Western imperialism in the 19th century would do more than just reducing China to material poverty by its illicit drug trade, war indemnities, and unequal treaties that imposed territorial concessions, extraterritoriality, foreign control of customs, unilaterally imposed most-favored-nation trading status for the invading nations, and a wide range of other dishonorable impositions on China's economic and political sovereignty. As damaging as these material impositions would be, they would remain less corrosive than the role played by the imposed precepts of Western capitalism spread by imperialism in impoverishing Chinese culture, by destroying the indigenous socio-economic ideals that had once aspired toward personal and collective perfection as a purpose in life. Capitalism replaced feudal economic values with a blind marathon toward maximizing productive efficiency to satisfy the thirst of alien economies across the seas.
The claim made by apologists of Western imperialism of the 19th century that it would contribute, despite its other evils, to the spread of the benefits of modern capitalistic civilization to an underdeveloped area of the world would not be justified by fact in China, if anywhere else. Fear of alien cultural pollution, often exploited by xenophobic fanatics in revolutionary politics, would have a substantive historical base in modern China.
The segment of the Chinese population that would achieve success in this new 19th-Century semi-colonial capitalistic socio-economic environment would find it necessary to suppress its own traditional cultural ideals and to embrace the crass mercantile values that had been shunned previously by self-respecting citizens of the traditional culture, as exemplified in Tang time. The modern bourgeois class in China, not much different than its predecessor of past centuries in its basic values and outlook, would be largely uncultured. The difference is that merchants would be the elite of society in modern time, whereas in Tang time, they have been at the bottom of the social structure, ranking officially below professional prostitutes.
The two centers of recent bourgeois prosperity in China: pre-war Shanghai and post-war Hong Kong, despite decades of financial success, would fail to produce any significant cultural achievements. Unlike historical Florence, Venice, Amsterdam, London, or Chang'an during Tang time, where the success of trade achieved by the bourgeoisie would nurture the flowering of culture enjoyed by the ruling class, the modern national bourgeoisie in 19th-Century China would contribute only to the transfer of wealth from its own incompetent dynastic ruling class to the western imperial powers. Such transferred wealth would greatly enhance the cultural flowering of the ruling classes of London and Paris, and to a lesser degree Boston.
Traditional Chinese culture considers merchants who buy and sell for profit, bankers who lend other people's money as a livelihood, and speculators who profit from the needs of others in adversity, little better than social parasites. With its elite class in continuous decline for much of the past 2 centuries, Chinese culture naturally would suffer eclipse in modern time from which it would yet recover. In modern time, rare traces of traditional ideals would be found only in remote Chinese villages, untouched by the destructive influence of Western imperialism, where pride of workmanship would still show in peasant handicraft, and the quest for social harmony had not been compromised by disjointed individual initiatives. In these village societies, it would remain inconceivable that the betterment of the individual could be achieved independent of the betterment of the whole village, let alone at the expense of it. What would be bad for the village as a whole could not possibly be good for the individual villager. The revival of this focused pursuit of symbiotic union of personal fulfillment and collective ideal would be considered by many serious thinkers as a fundamental prerequisite for the renaissance of Chinese culture in modern time, as it is prevalent in Tang time. Many historians would credit this social cohesion of Tang culture, in a society of spiritual piety, ordered hierarchy, ethnic diversity, cultural assimilation, political cohesion, if not continuous stability, and social mobility, to the effectiveness of Confucian emphasis on self-restraint and the calming effect of Buddhist acceptance of fate. They would cherish the Confucian notion of natural hierarchy, balanced with the Buddhist view of all things being fundamentally equal in essence, that have permitted the pursuit of perfection to flourish at all social levels rather than being concentrated at the top.
Chinese political ideology has a history of protracted contest between the vision of Da'tong (General Harmony) and the pragmatism of Xiao'kang (Individual Contentment). In contemporary political terms, it is a struggle between the noble grandeur of communal socialist vision and the utilitarian efficiency of individual private enterprise. The political rise of every government has been predicated on its ability to skillfully balance the contention between these two ideologies for the benefit of an evolving new social order.
