One of the many, many cool things about Madeleine Zelin’s new book The Merchants of Zigong: Industrial Entrepreneurship in Early Modern China is its discussion of guanyun, or official shipping. The book as a whole is about the evolution of the salt trade in Zigong, Sichuan in the Late Qing and Republic. Salt was of course a major industry in Qing China, and as in many other places in the world of great interest to the state, as it was easily taxed. Therefore sources are abundant, and Zelin has written one of the best recent books on Chinese business history. Nobody working on the Chinese economy today still accepts the old position that the Chinese economy was run by glorified peddlers who lived in terror of offending the dreaded Mandarins, but at the same time there have been very few detailed studies of the development of Chinese economic organizations and businesses.
Of the many things that I like about this book the treatment of Ding Baozhen’s 1877 proposal for a system of state-run wholesale shipping of salt. Salt smuggling was an endemic problem for Chinese states, and of course those best placed to smuggle salt were the official salt merchants, who had the capital, transport, and knowledge of the market to be really effective at large-scale smuggling. The official transport system aimed at curbing smuggling by having wholesale salt shipments be made by the state, rather than licensing merchants to buy salt from the yards then trusting them to ship and sell it appropriately. This was a system with many annoying features for salt producers and merchants. The state preferred to deal with the larger producers and to buy salt evaporated with natural gas rather than coal, which tended to drive out small producers. Producers could no longer wrap and brand their own salt, and the state set prices. Vertically integrated salt firms became almost impossible to maintain.
The reason I find all this interesting, is that the Qing and Republican states followed almost the same pattern, for pretty much the same reasons, with the opium trade. Of course there the fact that state policy was retarding the growth of business would have been regarded as a plus. Still, it is interesting to see that the state was developing a set of policies that it applied to a multiple trades.