The Miyagi Model: rereading “The Charcoal Seller

I. Palace and Government

Bai Juyi’s masterpiece “The Charcoal Seller” was selected as a middle school language textbook. Two eunuchs, “with paper in their hands and words in their mouths”, bought the charcoal seller a cartload of more than 1,000 pounds of charcoal with “half a piece of red yarn and a piece of silk”.

The reader can sense the unfairness of the transaction, but to what extent? Recently, I have been interested in the question of market types, and as I became interested in the word “market” in the small four-character preface to this poem, which reads, “the market”, I did some research.

The “Charcoal Seller” was probably written in the fourth year of the Yuanhe period (809) of the Tang dynasty, when money and silk were used as currency. In the Tang dynasty, money and silk were the currency, and it was normal for eunuchs to buy things with silk fabrics, but the question was how much to give and how little to give.

According to unearthed documents in Turpan, during the Tianbao period (742-756), medium-quality charcoal cost about 1.5 Wen per kilogram [1], and medium-quality silk cost 460 Wen per horse [2]. Based on this ratio, it is estimated that 1,000 pounds of charcoal was worth 3.3 silk [3], while the eunuchs gave only half a red yarn and a ten feet of silk, discounting the silk by 1.5 [4]. Such disparities approximated the market price of grain in the 1970s and the unified purchase price [5].

Han Yu recorded the history of eunuchs “suppressing the purchase” of goods from the people. He said that, in the latter part of the palace market, “the rate with hundreds of money goods, put people straight thousands of money goods” (Han Changli Collection, Waijiji, Vol. 7, Shunzong Shiji II), was less than 10% off, deviating from the normal market by more than 90%. Han also said, with goods into the market, and even have returned empty-handed, “called the palace market, and the real plunder”.

Plundering is not uncommon, nor is the market. The market, called the market but actually taken, is theoretically rare. My theoretical quandary is: to what kind of market does the palace market belong?

In contemporary economics, markets are divided into perfectly competitive markets and imperfectly competitive markets. A perfectly competitive market is one in which there is free entry and exit, where there are many buyers and sellers, each with minimal influence on prices. This is the ideal market. Imperfectly competitive markets, depending on the number of monopolists, are divided into monopolistic, oligopolistic and monopolistically competitive markets, with more or less monopoly to eat. However, a market is a market after all, and both sides can bargain. Even if you run into an exclusive monopolist who has no two prices, you can withdraw from the deal, and there is always freedom of choice.

However, the charcoal seller has neither the freedom of exit nor the right to bargain. To be more precise, the charcoal seller had freedom, but was deprived of it by the eunuchs. The official document was a document of the emperor. The emperor’s edicts were also called edicts. The officials had the right to legislate and issue documents to expand or curtail their freedom, and the common people did not dare to disobey them. The problem is that the only means of exchange in a pure market is money, and if you add the means of power, and divide the traders into rulers, officials and citizens, the officials hold the power to enter the market, the market will have a taste of officialdom. A market with an official element can be called an official market, to borrow an ancient Chinese term.

It just so happens that the word “market” in the small preface of “Selling Charcoal Weng” is mistaken for “official market” in the Song Shaoxing edition of Bai Juyi’s collection and the Ming Wanli’s Ma Yuan tuning edition, as well as in the Qing Kangxi Yangzhou’s “All Tang Poems” edition (see Zhu Jincheng’s “Bai Juyi’s Collection”, vol. 4). This is an enlightening and wonderful mistake. The scope of the official market was greater than that of the palace market and more universal. The term was used in the Han dynasty to refer to an official market. An official market naturally has the right to decide who can and cannot enter, and what goods can and cannot enter, which can lead to markets that surround coercive powers such as salt and iron franchises, wine and tea tastings, or franchises. As a special form of the official market, the palace market went even further: coercive power entered the market directly and became a means of exchange like money.

In short, the palace market was a kind of official market, a mongrel market, not a pure market.

