On the salt and iron monopoly system in the period of Emperor Wu of Han Dynasty

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Monopoly system, that is, a system in which the state monopolizes the production and sale of a certain product, was often called “Prohibition” in ancient China. The prohibition system is one of the most important contents of ancient Chinese economic legislation and the most important legal tool for the state to control industry and commerce. Using this legal system, the state can monopolize the production and sales of some daily industrial and commercial articles, and use monopoly prices to obtain high profits. Salt and iron were the main objects of monopoly legislation in ancient China.

I. origin of salt and iron monopoly system

On the question of when the salt and iron monopoly system first originated, there are several different views in the academic circles: one view holds that the salt and iron monopoly system began in the late Western Zhou Dynasty, and King li of Zhou was the originator of this system. At that time, in order to restrain the economic growth of the common people, they monopolized the benefits of salt, iron and other mountains and rivers from production to circulation; Another view is that the “guanshanhai” promoted by Guan Zhong of the state of Qi in the spring and Autumn period was the original form of the ancient salt and iron monopoly system; Some scholars believe that the real salt and iron monopoly system in ancient China began in the period of Emperor Wu of the Western Han Dynasty. ?

For the first point of view, the author believes that according to the records of “Jue tribute salt in Qingzhou” in the historical books, salt should still be paid to the rulers in the form of tribute as a local product at that time. At that time, the state did not monopolize the production of salt, so it is too early to talk about the salt and iron monopoly system at this time. The difference between the latter two points of view lies in: did the government directly intervene and control the production and sales process of salt and iron, or just manage it? Is the government directly involved in the production and circulation of salt and iron, or is it just a tax system? Is “guanshanhai” a state monopoly on the production and marketing of salt and iron, or is it just a management of mountain, forest and Sichuan products? The author agrees with the second view, that is, the salt and iron monopoly system in ancient China began with Guanzhong’s “guanshanhai”.

Mr. linzhenhan, a salt expert in the Republic of China, pointed out that “China’s salt law originated from Guanzi”. It is recorded in Guanzi · weight armour: “Guanzi said: ‘a country of ten thousand times must have a Jia of ten thousand gold, a country of ten thousand times must have a Jia of one thousand gold, and a country of one hundred times must have a Jia of one hundred gold, which is not what you rely on and what you do. Therefore, if you are a person but don’t judge their orders, you will have two rulers and two kings in one country…. therefore, if you are a person but can’t keep its mountains, Potamogeton, and grass, you can’t build a heaven and earth.'” this also paves the way for Guanzi to promote “official mountains and seas”. Guanzi advocates emphasizing agriculture and restraining commerce. He believes that “anyone who is in a hurry for the country must first ban writing skillfully at the end. If writing skillfully at the end of the ban, the people will have no food to swim, and if the people have no food to swim, they will have agriculture”. Therefore, “guanshanhai” is also a very important part of his policy of emphasizing agriculture and restraining commerce. It is recorded in Guanzi · Sea King: “Duke Huan said, ‘but why should I be a country?'” Guanzi replied: ‘only the official mountain and sea can be an ear.’ Duke Huan said: ‘what is the official mountain and sea?’ “Guanzi replied: ‘the country of the Sea King, please correct the salt policy.’ the word” official “in the word” official mountain and sea “means” management “, which means not only” management “, but also” monopoly “and” management “. Sang Hongyang once said in his debate with the virtuous Literature: “the former were powerful. Everyone had to take care of the benefits of the mountains and the sea, collect iron and stone, drum and cast, and boil the sea into salt. The family gathered a crowd of more than a thousand people, and most of them collected and released the people.” [1] (p74) here, of course, it does not mean that the rich merchants manage the production of salt and iron, but that they monopolize the operation of salt and iron, “seizing the benefits of Sichuan and managing the fertile mountains and forests”. Therefore, “guanshanhai” not only includes the necessary management of salt and iron production by the state, but also refers to the state monopoly of salt and iron production and marketing. According to historical records, at that time, in addition to strengthening the management of salt and iron production, the government had been involved in the production and marketing of salt and iron, and implemented salt and iron monopoly to a certain extent. Moreover, at the salt and iron conference of the Western Han Dynasty, sang Hongyang’s supporters, while arguing with the virtuous literature, also said that the salt and iron monopoly promoted by sang Hongyang was “the art of cultivating Taigong and huanguan”, rather than being initiated by him. In addition, the Han people were not far away from the spring and Autumn period and the Warring States period. They should be the most familiar with the source of this policy. To sum up, the author believes that the second view is still credible when it comes to the origin of China’s ancient salt and iron monopoly system.

