Circulation and Flow: Water and the Human Body as Ontological Metaphors in the Financial Debates of the Northern Song (960-1127 CE)

Wed, Mar 2, 2016, 4:30 pm



Christian de Pee

Department of History

University of Michigan


Circulation and Flow:

Water and the Human Body as Ontological Metaphors

in the Financial Debates of the Northern Song (960-1127 CE)


The imperial officials of the eleventh century confronted a complex economy. The central government minted an unprecedented number of coins and issued the world’s first paper money to enable and regulate a growing trade in goods and services. The uneven supply of currency and goods, however, caused unpredictable fluctuations in prices and in the value of money. Local officials sought to understand the mechanisms behind these fluctuations so that they might use this knowledge to lower prices, to relieve the effects of bad harvests, and to discourage counterfeiting. Because they were convinced that money was necessary and beneficent—as money encouraged the needful distribution of goods across the empire—they were convinced also that money functioned in accordance with natural patterns, and that the complex economy of their era could be reduced to a limited set of natural principles.


In their effort to determine these principles, Song officials used water and the human body as ontological metaphors. Because money shared essential physical characteristics with water (e.g., its propensity to flow toward a place of dearth, its sustenance of life and growth by movement), they believed that close acquaintance with water management would yield insights into the management of finance. And because money enabled the healthful circulation of goods through the body politic, officials drew comparisons between finance and medicine, hoping that a new generation of financial experts might use insights from acupuncture to remedy the uneven accumulation and dissipation of the eleventh-century economy. The irreconcilable debates about finance during the 1070s and 1080s, occasioned by the radical reforms of Wang Anshi (1021-1086), forced the realization that the natural principles of finance were not easy to discover or to demonstrate.

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