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Tea growing was a prosperous industry in Sichuan when Wang Anshi's New Policies created a Tea Market Agency to buy up Sichuanese tea and trade it to Tibetan tribesmen for cavalry horses. At first the highly autonomous Agency not only acquired the needed horses but made a profit. After the Jurchen conquest of North China, however, market realities changed and the combined Tea and Horse Agency's once successful policies ruined tea farmers, failed to meet quotas for horses, and ran a deficit. Smith details the workings of Sichuan tea farming and the tea trade, examines the geopolitical factors that forced the Song to buy horses, and graphically describes the difficulties of driving them more than a thousand miles through rugged mountains with only inexperienced conscripts as trail hands.
In this study of fiscal sociology, Smith also explains how the Tea and Horse Agency transformed the Sichuan local elite, which was notorious for its resistance to state power, into imperial civil servants eager to tax their own region. He draws on modern theories of corporate behavior to explain what made the inner workings of the Agency an extraordinary departure for the Chinese civil service; and he demonstrates how the Agency put into practice the most radical New-Policies theories of state economic activism. The Agency made entrepreneurs out of bureaucrats, but ultimately became ruinously tyrannical as the system of state rewards and punishments drove its personnel to actions that crippled key sectors of the economy.
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Paul Jakov Smith is John R. Coleman Professor of Social Sciences in the History Department at Haverford College.
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