Role of Money in Ming Society

Ever since the emergence of the need of money, it has become an integral part of the lives of almost every person on the earth. Beyond age, gender, race, and social status, money was and still is a measure of different relationships at all levels. In addition, culture and money also intertwine into a specific relationship, where special features of attitude towards wealth and money vary from nation to nation. Literature allows us to look into the past of peoples and realize what drove the intentions of ancient people, what their values were, and what kind of relationship dominated. The role of money in the culture of Ming society can be traced through the literary works, where people act and show their true face by means of interaction with money.

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Ming China

The glory of China had no boundaries. In the 15th century, this Asian empire was as rich, old, and huge as no other civilization. The Scientific and technological advance was impossible to keep up. Agrarian sector provided food for the people of China. The era of Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644) sets interesting relationship between the officials and the masses when people took an active part in choosing the government workers and “the idea of artist-officials arose naturally in China, where candidates for government were expected to practice calligraphy and compose poetry”. In addition, Confucianism was the cultural and spiritual legacy of the ancestors of Ming society. People searched for peace and harmony with self, between people, within the society as well as with Heaven. Ethically, the teaching of Confucius is humanistic where spiritual wellbeing and virtuous experiences merge into altruism.

However, the state of life and matters changed with the new economic situation in China. New economy enhanced the understanding of choice people could make for their lives. The Confucian system of values wavered under the pressure of the new economic system. ‘Buy-sell’ relationship of the market economy displaced harmony, humanism, and altruism when ‘money talked.’ The change of the monetary system, booming trading experience, and the emergence of merchants as a new social class are the main characteristics that outline the impact and the role of money in Ming society.

In order to understand the extent of change, literature review of the Ming times provides both fictional and factional analysis of the matter. Patricia Ebrey investigates fiction stories as historical documents and a “repository of themes, images, and symbols that proved popular even if those reading or hearing of them never had encountered any such person or situation”. Literature becomes a valuable and comprehensive outline of religious beliefs, values, and lessons for children and adults to learn and share. “Tu Shih-niang Sinks the Jewel Box in Anger” and “The Pearl Shirt Reencountered” are the literary examples that reveal the lessons of those times regarding money and people.

“Tu Shih-niang Sinks the Jewel Box in Anger”

The central relationship in the story is the love of a man named Li and a courtesan Shin-niang. Dramatically, money becomes the emphasis and measure of their relationship revealing what is right, wrong, and valuable. One of the most vicious and obviously most self-explanatory places where money rules and sets the scene of the story – a brothel – the place where customers pay the money to buy the time with pretty girls. Initially, money becomes the way for two characters to meet as a courtesan is a forbidden fruit for someone who does not have money. However, their relationship goes beyond the ‘buy-sell’ pattern with physical attraction and need forming and developing into romantic affair only to end up with ‘buy-sell’ drama again. 

Like everyone in contemporary society, they have a common dependence on money in their daily lives. Li is a student but for the father’s money and efforts; while Shin-niang cannot survive without her wealthy clients. Education for the young man would be impossible without his parent. In fact, Li did not succeed to pass the entry exams. Moreover, the educational institution offered to make a payment for the place in the imperial academy to please every party of the agreement. The wealth of Li’s family became the measure of shaping his future. From the outset, money became the key component in the recipe for love in the melting pot of feelings and actions of the story.

In turn, the attitude towards money shapes the female character, Shin-niang. The general view of a courtesan is a greedy person whose only interest is money while choosing a partner in life and a dream about leaving the ‘work place.’ The storyteller stresses that “Friendship based on profit ends once the money is spent”. Unlike this view, Shin-niang surprises the reader when her feelings grow stronger alongside with Li’s decreasing amount of money. Her virtuous image reveals when she keeps on loving the poor student without any profit.

Another female character whose attitude to people is measured with money is Shin-niang’s madam. She is a personified greed in flesh and bones. As the girl is her most profitable asset in her venture, the love affair the couple continues eats out her income. That is why the madam’s priority is to keep her business going and eliminate any obstacle on her way to financial wellbeing out of poverty. She observes this obstacle stating “I’m keeping a white tiger who eats money,” insists on breaking up the relationship of Shin-niang and Li, and threatens, “I’ll buy another girl to make my living”. The old woman is inhuman bearing the characteristic of a pure capitalist with the motto ‘money above all.’

