Yangzhou is located in the region of the Yangtze River Delta. While inland now, some 7,000 years ago the city’s environs were coastal. In the waters of the Yangtze a considerable load of silt rolls continually downstream, until the river releases its burden as sea level approaches and the current slackens. Over milllenia this sediment deposit put the coastline into gradual retreat. In the resulting estuary environment a rich harvest of salt could be gathered.
The Importance of Salt In Imperial China
In an era when salt was the only practical means of preserving food, this product of the marshlands became a highly valued trading commodity. Yangzhou meanwhile had become established for quite different reasons. The city’s historical importance rested on its strategic location on the northern banks of the Yangtze River, a forward outpost for warring states where China’s great natural divide separated north from south.
Yangzhou’s establishment as a trading center predates unified China. Some 2,500 years ago the rulers of the region south of the Yangtze built a waterway to connect with other rivers northwards – the start of what would become China’s Grand Canal. By the time of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Yangzhou was one of China’s largest and most influential cities.
Yangzhou is the Centre of the Salt Trade
Salt was collected under quite miserable conditions from the vast ‘salt yards’ of what is now coastal Jiangsu Province. From there it was shipped along the region’s canals and rivers to Yangzhou, where under a strict quota system it was taxed and distributed. Salt was the region’s biggest industry, and became the mainstay of the Yangzhou economy.
Yangzhou has experienced many ups and downs in its history, and its fortunes waned in the centuries following the Tang. But salt continued as key to the city’s wealth. The salt trade underpinned a further resurgence in the late Ming Dynasty, as new imperial edicts were proclaimed and centralized controls given more effect. That era of prosperity would last for most of the Qing period, well into the 19th century.
By the 16th century the huge quantities of salt available to the Yangzhou merchants were once again ensuring its dominance in the market, thanks to the monopoly system that operated. Yangzhou merchants had selling rights from Henan in the north to Guizhou in the southwest, a vast area from which money would flow back to the city. Experienced traders in other parts of China saw the opportunities and relocated to Yangzhou. The city grew rapidly.
Yangzhou continued to be of military significance, and its citizens experienced hostilities and terrible human suffering in the battles for power of the mid 17th century. As the Manchu invaders overcame the Ming and established the Qing Dynasty, the Yangzhou salt trade simply carried on. The tax revenues it produced were critical for feeding the armies. The salt merchants and their brokers became richer.
Qing Yangzhou’s Ascendancy and Decline
As Chinese society settled down under the Qing, the prosperous men of Yangzhou ensured that society knew all about their wealth and success. The city became a place of imposing mansions and sprawling gardens, lavish parties, great scholarship and libraries, art patronage, and ‘the most beautiful girls in China’.
By the early 19th century more and more merchants were returning to their traditional family native places and engaging brokers in Yangzhou to deal with their salt interests. There was a steady decline in the city’s prosperity as increasingly profits from the salt trade were remitted elsewhere. By the time the bloody Taiping Rebellion had left its scars on the city, Yangzhou’s glory days were over.
Yangzhou’s reputation as a great city of arts, entertainment and a place to enjoy nature was built on the salt trade. Today the city is again regarded as one of China’s most pleasant urban environments in which to live, and retains its place as a popular destination for visitors from around China.
Much of Yangzhou’s trading culture and many of the artifacts of its past success are on display in the city’s many gardens, its preserved buildings and in the exhibitions of the excellent Yangzhou Museum. The historical legacy of the salt trade is still very apparent in modern Yangzhou City.