ZhÃ¨ng BÇŽnqiÃ¡o (1693/1765), eco-socialist
ZhÃ¨ng XiÃ¨ é„ç‡®, commonly known as ZhÃ¨ng BÇŽnqiÃ¡o é„æ¿æ©‹, was a Chinese scholar of the QÄ«ng Dynasty who fluorished during the reign of the QiÃ¡nlÃ³ng Emperor. His “Letter to younger brother ZhÃ¨ng MÃ²” å¯„å¼Ÿå¢¨æ›¸, 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.
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?
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