The debate on iron and salt took place after King Wu’s reign. The reformists aimed at ridding the government of Wu’s dictatorial elements while the legalists aimed at maintaining the status quo. Each side took time to state its policies and expectations about the new government (Hansen 140).
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The legalists defended the government’s colonization of neighboring countries. According to them, the government had to colonize other countries for the sake of defending itself against enemy tribes. In response, the Confucian reformists said, “the Chinese have no business in the barbarian land of Central Asia. China should make peace with its neighbors and be content with their traditional boundaries” (De Bary and Bloom 360). The reformists thought it was irrelevant for China to colonize its neighbors.
The second point of contention was the government’s control over the salt and iron industries. Legalists defended this position as necessary in protecting their citizens from exploitation. However, the reformists disproved this assertion by claiming that the government was only interested in increasing the number of profits it gained from the industries. They considered that move “competing with the people for profits from the industries” (De Bary and Bloom 361).
Thirdly, legalists defended the government’s interest in the trade between China and western countries. They argued that trade brought many foreign goods to the country (Wilkinson 30). They cited fur, fruits, and precious stones as examples of the goods the government acquired from that business. In their response, the reformists declared the business insignificant to the poor citizens. According to their argument, the proceeds from the business went to the rich businesspersons and leaders. The only time the business needed the poor citizens was when the traders required people to work for them. Otherwise, the fur, precious stones, and exotic fruits went to the rich members of the society (De Bary and Bloom 362).
De Bary, William and Mary Bloom. Sources of Chinese Tradition, 1st ed, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. Print.
Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire, 1st ed, New York: Norton, 2000. Print.
Wilkinson, Endymion Porter. Chinese History. 1st ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center for the Harvard-Yenching Institute, 2000. Print.