brown woven textile

Discourses on Salt and Iron

by Tyler J. Hayward

Introduction to the Text

            Huan Kuan’s (first century BCE) Discourses on Salt and Iron (鹽鐵論Yantie Lun) documents a series of debates held during the Shiyuan era (86-81 BCE) between the Lord Grand Secretary Sang Hongyang and the Ruist literati.[i] These debates, while initially focused on the usefulness of government monopolies in the salt, iron, and alcohol industries, open up into a broader debate both on the role of the state in managing the economy and over the ruler’s right to do so. In the debate, the Lord Grand Secretary argues unequivocally for the role of the state in the empire’s economy, stating that government involvement is necessary for the national defense and for lowering regional wealth disparities. The Ruist literati argue against this by asserting that government involvement in the economy only distracts it from its true role as guardian of the moral welfare of the people, and that the government should adopt a more laissez-faire outlook so as to allow a return to self-sufficient farming households. The emperor, Zhao of Han, ultimately sided with the Lord Grand Secretary and chose to keep the salt and iron monopolies; however, he did remove the alcohol monopoly and lowered some of the labor and military conscription requirements.[ii] While many of these issues may seem far afield to contemporary readers, the underlying issues of these debates, questions of wealth disparity, the role of government, and the focus of economic development, reverberate through many debates within Chinese politics today such as in the quest for Common Prosperity (Gongtong Fuyu).

            This translation is an excerpt from the first chapter of the Discourses on Salt and Iron chosen for its demonstration of the primary arguments of the Lord Grand Secretary and the Ruist literati. It relies on the 1958 version of Wang Liqi’s annotated text, and references prior translations, secondary sources, commentaries for accuracy.[iii]

English Translation

In the sixth year of the reign of the Shiyuan era, there was an imperial edict which directed the Counselor-in-Chief, the Lord Grand Secretary, and those recommended worthies and literati to confer with each other, and inquire amongst the common people as to what tyrannized them.

The literati responded and said, “I have heard that the Way of Governing Others lies in guarding against the source of carnal pleasure, extending wide the First Principle of Virtue, restraining extreme profit, and establishing benevolence and righteousness. Do not teach with profit, only then can the teaching of the people be joyous and the folkways informed.

Today the provinces and demesnes have salt, iron, and alcohol monopolies, and a system of equitable delivery. [iv] As a result, they consequently vie with the people over profit. This disperses the primal potential of honesty and generosity, and brings about the transformation into selfishness and greed. Therefore, those common people who go towards the essential industries are few, and those that rush towards the non-essential industries are many.[v] If ornamentation becomes overgrown, then essential character declines; if non-essential industry prospers, then essential character breaks down. If non-essential industry is cultivated, then the people will be flamboyant; if the fundamentals of industry are cultivated, then the people will be prudent. If the people are prudent, then wealth and possessions will be sufficient; if the people are wasteful, then hunger and cold will arise. We pray to stop the salt, iron, and liquor monopolies, along with the system of equitable delivery, so that with this the essential may be advanced and the non-essential may be withdrawn, and widely profit the agricultural industry. We thus assent”.

The Lord Grand Secretary said, “When the Xiongnu rebelled and were unconquered, they frequently plundered and devastated our frontier settlements. If we provision these settlements against the Xiongnu, then we will exhaust the forces of China; however, if we do not provision these settlements, then violations and banditry will not cease. The late emperor[vi] lamented the long suffering of the people on the frontier, who suffered imprisonment at the hands of the Xiongnu, and thus constructed fortifications and serried watch towers, and guarded against the Xiongnu through their full provision. As the revenue for the frontier was insufficient, the monopoly of the production of salt, iron, and liquor was instituted, and the system of equitable delivery was established. With this, goods were multiplied and wealth increased so as to assist in the frontier’s expenses.

Today, the disputants desire to cease this. At home, they would empty the stores of the treasury, and abroad they would deprive the frontier of provisions for use. They would see the soldiers in the forts and walled cities on the frontier go hungry and cold. How would they expect us to provide for them? To cease these operations?  We do not assent”.

The literati said, “Confucius said, ‘The ruler of a state or ruler of a household does not fear his people being few, but instead fears inequity between them. They do not fear their people few, but instead fear their discontentment’. Thus, the Son of Heaven need not speak of much and little, the myriad feudal lords need not speak of advantage and disadvantage, and the ministers need not speak gain and loss. Cultivate benevolence and righteousness so as to propagate it. Instead, they should extend wide virtuous action so as to propagate it amongst the people. They should extend wide virtuous action so as to instill similar behavior in the people. With this, those that are near will flock to them, and those that are far will submit to them with good grace. Thus, the master conqueror does not war, the master warrior does not need an army, and the master strategist need not put his troops into a battle array. Cultivate virtue in the palace, and then you will break through the enemy’s lines and return in triumph. The king who acts in accordance with benevolence in governing has no rival in all under heaven. Of what use to him is expenditure‽”

The Lord Grand Secretary said, “The Xiongnu are cruel and crafty. They willfully enter the frontier, and violate China. They slaughter the county and prefectural commanders of the northern regions.[vii] They greatly rebel and do not follow the rule of law. Indeed, their extermination and suppression is long overdue; however, in Your Majesty’s great sagacity, you wholeheartedly pitied the insufficiency of your people, and could not tolerate exposing your knights and officials to the wild prairies. Thusly, Your Majesty put on strong armor and seized sharp weapons with the ambition of repulsing the Xiongnu from the northern regions. Again, desiring to cease the salt and iron monopolies and equitable delivery system would make trouble for our frontier’s usable supply, and would weaken our martial strategy. With regard to their proposal, which displays such a lack of worry for our frontier, we cannot assent”. 