II. Salt and iron monopoly system in the period of Emperor Wu of Han Dynasty

In the early years of the Western Han Dynasty, the economy was in decline and all industries were waiting to prosper. In the early Han Dynasty, the rulers learned the lesson of the death of Qin and “swept away the troubles and hardships and rested with the people”. [2] (p153) records in historical records: biographies of goods colonization: “in Han Dynasty, the sea is one, the beam is switched, and the mountains and rivers are forbidden”. The open management of mountains, forests and rivers is implemented, and “the people are not competing for profits”. At the time of Liu Bang, the emperor Gaozu of the Han Dynasty, the sources of mountains and rivers, such as iron smelting, mining and salt boiling, had been delegated to private enterprises, and the people were allowed to mine freely. During the reign of empress Lu, although there was a “ban” on the private ownership of salt and iron, Emperor Wen still “allowed the people to cast money, smelt iron and boil salt” after he ascended the throne, and continued to allow private ownership to produce and sell salt and iron. Due to these loose economic policies implemented by the rulers in the early Han Dynasty, “the rich merchants traveled around the world, traded everything, and got what they wanted, so they emigrated to Beijing.”. [3] At that time, there were a large number of merchants who became rich by smelting iron and boiling salt. For example, Cao Bing, a Lu native, “started from smelting iron and became rich to millions”; The Zhuo family, Cheng Zheng family and the Kong family in Nanyang County of Shu are also rich and rich because of their “big drum casting” and “the benefits of merchants”.

With the prosperity and development of commodity economy, the financial resources of salt and iron merchants were expanding. They not only mastered a considerable part of the economic lifeline, but even became a social force competing with the central government, seriously endangering the rule of feudal countries. In the middle period of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, due to the large-scale conquest of the Xiongnu for many times, the huge military expenditure and the continuous natural disasters, the people were in exile everywhere, the National Treasury was empty, and the financial income could not make ends meet, so the imperial court had to borrow from the rich. However, “the rich merchants, who smelt and cast salt, may have accumulated tens of thousands of gold, but they are not in the hurry of the left government, and the people are in serious difficulties.”. [2] (p1162) in this case, in the third year of Yuanshou (120 BC), Zhang Tang, the imperial historian, made a request to “cage the world’s salt and iron”. Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty began to monopolize salt and iron in the fourth year of Yuanshou (119 BC) by using people such as Kongju, Xianyang in Dongguo and sanghongyang, the son of a big merchant in Luoyang. According to records of the historian · pingzhunshu:

So Dongguo Xianyang and Kong were only the great farmers’ Chengs, leading the affairs of salt and iron; Sang Hongyang used calculation to solve problems, waiting for the middle. Xianyang, Qi’s big boiled salt; Confucius, Nanyang Daye, all caused a lot of money, so Zheng made a speech at that time; Hong Yang, the son of Jia Renzi in Luoyang, is a schemer. He is thirteen years old. Therefore, the two men said that they had nothing to do with profit.

The specific method of salt and iron Monopoly during the period of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty is recorded in the records of food and goods of the Han Dynasty:

Kongjui and Xianyang, the salt and iron ministers of the great peasants, said: “the mountains and seas, the Zang of heaven and earth, should belong to the Shaofu, and your majesty should be private, so it belongs to the great peasants’ assistant Fu. May the people be raised for their own expenses, and may the official utensils be used as salt, official and prison pots. The floating food people want to be good at the goods of mountains and seas, envy them by becoming rich, and serve and benefit the small people. It is impossible to listen to the arguments about matters. Those who dare to steal the salt from the cast iron ware have titanium left toe, which is not included in the ware. If the county does not produce iron, a small iron officer will be set up, and the envoy will be in the county. ” It is said that only and Xianyang hold the world salt and iron as officials, so the rich in salt and iron families are excluded as officials. There are more and more officials.

