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The Chʻing salt monopoly : a reappraisal Sokoloff, Laurence David

Abstract

This essay begins with a survey of the research that has been done on the traditional Chinese salt monopoly, one of the most important sources of revenue to the Chinese state. The most influential work on this subject in English has been two articles by Dr. Thomas Metzger. Dr. Metzger puts:.forth what may be called the "optimistic" interpretation of the monopoly's functioning; he argues that the Chinese government was capable of regulating commerce so as to yield significant amounts of revenue, and capable of effectively instituting reforms in the face of changed conditions. He uses as his example Liang-huai, the largest of the eleven districts into which the salt monopoly was divided, during the years 1740 to 1840. This paper seeks to dispute Dr. Metzger's conclusions with regards to Liang-huai. It uses as its primary sources the writings of various officials of the ching-shih tfe (practical statecraft) school of thought, who were intimately concerned with the problems of the salt administration. It also makes use of the standard collections of memorials of important officials to the court, as well as secondary sources to provide historical background from earlier dynasties. Beginning with a description of the functioning of the salt monopoly in Liang-huai, the thesis continues with an examination of Liang-huai during the eighteenth century, when it was at the height of its prosperity. The successful functioning of the monopoly at this time does much to justify Metzger's confidence in it. However, beginning about 1800 there was a decline in the efficiency of the monopoly. Less revenue was received by the state, salt smugglers increased their activities until they were the source of supply for half of Liang-huai's customers, and most of the old salt merchant familys went bankrupt. The thesis deals at length with the two main causes of this decline, the relentlessly rising price of salt and the rapidly rising population, which together made it difficult for an impoverished peasantry to afford this vital product. This chapter then concludes by pointing out the danger salt smuggling posed to the dynasty, since rebellious secret societies drew much of their strength from the ranks of the smugglers. Thomas Metzger points to the ticket system, instituted by T'ao Chu, governor-general of Kiangsi, Kiangsu, and An-hwei, in 1832, as a striking example of how capable officials were able to make basic reforms in the monopoly. However, this paper concludes that the ticket system was essentially a failure, since it eventually resulted in the revival of the very system of hereditary merchant monopolies it replaced. The thesis concludes by examining the basic dilemma of salt administration: in order for salt to yield a great amount of revenue to the state its price would have to be high enough to encourage smuggling. A possible solution would be to partially replace high salt taxes with other sources of revenue, preferably the land tax. Metzger fails to deal satisfactorily with this basic dilemma, and in his "optimistic15 appraisal of the salt administration fails to sufficiently distinguish between its successful functioning in the eighteenth century and its failure in the nineteenth.

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