“Inequality of Wealth” and Confucians Criticism in Early China
Speaker: Anthony Barbieri, University of California, Santa Barbara
Chapter 29 of the Discourses on Salt and Iron (Yantielun 鹽鐵論), entitled “Xianbuzu” 散（羨）不足 or “The Inequality of Wealth” is the longest, and in some ways, the most difficult to read chapter of the entire book. The structure of the chapter is also quite different from most of the remaining chapters, which are usually structured as an extended dialogue between the Worthies or Literati and the spokesmen for the government. After a very brief exchange between the parties, “The Inequality of Wealth” is presented as a long litany of thirty-two comparisons between deep antiquity, historical times, and the current day in terms of eight major categories of conspicuous consumption and social practices. The author argues that the simple and frugal practices of antiquity had been abandoned in recent times for a competition in conspicuous consumption by the wealthy (fuzhe) and the middle-class (zhongzhe), which was resulting in a greater inequality of wealth, further immiseration of the poor, and unsustainable exploitation of natural resources. This lecture looks at the nature of this economic reasoning in terms of Han economic, social, and material-culture history.