How to get rich in Chinese business

This is from the Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture1 It is a wonderful reading to use in classes, as our hero Dou Yi manages to make dough in pretty much every way that you can imagine in the Tang-Song period. He is sponsored by a temple, does commercial agriculture, invents something new, (the ‘firewood’) creates personal connections with foreign merchants, swindles someone out of a piece of jade, reclaims land, gets involved in commercial entertainment, sucks up to powerful officials and sells offices. The only real question is if the essay’s emphasis on his frugality makes him more of a Confucian merchant or if his Zhuangzi-ian use of things at hand makes him more of a Daoist entrepreneur.

Dou Yi, a Mid-Tang Businessman

Dou Yi of Fufeng was thirteen years old. His various aunts on the paternal side had been royal relatives for several reign periods. His paternal uncle Dou Jiao was honorary president of the Board of Works, commissioner for the palace corrals and stables, and commissioner of palace halls and parks. [Dou Jiao] owned a temple yard in Jiahui Ward. Yi’s relative Zhang Jingli served as aide in An Prefecture. After he was relieved of his duty by his replacement, he returned to the city [of Chang’an]. An Prefecture produced silk shoes. Jingli brought with him more than a dozen pairs of those to give to his nephews and nieces. All except Yi fought for them. Soon only one slightly oversized pair was left behind by the nephews and nieces. Yi bowed twice before he accepted them. Jingli asked him why. He just kept quiet. Little did they know, Yi harbored great ambitions for business success like Duanmu. So he went to the market and sold them for 500 cash, which he stored away in a secret place.

Quietly he had two trowels made at a smithy, and sharpened their edges. At the beginning of the fifth month, Chang’an was covered with elm seedpods. Yi swept together more than a hu (bushel) of them. He then went to his uncle’s (Dou Jiao) place to borrow his temple yard for study. The uncle granted his request. At night Yi would secretly rest in the Fa’an Shangren Courtyard of the Baoyi Monastery. During the day, he went to the temple, where he cultivated a piece of spare land with the two trowels, digging four thousand closely aligned furrows, 5 cun (inches) wide and 5 cun deep each. Each of them was more than 20 bu [.4 meters]) long. He fetched water to irrigate them and sowed elm seedpods into them. Summer rain soon fell and all of the seedpods grew well. By fall, they had grown more than 1 chi (foot) tall and numbered in the tens of thousands. The next year, the elm saplings were more than 5 chi tall. Yi then used an axe to chop off the shoots that were growing too closely to each other so that the saplings would be about 3 cun from one another. He left all those saplings that were thick and straight untouched, but cut off those that were not, and tied them up in more than a hundred bundles, each of them about 2 chi around. That fall happened to be gloomy and rainy, so he sold those bundles [as firewood] at more than a dozen cash each. The following year, he fetched water [to irrigate] the old elm furrows again. By fall, some of the elm trees were as thick as chicken eggs. He again chose those that were thick and straight, [but instead of saving them] chopped them off with an ax and tied them into more than two hundred bundles. This time, he increased his profit several times. Five years later, he selected more than a thousand large trees for rafters and sold them for 50,000—40,000 cash. There were no fewer than a thousand supersized timbers, large enough for making carriages, lying inside the temple yard. By then he already was running more than a hundred businesses. He accumulated silks and cloth-lined fur coats by the hundred, yet he still ate sparingly.

