Wealth and Fate: The Salt Merchant’s Ambitious Son

Vintage open chest, coins on a wooden table, and a bright light from inside the chest.

Wealth may flow abundantly, but it's our fate that truly dictates its lasting impact on our lives. (Image: Elena Sergeeva via Dreamstime)

Some individuals amass immense wealth through hard work, talent, opportune moments, or chance. Yet while some are able to retain their wealth, others can’t. Why is this? Is it pure coincidence, or is there an underlying inevitability to it? This can be attributed to the “fortune” predestined in one’s life.

Imagine if a person’s life is likened to a ship. While some ships can carry only 50 tons, others might carry 500 tons, 5,000, or even 10,000 tons. If a person’s destiny permits their ship to carry only 50 tons, but by sheer effort or chance they amass wealth weighing a thousand tons, then the ship, being too lightweight for its cargo, won’t journey far. At the first sign of stormy weather, it would undoubtedly capsize, causing all the hard-earned wealth to be lost, benefiting others instead.

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Consider the following historical tale:

The salt merchant of Yangzhou and his ambitious son

During the Ming Dynasty, there was a salt merchant in Yangzhou named Xiao, who had been in the salt business for generations. He spent vast amounts of money to entertain scholars, causing his fortune to decline, and eventually leading to his demise. Xiao had a son, Xiao Xisheng, who mingled with scholars from a young age. Groomed by this cultured environment, he eventually became the governor of Yunnan’s Dali District.

Salt field spreads out far in the distance with mountains seen in the background.
During the Ming Dynasty, there was a salt merchant named Xiao who had been in the salt business for generations. (Image: Drnn79 via Dreamstime)

When Xiao Xisheng was posted to Yunnan, he brought along his wife and younger brother, Xiao Xixian. The latter, being the apple of their mother’s eye, was now in his twenties and yet had never taken to his studies. Given the indulgence of his mother and his brother’s lenience, Xiao Xixian faced no reprimand or urgency to change.

While in Yunnan, Xiao Xixian developed an interest in tales of alchemy and mining, often discussing them with the local scholars and guests. One visitor claimed that observing the vegetation in Yunnan’s mountains could reveal hidden silver mines beneath. He spoke of people who, for a modest sum, leased entire mountains and became vastly wealthy from the discovered silver. Entranced by these stories, Xiao Xixian spent over a year exploring the mountains, hoping to find such a silver mine, but to no avail.

After repeated failures, in an attempt to evade responsibility, the guest nonchalantly pointed at a random mountain peak, proclaiming it rich in mineral resources. Xiao Xixian, desperate for success, quickly negotiated with the landowner and bought the mountain for a hundred taels of silver. Ignoring his brother’s advice, he began mining operations, supported by their mother and the manpower of his brother’s subordinates. Years went by with thousands of man-hours wasted, but still, nothing was found.

As Xiao Xisheng’s term in office came to an end, he needed to return to the capital. He urged his younger brother to come along, but Xiao Xixian, with tears in his eyes, exclaimed: “My life’s work is here. I’ve invested so much, and I cannot abandon it halfway.” Their mother, unable to see her son upset, instructed Xiao Xisheng to give his younger brother half of the wealth he accumulated during his time as governor, then urged Xiao Xixian to return home if no resources were found in the next couple of years.

With Xiao Xisheng’s departure, most of the workers dispersed. Xiao Xixian, ever the optimist, hired new laborers and continued digging. By the time of the Mid-Autumn Festival, he could barely pay their salaries. To appease them, he threw a banquet with the little money he had left, promising that they were on the brink of a major discovery. His passion and blind optimism kept them going for a little longer.

Xiao Xixian personally went to the top of the mountain to inspect what was happening. All he heard was the sounds of digging and excavating. He couldn’t help but sigh: “I’ve deceived these workers, and I’m utterly drained. The money I owe from before can’t be repaid. Now I’ve cheated them again. Once they find out, they will surely humiliate me. I can’t survive here. I want to run, but I can’t. It would be better to just die.” Thus, he took off his belt to hang himself from a tree.

Mountain summit at sunset with trees in the foreground.
Xiao Xixian personally went to the top of the mountain to inspect the mining operations. (Image: Saba11 via Dreamstime)

As he was paying his last respects to his mother and elder brother and was consumed with regret, he saw servants and the foreman running toward him. Before he could end his life, he approached them to ask what was happening. The people, panting, kowtowed and congratulated him: “The prophecy of the divine was accurate. We’ve found a big mine. Please come and see!”

