I came across this passage during my morning reading:
“When the people operate their own markets, they can readily negotiate quality and price to determine whether or not to buy something. When officials operate markets for people, quality and prices are invariable fixed, yet self-interest and hidden dealings crop up all over the place. To operate [a state market] that produces profit and avoids corruption is difficult. The better course is for state administration not to get involved.”
That was written in 1487 during the Ming Dynasty by Qiu Jan in Daxue yabyi bu or Supplement to “Expositions on the Great Learning” about the commercial situation in China. The quote is from The Confusions of Pleasure by Timothy Brook, which I highly recommend.
Given the society at the time, he wasn’t advocating for a completely free commercial market, but one that the government did not entirely control.
A bit later Brook writes this passage:
Rarely was famine a sudden disaster. It usually took months to build up, as drought or waterlogging persisted beyond what farmers could bear and private stocks of food and seed grain were gradually eaten away. By famine time most people were without the means to buy grain that merchants might bring in, particularly at the famine prices at which it was sold. Even an economically well-integrated area like Haiyan could not hope to draw in commercial grain as famine deepened. Only when the state or a wealthy benefactor subsidized its purchase and transport would commercial grain enter a famine area, though the subsidies often came too late to be effective. The only profitable trade in famine areas was in people. As Xu Xian noted, outside brokers came in to purchase large numbers of women and girls, and a smaller number of boys, for a few thousand copper cash each. These they transported north to the great commercial center of Suzhou to sell as prostitutes, concubines, and bondservants. It was a profitable trade, and some of those sold survived.