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Flexible salt policy leads to governance dilemma in Ming era

Lü XIAOQIN | 2019-07-25
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A scene from the book Exploitation of the Works of Nature (Tiangong Kaiwu) depicts people producing salt in the Ming Dynasty. Photo: FILE


Historically, in local society adjacent to salterns, poor people spontaneously traded small amounts of salt to maintain their livelihood, leading to what is called illegal salt trading. This was actually the main way for the local poor to relieve their own poverty. The Ming government gradually realized the significance of illegal salt trading, and they tried to legalize the salt trade among the poor to a certain degree, but this caused many governance problems.


Harsh law
Throughout the Ming Dynasty the government monopolized the salt trade. In the early Ming Dynasty, salt laws were very harsh, prohibiting all acts of illegal salt trading. According to the Great Ming Code, or Da Ming Lü, anyone who traded illegal salt would be beaten 100 times with a heavy stick and sent to prison for three years. If there were military weapons involved, double the severity of the punishment. If anyone falsely accused others of the act, triple the severity of the punishment. Those who resisted arrest would be beheaded.

Regardless of the status of salt peddlers and the amount of salt involved, all would be investigated for criminal responsibility and severely punished. The Ming government’s purpose was to ensure national financial security; they did not consider the complex social roots behind the phenomenon. As a result, despite harsh laws the illegal trade of salt was still frequent.

The Ming government managed salt production through the household registration system. In areas where salt was found, the government conveniently registered the locals as hereditary saltern households, and the able-bodied adult males of these households were supposed to harvest salt for the government as their major labor service. The illegal salt trade came about partially because the saltern households had additional salt that exceeded the amount they needed to hand in to the government and partially because of their need for survival.

So, though their act was against the law, it had social legitimacy. Therefore, in the early Ming Dynasty, the “one-size-fits-all” ban on salt was actually taking away from the livelihood of the poor commoners around salterns.

As a result, though some lawbreakers would die in prison, law abiding people might die anyway from hunger. Meanwhile, some lawbreakers might survive and profit greatly. Such a law indeed forced people to go around it, not only aggravating the plight of the poor but leading to rampant illegal trade.

Laws and regulations are designed to adjust social interests. If there is a deviation in social interests, laws and regulations should be adjusted accordingly. Otherwise, illegal behaviors inevitably emerge.

Thus officials from the Lianghuai Salt Distribution Commission, which generated most of the salt revenue and administered three sub-commissions who oversaw 30 salterns situated along present-day coastal Jiangsu, reflected on the relationship between poverty relief and illegal salt trading.
They argued that illegal salt trading conducted for the purpose of gaining profits was related to national finance, however that for the purpose of survival was indeed a matter of people’s livelihood. The former would be banned, whereas the latter would be dealt with in a flexible manner, such that both the government and the people would benefit.


Revised flexible policies
Upon considering the salt officials’ advice, in 1438 the Ming government decided to carry out a flexible policy toward the salt trade by delegating the right of disposal to the local salt administration.

However, the implementation of this policy was far from satisfactory, because it was still unclear how officials should handle the legal trade at their discretion. If they treated it leniently, once there was indeed a case of illegal profit-driven salt trading, it would certainly affect their career. However, if they treated it harshly, though some who were wronged might complain to the upper administration and the officials might be scolded, their career was not at risk.
As it turned out, the officials still tended to strictly punish illegal salt trading, so the plight of the poor remained unchanged.

In view of this, in 1500, the Ming government further stipulated that the poor soldiers and civilians near the saltern were allowed to sell a small amount of salt to maintain their livelihood, and it was announced to the nation in the form of regulations. The Ming government had a precedent of correcting ambiguities in the Great Ming Code by supplementing the law with regulations. This eased the spill-over effect of the previous salt law.

Through conditionally relaxing the market access requirements for the salt industry and allowing poor people in the vicinity of the saltern to enter the highly monopolized salt market for cap-and-trade, from which they could obtain the necessary funds for their survival, the Ming government intended to realize the dual purpose of banning the commercial illegal salt trade and social relief, reflecting the effort of Ming officials to achieve better governance.

However, interest in the salt industry was huge. Once the salt industry market, normally dominated by salt merchants and the state, was opened, it was bound to attract interested parties from all walks of life. Therefore, it was necessary to stipulate precise laws and regulations and strongly enforce them.

In reality, the relevant provisions were crude and quickly fell victim to the destructive forces of competing interests.


Social chaos
In the Ming Dynasty, the legalization of salt trading somewhat realized poverty relief, but rampant salt trading, poor management and other negative effects quickly ensued. First of all, to prevent illegal salt trading, the Ming government strictly prohibited saltern households from interacting with other groups of people. However, due to the relaxation of the policy, poor soldiers and civilians could directly get in touch with the salt households, providing an opportunity for both sides to collaborate and trade illegal salt.

Second, the maximum amount that qualified as legal salt trading for the poor was what one could carry. This was much too arbitrary, luring illegal salt peddlers to take the opportunity to collude with poor soldiers and civilians. The salt peddlers hoarded illegal salt, and then they paid the latter to distribute and sell, making it hard for supervisors to verify whether the purpose of trade was for livelihood or profit.

Third, salt officials operated on a quota system, in which they were asked to bust a certain amount of illegal salt trading every month. Some of the officials then collaborated with salt peddlers and harshly dealt with powerless civilians to gain profit for themselves.

All sorts of malpractices showed that the Ming government paid a heavy price for legalizing the salt trade, even if it contributed some to poverty relief. In the face of an imperfect system and weak management, the legalization of salt trading for poor soldiers and civilians was like opening Pandora’s box. Salt households, poor civilians and soldiers, salt peddlers, and officials near the saltern all speculated to make profits. In the end, the policy of the Ming government not only failed to achieve effective poverty relief, but also seriously paralyzed the salt market and the normal order of the local society.


Incompetent governance
The problems caused by the legalization of salt trading near salterns prompted the Ming government to realize the complexity of poverty relief in the area. The simplified and implausible measures were doomed to fail. Only by perfecting the laws and regulations could the government strengthen the management of illegal salt trading. Such laws needed to account for what qualifies as “poor,” the amount of salt traded and the supervision of where the salt would be sold.

However, this required a lot of manpower and material resources, and the implementation would be costly, which would greatly increase the national financial burden.

In practice, after the introduction of the regulations on illegal salt trading in 1500, the Ming government did not take any concrete measures to strengthen salt management but only continued to increase the severity of punishments. This was an inevitable result, due to the gradual deterioration of the financial situation in the middle and later period of the Ming Dynasty. By then, the Ming government was willing but unable to govern the country, and any major governance reform was beyond the capability of its governance system.


Lü Xiaoqin is from the School of History and Culture at Henan Normal University.

​edited by YANG XUE