December 17, 2013

Ancient Chinese Secret Road To Wealth

Sima Qian (d. 85 BCE) was a Chinese historian who, like Herodotus with the Greeks, decided to write down the history from the most ancient times all the way down to the age of the emperor Wudi.  He was quite prolific in this task, for his Historical Records consisted of 130 chapters (over 700,000 Chinese characters) divided into Basic Annals, Chronological Tables, Treatises, Hereditary Houses and Biographies.

In his Biographies, Sima Qian describes a number of wealthy people and how they got there:

Thrift and hard work are without doubt the proper way o gain a livelihood.  And yet it will be found that rich men have invariably employed some unusual scheme or method to get to the top. Plowing the fields is a rather crude way to make a living, and yet Ch'in Yang did so well at it that he became the richest man in his province. Robbing graves is a criminal offense, but T'ien Shu got his start by doing it. Gambling is a wicked pastime, but Huan Fa used it to acquire a fortune. Most fine young men would despise the thought of traveling around peddling goods, yet Yung Lo-ch'eng got rich that way. Many people would consider trading in fats a disgraceful line of business, but Yung Po made a thousand catties of gold at it. Vending sirups is a petty occupation, but the Chang family acquired ten million cash that way. It takes little skill to sharpen knives, but because the Chih family didn't mind doing it, they could eat the best of everything. Dealing in dried sheep stomachs seems like an insignificant enough trade, but thanks to it the Cho family went around with a mounted retinue. The calling of a horse doctor is a rather ignominious profession, but it enabled Chang Li to own a house so large that he had to strike a bell to summon the servants. All of these men got where they did because of their devotion and singleness of purpose.
From this we may see that there is no fixed road to wealth, and money has no permanent master. It finds its way to the man of ability like the spokes of a wheel converging upon the hub, and from the hands of the worthless it falls like shattered tiles.

(From Records of the Grand Historian, Burton Watson)


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