang Huai Salt Circuit Reform, was not the direct superior of the two divisions. Only He Lun was apt for the task.
He Lun was bristling with confidence. After his profound talk with Advisor Ma, he wanted to do something to atone for his past misdeeds. However, it was not until this time did he discover that he had been too inattentive as a salt distribution commissioner, and only few of his subordinates actually paid him heed. On the whole, the Taizhou and Tongzhou Divisions wouldn’t listen to him. Even if he tried to lecture them, the other side simply spouted out several excuses to prevaricate.
When Feng Sheng learned of this, she wrote to Fan Jin Chuan, saying, “This one fears that the other party is deliberately stalling for time.”
Why would they be stalling for time?
Agitation was one reason, displeasure was another, but none of those were sufficient reasons for the other party to intentionally disobey the order, so there was only one possibility——by the looks of it, there was indeed quite a lot of accumulated salt batches. The accumulated batches in every single major saltern ought to have piled up like a mountain. That said, who would spectate unfeelingly at a mountain of piled-up salt and not have some other devious thoughts?
Feng Sheng had already surmised that Fan Jin Chuan would wrangle with her for a long time on this matter, but she didn’t expect the other party to actually venture to Haizhou in person.
“Worthy Brother Fang.”
Both cupped their hands in greeting. After not meeting for a considerable period of time, Fan Jin Chuan had changed a lot, and so had Feng Sheng.
“Worthy Brother is much darker and thinner compared to the past.”
Feng Sheng couldn’t resist touching her face. It seemed that everyone who hadn’t seen her for quite a while would always say something of such nature upon their next encounter.
“My lord’s elegant demeanor is as before, brimming with spirit and energy.”
This was a superficial remark, which Fan Jin Chuan was naturally able to perceive. He looked at her, somewhat amused and also somewhat helpless. “Worthy Brother, won’t you welcome me inside?”
Only then did Feng Sheng give way by withdrawing to the side. “I was too caught up talking by myself just now. My lord, please come in.”
The servant brought tea, and the two conversed amid sips. Not having seen each other for half a year, there ought to be a lot of things for them to discuss, but apart from official business, it seemed that they could talk about nothing else.
After chatting for a while, Feng Sheng took the initiative to cut to the chase. “Did my lord come here in person to talk about the accumulated batches? Or is it because I was too disapproving of your earnest desire to immediately handle those two divisions?”
“All of them, but mostly because I also wanted to visit Worthy Brother. I’ve sent you several letters asking you to visit Yangzhou, but you never came, so I figured I might as well drop by.”
With half-drooped eyes, Feng Sheng replied, “There were too many things to take care of. Hardly had one gourd been pushed under water when another bobbed up.3 My lord should be able to understand.”
“I had thought that Worthy Brother was avoiding me.”
Feng Sheng peered at Fan Jin Chuan’s face and found that he looked rather normal.
She sighed with relief and responded with a smile, “This must be my lord’s misconception.” After a pause, she continued, “Let’s get down to business. Does my lord still want to deal with those two divisions?”
Fan Jin Chuan nodded. “I think this is the best opportunity to press them to surrender the accumulated batches. If they can’t, then we can use their disobedience to eliminate those vermin.”
“My lord should have heard of the principle, ‘if one is too overly unyielding, then one will likely get bullied’. One needs to leave some leeway. It isn’t only to remain civil the next time you encounter them, but also to prevent the cornered dog from jumping over the wall. Our current abilities are not enough to shake up the entire Huainan and the two divisions. Even if we replace all the people there, the new policy has yet to be implemented. Replacing people in those positions won’t really make much of a difference.”
“What does Worthy Brother mean?”
“One step at a time, slowly and carefully.”
That moment, someone suddenly charged in. “This statement is a bit too lacking in morale. The fighting spirit aroused by the first roll of drums is depleted by the second and exhausted by the third.4 Lord Fang doesn’t seem to understand what this means.”
Feng Sheng looked towards the visitor with knitted brows. “This is——”
“This is Eunuch Huo.”
He was also the reason why Fan Jin Chuan was held up in the capital.
The visitor was enrobed in an ordinary casual silk garment, but one could clearly tell that he was not quite like normal people. His eccentric accent, as well as his overall posture, all exhibited a hint of effeminacy.