This motto pushes madam to play the trick with the lovers. She offers Li to buy out his beloved at the cost of 300 taels. However, her intention differs from a single financial benefit. Her merchant mind views the girl as the source of constant income. Therefore, she aims at humiliating Li for being too poor and unable to find the money she asks for Shin-niang. Though she could not expect the virtue of the people around her. Shin-niang gives one half of the sum; while Li’s friend, fascinated by what Shin-niang did, sees the proof of the true love and gives the second half of money. For these people, money helps to show and prove of genuine feelings and intentions.

The twist of the story and Li’s image lies in the interaction with the owner of a boat where the couple had to go to Li’s father and home. The owner, Sun, convinces the man to sell Shin-niang giving the argument of 1000 taels versus no money at all and father’s condemnation. The climax and the greatest drama of the story happen at the moment of a ‘trade.’ Shin-niang opens her jewel box and throws away all its content into the river saying to Li her words of sorrow and disbelief, “In vain I have given you my true love”. Having said that, she follows her treasure and ends up her live in the river water. She did not seek for wealth. The true treasure for her was Li’s love which appeared to be false. Without that no money could matter as well as no further living. She could stop the trade telling Li about her treasure. Though, this had no sense after the horrifying truth. The girl cursed both men who eventually ended up dramatically. 

Money revealed the true nature of all characters in the story. Madam wanted to trick Li to win back her most profitable courtesan. Li was allowed to have love and affection for free as none demanded money or efforts from him. Meanwhile, when he had to find money and buy out his beloved, his efforts equaled zero. Furthermore, at the face of father’s condemnation where money was the key family value he retreats and loses everything. Sun is greedy and his short part in the tale was not only to be the negative character. His trading talent and wealth persuades Li to do wrong. The lesson of Shin-niang and the story itself is love above all. 

“The Pearl Shirt Reencountered”

Unlike the previous story where the message is clear, this tale leaves an ambiguous impression. Created later in time when money gained bigger importance, people felt confused with the revelation of humanistic culture in the form of neo-Confucianism. These antipodal values made people lose the direction in the choice of the way of life.

Similarly, this is a love story which begins with the marriage of Hsing Ko and San-ch’iao. And similarly the man chooses the value of money over love. The husband realizes that family life detracts him from business and makes a decision in favor of the restoration of his trade as he leaves San-ch’iao. Initially, the wife devotedly waits for her husband. However, time goes and a traveling merchant Ch’en Ta-lang seduces her for money while Grenny Hsueh witnesses this marriage deception for her financial benefit as well. When the husband discovers what his wife did, he accepts his blame admitting that his greed forced him to “leave her living virtually the life of a young widow”. The couple divorces and the woman gets back home to her parents who later save her from a suicide. The merchant eventually wants to find San-ch’iao but learns that she divorced and married again. He falls ill and dies knowing that. At the end of a day, the ex-couple marry again; and only an old woman, who saw the act of San-ch’iao’s infidelity, and the merchant, who initiated that act, got the real punishment. 

The issues of loyalty, family values, profit, and dignity are blurry. For the reader, the message of the story is unclear. Obviously, money was the driving power that forced Hsing Ko to abandon his wife. He admits his fault but feels free to marry one more time. The merchant was vicious enough to trade San-ch’iao’s dignity. On the other hand, he realizes his fault and could not live anymore. The pursuit of money in this story moves the main characters’ destiny out of Confucian humanism principles.


The changes during the Ming times made the Chinese society teeter. In the early years, a courtesan could be more virtuous than a wife when one could give up everything including life for love and without it while the latter gave up her primary duty by cheating on her husband and searching for a new life. The ‘person-person’ and ‘person-money’ interaction reveal the true nature of every character of both stories. The later Ming story creates an unpleasant aftertaste of lost values and lost priorities in favor of financial benefit. On the other hand, in “Tu Shih-niang Sinks the Jewel Box in Anger” the reader experiences a great drama of true feelings, big love, great disappointment, disbelief, and inevitable death as a proof that money means nothing.