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).


大夫曰:「古之君子,善善而惡惡。人君不畜惡民,農夫不畜無用之苗。無用之苗,苗之害也;無用之民,民之賊也。鉏一害而眾苗成,刑一惡而萬民悅。雖周公、孔子不能釋刑而用惡。家之有姐子,器皿不居,況姐民乎!民者敖於愛而聽刑。故刑所以正民,鉏所以別苗也。

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.”

賢良曰:「古者,篤教以導民,明辟以正刑。刑之於治,猶策之於御也。良工不能無策而御、有策而勿用。聖人假法以成教,教成而刑不施。故威厲而不殺,刑設而不犯。今廢其紀綱而不能張,壞其禮義而不能防。民陷於網,從而獵之以刑,是猶開其闌牢,發以毒矢也,不盡不止。曾子曰:『上失其道,民散久矣。如得其情,即哀矜而勿喜。』夫不傷民之不治,而伐己之能得姦,猶弋者睹鳥獸掛羅而喜也。今天下之被誅者,不必有管、蔡之邪、鄧皙之偽,恐苗盡而不別,民欺而不治也。孔子曰:『人而不仁,疾之已甚,亂也。』故民亂反之政,政亂反之身,身正而天下定。是以君子嘉善而矜不能,恩及刑人,德潤窮夫,施惠悅爾,行刑不樂也。

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.

3 comments:

  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.

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    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.

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

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