Neither the palace market nor the official market is a geographical concept, but rather a political and economic concept describing power relations. In the Tang dynasty, there were two markets in the south of Chang’an, and the charcoal seller parked his car outside the southern gate of the city, just as the cattle carts pulling cabbages are parked near the entrance to the farmers’ market today, and we see only ordinary markets. At this time, the imperial envoy descended, and so the market descended. The word “palace market” can be read as a subject-predicate structure, meaning court procurement; it can also be read as a proper noun, meaning a market in which the imperial power has joined. The word “market” can also be read in this way. The official market emerged when the compulsory power of the officials joined the market, and received value in the transaction. When compulsory power is traded for 50 per cent of the value, the official market is a five per cent market. If the price is 90% of the value, there is a nine-percent official market. To be more precise, the official market of nine parts in color, consisting of nine parts of official power and one part of the market, has a very low market purity.

Second, the balance of supply and demand in the imperial market

Power can now be offset, a new cost-benefit calculation begins, and the question of market equilibrium in the palace market arises.

Han describes the evolution of the buyer. In the old days, he said, the palace bought outside goods, sponsored by officials, and payment was forthwith made at the market price. In the last year of the Jingyuan dynasty (around 797), eunuchs were used as ambassadors to “suppress the purchase” of other people’s goods, slightly below the market price. In the end of the year, the eunuchs arranged hundreds of people (sometimes called Baiwang) to view the goods sold by others in the two cities and important lively neighborhoods. The only thing they did was to declare that they were purchasing from the palace, and then they would have to pay for it, and no one would dare to ask about its origin. The first thing that I want to do is to tell you how much I want you to pay for the goods you buy. Next, Han tells the story of the small folk who bring their goods into the market and make a scene and return empty-handed, leading to violent protests. (Han Changli Collection, Outer Collection Vol. VII, Shunzong Shishu II)

Three trends emerge from this narrative: first, it is becoming easier to assert power. At the beginning, documents are required, but later, only verbal declarations are required. Secondly, the number of buyers is increasing. From the group of eunuchs to the ruffians and impostors, there were more and more “buyers”. Thirdly, the degree of “suppression of buying” became heavier and heavier.

This trend is easy to understand.

Take, for example, the story of the charcoal seller, a eunuch with a “handful of paperwork”. How much does it cost to make such a document when the eunuch, who “reads the document in his hand and calls it a royal decree”, can spend half of the money by reading it out loud? If it were as simple as opening a letter of introduction in the office today, letters of introduction would fly everywhere. If the procedure for opening a letter of introduction is strict, you might as well exchange it for tobacco, alcohol or even money, which in today’s terms is called buying and selling. If you bring the staff in charge of the seal into the partnership, and share the cooperation, it is even a good business without capital. Furthermore, if the charcoal seller could not read and write, what if he used an old document to pass himself off as a charcoal seller? What if we don’t even take the old documents and just say “Edict”? As long as power is cheap, the number of people who eat power is bound to increase, and the ways of eating power are becoming more and more abundant.

At the same time, to the agents of power, it is always cheaper to have power. It is always cheaper for the agents of power to use power for nothing, and it is always cheaper for them to use it for themselves, while the losses go to the charcoal sellers and the social order. The charcoal seller and the ant people are just ants, not worth mentioning. The emperor is responsible for the long term stability of the society. If the emperor doesn’t care, should he let eunuchs worry about the future generations?

When eunuchs took over the power in the palace market, the management of power became increasingly lax and more and more people joined the buyer’s group. Once they have joined, and with unrestricted power, they must try to suppress prices and buy more and more heavily.

How did the sellers respond?

The New Book of Tang – Food and Goods II describes the reaction of shopkeepers: “Every middle official, selling pulp and cakes, all withdrew their shops and blocked the door.”

Too late to close the door and hide? Bai Juyi described the poor condition of the charcoal seller, which was the usual state of the “court market,” and the quality of the official market was about five or six points.

The eunuchs only gave him a few feet of silk, and then asked him to deliver it to the palace. The eunuch asked him to deliver the firewood to the palace and even asked him for the door bag. Now I’m giving you the firewood for free, and I don’t want any money to go home, but if you don’t do it, I’ll die. He said he would beat up the eunuchs. (Han Changli Collection, Outer Collection Vol. 7, Shunzong Shishu Records II)

It seems that the higher the success of the official market, the harder it is to maintain the balance between supply and demand. Buyers are too cheap, more and more people join; sellers lose too much, more and more people escape. If this continues, the market will either disintegrate, or turn into a battlefield. Between these two paths, there may be a third, for example, to limit the success and scope of the official market, so that the unlucky are often rotated, as if by chance robbery. Or an additional tax could be levied on the market, so that all the traders would share in the loss of the robbery.

