Zhèng Bǎnqiáo (1693/1765), eco-socialist

posted by Kaihsu Tai on June 27th, 2007

Zhèng Xiè 鄭燮, commonly known as Zhèng BÇŽnqiáo 鄭板橋, was a Chinese scholar of the QÄ«ng Dynasty who fluorished during the reign of the Qiánlóng Emperor. His “Letter to younger brother Zhèng Mò” 寄弟墨書, which I translate below, was included in my textbook for classical Chinese when I was in high school in Taiwan(!). Rumour has it that the famous Lin Yutang had also translated the same letter into English, which I fear is still in copyright. In any case, I loosely translate/paraphrase here, with the benefit of having read some Karl Marx, John Seymour, and Derek Wall. It is an essay that affirms the primacy of primary production (agriculture) for self-sufficiency and food sovereignty, equitable land management, and indigenous eco-socialism in China.

Dear Mò,

I am very glad to read, in your letter of the 26th day of the tenth month, that our newly-bought field yielded 25 tonnes of grain in the autumn. Now we can be farmers until we leave this world.

I think that farmers, the primary producers, are first-class people between the heaven and the earth. In contrast, we scholar-bureaucrats should be the last among the four classes, ranking after farmers, craftsmen, and merchants. The best farmer can cultivate 15 acres, the next-best a dozen acres; even the least-efficient work about 8 acres. In all cases, they till the land until their backs ache to feed everybody on earth. If there were no farmers, we’d all starve to death! In the past, we scholars held the traditional virtues in our going out and coming in, keeping everybody in our care. When we had achieved power, we tried to benefit everybody in society; out of power, we tried to be role-models for all. Nowadays, alas, that is no longer the case! As soon as we pick up our books, we dream only of climbing that greasy pole, of getting our qualifications and honorary titles. Then we think of grabbing money to buy land and build mansions. We had such untoward ambitions to start with, no wonder it only gets worse without us doing any good for the society. Those scholars who didn’t get a place in the imperial bureaucracy can only get petty jobs in their own shires. This narrow-minded lot is even more unbearable! Of course, there are a few idealists here and there who kept themselves pure, no matter the circumstances. But we cannot argue for ourselves because of those rotten apples spoiling the barrel. When I tried to say something, people laugh to scorn: “Yeah yeah, you scholars can talk! When you get to be a bureaucrat, when you get on top, you won’t be such an idealist anymore!” So I keep it all to myself and bear the ridicule. Craftsmen, in the secondary industry, produce the things we use; merchants, in the service sector, transport goods from where they are made to where they are needed. These benefit people. But we scholar-bureaucrats are nothing but a tax on society. No wonder we should be the last of the four classes. In fact I wonder whether we should even have a place in society!

My brother, I have always felt that the farmers should have an eminent place. Whenever I get a new tenant-farmer, I treat him with courtesy. He addresses me as Dear Host, and I him Dear Guest. Between the host and the guest, there should only be courtesy and fair-play. On what grounds should I think I am more important than he is?

Though we have 50 acres of field in our estate, it is but leasehold, which we cannot rely on forever. We should get some 40 acres or so freehold, for the two of us brothers: 20 acres is plenty for a man, as the ancient canons told us! If we ask for more, it is coveting others’ due share, a great sin. There are people under this heaven who are without a single piece of land, without a roof over their heads. Who am I to be greedy without limit? Where are they to find a place for themselves?

Your brother,

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  1. On December 11, 2007 at 08:01 Kaihsu Tai (Oxford, England) said:

    In His Holiness Benedict XVI’s recent encyclical Spe Salvi, at 15:

    Bernard of Clairvaux, who inspired a multitude of young people to enter the monasteries of his reformed Order, had quite a different perspective on this. In his view, monks perform a task for the whole Church and hence also for the world. He uses many images to illustrate the responsibility that monks have towards the entire body of the Church, and indeed towards humanity; he applies to them the words of pseudo-Rufinus: “The human race lives thanks to a few; were it not for them, the world would perish …”. Contemplatives – contemplantes – must become agricultural labourers – laborantes – he says. The nobility of work, which Christianity inherited from Judaism, had already been expressed in the monastic rules of Augustine and Benedict. Bernard takes up this idea again. The young noblemen who flocked to his monasteries had to engage in manual labour. In fact Bernard explicitly states that not even the monastery can restore Paradise, but he maintains that, as a place of practical and spiritual “tilling the soil”, it must prepare the new Paradise. A wild plot of forest land is rendered fertile—and in the process, the trees of pride are felled, whatever weeds may be growing inside souls are pulled up, and the ground is thereby prepared so that bread for body and soul can flourish. Are we not perhaps seeing once again, in the light of current history, that no positive world order can prosper where souls are overgrown?

  2. On March 8, 2010 at 17:31 Kaihsu Tai said:

    1 acre ≈ 4 047 m²

  3. On March 9, 2010 at 18:28 Richard Lawson said:

    2.1 The first rank of the economy relates to obtaining from our environment the necessities of life, namely

    * water
    * food
    * energy
    * housing
    * safe management of our waste products.

    All of these activities assume access to, and use of, a certain area of land. In non-slave societies, this access should be seen as a birthright for every person. It follows that each human has a notional right to a proportion of the Earth’s surface. Therefore, anyone holding a plot of land is renting that plot from the rest of society. This is the basis of the Land (or Site) Value tax which is a core green tax.

    2.2 Second rank activities of distribution, trade and manufacture of tools occur in any society, (as opposed to a single individual in a subsistence situation).

    2.3 A tertiary rank evolves in a complex society, comprising administration and public services.

    2.4 Finally, a quarternary rank consisting of financial services is useful in complex economies.

    Finance (money) is a symbol of value, a symbol that represents the power to obtain real goods and services. Money has no value in and of itself. Its purpose is to serve the smooth running of the economy, not to dominate it. Theories and practices that treat money as an entity are not sustainable in the long term as financial value drifts away from the ecological and social realities of life. So money is the fourth rank of the economy in green terms, although it is always ranked first in conventional terms.

    This difference underpins the difference between green and conventional economics.


  4. On March 9, 2010 at 18:32 Richard Lawson said:

    Zheng Banqiao shared the planet for 2 years with William Cobbett (1763–1835). Nice.

  5. On March 9, 2010 at 19:36 Kaihsu Tai said:

    Dear Richard,

    John Seymour is the leading intellectual heir of William Cobbett.

    Land-value tax is in force now somewhere in the world due to Sun Yat-sen.

    Karl Marx dealt with your 2.4 with the slightly different approach of commodity fetish, reaching a similar general conclusion.

    Echo chamber or cloud of witnesses?