by Ernie Diaz
Luckily, one of the tourists recorded it on a cell phone. Their guides at the Ming Tombs had been bemoaning the drop in business since the economic crisis, when an unearthly voice rumbled from the Changjing tomb, final resting place of the Yongle Emperor.
“Crisis? Downturn? Where are the mounted barbarians burning and looting? The granaries are full. The commoners have meat, even on non-festival days. Taxes are light, and officials needn’t fear the treachery of malevolent eunuchs. Stop whimpering and bow to the heavens for your good fortune!”
Prank or not, the Emperor has a point. Even discounting times of widespread war and famine, China has come through economic downturns far more menacing than a few factories shutting down and a hike in unemployment. Don’t pack your carpet bags until you’ve read about China’s downturns of yore, and the innovative ways devised to struggle out of them.
Northern Wei Dynasty
As marauding northern barbarians go, the Tuoba weren’t a bad bunch. Much of their success in establishing an empire stretching from Manchuria to Gansu owes to the fact that the Han found them preferable to the execrable Xiongnu and Mongols. Although they displayed a quick predilection for Chinese culture, the Tuoba insisted on some traditional tribal practices inimical to economic progress. Empresses were chosen by their ability to forge golden statues. When their sons were crowned, they had to commit suicide, so Wei rulers had severe maternal guilt complexes to deal with in addition to state affairs. Worst of all, officials received no salaries, but were free to “requisition” funds from the people they directly governed.
Not that there were that many peasants to exploit. Two hundred years of unification antics had sent most peace-loving farmers south. The Wei responded by forcing droves of Han peasants into agricultural colonies hastily set up on vast tracts of fallow land, and trading their nomadic lifestyles for new roles as landed gentry. Trouble was, those gentry could patronize peasant households at will, freeing them from state tribute and forced labor. Low grain production and scanty taxes exacerbated the administrative woes of uneducated horsemen playing at refined aristocracy.
In the late fifth century, Emperor Xiaowendi moved the Wei capital from present day Datong to Luoyang, intent on Sinification. Under the advice of two Han officials, Li Anshi and Li Chong, he instituted a series of drastic land reforms. Everyone, slaves included, got a fixed size for lifelong cultivation. Only one part was for grain; the rest was for mulberry trees and hemp. Officials got a chunk of land as well from which to earn a livelihood, but the land was tied to the office and non-saleable.
Xiaowendi implemented detailed house and land records, so that a new tax system based on age and gender reaped all the proper levies, not just in grain but in silk and labor. The capricious gentry landlords were replaced with three categories of officials who divided the population thusly: five families = one neighborhood, five neighborhoods = one hamlet, five hamlets = one commune.
With a greatly increased tax base and a consolidation of central power, the Wei undertook public projects and revitalized trade with state-monopoly goods such as iron and salt. While Austrian School economists might blanch at remedying economic ills with tax hikes and centralization, peace and prosperity reigned. For a while anyway, until a few northern Wei malcontents resentful at the loss of their old ways fomented a rebellion and sent China crashing back into its usual state of chaotic turbulence.
You’d think coronation day would be the high point of a royal scion’s career. Tang emperor Wuzong, however, wore his crown on a troubled brow from day one. Much of it had to do with the court eunuchs, who, deprived of any reason to balance work and personal life, had schemed away until they were the de facto rulers of Tang China. They even had Wuzong’s older brother Wenzong under house arrest, where he soon drank himself to death.
On the foreign policy front, Uyghurs were making a hash of the northwestern territories. This perceived lack of imperial might encouraged provinces in their practice of withholding all but a trickle of tax and tribute to the throne.
It was a stroke of fortune that Wuzong recognized the capability of his prime minister, Li Deyu. Together, they staged a coup against the eunuchs, and launched a campaign against the Uyghurs that ended with a decisive victory in 843. But the economy was still a shambles, even with provincial governors suddenly convinced of their outstanding tax obligations. There was simply very little coin of the realm in circulation, and even less precious metal for new currency.
The problem lay in the Buddha fever that gripped Tang Dynasty China. Although it populated the land with compassionate, middle-way following citizens, their one thought for bronze was to cast statues of the Buddha with it. The temples were only too happy to oblige, making each of them a mini-Fort Knox. Virtually a first estate, with even Tang emperors traditionally making obeisance, the Buddhist priesthood suffered few restrictions on its temporal aspirations, including taxes.
Buddhism faced a double threat in Wuzong. Not only did he correctly surmise the source of China’s currency problem, but he was also a hardcore Taoist, who viewed Buddhism as a pernicious foreign religion. He summarily shut down a majority of Buddhist temples and shrines, confiscated the property, and relegated monks and nuns back to the laity.
Advisers, including Deyu, had warned Wuzong that such a bold stroke against Buddha would alienate his people. But if there’s one thing the Chinese love more than the Enlightened One, it’s order and harmony. Melted and minted, the statues worked an economic miracle in restoring commerce. Chinese subjects, on the whole, were grateful to Wuzong, who employed the newfound prosperity in a decidedly non-Taoist crusade of pushing The Way on his subjects, and eradicating the nascent cults of Manichaeism and Christianity.
Today, China hardly needs to go melting down statues to boost its precious metal reserves. Simply requisitioning all gold watches and jewelry, then melting and casting it into bars, would put something far more valuable into the treasury than crummy old dollars. Donors could be consoled with copper medals bearing the legend “New Socialist Hero”.