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Markets and Merchants in early China

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Sheila Betts.

Nearly every study of the economic and social history of early China, published in China, Japan and the West, emphasizes the primacy of agriculture over trade and crafts as a defining feature of ancient Chinese society. This foundational role of farming and the peasant continues to be evoked as a hallmark of Chinese civilisation up to the present day. Some historians argue that the antagonistic relationship between agriculture and commerce, that is, the tension between the peasant and the merchant, has been the single most important issue to drive economic decision making in China This lecture will start by questioning this premise and go on to show that writings from China’s classical age of Confucius (551-479 BC) contain ample evidence of advanced mercantile thought as well as sophisticated concepts of justified wealth (and poverty). If indeed Confucianism is to be singled out for its traditional stance against merchants and commerce, how influential has it been in shaping the minds of those in power in what has been, and continues to be, one of the world’s most commerce-oriented societies in history.

This talk is part of the Wolfson College Humanities Society talks series.

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