Merchants in China

Merchants have always been an integral part of any society, but the attitude to them has varied across countries and centuries. It is particularly interesting to note how merchants were treated and perceived in ancient China, which is possible to trace on the basis of analysis of primary sources. For this purpose, one should analyze Sima Qian’s Biographies of the Moneymakers and Huan Kuan’s Debates on Salt and Iron as they represent two contrary opinions on the place and role of merchants in Chinese society as well as their contributions to public welfare and personal achievements. Hence, Sima Qian portrays merchants in a positive light because of their personal wealth and achievements. He considers them to be tightly interconnected with their wisdom and virtue that ensure merchants’ contributions to public welfare. These views were mostly supported by Sang Hongyang, the Chancellor and Chief Minister at the time of Emperor Zhao’s reign when he was called upon to testify before the commission made up of learned men about controversial state fiscal and trade policies. In turn, the commission of the learned men voice another viewpoint, under which merchants represent the evil element of society deprived of morality and virtue, hence corrupting society and causing poverty. The analysis of the two sources shows that Sima Qian is of a rather high opinion about merchants, yet he endorses activities only of virtuous and wise merchants who can simultaneously achieve success, accumulate wealth, and contribute to public welfare, thus ensuring that they are decent members of society and honored leaders of their respective communities. However, the learned men, protagonists of the discussion described in Debates on Salt and Iron, claim that merchants are the least virtuous and moral members of Chinese society. This is possible because they corrupt people and encourage them to engage in secondary occupations, thereby having a detrimental impact on primary occupations like agriculture and promoting selfishness and profit-oriented thinking patterns. Overall, Qian’s positive attitude to merchants is based on a high esteem of their personal qualities that have allowed them to achieve success and contribute to society, while the learned men claim that merchants cannot be beneficial for society because of the same personal qualities highly regarded by the historian.

Biographies of the Moneymakers written by a well-known Han historian Sima Qian is a document mainly representing merchants in a positive light even though the author notes that not all merchants deserve honor and positive attitude. Thus, he seems to divide all representatives of this profession who have achieved significant success and managed to accumulate extensive wealth into several groups. One of these groups consists of successful merchants whom Qian respects and depicts in a positive way due to their personal achievements and contribution to public welfare as well as their virtuousness, morality, and other honorable character traits. Another group includes merchants who possess some wealth that can be quite considerable, but who lack virtuousness, wisdom, and willingness to participate in society’s life. It results in the rapid loss of all their possessions and their fall into poverty. Finally, he fleetingly mentions some merchants who manage to function successfully to some extent, but who are unable to achieve any significant wealth and leave a remarkable trace in the community’s life. It renders them unworthy of any attention and makes them easily overlooked and quickly forgotten when discussing the merchant profession in China. The first group of merchants receives the most attention in the work under consideration and thus, it is essential for discussion of the issue raised herein. The matter is that the historian’s opinion and views are of utmost importance because of the credibility of presented information supported with sufficient evidence and personal experiences of the author.


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In Biographies of the Moneymakers, Sima Qian portrays the first group of merchants in a very positive way, which stands in a stark contrast with the way they are portrayed by the learned men in Debates on Salt and Iron. Hence, the historian provides a rather detailed and thorough overview of the most prominent, well-to-do, and virtuous merchants known in his time and concludes that “Rich men such as these deserve to be called the ‘untitled nobility’” (Qian 454). However, he does not claim that money and wealth are the only indicators that make these individuals noble, but rather their ability and the way they acquire personal wealth and maintain it afterwards are important. This is possible as “there is no fixed road to wealth, and money has no permanent master”, which is why “it finds its way to the man of ability like the spokes of a wheel converging upon the hub”, while “from the hands of the worthless it falls like shattered tiles” (Qian 454). From this statement, the historian’s division of merchants into several groups becomes evident with the key criterion being their worthiness as both an individual and a professional merchant. Contrary to the idea voiced by the learned men, Qian does not agree that poverty can breed morality or be a sign of some spiritual enlightenment. Thus, he offers an example of impoverished men who have both parents and immediate families to support, yet who fail to see their obligation to earn a decent living through honest and profitable work (Qian 448). Such men have nothing to leave for the descendants and they can offer nothing during seasonal sacrifices as not only does their work fail to bring profit but it also cannot even cover basic expenses, immersing these men’s families into extreme poverty and misery. However, the most essential fault that, according to Qian, hardly allows to call them human is the lack of embarrassment and shame since it is in human nature to strive to provide for a normal living for parents, wives, children, and the community in general (449). These men stand in opposition to merchants respected and described positively by Qian as the latter have managed to use their brains and knowledge to earn basic profit and then invest it effectively and efficiently.