For salt, the salt monopoly system of “civilian system, official collection, official transportation and official sales” is adopted, that is, salt officials are set up in salt producing areas, and the government recruits other civilians to make salt, and provides salt pots (“prison pots”), which are purchased by the government and transported to various places for sale; The monopoly of iron is different from that of salt. It is completely monopolized by the state. Because iron is an important raw material for forging weapons, “for the great use of the world”. Once it falls into the hands of the rich and powerful people, it is easy to become a business of traitors and counterfeiters, which is extremely detrimental to the rule of the central government. It must be strictly controlled and controlled by the state. At the same time, large-scale production is more economical than small-scale production, It is more conducive to the promotion and popularization of new iron production tools. Based on the above reasons, the production and sales of iron are completely in the hands of the government, which is “not suitable for the common people”.

Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty sent Kongzi and Xianyang of Dongguo to salt and iron producing areas all over the country, selected rich salt and iron merchants with management experience to serve as salt officers or iron officers, and established a unified national salt and iron monopoly organization. According to the statistics in the Hanshu geography annals, the Western Han regime successively set up 35 salt officers in 27 counties and 46 iron officers in 38 counties. The salt and iron officials all over the country belong to the central government’s great agricultural decree (later renamed great Minister of Agriculture). In this way, the state monopolizes the production and sales of salt and iron.

In order to ensure the implementation of the salt and iron monopoly system, the Western Han regime also stipulated the legal sanctions for violations of this system.

Crime of smuggling salt: it was stipulated in the fifth year of Yuanshou that “if you dare to sell salt without permission, the left toe of titanium will not be included in the artifacts.” Wei Zhao’s note in the historical records of pingzhunshu: “titanium is made of iron, and the left toe is written to replace the cut.” This is the earliest regulation on the punishment of illegal salt.

Crime of coercion: the law of thieves in the second year: “coercion, those who do harm, will abandon the market; if not, they will be fined four Liang.” ? There is an item of “rectification” listed in the law of the Han Dynasty – the law of thieves. Shen Jiaben divides “rectification” into three categories: great harm, harm and no harm according to Ru Chun’s note. According to the records in the book of Han Dynasty, biography of the final Army:

In the Yuan Dynasty, doctor Xu Yan made the custom. Yan Jiao system, so that Jiaodong, Lu drum cast salt and iron, also played things, moved to Taichang Cheng. Zhang Tang, the imperial historian, impeached Yan and corrected the great harm, until he died. Yan thought that the meaning of the spring and Autumn Annals was that when a doctor came out of Xinjiang, he could secure the country, save all the people, and Zhuan could do it. There was an imperial edict to issue a military statement, Jun Jieyan said, “in ancient times, the feudal states were different from each other in customs, and there was no communication within a hundred miles. Sometimes there was a matter of appointing a meeting, and the situation of safety and danger changed. Therefore, it was appropriate not to resign and create an order to Zhuan yourself. Today, the situation is one, and ten thousand miles are the same wind, so in the spring and Autumn Annals, ‘the king has no outside’. Yan patrolled and enfeoffed the territory. What is it called to go out of Xinjiang? Besides, salt and iron, there are more than Zang in the county. The abolition of the two countries is not enough for the interests of the country, and what is it to say that the country is safe and save the people?” Again: “Jiaozhou is close to Langxie in the southeast and connects to the North Sea. Lu is surrounded by Taishan in the West and the East China Sea in the East. It receives its salt and iron. Yan Du has four prefectures and fields, and leads them to use salt. It is not enough to give the two prefectures evil. The generals should have more than enough power, but the officials can’t do it. Why do you say that? The drums made by Yan rectification are popular and cultivated in spring to support the people. Today, the drums of Lu should be prepared first, and they can raise fire in the autumn. This statement is contrary to the reality. Yan has played the first three times, there is no imperial edict, and not only what is forbidden, but It is a blessing for the people to earn a reputation. This holy place of Ming Dynasty must be punished‘ Mencius called it impossible; Now the crime is serious, but the person who takes it is small, and he will die and become evil? Will you be lucky enough to kill me and not add my name? ” If you are poor, you should plead guilty and die. The military played that “Yan Jiao made zhuanxing, which was not an emissary. Please go to the censor to levy Yan, which is a crime.”