The literati said, “The ancients held as high the use of virtue and regarded as low the use of warfare. Confucius said, ‘If those who are far away do not submit, then cultivate learning and virtue, and with this have them come to you. If they have already come, then content them.’ Today, we have abandoned the Way of Virtue and have resigned ourselves to military force, to raising an army and attacking the Xiongnu, and to guarding against the Xiongnu through provisioning the frontier. In so doing, we have exposed our soldiers to long service in the open field, to ceaselessly transporting edible grain to the frontier, and caused them to be hungry and cold abroad while the common people toil in bitter hardship at home. The establishment of salt and iron monopolies, and the creation of finance officials to furnish them, was not meant to be a permanent policy. Thus, as to ceasing these operations, we assent”. 

The Lord Grand Secretary said, “The ancient founders of the state and clans prepared a system for both the essential industries and non-essential industries, and equalized the use of products between the haves and have-nots. Court marketplaces harmonized various demands, extended their demands to both the knights and common people, and gathered the many goods together so that the farmer, merchant, and artisan could each obtain what they desired, complete their exchange, and return home. The Book of Changes says, ‘facilitate their exchange, and the people will be unflagging’. Thus, if the artisan does not go out to market, then the farmer will lack in farming instruments. If the merchant does not go out to market, then then precious treasures will be exhausted. If the farmer is lacking in instruments, then grain will not be harvested. If precious treasures are exhausted, then our finances will be deficient. Thus, the salt and iron monopolies, and equitable delivery system is the means by which to circulate amassed wealth and harmonize need. To cease these operations, we do not assent”.

Appendix: Chinese Text


文學對曰:「竊聞治人之道,防淫佚之原,廣道德之端,抑末利而開仁義,毋示以利,然後教化 可興,而風俗可移也。今郡國有鹽、鐵、酒榷,均輸,與民爭利。散敦厚之樸,成貪鄙之化。是以百姓就本者寡,趨末者眾。夫文繁則質衰,末盛則本虧。末修則民淫,本修則民愨。民愨則財用足,民侈則饑寒生。願罷鹽、鐵、酒榷、均輸,所以進本退末,廣利農業,便也。」



文學曰:「孔子曰:『有國有家者,不患寡而患不均,不患寡而患不安。』故天子不言多少,諸侯不言利害,大夫不言得喪。畜仁義以風之,廣德行以懷之。是以近者親附而遠者悅服。故善克 者不戰,善戰者不師,善師者不陣。修之於廟堂,而折衝還師。王者行仁政,無敵於天下,惡用費哉?」




[i] Esson M Gale, Discourses on Salt and Iron: A Debate on State Control of Commerce and Industry in Ancient China, (Taipei: Ch’eng-Wen Publishing Company, 1967), 1-3.

[ii] Richard von Glahn, The Economic History of China: From Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 124-126.

[iii] Wang Liqi’s 1958 edition is based on the 1807 Zhang Dunren (張敦仁) version of the text; however, Wang gives full justice to variant readings through his annotations (Loewe, 480).

[iv] Equitable delivery (均輸) refers to a system established by Sang Hongyang (桑弘羊) wherein the state used public funds, including those accrued from monopoly revenues, to buy goods when prices were low and sell them when they were high in an attempt to smooth out price fluctuations (von Glahn, 116).

[v] The essential refers to agriculture (農) and the non-essential refers to commerce (商) and industry (工) (Gale, 3).

[vi] This emperor is Emperor Wu of Han (漢武帝) (Gale, 4).

[vii] According to the China Historical GIS [Harvard University and Fudan University], these regions are in what is today Inner Mongolia.


China Historical GIS [Harvard University and Fudan University]. 2022. “Shuofang Jun 朔方郡.” China Historical GIS [Harvard University and Fudan University]. Accessed April 17, 2022.

Gale, Esson M. 1967. Discourses on Salt and Iron: A Debate on State Control of Commerce and Industry in Ancient China. Taipei: Ch’eng-Wen Publishing Company.

Loewe, Michael. 1993. Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide. Berkeley: The Society for the Study of Early China.

von Glahn, Richard. 2016. The Economic History of China: From Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wang, Liqi 王利器. 1992. Yantielun Jiaozhu (Dingben) Shang 鹽鐵論校注(定本)上 . Beijing 北京: Zhonghua Shuju 中華書局.

One thought on “Discourses on Salt and Iron

Leave a Reply