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Silver As The Perpetrator

Xing Shi Heng Yan
Xing Shi Heng Yan

“The Lord of Silver Rules Heaven and the God of Copper Cash Reigns Over the Earth”

Zhang Tao

By the time of Feng Menglong, silver had greatly altered the Chinese society. Interestingly, although China itself did not produce much silver and used bronze coin for most of the history, Chinese economy became increasingly reliant on silver since Yuan dynasty. Failed attempts in issuing paper money further strengthened Chinese merchants’ confidence in silver. When commerce grew in Jiangnan, high volumes of trade drastically increased demand on silver. As a result, “silver began developing extraordinarily high value in China, likely doubling the world average during the time.”[1] In other words, there existed an arbitrage opportunity on silver—by buying silver elsewhere in the world and selling it in China, traders could make risk-free profits. Some scholars deemed “establishment of the Acapulco-Manila route in 1571 as the beginning of globalization.”[2] New-world silver became the single most important item in this system of global trade: traders brought bullion to China to exchange porcelain, silk, ivory, spices, and myriad other exotic goods.[3] And indeed silver flooded into China: according to Richard von Glahn, from 1500 to 1600, every year, an estimated 46.6 tons came into China—ten times larger than the average annual domestic yield.[4] One thing to note is that neither the government nor merchants minted silver into coins; rather, silver was exchanged in forms of ingots that were measured in the weight unit of “tael” that was equivalent of 1.3 ounces.[5]  Undoubtedly, such an influx of silver challenged and changed the Ming society. Recognizing silver’s role in the economy, the Ming government implemented a fiscal reform that commuted land taxes, corvee taxes, and other levies into payments of silver to maximize the government’s tax revenue. Under the Single Whip Method, more people in Ming had to actively engage in commerce to sell their home-made goods to earn silver to pay their taxes, and thus silver entrenched itself further in the society.

[1] Ning Ma, The Age of Silver: The Rise of the Novel East and West, Global Asias (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 57.

[2] Ma, 57.

[3] Authors: Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, “The Manila Galleon Trade (1565–1815) | Essay | The Metropolitan Museum of Art | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History,” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, accessed December 5, 2021,

[4] Ma, The Age of Silver, 58.

[5] “Tael | History & Facts | Britannica,” accessed December 5, 2021,

Silver Flow Into China
College Board

Oil Peddler Wins Queens of Flowers

Not surprisingly, late Ming scholars debated about the silver’s impact in Chinese society and recorded in their writing. At the same time, expansion of wealth allowed more people to be literate and join this discussion of society. Writing transformed from holy, moral conveyor of knowledge and worth to mere commodities as novels and fictions people grew more and more commonplace in the late Ming. One of the most famous writers of this period is Feng Menglong, whose works are diverse in genres and myriad in quantities. Although Feng was not successful in the civil service examination, he was nevertheless talented in writing and devoted himself in collecting and compiling a variety of publications—novels, anthologies, theatrical works, and so on. During his life, Ming dynasty was at an extremely feeble stage, experiencing both internal revolts and external invasions. Seeking reasons to explain the dynasty’s dysfunctionality, many scholars turned to blame late Ming society’s moral deviation, largely caused by silver and commerce, from the neo-Confucian values. Indeed, if the Ming founder Zhu Yuanzhang had dreamed a static, agricultural society that was based upon Confucian teachings, the late Ming was a dynamic, commercial society that sometimes directly challenged the existing Confucian morals and values. In one of his fictions, Oil Peddler Wins Queens of Flowers, Feng Menglong captures this struggle of silver versus Confucius in the late Ming. The two protagonists in the story are a male oil peddle and a female courtesan—both are marginal figures in the orthodox Confucian society. Yet, in this piece, both exhibit high moral characters, while some scholars in the story are not moral. Feng also associates these two characters’ worth with their monetary success, a narrative that is filled with capitalistic languages. Overall, in Feng’s fictional world, one can detect silver’s omniscient presence and begin to understand its interaction with the existing social structure.