During the height of Chinese culture, such as the Tang dynasty in the 7th century, since money was only one of the determinants of a good life rather than the all consuming ingredient, the pleasures of life were not denied to those who did not aspire to financial wealth, or those who were unable to achieve it because they did not care to surrender to the rules of commerce.
The inner peace preached by Daoist and Buddhist precepts were verifiable by the individual's direct personal experience in the socio-economic realm of the Tang era. The rejection of materialistic concerns did not necessarily reduce one to abject poverty, nor earned society's scorn.
On the contrary, hermits were respected by society, and donations toward their upkeepwere considered as enlightened expressions of the donors' own sagacious insight rather than ostentatious acts of charity. Generally, an imbalance existed between donors and recipients, the number wishing to give frequently exceeding the number prepared to receive.
Whenever a seng (Buddhist monk) or a dao'shi (Daoist priest) or a wandering free spirit should show up in a village, his presence would be celebrated by an spontaneous outpouring of generous giving by the villagers that would resemble an instant festival.
Even in modern time, sengs in Southeast Asian societies would still receive daily meals by simply walking through villages, without begging, while the pious lay population would await their habitual schedule with the finest food in the house ready to give with eagerness, the way bird-lovers would feed their ornithic idols.
The Selected Biographies (Lie zhuan) section of the Old Book on Tang (Jiu Tang Shu), compiled in 945, would contain a chapter on hermits, with 21 entries, prefaced by a statement that the cultivation of hermitage traditionally encourages the virtue of humility and self-restraint while discouraging vulgar trends of competition and greed, although its Confucian authors would fail to realize that a celebrated hermit is an oxymoron.
Tang poet Wei Yingwu would write a famous poem expressing his admiration for the ascetic life of a nameless hermit, entitled: Remembering the Daoist in Chuanjiao Mountain (Ji Chuanjiao Shanzhong Dao'shi).
It reads as follows: "Now that court and province are neglecting fasting,
Suddenly I remember the guest from the mountain,
Who gathers thorn bushes under waterfalls,
Returning to cook white pebbles.
Wishing to bring him a gourd of wine,
As relief for distant stormy nights;
Fallen leaves having fully covered empty hills,
Where can one find his tracks?"
Hermits without employment were not outcast of society because the socio-economic concept of employment does not exist in Tang time. People did not have jobs, which are personal contracts in an modern industrialized economy to sell time and labor to an impersonal organization for money.
The job as an economic notion would be an artificial phenomenon born of the industrial society, a necessary evil of modern life, through which money rather than personal satisfaction would be the primary reward for impersonal, piecemeal work, made tolerable by the promise of desirable non-job-related consumption to be purchased with money earned. Boredom with job-related work would be an accepted given, particularly for factory and office workers, the majority of the modern work force. Boredom at work would create the modern need for management, an euphemism for antagonistic supervision of bored workers and uncaring labor and for preemption of individual decision-making at the job site. The difference in value between the payment for work and the market value of work's productivity, less payment to management, operation and materials, would is return on capital.
The high pay for management would be justified by its ability to keep wages low and production high, an aim that would create work conditions that would requires more supervision, thus creating a self-perpetuating vicious circle of more management and its seeming indispensability. It would be similar to the circular phenomenon of poverty resulting in increased crime rate which would create the need for more police which would increase public expenses paid by higher taxes which would exacerbate further poverty.
In modern life, activities that are pleasurable would be considered hobbies, and only disagreeable activities would be considered work. The pain of a job, as much as its productivity, would be compensated with money. Money would be made indispensable for even basic consumption in a modern money economy.
To keep workers working, prices for food and housing are artificially kept at a level to absorb most of the workers' income. In sectors of surplus productive capacity, production would be cut and workers laid-off to keep supply scarce to maintain prices. Frequently, surplus basic commodities such as grain and milk are bought up at artificially high prices, kept in storage or allowed to be destroyed or rot, so that the horrible prospect of free food destroying the incentive to work would not materialize.
So all who do not have unearned income from capital would have to work for a living, thus sustaining the value of money and insuring a steady supply of workers.
