Monday, June 14, 2021

During the Opium Wars, a Story of Virtue and Wealth (Part 1)

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During the time of the Opium Wars in China, Zeng Guofan led the Hunan army with full authority from the Emperor and was responsible for all the financial management, but he never embezzled any of the army’s money.

At the time, the salt trade was a way of making money using coupons to exchange during buying and selling of the salt. It was a way for the government to control salt production and regulate sales.

The interest on a salt ticket could be 4,000 or 5,000 ounces of silver. According to the rules, the Zeng family was entitled to receive about 100 or 200 tickets or coupons. However, Zeng strictly prohibited his family from receiving them.

Another figure from Chinese history, Lin Zexu was well-known for banning the opium trade. He could have quickly gotten millions in bribes as long as he relaxed law enforcement slightly. His refusal to do so contributed to conflict with the British and he ended up being exiled in order to appease them. The choices made by these two men are quite a bit different than most people imagined.

During the Republic of China, Zeng Guofan’s grandson Nie Yuntai served as the Chairman of the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce. With his famous background, Nie had a good relationship with powerful descendants and wealthy business people. After witnessing the rise and fall of some families, he found that it was easy for people to make a fortune, but it was challenging for them to keep their wealth.

Artwork depicting British troops invading Chusan, China, during the Opium Wars.
Nie Yuntai’s grandfather led the Hunan army and was responsible for all the financial management. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

In the late Qing Dynasty, some of the significant families governing civil and military affairs were very rich, far surpassing his maternal grandfather Zeng. However, by the time of the Republic of China, several of those prominent families had already declined. In just a few decades, the wealth, passing down to the third generation, was gone. On the other hand, even though his own family held power, they refused to make money for themselves and underwent significant changes as well. Nie published his insights on these matters in a book called The Law of Preserving Wealth.

The commander-in-chief vows not to take any money for the family

Nie mentioned in the book that his maternal grandfather Zeng had been in power for 20 years, and so it would have been easy for him to make money for his family based on his position. As the supreme commander of the Hunan army, Zeng had absolute financial control. The imperial court disbursed the military expenses of the Hunan army, and those funds were at his disposal. According to statistics, since the Hunan army’s establishment in the third year of Emperor Xianfeng’s reign to the end of the Second Opium War, Zeng signed out military pay worth about 50 million ounces of silver. It would have been easy to accumulate millions in wealth for himself by skimming some off the top.

When Zeng commanded the Hunan army, the money he sent home was less than his previous salary as an official in Beijing, and sometimes he even sent nothing at all. Zeng once swore an oath to his staff: “I will never take money from the army to send home.” At that time, most of the generals and officials around him also had clean hands, and their good conduct benefited people in other ways.

Artwork depicting a procession of Chinese troops accompanying the Qianlong Emperor.
Zeng swore to his staff that he would never take money from the army. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

Nie explained the reason in a letter from his family. Zeng expressed his loyalty by swearing an oath: “No love for money and no fear of death.” Besides what was needed for the everyday necessities of food and clothing, Zeng did not send that much money home. One reason behind this was that Zeng worried about the money leading his family to adopt an extravagant lifestyle.

He often donated his salary for military expenses. On the night of December 14, in the seventh year of Emperor Xianfeng’s rein, Zeng wrote in a letter to his brother Zeng Guoquan: “I have a salary of 21,000 ounces of silver in Zhejiang Salt Bureau. An official from the bureau arrived yesterday. I asked him to release the payment from my account to top up my military pay.”

Hold financial power and never take a salt ticket

Zeng established the salt ticket system in the Huainan and Huaibei areas. The ticket price was low, but the interest was high. Each salt ticket was initially worth 280 ounces of silver but later sold for 28,000 ounces of silver. The interest element on a salt ticket was 4,000or 5,000 ounces of silver.

At that time, any family owning one salt ticket could be called rich. However, Zeng specifically urged his family not to take them. Although it was well within the expectations of the Zeng family to legally receive 100 or 200 salt tickets, Zeng refused to make a fortune, nor did he hope for his descendants to accumulate wealth in this way. He was worried about the extravagance of future generations.

A bowl of pink Himalayan sea salt.
Any family owning one salt ticket could be called rich and the Zeng family could have received one or two hundred of them. (Image: via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Zeng believed that if his son was talented, he could find his way even without an official career. If the son was the family’s black sheep, leaving him more money would only make him commit more sins and tarnish the family’s reputation further.

Under the influence of Zeng Guofan, the Zeng family’s descendants were self-reliant and many of them were talented. According to statistics, the Zeng family, starting with Zeng Guofan, has had no “prodigal son” in its eight generations over the past 200 years. Among the Zeng family’s descendants, nearly 200 people received higher education, and there are as many as 240 people with prestige. Thanks to Zeng Guofan’s wise decision, the family accumulated virtue instead of wealth, and when viewed in this light, remains prosperous to this day.

Translated by Joseph Wu and edited by Helen

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Raven Montmorency
Raven Montmorency is a pen name used for a writer based in India. She has been writing with her main focus on Lifestyle and human rights issues around the world.
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