III. Influence of salt and iron monopoly system

Sima Qian wrote in “historical records: biographies of goods colonization”: “therefore, those who are good will benefit from it, then teach it, then order it, and the lowest will fight against it.” He believes that the best economic policy of the government is to let nature take its course and not interfere in the economic life of the people; The second is to make good use of the situation; Thirdly, persuading the people through education; The third is to standardize the people with punishment; The worst way is to fight for profit with the people. In Sima Qian’s view, the salt and iron monopoly system implemented by Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty was the worst policy to compete for profits with the people. In fact, how to evaluate the salt and iron monopoly system of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, and how to view its impact on the whole society in the Western Han Dynasty? For these problems, more scholars hold a negative attitude ?. They believe that the advantages of the salt and iron monopoly system implemented by Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty are negligible compared with its disadvantages, and the disadvantages far outweigh the advantages. It is undeniable that the salt and iron monopoly system has indeed increased the national fiscal revenue to a certain extent, but these are at the expense of the development of social commodity economy.

The author believes that the quality of a system should be judged in the specific historical environment. The emergence and development of any system has its certain rationality and inevitability, and the salt and iron monopoly system is no exception. Under the circumstances of internal and external troubles, Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty carried out the salt and iron monopoly system with its rationality.

First, the salt and iron monopoly system has increased the national fiscal revenue, which is the most direct impact it has had. In the face of the repeated invasions of the Huns and the emptiness of the national treasury, the Western Han regime “caged salt and iron” and practiced monopoly law. As a result, “the county officials spared their feet, the people were not sleepy, the whole thing and the end benefited, and both the upper and lower levels were sufficient”, “at this time, the four sides collected riots, car armour fees, and received rewards, and supported the big farmers by billions.” [1] (p178-179) it can be said that the financial crisis in the period of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty largely depended on the implementation of the salt and iron monopoly system.

Second, the increase of national fiscal revenue provided sufficient financial resources for Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty to fight against the Huns, which was conducive to consolidating the country’s border defense and promoting national reunification. In history, there have been constant disputes between the Han Dynasty and the Huns. From the policy of peace and affinity in the early Han Dynasty to the military resistance against the Huns in the period of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, there have been several generations of monarchs. During the reign of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, he fought against the Xiongnu as many as 15 times. Imagine how to fight against the Xiongnu without the support of strong economic strength?

Third, Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty implemented the salt and iron monopoly system, which directly attacked the local powerful forces, strengthened the centralization of power, and consolidated the rule of the Han Dynasty. At the beginning of the Han Dynasty, the king of Wu, Liu Zhen, was able to “spare the mountains and rivers”, which eventually led to the rebellion of the seven countries and seriously threatened the rule of the central government. The monopoly of salt and iron cut off the monopoly on salt and iron by powerful and powerful people, greatly weakened the economic strength of local forces, and made them unable to compete with the state power, thus consolidating the rule of the Han Dynasty.

Of course, the salt and iron monopoly system also has its drawbacks. As mentioned by the virtuous literature at the salt and iron conference, “if the county officials keep one cage, the iron tools will be inappropriate and the farmers will lose their ability to use them. If the tools are inconvenient, the farmers will stop working in the wild and not cultivate the grass and vegetables. If the grass and vegetables are not cultivated, the people will be tired” [1] (p64); The salt and iron workers are in a lax mood, “the soldiers are tired and hard-working”, and their enthusiasm for production is not high; The quality of salt and iron products is poor, the “civil abuse is dull, mowing grass is not painful”, the price is expensive, and the people are forced to buy them, “the people suffer” and so on.

