Emperor Wu-ti began his reign in 140 BC. During its early years he was under the moderating influence of relatives and court officials; however, by the late 130s he had decided that the essentially defensive foreign policy of his predecessors was not going to solve his foreign problems. In 133 he launched attacks on the nomadic Hsiung-nu people, who constituted China’s principal threat on the northern frontier, and thereafter he committed his realm to the expansion of the empire. By 101 Wu-ti’s troops, spurred by an emperor heedless of their hardships and intolerant of defeat, had extended Chinese control in all directions. His wars and other undertakings exhausted the state’s reserves and forced him to look for other sources of income. New taxes were decreed and state monopolies on salt, iron, and wine were instituted.
Following Wu-ti’s death, a public debate on the state monopolies was held in 81 BC, an account of which was published as the dialog Discourses on Salt and Iron. Officers were appointed to equalize distribution by purchasing cheap commodities and selling when prices were high, thus preventing prices from being too low or too high and maximizing profit for the government. Although treasury deficits were eliminated and adequate stores supplied the armies on the frontiers, the people forced to eat without salt because of its high cost or use inferior iron tools to farm became discontent. Thus sixty scholars were summoned from around the empire to debate the issues.
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In the dialog proponents of the government’s current policies argued that they successfully provided iron tools to the peasants and increased trade and wealth. Criticizing this profiteering, Confucian reformers emphasizing agriculture wanted the use of money reduced. They found government harsh and oppressive, complaining of the disparities between the rich and poor. Critics also felt that expansion and foreign adventures had weakened China without maintaining safety. They argued the ancients had honored virtue and discredited the use of arms. Government realists disagreed and relying on laws and punishments pointed to the success of Shang Yang; but critics countered that it was short-lived and that Qin policies were unscrupulous. The reformers emphasized moral principles and complained that government officials were using their positions to increase their incomes to incalculable levels, a practice Confucius disapproved.
Wu-ti came to power from the popular support of his apparent Confucian beliefs. He, however, drew from the legalistic system under the Qin dynasty and found the wealth need to fund his expansion through practices such as the monopolies. The debate revealed the clear divisions between the realistic legalists in power and the principled scholars who wanted reforms. The government retained the monopolies on salt and iron, but it became clear that many of the Confucian literates saw his actions for what they truly were. Wu-ti bridged the division between state and society and created a system where non-Confucian ideals filled the government pockets by oppressing the commoner. An important quote from the debate is that “Government should not compete with people for profit.”