Zhang Han 1511–1593

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Zhang Han

Ming dynasty China was an active international trading regime, but the government feared that trade could affect its security and the social order. Trade was allowed but strictly regulated. With the rapid growth of the Chinese economy in the latter half of the sixteenth century, the pressure to trade was inducing some intellectuals to argue on behalf of foreign trade. Zhang Han was a successful government official who came from a prominent Hangzhou family whose initial fortune came from fifteenth-century textile production. In the sixteenth century the Zhangs expanded their wealth through trade. Zhang Han wrote various essays about trade after retiring in 1577, addressing foreign trade specifically in one. Zhang argued that the tribute system, which limited types and volumes of goods traded, inhibited the financial advantages that the Chinese could gain from external trade, and he advocated that Chinese and foreigners should be allowed to trade on a much larger scale, and that each side would benefit from doing so. In answer to those who sought to control trade in order to suppress piracy, Zhang argued that freer trade would bring piracy to an end at no cost to the state because merchants only turned to piracy because their opportunities for trade were limited by the state. Although Zhang did not formally present these ideas to the government, his views were shared by a increasing number of intellectuals from coastal China who periodically persuaded officials to ease trade restrictions to benefit the economic well-being of those living in coastal regions and, they argued, for the political security of the country.

SEE ALSO China; Empire, Ming; Free Trade, Theory and Practice; Gold and Silver;Theories of International Trade.


Brook, Timothy. "The Merchant Network in Sixteenth-Century China: A Discussion and Translation of Zhang Han's 'On Merchants.'" Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 24, no. 2 (May 1981): 165–241.

R. Bin Wong
Timothy Brook