Being A Courtesan

One must recognize that Sister Mei’s status as a highly desired courtesan rather than simply a prostitute to understand the prominent role of silver in the story. As shown in the story, Sister Mei has musical talents and is capable of composing poems and literatures. She only interacts with the upper class of the society—merchants and officials. In order to see her, Qin Zhong has to dress up as a scholar. Such a gesture demonstrates Sister Mei’s high social status. Harriet Zurndorfer notes:

“Late Ming witnessed widespread anxiety about how tremendous material growth and monetization of the economy were damaging the moral fabric of society, a situation which led some Confucian scholar to seek ways and means to correct and improve the ethos of the social order. Within this concerned elite were those who came to link contemporary political and intellectual controversies and themes with the marginal status of courtesans: ultimately, they steered these women into the Confucian moral universe, a phenomenon unprecedented in Chinese history.”[1]

During Feng’s time, influx of silver allowed a great degree of urbanization which further stimulated the entertainment quarter. A burgeoning economy also spurred the growth of publishing house, leading more and more courtesans like Sister Mei to become literate and capable of socializing with the literati class. Gradually, the courtesans came to symbolize refinement and culture, which is shown in the story through Sister Mei. However, her path to the “top” involves a certain degree of moral confusion directly caused by silver. It was common for lower-class parents to exchange their daughters for money: “as prices for food and cloth rose during the late Ming, many ordinary families had difficulties meeting their expenses and the sale of a daughter became a solution.”[2] This act of selling directly challenged values of filial piety, a fundamental pillar in Confucian ideals. In the story, Sister Mei is sold several times by her “parents.” Under the disguise of filial piety, Sister Mei is sold by her neighbor to Madam Wang. Further, Sister Mei initially refuses to take any customer and insists on obtaining her real parents’ permission first, demonstrating her steadfast belief in Confucian morals. Nevertheless, Madam Wang, her new mom, sells her to Squire Jin for 300 taels and abets Jin to rape Sister Mei. The description here is graphic: “Squire Jin applied some saliva, softly pushed apart thighs, and drove it in.” One can argue that this is the transformation point for Sister Mei from a girl that adheres to the old, Confucian morals to a woman that operates in the new, commercial values. And such a transformation is facilitated by the power of silver.

[1] Harriet T. Zurndorfer, “Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Confucian Moral Universe of Late Ming China (1550-1644),” International Review of Social History 56 (2011): 200.

[2] Zurndorfer, 205.

Hsieh, “The Market in Concubines”, p. 276

Transformation Of Self Worth

From the two main characters in this novel, Wang Mei and Qin Zhong, we can find the huge transformation of people’s self worth in this era. In the past, Confucian morals and values definitely played a very important role in social life, and to a certain extent, regulated people’s action and behavior. However, the characters of this novels tended to show more willingness to put aside prejudices, and to accept and embrace cultural diversity which could never happen before, epitomizing the general change of self-worth at the time. 

Take Wang Mei and Qin Zhong as an example. At first, Sister Mei was not willing to accept the truth that she had become a courtesan. However, after she was convinced by Madam Liu and was willing to reexamine her work from a different perspective, she no longer considered this job as a kind of humiliation. She did not give up on herself just because she had lost her virginity, but considered her job as a platform for her to find a man who could help her live a better life. Even though she might be looked down upon by others, she did not feel hopeless about her life , but tried to face the reality and accept herself as she was. As a courtesan, she was able to make friends with powerful and wealthy people from the high class of society, and turned these people into available social resources to improve her social status and reputation. Moreover, she also did not forget to saving money for future needs, which greatly showed her visionary.

