What were the causes of wealth in Ming Dynasty China, and how did they lead to income inequality?
The basis of wealth in the early part of the Ming Dynasty of China (1368-1644) was the ownership of land. With land, not only could food be grown or raised but it could be rented out for cash or other assets, perhaps with a proportion of the proceeds of agricultural production on that land as well. In the absence of an effective market mechanism with appropriate state oversight, the value of land meant that the rich increasingly got richer while the poor were unable to improve their position and may even have become poorer. Since severe wealth inequality leads to potential social unrest, the Ming Emperors expended considerable effort in trying to ensure that the tax system was properly employed to minimize emerging inequalities – especially if that meant bringing down to earth those members of the nouveau riche who were not able to demonstrate aristocratic lineage and taste.
The increasing importance of taxation in the economic system led to an increase in the importance of precious metals necessary to make it work. In the case of Ming Dynasty China, this meant silver scraped from the not terribly well-supplied mountains – this was before the international triangular trade involving silver and gold from the New World was instituted and which so revolutionized the middle ages of the world. The burden of taxation was gradually switched from the individual to the land and the proceeds used to alleviate some of the many natural disasters to which China has been subject throughout the centuries, as well as paying troops to combat rebellions and revolts that often resulted from natural disasters, famine in particular. Increasing the importance of taxation helped to increase the importance of market-based mechanisms in the economy since individuals were paid in cash and expected to use the money to purchase their own necessaries, whereas previously the state was responsible for obtaining these necessities and supplying them when required. Inevitably, therefore, the merchant classes improved their standing and power in society and the rotation of money around society enabled more people to benefit from ownership of consumer goods of one sort or another.
These processes were further intensified by the improvement in communications infrastructure, particularly with respect to the postal service. This enabled information to travel more swiftly and safely and information can of course be used to obtain money in a market-based system. Money has value, of course but so too do items which can retain their value and be exchanged for liquid cash when required. Consequently, more and more people had access to items of beauty in their own households, which had important consequences for the development of society and social mobility.
For more details, see Timothy Brook’s The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1999).