This way, it seems that for Qian, personal wealth and personal positive characteristics like morality and virtuousness are inseparable in most cases. The presence of one aspect promotes development of the other and vice versa. In case virtuousness is absent, the individual is doomed to lose all possessions and wealth rather quickly since such people cannot succeed in the merchant trade. As for the ways through which these outstanding merchants rise to wealth, Qian mentions trade in agricultural products, ore and iron mining, salt mining and trade, and a range of other activities that clever people can exploit in China to reach success and promote development of their communities by setting a personal example, creating new jobs, and paying taxes (Qian 450). Qian also notes that wealthy merchants differ in their personal habits, including their spending habits. For instance, Wuzhi Luo traded domestic animals, silks, and other articles, which earned his a fortune, yet he remained an ordinary country man devoted to a simple lifestyle (Qian 440). In turn, the Kong family and its ancestors were known for their generous gifting and leisure activities, yet they were among the richest, most cautious, and tightfisted merchants in China known at the time the historian wrote his book (Qian 451). Furthermore, it should be noted that not only men but also some exceptional women could become successful and wealthy merchants. A notable example was widow Qing from the Ba and Shu region who had inherited cinnabar caves from her ancestors and managed to improve her business over the course of her life. It also allowed her to buy protection from mistreatment and become one of the most respectable women personally acquainted with the First Emperor of the Qin (Qian 440). Therefore, gender plays no role in the historian’s opinion as only personal abilities, intellect, and virtuousness are the only factors that matter in a merchant’s success.

However, the above view is not shared by the learned men in Debates on Salt and Iron by Huan Kuan even though the minister, another protagonist of the book, leans towards Qian’s attitude more than towards the learned men. The main argument of the learned men against merchants is the fact that they corrupt people. Hence, in their opening statement, they claim that “the Way of governing the people lies in guarding against frivolity and extravagance while enlarging morality and virtue, in suppressing the pursuit of base profit while opening the way for benevolence and duty” (Kuan 1). Therefore, they advocate for elimination of beneficial conditions for merchants, especially relating to salt and iron monopolies, and a shift from secondary occupations to primary occupations like agriculture (Kuan 2). The learned men also emphasize that merchants have made society greedy and rude as well as profit-oriented, which has a detrimental impact on its overall morality and virtuousness. In turn, simplicity vanishes and farmers live in poverty. They frequently appeal to Confucius and his philosophy, while having an extremely negative attitude to the Equitable Marketing system as well as iron and salt monopolies and a range of fiscal policies implemented by the previous emperor (Kuan 5). Nonetheless, the Minister attempts to refute the learned men’s statements even though he does not always succeed in being eloquent and convincing. At the same time, his primary emphasis was not on supporting and justifying the occupation of merchants but rather on proving that the previous emperor was right in implementing fiscal policies and equitable marketing. Thus, he claims that “the true king should monopolize natural resources, regulate custom barriers and marketplaces, ensure that the tasks appropriate to each season are fulfilled in a timely manner, and govern the people by controlling the ratios of exchange” (Kuan 6). Since merchants are beneficial for achieving these goals, they should be supported. There is nothing negative or immoral in their occupation and profit-oriented activities that also contribute to public welfare.

Nevertheless, the learned men strongly disagree with the Minister’s opinion and their statements and ideas are opposed to those of Siam Qian. They appeal to the so-called “fundamental responsibilities” of people relating to manual labor and agriculture, which can satisfy their basic necessities like clothing and food (Kuan 7). All other necessities are excessive and they promote greediness rather than public welfare. They do not agree with Qian’s view that merchants become wealthy thanks to their personal achievements and they can be virtuous and moral. On the contrary, they suppose that all merchants have become wealthy due to some illegal or at least immoral activities, while virtuousness cannot be preserved in the process of merchant activities. Throughout the entire Debates on Salt and Iron, they repeat this idea in different words and with references to different Confucian quotes without properly refuting the Minister’s facts about the beneficial nature of merchants’ activities. At the same time, they fail to explain how poverty can promote virtuousness, and agriculture is more moral than merchant operations, while Qian does not deny benefits and values of agriculture. In turn, Qian supposes that all occupations are important and they can promote public welfare if individuals engaged in these occupations are honest, moral, and virtuous.

Therefore, the above discussion and analysis of Biographies of the Moneymakers by Sima Qian and Debates on Salt and Iron by Huan Kuan present contrary views on merchants and their role in society’s life and improvement. While Qian emphasizes that some of the wealthiest and most successful Chinese merchants belong to the most honorable, decent, and virtuous members of society, the learned men from the Kuan’s publication are of a contrary opinion and they consider merchants to be detrimental for all people. In addition, it should be noted that Qian portrays merchants in a positive light thanks to their personal achievements in wealth acquisition and contributions to public welfare. However, the learned men fail to justify their negative attitude to merchants in an objective way. Instead, they rely on polemic discussions of the value of wealth and agriculture as opposed to merchant activities. Therefore, the position of Qian seems to be more convincing and reasonably justified, while the learned men appeal mostly to poor people and their sense of injustice caused by their inability to become wealthy.

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