Salt and Iron debate during the Han dynasty


Salt and Iron debate during the Han dynasty

and Iron debate during the Han dynasty

Emperor Wu-ti began his reign in 140 BC.

During its early years he was under the moderating influence of relatives
and court officials; however, by the late 130s he had decided that the
essentially defensive foreign policy of his predecessors was not going
to solve his foreign problems. In 133 he launched attacks on the nomadic

Hsiung-nu people, who constituted China's principal threat on the northern
frontier, and thereafter he committed his realm to the expansion of the
empire. By 101 Wu-ti's troops, spurred by an emperor heedless of their
hardships and intolerant of defeat, had extended Chinese control in all
directions. His wars and other undertakings exhausted the state's reserves
and forced him to look for other sources of income. New taxes were decreed
and state monopolies on salt, iron, and wine were instituted.

Following Wu-ti’s death, a public debate
on the state monopolies was held in 81 BC, an account of which was published
as the dialog Discourses on Salt and Iron. Officers were appointed to equalize
distribution by purchasing cheap commodities and selling when prices were
high, thus preventing prices from being too low or too high and maximizing
profit for the government. Although treasury deficits were eliminated and
adequate stores supplied the armies on the frontiers, the people forced
to eat without salt because of its high cost or use inferior iron tools
to farm became discontent. Thus sixty scholars were summoned from around
the empire to debate the issues.

In the dialog proponents of the government's
current policies argued that they successfully provided iron tools to the
peasants and increased trade and wealth. Criticizing this profiteering,

Confucian reformers emphasizing agriculture wanted the use of money reduced.

They found government harsh and oppressive, complaining of the disparities
between the rich and poor. Critics also felt that expansion and foreign
adventures had weakened China without maintaining safety. They argued the
ancients had honored virtue and discredited the use of arms. Government
realists disagreed and relying on laws and punishments pointed to the success
of Shang Yang; but critics countered that it was short-lived and that Qin
policies were unscrupulous. The reformers emphasized moral principles and
complained that government officials were using their positions to increase
their incomes to incalculable levels, a practice Confucius disapproved.

Wu-ti came to power from the popular support
of his apparent Confucian beliefs. He, however, drew from the legalistic
system under the Qin dynasty and found the wealth need to fund his expansion
through practices such as the monopolies. The debate revealed the clear
divisions between the realistic legalists in power and the principled scholars
who wanted reforms. The government retained the monopolies on salt and
iron, but it became clear that many of the Confucian literates saw his
actions for what they truly were. Wu-ti bridged the division between
state and society and created a system where non-Confucian ideals filled
the government pockets by oppressing the commoner. An important quote
from the debate is that "Government should not compete with people for

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