A search for salt and iron leads to Needham’s tomes, and back home again to 陶朱公/TaoZhuGong

After referencing Alain Badiou’s quotes of the 盐铁论/YanTieLun/Discourses on Salt and Iron, was seized by an irresistable urge to read the two thousand year-old Chinese text in full. Swinging by the national reference library, located one copy in its original 古文/ancient Classical Chinese text, with its own complete concordance; very useful for this particular text.

But 古文 or ancient classical Chinese texts (roughly denoting all chinese texts from antiquity to the end of the Han Dynasty – 220 AD) are difficult to read, whatever form or discipline they come from. The 盐铁论, being an official court document with many technical –economic/mining/production/consumption– descriptions, seems especially obtuse. Interpretations of the text into 白話 or modern vernacular chinese are available, but only at the library’s repository section (off-site), and reservations+delivery will take a few days.
Undaunted, one turned to English translations, but could only turn up one title by Esson Gale (cited by Badiou), which the library regrettably does not possess.

Sigh, the delight and pain of obscure texts…

The apologetic yet resourceful librarian then suggested possible derivative references, and pointed towards noted British scientist and sinologist Joseph Needham (who took a chinese name! – 李約瑟) and his magnificent 27-volume magnum opus, Science and Civilisation in China.
Spent a glorious afternoon poring over Needham’s take on various diverse subjects, from 2000-year-old mining economics to ancient millitary technology to the fundamental underpinnings of Taoism and Confucianism in the history of Chinese science.

Needham’s references to the Discourses on Salt and Iron are less than exhaustive; but what he said definitely whetted one’s anticipation of reading the actual text, with references like:
The tone of the debate is surprising, with the debaters freely trading insults: ‘bigoted Confucians’ versus ‘decadent toadies’.
…suggested that rain might come if Sang Hongyang (the Imperial Counsellor) were boiled alive.
and allusions to Josephian-like cycles of rain/drought/famine.

One passing remark in speaking about “industry is among the proper concerns of the state” stood out particularly:
the reference to 陶朱公/TaoZhuGong, the exemplary scholar-trader of the Spring and Autumn Period (circa 500 BC).
陶朱公/TaoZhuGong is of course also more famously known as 范蠡/Fan Li, the eminent general/adviser/economist/strategist/loyalist to the King of Yue; as well as being the lover of XiShi, one of the renowned Four Beauties of ancient China.

More on 陶朱公/TaoZhuGong… …

One thought on “A search for salt and iron leads to Needham’s tomes, and back home again to 陶朱公/TaoZhuGong

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