What’s more, for Qin Zhong, he did not give up on himself after he was kicked out of the house by his adoptive father. He did not choose to go back home to appeal to his father’s mercy, but chose to start his own business by selling oil, trying to prove himself with his own skills. In a sense, Wang Mei and Qin Zhong are similar in some ways. The most important of all is that they both have courage to face adversity without backing down. They are all very brave and resolute when facing difficulties. Their characteristics also generally reflected the simple folkways of common people at that time. Refusing to following the rules and doctrines of etiquette, people were more willing to accept the reality, and create welfare for their own lives with actual labor.

At the same time, the hedonistic optimism embodied in his story is also worth discussing. From his story, we can see that he is a very filial and respectful person. He did not complain about his father even if his father misunderstood him. But when he saw Sister Mei and said that he was willing to use ten taels of silver to gain a chance to spend a night alone with Sister Mei, I felt like there is a little inconsistency with his filial piety. Since I supposed that he would used these money to beg for a chance to reconcile with his father, he just used it for “entrainment” which would not bring him anything but only happiness. During this period, it was certain that people did value family culture and filial piety, but they also tended to take personal happiness seriously as well. The individual no longer served as appendage to the whole family, but paying more attention to purse personal welfare.

In addition, I think he is also very respectful to Sister Mei. He did not feel angry just because Sister Sister Mei got drunk and did not serve him, but took care of Sister Mei instead. I think this was also a representative of a very humanitarian and respectful side of the personality of people at that time.

Yin (silver) V.S. Li (ritual)

From the story of Oil Peddler we can see that concept of money and the new values of life made a breakthrough to the impact of current feudal rituals and the bondage of the ritual system during Ming dynasty. And the changes of the attitude of the Madam Wang is the most representative phenomenon which could indicate how silver was gradually replacing other factors as the most important influencing factor in the ritual system. From my point of view, Madam Wang’s attitude toward Wang Mei changed about four times:

1. Feng Menglong, “Oil Peddler”, p.147

1. When Wang Mei expressed her reluctance to sell her first night because she did not wanted to be a courtesan, Madam Wang compromised and respected her choice. But later when Squire Jin told her that he was willing to offer three hundred taels of silver for Sister Mei’s virginity, she was tempted by the impressive amount of money and suddenly agreed with Squire Jin’s suggestion, even offering him advice for gaining Sister Mei’s first night by cheating.

2. Feng Menglong, “Oil Peddler”, p.161
2. Feng Menglong, “Oil Peddler”, p.161

2. Madam Wang refused to let Sister Mei  to serve for Qin Zhong because she used to thought it was impossible for him to pay for the bills anyway. She also added that Sister Mei also would not want to see him because Sister Mei only spent her time with rich people. However, as soon as she saw that Qin Zhong had enough money to pay for the bills, she immediately agreed to help Qin Zhong, which in fact might made Sister Mei feel unhappy.

3. Feng Menglong, “Oil Peddler”, p.176
3. Feng Menglong, “Oil Peddler”, p.177

3. At first, Madam Wang was not willing to set Sister Mei free because she still wanted to make money from Sister Mei. But when Mr. Wu told her that she could receive a large amount of money immediately from Sister Mei, she finally agreed to set Sister Mei free.

4. Feng Menglong, “Oil Peddler”, p.177
4. Feng Menglong, “Oil Peddler”, p.178
4. Feng Menglong, “Oil Peddler”, p.178

4. Madam Wang wanted to go back on her words because she found that Sister Mei had significant savings and still wanted to use Mei as a tool to make money for her. Nevertheless, she decided to follow Madam Liu’s advice when Madam Liu told her that Sister Mei would feel thankful if Madam Wang set her free, and probably would still treat her nicely as mother. And she also did not have to spend a lot of money buying Sister Mei a dowry.

Each change of Madam Wang’s attitude had very dramatic and interesting relationship with silver. We can see that Madam Wang is an avaricious woman who was always tempted by money, which really indicated that silver largely impact people’s value during that period.

Made by Henry Zheng & Jocelyn Xue


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