Huan Kuan: Discourses on Salt and Iron

(74–49 BCE)

The Discourses on Salt and Iron reconstructs the debates between the ministers of Emperor Zhao of the Han Dynasty and Confucian scholars over state monopolies on salt, iron, and liquor production. During his long reign from 141 to 87 BCE, Han Wudi, the Martial Emperor of the Han Dynasty, waged an aggressive war against the Xiongnü, a pastoral nomadic people who often raided China's northern border. To finance this costly war, his government instituted state monopolies on salt, iron, and liquor production. These measures led to widespread popular dissatisfaction. In 81 BCE, to reassess these institutions' appropriateness, the Martial Emperor's successor, Emperor Zhao, convened a debate between his top government ministers and Confucian scholars, who represented the voice of the people. The ministers endorsed the innovations as necessary for financing the defense of the empire; the scholars, on the other hand, complained that the reforms impoverished the people and caused...