In addition, the salt and iron monopoly system is also prone to official corruption. Power monopoly is easy to lead to corruption. The monopoly of salt and iron is controlled by officials such as salt and iron envoys and salt administration. These officials may have a greedy side in their human nature. In the absence of supervision and power checks and balances at that time, greedy human nature was maliciously expanded. Therefore, under the salt and iron monopoly system, there was “endless wildfire, spring breeze” and even growing corruption.


? scholars Shaohong and others agree with this view. Shaohong believed that in governing the state of Qi, Guanzi really strengthened the control over mountains, rivers and rivers, especially the management of salt and iron production, which is beyond doubt. However, the specific content of “guanshanhai” is unknown in historical records. People can only investigate it according to the descriptions in Guanzi · sea king and Guanzi · weight. However, in the articles of Guanzi · weight, there is no data to prove that “guanshanhai” means that the feudal state monopolized the production and marketing of salt and iron. Moreover, Guanzi · sea king, which puts forward and explains in detail the meaning of “guanshanhai”, clearly states that “guanshanhai” is the basis for collecting salt and iron, that is, the sales tax on salt and iron products; However, countries that do not produce salt can obtain huge profits by engaging in salt trading. From the records in Guanzi · land number and Guanzi · light and heavy armour, it can be seen that the feudal state did control the production and sales of salt, but the state only levied a certain amount of products from civilian salt cooks and sold them for profit in the season when salt production was prohibited, which is far from monopolizing the production and sales of salt. Moreover, in Guanzi · light and heavy B, the author opposes the direct operation of iron smelting industry by the state, and advocates the method of private ownership and revenue sharing with the state. Therefore, he believed that there was no such thing as “taking the salt and iron products that were originally privately operated back to the government” in the state of Qi. Both the government and private sectors produce salt and iron, but the state may impose seasonal restrictions on the private sector and impose taxes. In terms of sales, on the one hand, the state actively self operates, and also imposes special taxes on the sales of non-governmental salt and iron products. Therefore, there was no monopoly of salt and iron in the spring and Autumn period and even in the Warring States period. Even though the salt and iron industry in feudal countries did exist in this period, there was a trend that feudal countries gradually strengthened their control over the salt and iron industry. The real salt and iron official camp only appeared in the Western Han Dynasty.

? the two year laws and decrees are the Han bamboo slips unearthed in 1983 at the No. 247 Han tomb in Zhangjiashan, Jingzhou, Hubei Province. There are 526 Han bamboo slips in total. The bamboo slips contain 27 kinds of laws and one kind of decree. It was the law implemented before the second year of the Lu Dynasty (186 BC). Among them, the “Jiao” of “Jiao system” was originally written as “Qiao” on the No. 11 slip of the “two year law” and there were also written as “bridge”, see the No. 66 slip.

? scholars such as fuzhufu, lidianyuan, yuchuanbo and wangxipeng hold negative opinions on the salt and iron monopoly system. For example, Mr. fuzhufu believed that the monopoly of salt and iron was restraining commerce and handicraft industry, hindering the normal development of industry and commerce. It not only interrupted the commercialization of production, but also suffocated the commercialized production, which doomed the fate of sluggish economic development in feudal society; Lidianyuan even pointed out that we should not deny the reactionary nature of the salt and iron monopoly to the whole society just because it has apparently made some “contributions” to a certain regime at a certain period. Scholars who hold negative opinions all think that the monopoly of salt and iron is a fatal blow to the development of China’s ancient commodity economy.


[1] Wang sharp weapon Comments on salt and iron [m] Tianjin: Tianjin Ancient Books Publishing House, 1983 [2] Ban Gu Han Shu [m] Beijing: Zhonghua Book Company, 2000 [3] Sima Qian, historical records [m] Beijing: Zhonghua Book Company, 1982

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