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Salt mafias and rebellion in medieval China

By Elizabeth Smithrosser

Salt was big business in Tang China, and for certain individuals the vibrant but illegal trade in contraband salt paved the way for grander, imperial ambitions.

This article will explore the relationship between the illicit salt trade and local influence in medieval China, by looking at how a major uprising led by a team of two salt traders-turned-rebel leaders in the late 800s spelled the death blow for the once-grand Tang dynasty (618–906).

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But how could there be such a thing as “contraband salt”, and why was trading in salt like this illegal to begin with? First, we will take a quick look at the gargantuan levels of governmental control placed on the production and trade of this substance in pre-modern China.

While we tend to take salt for granted nowadays, but its widespread accessibility at present is due to production and transportation methods that did not exist in medieval times. Salt as a mineral is essential to human nutrition. On top of this, in medieval China the role it played in the preservation of meat, fish, and vegetables was a huge factor in enabling the land to sustain ever-larger populations. Ensuring that salt was distributed in an even manner was therefore no small matter: it was crucial to the welfare of the people and, in turn, the stability of the state.

A late imperial illustration of salting fish for preservation purposes – Wellcome Images

It should not surprise us, then, that the medieval Chinese salt industry, which produced salt predominantly using seawater or brine evaporation methods, was no stranger to heavy top-down control. While the heyday of the Tang had seen looser controls on the salt industry, as the dynasty struggled back to its feet in the aftermath of the An Lushan rebellion, the decision was made to revive the previous state monopoly system in the name of increasing national funds.

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With this, the government was once again given full jurisdiction over the trade and production of salt. A heavy proportion of the state income (up to half!) came from salt taxes: it is no exaggeration to say that the prosperity and stability of the dynasty itself rested on its income from salt.

Naturally, those officials who had been allocated to oversee the production of salt, supervise trading and enforce the monopoly held some of the most powerful and highly regarded positions in the empire. Their story, immortalized in statutes, edicts and legal precedents, is one that is told often.

Archaeological remains of a salt production facility in Hainan, China – photo by Anna Frodesiak / Wikimedia Commons

There is another side to this story, however, one that is more difficult to piece together. As pervasive and well-established as the salt regulations were, they were not foolproof. Outside the watchful eyes of the officially regulated markets in the cities, there sprawled a vibrant and nationwide unofficial network of those involved in the smuggling and bootlegging of contraband salt.

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After all, the government mark-ups on salt made it considerably more expensive, so there were always many who bought and traded in salt in secret, selling at beneath the marked-up price yet at a price that could still secure themselves a tidy profit.

Against this backdrop, Huang Chao (835–884)—a man who would one day pronounce himself Emperor—was born into a family of several generations of salt merchants, while Wang Xianzhi (d. 878)—the leader of the uprising that would enable Huang to do so—entered the risky vocation of salt smuggling as a youth.

So, while they would eventually join in arms to overthrow the state, the two men could be said to have started out on opposing sides of the salt industry. However, the world of salt was probably far less clear-cut than the surviving laws and treatises would have us believe. Corrupt officials and licensed traders had ample opportunity to take advantage of their position by taking their own cut of the salt, particularly when times were hard and the legislative infrastructure fragile, as was most definitely true in the final century of doomed Tang.

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A late imperial illustration of salt baskets, in this case possibly to be used for medicinal purposes – Wellcome Images

The revival of the governmental salt monopoly, necessary as it may have been to rebuild the country, did not just raise the price of pure salt. It had also had a knock-on effect on all those essential everyday preserved foods that required salt to make. It was as unpopular among the people as it was with merchants like Huang Chao’s family, who made their living through salt.

No doubt, in these tough times, both the bands of salt smugglers and the dodgy merchants selling salt at a cheaper rate enjoyed a Robin Hood-like rapport with the common folk. They made lives easier for the needy and were popular for it. And with popularity came influence and support.

When a severe famine exacerbated the situation in the 870s, smuggler Wang Xianzhi’s moment had come. Combining his support among the people with his guerilla know-how from years as a cross-district underground smuggler, he put together a band of rebels, seized control of the local region and launched an uprising against the Tang state. At first, support seemed only to snowball, with even some imperial army units joining his cause.

A map depicting the progression and extent of the uprising led by Wang Xianzhi and Huang Chao – image by SY / Wikimedia Commons

Someone else who joined up at this point was Huang Chao. Huang’s family background in the salt industry had given him much insight into the popular resentment towards state taxes. His biography in the New Book of Tang (an official history completed in 1060) shows him repeatedly deploying a line of rhetoric about the unfairness of taxes and the cruelty of the powers-that-be to garner support for his rebellion.

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The New Book is surprisingly even-handed in its depiction of the rebellion. It describes the many atrocities committed by Wang and Huang’s rebels, yet does not shy away from pointing out various instances of looting and destruction by imperial troops, the double-dealings and back-and-forth loyalties of the state’s generals as they switched from one side to the other, and the disorganized and ill-thought-through stratagems of the panicking regime as it scrambled to suppress the widespread uprising.

A late imperial illustration of salt production methods – Wellcome Images

Much like in the salt trade, the boundaries between the two sides were far from clear-cut, with bandit squads joining the imperial side and imperial troops joining the bandit side as the years unfolded. At one point, the court schemed to buy Wang Xianzhi himself over to the Tang side by offering him an official position. Wang Xianzhi tentatively accepted, but Huang Chao, who seems to have been the more idealistic of the pair, was incensed, both by Wang’s willingness to settle for anything less than a regime change and probably also the fact that he himself had not received an official pardon as a clause of the deal.

It is said that there was a punch-up between the two, which ended with Huang storming out leaving the beaten Wang on the floor. Thereafter, the two bands parted ways. Soon, in 878, Wang’s group was defeated and he was killed, while Huang’s fought on for a few more years. At one point, they took the capital and Huang declared himself the emperor of a new, Qi dynasty.

But this was short-lived; before long Huang and his ever-shrinking bandit army were back on the retreat. According to the New Book of Tang, in 884, as it became clear that all was lost, Huang spent his last days lamenting his failure to install a less corrupt regime. Rather than face capture by the enemy, he was beheaded by his nephew at his own request.

In spite of its eventual success in putting down the rebellion, the Tang dynasty proved unable to recover from the widespread destruction, famine and unrest the Wang-Huang uprising left in its wake. It fell a decade later in 906.

However, the governmental controls on salt and the illicit trade that ran parallel to it did not end with the dissolution of the Tang. In fact, they would remain a feature of Chinese history for around a millennium thereafter. The connection between the salt trade and rebellions also lingered on, and of salt traders-turned-rebels, Huang Chao is only the most famous; there were several more comparable figures to come.

For how salt is produced today in Qingdao, a city not far from Huang Chao’s hometown, see the following video:

Elizabeth Smithrosser is a PhD Student in Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford. Click here to view her university page.

Click here to read more articles by Elizabeth Smithrosser

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