The story goes that the firewood seller beat up the eunuch, was arrested by a street urchin, and reported the incident to the emperor. The Emperor ordered the eunuchs to be dismissed and ten peasants to be given ten pieces of silk, but refused to abolish the market. It seems that the emperor was exploring a third way, both to preserve the palace market and to limit its success.

III. The political balance of power in the palace market

Although the palace market was small, there were two major supporters behind it. One was the emperor and the other was a group of eunuchs.

Dezong was poor and particularly concerned about money, and the palace market allowed him to save on royal expenses.

The eunuchs controlled the channels for information and decision-making, as well as the forbidden army, which was extremely powerful and made it easy for them to profit from the palace market.

However, the palace market was detrimental to the interests of producers and small traders, affected the production and circulation of goods, and was not conducive to long-term peace and security. General officials also did not share in the benefits of the palace market and they did not support it.

Han records an incident of the imperial prince. Shunzong was still the crown prince and was studying at the Eastern Palace. On one occasion, he discussed politics with the servants and Wang Shuwen and talked about the palace market. The crown prince said that I was prepared to speak highly of the matter to the emperor. All the people praised him, but Wang Shuwen was the only one who did not speak. When they left, the Crown Prince asked Wang Shuwen to stay behind and asked, “Why were you the only one who was silent just now? Any ideas? Wang Shu Wen said that the Crown Prince’s duty is to serve the Emperor’s meals and greetings, and it is inappropriate to discuss foreign affairs. How can you justify the suspicion that the Crown Prince has bought the hearts of the people, given his long reign? The Crown Prince was greatly alarmed: if it were not for Mr., how could I have known this. (Han Changli Collection, Outer Collection Vol. VII, Shunzong Shishu II)

In the end, it was the eunuchs who caused the harm to the palace market. When Emperor Shunzong was in the East Palace, it was inappropriate to discuss the palace market, but also because of this, not only because of the suspicion that it had the suspicion of collecting people’s hearts.” (Draft of Yuan Bai’s poems) Mr. Chen’s comments are astute. If you can’t afford to provoke a eunuch, you can’t afford to provoke the palace market, let alone your superiors.

The Dauphin did not dare to speak, the responsibility of speech of the admonition officers and the imperial historians must speak. The Emperor refused to listen to the criticism of the eunuchs. On one occasion, Han Yu, the supervisor of the imperial court, criticized the imperial city, angering the emperor so much that he was demoted to the rank of Yang Shan. It can be seen, want to overthrow the palace city, the official power is not enough.

When the authorities “fawned over the officials” and no one dared to argue, Wu Mian, who was the younger brother of Empress Zhang Jing, proposed an alternative plan to the emperor. As the younger brother of Empress Zhang Jing, Wu Mian was a powerful and thrifty man. As the highest official of the capital, the palace and the city were under his jurisdiction, and the grievances of the citizens could not be ignored. Wu Mian said to the emperor, “It is difficult to distinguish between truth and falsehood because I am a traitor in the palace market.” (New Tang Book of Food and Goods II) He suggested that what was needed in the palace, just oblige the minister to handle it. If one did not want foreign ministers to hear about the palace, it would be best to select eunuchs of advanced age and trustworthiness as palace market orders and deal fairly so as to avoid a lot of trouble. (The New Book of Tang – Chronicles of the Eighty-Fourth – Wu Mian)

Wu Mian’s proposal implied a three-tier strategy. Firstly, it was easy for the emperor to accept the idea of protecting the eunuchs’ interests. Secondly, although the abolition of the market was detrimental to the eunuchs, Wu did not nominally oppose the interests of the eunuchs directly, but only those of the “villains” who were difficult to distinguish from false eunuchs and difficult for the eunuchs to refute. In the end, it was the eunuchs who had the power to control the market and the eunuchs who had the power to control the market. The emperor was “quite agreeable” to Wu’s suggestion.