“Alright, Lord Fang doesn’t need to be over-courteous. Sit down.” After settling himself on the main seat, Eunuch Huo held his chin.
Feng Sheng sat below.
“The trial for Huaibei’s new policy has already achieved results, so it’s only a matter of time for it to reach Huainan. However, Lord Fang telling us to slowly and carefully take one step at a time is rather too lacking in morale. His Majesty has issued an imperial edict, and this alone is already the most powerful backing. Under the whole heaven, every spot is the sovereign’s ground. Can a mere Huainan rise up the sky? Lord Fang doesn’t need to be so scrupulous.”
“This——” Feng Sheng hesitated before explaining, “It’s not that this lowly official is scrupulous, it’s just that matters can be easily broken but are difficult to rebuild……”
“Alright, Lord Fang, don’t give me those bookish arguments. If we say we can do it, then we can. This matter should be settled sooner rather than later. Shave off those disobedient vermin, and we can smoothly implement the new policy.”
Feng Sheng ambled outside for a bit and had a banquet hosted upon her return.
If it was only Fan Jin Chuan present, a casual dinner would have sufficed. However, now that there was an additional Eunuch from the palace, they couldn’t just regard him as unimportant. Afterwards, she accompanied Eunuch Huo for the banquet. A while later, Feng Sheng and Fan Jin Chuan left the guest alone and strolled outside.
It was already the eleventh month, and the night breeze was very cold and chilly, making one clear-headed.
“Did His Majesty send that person?” Feng Sheng asked.
Fan Jin Chuan smiled bitterly and nodded.
“Are those above very anxious?”
“I’m not sure about that. His Majesty did not say anything outright and instead sent that person here to assist us in implementing the new policy.”
“His Majesty said nothing outright but sent us a person who’s always summarily giving us orders? Did my lord make this trip precisely for that reason?”
“I didn’t come to Haizhou because of him,” Fan Jin Chuan said.
“It wasn’t for him, then for what?”
Facing her straightforward eyes, Fan Jin Chuan was suddenly incapable of speech.
Feng Sheng instanteously interrupted, “What does my lord plan to do? Should we really just listen to him?”
“Actually, what Eunuch Huo said is not unreasonable. Those people are already resistant. It can be considered a good idea if we ultimately decide to shave them off.”
“Naturally, I’m aware. But how do we even change the state of affairs? I still think that Huainan’s entanglements are too complicated. Using our previous methods, we can triumph with unstained swords and seep into all areas without them noticing. All it takes is some time. Now that things have come to this, I’m afraid we’ll need to take up arms.”
Fan Jin Chuan suddenly exhaled deeply. “Whether or not we take up arms, it will be fine as long as we accomplish the task.”
“There’s no other way now.”
Seeing that they had arrived at Feng Sheng’s residence, Fan Jin Chuan stopped.
“It’s late. You should rest early. We’ll talk about the rest tomorrow.”
Feng Sheng nodded. “My lord should also rest early.”
Fan Jin Chuan watched Feng Sheng enter the door.
After Feng Sheng went in, as she closed the door, through the decreasing gap between the door and the frame in that minuscule interval, she could still see him gazing over, his furrowed brows laced with worry.
1 Some of you might be wondering why there are even accumulated salt batches. My good friend, Snowflake, and I agree that it’s (probably) because, apart from the main and miscellaneous taxes the salt merchants had to pay, they would still have to pay for other exorbitant fees like the repacking at the dam, and all the stuff Huang Jin Fu had mentioned before. Furthermore, official salt was gravely unmarketable, so they wouldn’t even wanna sell it anymore and prefer to sell private salt. Since official salt is tightly regulated by the government, it would be hard for them to do whatever they want with it.
2 The head merchant needed to split the batch of official salt between all the scattered merchants under him, so the cost of it gets split. The scattered merchants did not want these official salt at all, but they had to admit or had them written under their names for the official records, because it would make them look good on paper once the Emperor or high officials check them.
3 按下葫芦浮起瓢: hardly have one gourd been pushed under water when another bobs up; solve one problem only to find another cropping up
4 一鼓作气，再而衰，三而竭: It’s saying to get something done in one vigorous effort, because the motivation will wane if it keeps dragging out.