Thursday, November 3, 2011

Don't hate the merchant, hate the game

In my readings of history I am continually baffled at various society's debasement of merchants.  In Medieval societies the merchant wasn't even included in the classes of society (three classes: the peasants, who worked; the clergy, who prayed; and the noble, who fought), as if merchants added nothing to social felicity.

Ninth century China was even worse.  The Chinese class system was divided as follows, with the highest class listed first.

  1. The Gentleman / Noble: "...The Gentlemen are at the top of the hierarchy because they manage the affairs of society, so their social utility is at the most..."
  2. Farmer / Peasant:  "...because they produce the food which everyone needs to survive."
  3. Artisan:  "...because while they don't produce food, they make things that are of use to everybody."
  4. Merchants:  "Merchants are at the bottom because they don't produce anything themselves.  They don't grow food, they don't make objects of utility.  What they do is take things that other people have produced, move'em around, and enrich themselves in the process.  So they are seen in the Confuciun system as being in a sort of socially-parasitic role.  They do perform a social function, but it is one which is tainted—it is morally less acceptable, because they enrich themselves from the production of others."

When I was first taught the four classes of utility...

  1. Form Utility
  2. Time Utility
  3. Place Utility
  4. Possession Utility
...I felt it stupid that it needed to be pointed out that someone who transports bread from where it is made to the time and place I want to eat the bread performs me a valuable service.  However, history shows us that what appears obvious to us now was not so obvious without a good education.

Perhaps the Chinese felt that no special skills were involved in being a merchant, whereas a farmer, artisan, and gentleman could not perform their duties without learning certain skills.
One only has to observe the sophistication of storage, transport, logistics, and retailing to understand that today's merchant possesses an array of valuable skills.  

If I were teaching the four classes of utility, I would definitely discuss this artifact of Chinese history to motivate what seems so obvious to us now.

Kenneth J. Hammond
"Five Dynasties and the Song Founding"
Lecture 14
From Yao to Mao: 5000 Years of Chinese History
The Teaching Company

Blog Archive