He then bought some black flaxen cloths from Shu (present-day Sichuan), at 100 cash per pi (bolt). He cut them into pieces 4 chi long. He then hired people to make pouches out of them, He purchased several hundred pairs of new flaxen shoes made in Neixiang.10 Withiout leaving the temple, each day he would give out three pies and 15 cash, together with a pouch, to each one of the children from various residential wards and the Jinwu households. In winter, they picked up locust seeds to fill in the pouches and turned them in. In a month’s time, he amassed two cartloads of locust seeds. He also asked children to pick up worn-out flaxen shoes, and for every three pairs of them he gave a new pair in exchange. When the news began to spread far and wide, numerous people came to turn in worn-out shoes. In a few days, he acquired more than a thousand pairs. He then sold his elm timbers large enough for carriages, raking in more than 100,000 cash. He hired day laborers to wash the worn-out shoes at the brook near the west gate of Chong-xian Ward. He then had them dried in the sun and stored away in the temple yard. He bought piles of broken tiles from outside the ward gate. He then had workers wash them clean of mud at the running-water brook and transport them by cart into the temple. He set up five sets of grinding tools and three sets of filing instruments. He bought several bushels of oil-based indigo in the West Market and hired a chef to set up a kitchen stove. He recruited a large number of hired day laborers to file the worn-out shoes and grind the broken tiles. Having sieved it with a large-meshed screener, he added locust seeds and indigo into the mixture. He had his workers labor day and night to grind and beat it until it became stiff like curdled milk. The workers were asked to gather the mixture fresh from the mortar and were ordered to knead it with both hands into a dough of 3 cun across, shape it into sections of less than 5 chi each. He ended up having more than ten thousand sticks, which he named “dharma candles” (fazhu). In the sixth month of an early Jianzhong year it rained heavily in the capital city. Firewood was worth more than cassia bark. Carriages were no longer seen in alleyways. Yi then sold his dharma candles at 100 cash apiece. When used for cooking, they were twice as good as firewood. Yi reaped an endless amount of profit.

Previously, south of the steelyard bazaar of the Western Market there was more than 10 mu of low-lying swampland, known as the Little Sea Pond (Xiaohai chi). Located near wineshops, it became the dumping ground of the area. He asked to buy it. But the owner was unpredictable. Yi compensated him with 50,000 cash, and got the land. He set up a signpost with a pennant hanging at the top at the center of the pond. Around the pond he set up six or seven stalls for making pancakes and rice balls. He invited children to throw broken tiles at the pennant. Those who hit the target were rewarded with pancakes and rice balls. In less than a month, children of east and west Chang’an came by tens of thousands, and the broken tiles which they threw [soon] filled up the pond. After measuring the area, he built a tavern of twenty bays in a key location, which earned him a daily profit of several thousand cash and was exceptionally profitable. Known as the Dous’ Tavern, it is still there today

Once seeing a Sogdian by the name of Mi Liang suffering from hunger and cold, Yi at once gave him some money and silk. Seven years went by, yet Yi did not ask a single question about it. When Yi met him again, out of commiseration for Mi’s hunger and cold, Yi gave him another 5,000 cash. A grateful Liang told others that he would repay Dalang (Great Man, i.e., Dou Yi) eventually. One day Yi was resting at home, and before long Mi Liang appeared, telling him, “In Chongxian Ward, a small house is for sale for 200,000 cash. Dalang (Dou Yi), buy it now.” Yi withdrew some extra money deposited at a treasure house (guifang) in the Western Market and purchased the house at the market price. On the day Yi signed the tide deed, Liang told Yi, “I am an expert in estimating jade. Once I saw an unusual stone in the house. Few people know about it. Used as a laundering block, it is a true piece of Yutian jade. Dalang can strike it rich instantly.” Yi did not believe his story. Liang said, “Please ask a jade craftsman from Yanshou Ward to examine it.” The craftsman was greatly amazed, and said, “This is a rare commodity indeed. I can work it into twenty sets of belt ornaments, at the price of more than a hundred strings of cash per set, which will come to a total of about three thousand strings.” [Dou Yi] then asked to have the work done, which eventually brought in several hundred thousand strings of cash. In addition, Yi acquired other jade pieces of various descriptions, such as containers, belt buckles, and knickknacks. The sale of these items again brought in approximately several hundred thousand strings of cash. To show his appreciation, Yi gave the house to Liang to live in, yielding to him the original title deed as well.