Overjoyed, Xiao Xixian hurried to the scene. He saw a huge hole had been dug, and inside were fist-sized black ore blocks. Everyone came forward to kowtow and asked for rewards, their voices as loud as thunder. Those in the know said: “This is the green ink ore, the hardest to find. The origin of the mine is distant, and its quality is high. Only someone with great fortune could find it!”

Xiao Xixian was so delighted that he was at a loss for words. He had his servants find his old friends, some to manage the records, some to handle accounting, some to supervise, and some to entertain guests, giving them duties based on their strengths. They decided to report to the government and set up a silver refinery, agreeing to pay one-third of the tax to the court. Soldiers were dispatched to set up camps and defenses. Officials from all ranks got involved, and the reputation of this silver mine soared.

Xiao Xixian built a wooden house at the entrance of the mining area, holding significant authority. A cart would carry 100 jin of ore, transported by laborers, with craftsmen in charge of receiving it. Over a hundred furnaces were ignited simultaneously. The silver ore was melted into blocks, each weighing 500 taels, to prevent theft. The mining area was vast, and there were refineries surrounding the mountain, with many ores still untouched inside the caves.

Xiao Xixian was busy entertaining guests and managing affairs. But his wish to get rich had been fulfilled. Now, the next step was to transport the silver back to his hometown to enjoy a good life with his mother and brother. But he was worried about the long journey back, fearing bandits.

At that time, he happened to meet a county magistrate surnamed Xiao, who was an astute and capable official. They became fast friends due to their shared surname. They decided to use a substantial amount of silver to bribe key officials, and Xiao Xixian was promoted to a powerful position overseeing seven provinces, one of the most influential roles in the late Ming Dynasty. Wherever he went, both civil and military officials greeted him with respect. Leveraging this influence, he safely transported a vast amount of silver back to his hometown.

They decided to use a substantial amount of their silver wealth to bribe key officials, and Xiao Xixian was promoted to a powerful position.
They decided to use a substantial amount of silver to bribe key officials, and Xiao Xixian was promoted to a powerful position. (Image: Angeles Medrano Zamora via Dreamstime)

Upon his return, he saw white mourning banners at his home. His old servant was in mourning clothes. Filled with anxiety, Xiao Xixian entered the main hall and saw his sister-in-law in mourning clothes, holding her young son. Tearfully, she told him: “After your elder brother went to the capital, he was appointed as the ‘Observation Envoy of Donghe’, but he fell gravely ill and passed away the year before last. Grieving for him, your mother also recently passed away from sorrow. Now it’s just me and my son. Thankfully, you’re back.”

“Why wasn’t I informed of their deaths?” Xiao Xixian cried. His sister-in-law replied: “We’ve sent letters over a hundred times, but we suspect they were intercepted by bandits, preventing them from reaching you.” Xiao Xixian comforted her: “Don’t worry. I’ve brought back immeasurable amounts of silver; the only concern is our old house might not have space. We’ll continue to run the salt business, and the extra silver will be used to open pawn shops, purchase more land, and build houses. It will last for over a hundred generations.”

Seeing Xiao Xixian’s newfound wealth, relatives and friends came to visit, vying to serve and please him. Knowing he wasn’t married, some brought beautiful maidens, some suggested concubines, while others proposed marriages with influential families. There was a retired senior official surnamed Zheng who, admiring Xiao Xixian’s wealth, married his daughter to him.

Busy with public and private affairs during the day and surrounded by his beautiful wives and concubines at night, Xiao Xixian’s health declined due to overexertion. He soon succumbed to tuberculosis, passing away before the age of 30 without leaving any heirs. The clan, having only one male heir from his elder brother, refused to let this child be adopted as Xiao Xixian’s successor. Thus, his wealth was squabbled over and plundered. Fortunately, official Zheng lodged a complaint with the government, ensuring that the nephew (elder brother’s son) could inherit the salt business of Xiao Xixian without being detached from his own family.

This story illustrates that it’s not always better to have more wealth; one’s fortune should match their destiny. How is one’s destiny determined? It can be analyzed using the “eight characters” of their birth. If one doesn’t know these, the best approach is to let things take their natural course, as this aligns best with their fate. What’s meant to be will always be, and what’s not meant to stay will eventually go.

Translated article

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