11 May 2019

Discourses on Salt and Iron - Part 1, Chapter 34: De-prioritizing Punishments

These are pictures of a Ming-era percussive deep well drill used to extract brine. On the right, you can see bamboo tubes that feed natural gases to the stoves where the brine is evaporated for salt. What's particularly surprising that the two essential aspects of the brining operation, percussive drilling rigs and gas stoves, as seen above were all developed by the time of the Han dynasty (206BC-220AD), and later centuries simply improved on the process to construct better rigs that could dig deeper and deeper. For a better idea of how this all worked, you can take a look at this page and watch the video below:
I bring this up to point to the sophistication of the salt industry in Han China, which monopolized it along with the iron industry to fund its vigorous foreign policy, primarily against the Xiongnu steppe nomads to the North. Although a topic of great interest for historians of science and industry today, the salt and iron monopolies was a pivotal issue in imperial China that for thousands of years, shaped the ideas of emperors, scholars, and officials on what the ideal role of a state should be, what the ideal type of governance should be, and what the ideal relationship between a state and its economy should be. This was possible because the famous debate between those who advocated the monopolies and those who decried it were immortalized by the government official Huan Kuan in Discourses on Salt and Iron (Yan Tie Lun 鹽鐵論). A somewhat rough analogy for the American would be the influence that the Federalist papers have had on American thought on the nature of their republic. It is a rough analogy, of course, because whereas the Discourses on Salt and Iron gives equal weight to both sides to show how the dialectic between Legalist and Confucian thought played out in shaping government policy, the anti-Federalist papers had been, I think, much less read and influential.

Esson M. Gale (pictured above in 1948) has produced the only partial English translation of the Discourses on Salt and Iron, which can be read online here. Although it's partial translation that only covers chapters 1-28 out of 60 total chapters, it's more than enough to understand the important points of the debate. That being said, I thought it would be fun to try to translate some of the untranslated chapters to help practice my classical Chinese skills. So here's my attempt for Chapter 34 "De-prioritizing Punishments." I think I'll try to translate one or two more chapters later as well but not now. If you're curious about some of the basic grammar in classical Chinese, I did a 5-part post on it before that you can find here (labelled as parts 36-40).


The dafu (grandee or counsellor) said thus: “The junzi of old were kind to the good but unkind to the bad. The ruler of people does not foster bad people, nor does the farmer cultivate seeds of no use. Seedlings of no use harm other seedlings and people of no use injure other people. Thus to hoe a single harmful weed will cause many seedlings to grow, and to punish a single evil-doer will make ten thousand people rejoice. Even the Duke of Zhou and Confucius were unable to do without punishment and manage evil. A house that has an unruly child will be without plates, so how much worse it would be for a state with unruly people! People grow imperious when loved but they heed punishment. Thus, punishments are the means by which to make them upright, just as a hoe is the means by which seedlings are separated from weeds.”


The worthies said thus: “In ages past, heartfelt teachings guided the people and illuminating the laws redressed punishments. Punishments are, in relation to governing, like whips in relations to handling beasts of burden. The skillful cannot, tame without whips, but neither do they make actual use of whips. The sage borrows rules and regulations to complete the teaching of his subjects, but when his teachings are complete, he does not carry out punishments. Thus his might was high though he did not kill, and punishments were well established though none violated the laws. Presently, you have debased law and order is debased and cannot reestablish them. You have ruined propriety and righteousness and cannot prevent crime. The people fall into nets yet you follow through with your catch by meting punishments. This is to open the gates of a pen and then shoot poisoned arrows at livestock that escape, not stopping until they are all killed. Zengzi once said, ‘The rulers have lost their way and the people have scattered for long. When you ascertain the truth of the crimes they have been charged with, be grieved and pity them, rather than rejoice at having uncovered the truth.’ To not pity people who are misgoverned but rather brag about catching the perpetrator is like a bow-hunter who sees birds and beasts caught in nets and rejoices. Those who presently receive punishments are not a Guan Shu Xian or Cai Shu Du in wickedness, nor are they a Deng Xi in deceitfulness. Like fearing weeds and thus not discriminating seedlings from weeds, you fear some of the people lying and thus do not rule all of them well. Thus Confucius said, ‘To hate someone excessively for his lacking humaneness will lead to disorder.’ Thus when the people are disordered, one should re-examine the government, and when the government is disordered, one should re-examine his own self. If one uprights his own self, the whole world will be at peace. Therefore the junzi praises the good and pities the incapable. He extends mercy to the convicted, and his virtues to the poor. When lending compassion, he is pleased and when enacting punishments, he is despondent."

*tl note: While I did have some help with this, I'm honestly still confused about the part in blue text. The original Chinese has a lot of implied clauses I think so I had to sort of guess and invent a translation that makes sense. Also, I don't think I quite understand the analogy to the hunter who shouldn't be happy at seeing animals caught in nets. My guess is that he's a bow-hunter as implied by the 弋 so he should be aiming to catch them with his arrows and not nets??? Oh well.


  1. I'd written a lengthy reply, but forgot to change "Comment as" to "anonymous" so it threw me into a Google Account login screen (I don't have a Google account), and removed the text when I went back.
    The short, lazy-not-gonna-write-all-that-again version is: don't be paranoid and look for fault everywhere. Endless persecution can't create a better society, focus on building towards a better future, reward those who deserve it, and catch the real villains you uncover, while giving the rest a chance to better themselves. You can't expect people to be perfect. The bowman's arrow only strikes select targets, while the net catches indiscriminately, so why is the bowman celebrating at the sight of the net that has caught even the animals that are worth protecting or sparing? Or something like that, maybe.
    Don't do what China's inhumane government is currently doing, basically.

    1. >The bowman's arrow only strikes select targets, while the net catches indiscriminately, so why is the bowman celebrating at the sight of the net that has caught even the animals that are worth protecting or sparing?

      That's a really good explanation. Thanks.

    2. If it's accurate. I'm in no way an expert on the subjects, so take my interpretation with a grain of salt.

    3. "Don't do what China's inhumane government is currently doing, basically."
      The current thinking in China is that by using mass surveillance + AI in schemes like the Social Credit System and the re-education camps in Xinjiang, the government is going beyond just punishing miscreants to a new paradigm of pro-actively identifying future miscreants and nurturing them to be 'tame livestock'; thus creating and safeguarding the most 'harmonious' society the world has ever seen. The junzi would be proud.

    4. It was meant for disciplining the people, including the emperor and the royal family themselves. That's why law should be inhumane (in a political-theological sense), indiscriminate and inspire fear among everybody. Absolute Terror, the infinite emanation of Freedom/Justice, devoid of any particular or individual differences that limit oneself.

      Secondly, from a historical perspective, Legalism was indeed the correct way in continuing the transformation of their society, from a primitive one based on familial values (emperor is the big daddy, etc.), to an abstract legal state. Confucians couldn't understand this new way of thinking at that time, because they pretty much always thought society in terms of family, like a family except much bigger, in harmony with one another, which is a total nonsense. They already had laws anyway and it had nothing to do with all that bullshit. They just didn't want any fundamental change in society, even though it was already there.

      It was the Chinese answer to the same problem that confronted the mythical Moses era (which ended up with the establishment of Law based on monotheism). It's arguably much less traumatic even, because there's no Oedipal, Totem and Taboo shit going on as opposed to the "Western" one.