Leisure would be defined as the hours after the workday and as the much-awaited annual vacation, during which the pleasures of life would be pursued. Excess of leisure beyond paid vacations would be called dropping-out, or if involuntary, would be classified as unemployment, an unpleasant and disgraceful predicament, except for those lucky enough to own capital.
Instead of impersonal jobs, people in Tang time have livelihoods which are functional categories of work in the socio-economic order based on each individual's own calling. The purpose of work and the purpose of life are congruent, and pride in the product of one's labor is identical with pride in one's existence. There is no need for management, which would be a sanitized euphemism in modern time for supervision of depersonalized and forced labor. This happy condition experienced by all in Tang time would still occur in modern society, but unfortunately, it would be enjoyed increasingly only by the economic and cultural elite.
Leisure as an escape from the drudgery of work is an unknown concept in Tang time. Neither is the concept of vacation. Skills are developed by workers in Tang society not as a mere bargaining chip in the impersonal labor market, but as an expression of their own existential essence.
The concept of junk, in the form of shoddy products, does not exist in the economic culture of the Tang dynasty, as no one is prepared to renounce his pride of personality by making artifacts below his ability. The people of Buddhist Bali have a saying: "we have no art; we do everything well." It is a Daoist concept and it applies also to Tang culture.
In 682, 1st year of the reign of Perpetual Purity (Yongchun), a drought wiped out the harvest and causes terrible widespread famine. Grain prices soared 100 times higher than normal during the peak of severe shortage. Sky-rocketing prices of food resulting from severe drought strained the monetary system, which has already been moving toward a liquidity crisis. Economic growth had gradually but increasingly changed the economy from a barter to a cash system, creating demands for privately-minted coins. The generally accepted circulation of private coins began to threaten the monetary authority of the central government. Private banks first came into existence in China during this time of her history.
Under the barter system, coins were used only for settling fractional difference in value in the exchange of goods. Consequently, the demand for coins had been small. As the economy became more advanced and sophisticated, the flow of cash increased, creating a shortage of currency. As food prices skyrocketed, a crisis develops in the money supply.
The Tang court attempted to forbid widespread circulation of privately-minted coins during periodic food shortage, with the purpose of limiting the amount of money chasing after a dwindling supply of food to prevent inflation and to control food prices. This policy of scarce currency created adds new friction with wealthy guizus (aristocrats), who saw profiteering opportunities in acting as unregulated regional monetary agencies by issuing their own regional currencies, often without the required discipline of adequate assets and reserves. Also, guizus often ruthlessly engaged in monopolistic trade practices through unfair control of credit.
Since the founding of Tang dynasty 64 years ago in 618, a new coinage had been introduced known as Tongbao Qian (Universally Valued Coin) in 622, 4th year of the reign of Martial Virtue (Wu'de). Only 3 persons in the empire had enjoyed the right to mint Tongbao Qian. They were: Li Shi'min, the then Prince of Qin and future Genesis Emperor (Taizong), who had been granted 3 kilns; Li Yuanji, Prince of Qi, younger brother of Li Shi'min, also 3 kilns; and Pei Ji, an old-line aristocrat (guizu), close friend and drinking companion of the High Grand Emperor (Gaozu), had been granted 1 kiln.
All others caught minting coins without authority would face the death sentence, confiscation of assets and penalty of slavery for family members. The biggest American bank: Citibank, would call itself Tongbao Bank in Chinese-speaking markets in Asia in modern time.
Doug Henwood wrote:
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> Henry C.K. Liu wrote: "In Chinese culture, a rich man is automatically
> disqualified as a wise intellectual. Preoccupation with counting money is
> considereed an insurmountable obstacle to the task of finding truth."
> Henry, Is not this one of those aspects of Chinese culture which justified
> Mao in
> calling China "semi-feudal." That is, it seems that this contempt for "counting
> money" as an aspect of *Chinese* (as opposed to Chinese socialist or socialist)
> culture should be linked to a similar contempt (in the west) by Plato,
> Pope, etc.
> -- i.e., those thinkers who either first formulated the principles of tributary
> culture or (during the rise of capitalism) defended that disappearing culture
> against the rising capitalist ethos.
> The great thing about money, from its first appearance in early class
> was that it generated the context in which self-consciously abstract thought
> could flourish.