Another very powerful man, the ambassador Zhang Jianfeng, Han Yu’s original boss, also said bad things about the market during the hajj. “De Zong was quite deeply jia na”. (“Old Tang Shu – Biography of Zhang Jianfeng”)

In the 26th year of the reign of Dezong, Ch’ien Mu’s comment on him was: “Great ambition, small talent, hankering and jealousy, appeasement of fiefs, accumulation of goods and wealth, and appointment of eunuchs” (Outline of the History of the State). The first two articles are a matter of the emperor’s character, let’s leave it at that. The last three relate to three subjects of interest. First, the group of eunuchs, who supported the palace market; second, one of the fiefdoms, who opposed the palace market; and third, the emperor himself, who could either amass wealth through the palace market or entrust it to Peking Zhao Yin, whose attitude should be somewhere in between. The survival or abolition of the palace market had its advantages and disadvantages, depending on Dezong’s personal preference. In the end, the eunuchs were not able to get the money they needed. In the end, the eunuch’s order was to abolish the palace market. When De Zong heard this reply, he liked it, believed it completely, and never heard anyone talk about the palace market again. (New Tang Shu – Food and Goods Zhi II, Old Tang Shu – Biography of Zhang Jianfeng)

In the first month of the twenty-first year (805) of the reign of Jeong-yuan, Dezong died and Shunzong Li reclaimed the throne. In February, strike the palace city.

IV. Equilibrium in a Broader Context

The decision on the survival of the imperial palace was largely formed within the scope of palace politics, with the highest power weighing and deciding, reflecting the interests of the various factions at the court. What about the biggest stakeholders, the people of the capital who suffered?

It was also possible for the people to make their voices heard directly and influence decisions.

In the third year of Dezong’s Jianzhong rebellion (782), the imperial court did not have enough money to quell the rebellion, so the emperor issued an edict to borrow money from wealthy merchants. Any part with assets above 10,000 Guan was borrowed. This was akin to forcibly spreading the war debt. Not enough, but also seized merchants’ food cellars and pawnbrokers’ money chests, as long as there was money in corn and wheat, forcibly borrowed a quarter, “the people for the strike” (Zizhi Tongji, vol. 227), thousands of citizens stopped the prime minister crying. When the matter became too serious, Wei Zhen, the deputy mayor of Beijing, asked his superiors to exempt all those who had less than a hundred coins and fifty drachmas of grain.

It seems that the value of power in the loan market might have been reduced after the people made a fuss over the matter.

The official balance of power was probably as follows: a rebellion in a fief would cost 5 million coins if it took half a year to put down the rebellion. Forced borrowing from wealthy merchants and offending one or two thousand of them could solve the financial difficulties for several years. But they were wrong, and they only got 880,000 coins, which was enough to force them to hang themselves. So to expand the strike surface, seized the grain cellar and money box, to the extent of ten thousand people to strike the market and stop the road to cry, and more than 1.1 million, a total of 2 million (the “capitalist general guide” volume 227). Forced into the market, got this short-term gain, that is, more than 70 days of military expenses to quell the rebellion, but also created new unrest, inspired more people’s rebellious intentions, but also damaged the tax base. Which of the pros and cons is more important? How about gains and losses in six months? What about the gains and losses of ten or twenty years? It is a combination of political economy and military trade-offs over time. If the losses outweigh the gains, the policy is adjusted. One way to do this is to narrow the scope of the crackdown and leave the hawkers alone. Another way is to shoot at the top and raise the organizational costs of troublemaking. At the very least, adjust the policy to a level where the short-term gains outweigh the short-term losses.

It takes organization to make trouble. Charcoal-selling victims, scattered in space and time, are difficult to gather spontaneously into an influential force. In the imperial system, there are not many legitimate ways for public opinion to influence decision-making, and although good officials like Han and Bai Juyi may become representatives of public opinion, it is a matter of luck whether they can meet a good official and whether the good official’s words work or not. Bad luck and a lack of organization requires a sudden event to provide a chance to make trouble. If you don’t even have the opportunity, you have to wait for the political balance to change.

In June of the fourth year of Jianzhong (783), the imperial court raised the market transaction tax from 2% to 5% (counting strangers) and imposed a property tax (tax interval), again causing public discontent. In October, 5,000 Jing Yuan soldiers passed through the capital to go to the front, expecting to be rewarded with something, but were only given a rough meal. The Jing Yuan army became agitated and poured into the palace to loot it. As they entered the city, the people fled in terror, and the rebels shouted, “Don’t be afraid, you won’t get your tax dollars, you’ll get your tax dollars! I’m not charging you property tax! As the people watched, De Zong fled in great haste.