In front of Defender-in-Chief Li Sheng’s mansion, there was a small house, which was believed to be badly haunted. [Dou Yi] bought the house for its value of 210,000 cash. He enclosed the area with walls, [then] tore down the tiles and timbers and had them piled up in two separate places. Inside his property, he did farming. The Defender-in-Chief’s mansion bordered on Yi’s property, whose small loft-building was oftentimes an intolerable sight. Li Sheng wanted to annex it to make way for a polo ground. One day, he sent his men to Yi, offering to buy it.Yi firmly declined the offer, saying, “I have other use for it.” During one of Li Sheng’s periodic holidays, [Dou Yi] asked to see Sheng, carrying the title deed for his property with him. He said to Sheng, “Originally I bought this house for my relatives to live in. But I am afraid that my property is looking menacingly over the Defender-in-Chief’s first-rate mansion. As a poor man of lowly birth, I certainly feel uneasy. Seeing that my property, spacious and idle, can be used for polo games, I now present you the original tide deed, in the hope that you will graciously take care of me. Sheng was greaty pleased, saying to Yi in private, “Don’t you want my humble assistance?” Yi answered, “I dare not expect that. Only, in the event of a future emergency, I might come to bother you, sir.” Sheng paid increasing attention to him. Yi then cleared away the tiles and timbers and leveled the land before giving it away to Sheng for his polo games. Armed with the favors he received, Yi gathered five or six superrich merchants from the Eastern and Western Markets, and asked them, “Don’t you have sons and younger brothers who aspire to secure key posts in various circuits and the capital?” The merchants were overjoyed, saying to Yi, “If Dalang(Yi) soon provides shelter for our sons and younger brothers, we will pay 20,000 strings of cash for it.” Yi then took the list of names of these merchants’ sons and younger brothers to see Sheng, claiming that all were his relatives or friends. Sheng examined the list graciously and placed all of them in key, cushy positions in various circuits. Yi gained from it an additional tens of thousands of cash.

In Chongxian Ward, Commandant Cao Suixing found that a large tree rose [in his yard] overnight. Suixing was often concerned that its branches and leaves had grown over the years, obstructing his house and yard. He was afraid that felling the tree might result in structural damage. Then Yi paid him a visit. Pointing to the tree, he said, “Commandant, why don’t you get rid of it?” Suixing answered, “It is indeed in the way. But since it is deeply rooted, to cut it may damage the roof of my house.” Yi then asked to buy the tree: “I can still get rid of it for the Commandant without causing any damage. I should be able to let the tree destroy itself.” The Commandant was very pleased. [Dou Yi] then paid him 5,000 cash. He discussed with the axmen how to cut down the tree. Paying them a large sum of money, he asked them to cut from top to bottom at 2 chi intervals. Out of the timbers he created several hundred backgammon game boards and sold them at the bazaar, realizing a profit of more than a hundredfold. His astute business deals were all similar to this.

In his old age, Yi was sonless. He divided his assets among his well-acquainted relatives and friends. As to his remaining numerous businesses in various large markets in west Chang’anwith [daily revenues of] more than a thousand strings of cash each, he entrusted their management to the Fa’an Shangren Courtyard as its permanent property.31 Yi constantly provided for it without even considering gain or loss.

Yi died when he was more than eighty years old. His residence remains in Jiahui Ward in the capital, where his younger brothers, nieces, and other blood relatives lived. His grandsons still live there now.
-Translation by Victor Cunrui Xiong

  1. This is a wonderful book that includes translations of all sorts of things that do not ordinarily turn up in sourcebooks. The preface says that it is intended for use in classes on the “history, culture and society of China, both modern and premodern” How it could work for a Modern class I can’t guess, as there are only and handful of readings from the Qing and later. I’m also not sure how well it would work for a straight history class, as it seems more geared to a culture class. Still, there is a lot of cool stuff in here. 

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