The emperor fled to Fengtian, where he went to war with the rebellious Zhu Hua, who had embraced his claim to the throne, and immediately reflected on his policies and issued a sinful edict announcing the abolition of the interval tax and the elimination of stranger’s fees and other miscellaneous taxes.

Thus, it seems that in order to influence decisions, the people could count on a pattern of political competition that required winning the hearts and minds of the people, in addition to making trouble. Generally speaking, conditions or patterns of political competition suitable for troublemaking rarely occur. Without these conditions, it is difficult for the market and the economy as a whole to resist their intrusion, if power is willing.

Still, the palace market is an example.

In the Song dynasty, in the light of the drawbacks of the Tang palace market, a miscellaneous buying service was established, responsible for the procurement of goods needed in the palace, and presided over by both Peking officials and eunuchs. Jing-You Zhong (around 1036) expressly ordered that all goods, must be paid for according to the actual value before entering the palace. After fourteen or fifteen years, the palace bought things for the little people, and there was “no money for the years”. Song Ren Zong said that this was too disturbing to the people. So he reiterated the order of King You. After six or seven years, Ren Zong again issued an edict, the palace to take gold and silk to buy shopping, gold and silk valuation, must be under the supervision of the Three Judges “flat valuation”, not “suppressed with” small people. (Ma Duan Lin “Literature Tongkao” Volume 20) Thus it seems, to strong overpower the weak, suppressed to buy suppressed with, almost natural trend.

In addition to the palace market, the government relied on the power to traders and folk shopping, there are many tricks and say, such as Branch buy, Branch rate, and buy, and buy, hqm, etc. (Jin) Li Jie said: “The government is the only one that has the power to buy and buy. (Jin) Li Jie poem said: “rod head to play hqm, dingkou sign to volunteer army”, depicting the truth of the so-called cheap grain (hqm).

So, what are the sufficient and necessary conditions for forcing power out of the market and allowing the birth, development and long-term maintenance of a purebred market? I don’t know if a positive answer can be found in Chinese history. But I do know that the so-called market and economy in modern Chinese is the Japanese translation of the English words market and economy, which were introduced to China only 110 years ago. In the ancient Chinese language, market means only a place for buying and selling, and economy means only a place for helping the people. The independence of the market and the economy from political power, and the property and personal rights that underpin this independence, are the product of a particular stage in the evolution of history. It was only in 17th-century England, where the king, the nobility, and the commoners had a tripartite check and balance, and where the king was under the law, that the rights of person and property took precedence over royal power.


[1] According to Turpan Dagu instrument No. 3046: white tamarisk charcoal one catty up straight money three pennies twice (missing), tamarisk charcoal one catty up straight money one penny five pennies twice (missing). Quoted from the Korean plate: “Tang Tianbao when the peasant life of a glimpse – Dunhuang Turpan data reading journal of one”, “Xiamen University Journal” 1963, No. 4. This article takes the average of the medium prices of two kinds of charcoal, i.e., one and a half cents per pound of charcoal.

[2] According to the Turpan dagu instrument 3097 records: raw silk a horse on the straight money four hundred and seven hundred and seventy words sub four hundred and six hundred and fifty under four hundred and fifty words. Provenance ibid.

[3] The price of silk at the time when the poem “Selling Charcoal Weng” was composed was more than 70% higher than that of the Tianbao period, and the location was different.

[4] Tang law stipulated that a piece of silk was four zhang long and one foot eight inches wide. The three types of textiles that appear in this paper are defined as: silk, plain-weave raw silk fabric. Yarn, the light and thin of silk. Aya, thin and fine and grain like ice cream silk fabric. The price of yarn is roughly equivalent to the price of silk, the price of damask is several times the price of silk. This article assumes that the price of a ten feet of damask equal to a silk.

[5] “The mid-1970s was the period when the difference between the unified purchase price of grain and the market price was the largest, when the market price was generally two to three times the unified purchase price.” See Wen Tiejun, “A Study of the Basic Economic System in Rural China,” China Economic Press, May 2000, 1st edition, p. 175.

Yanhuang Chunqiu, No. 2, 2011.