The Confucian state actively promoted markets, and as a result, commercial life in China soon became far more sophisticated, and markets more developed, than anywhere else in the world. This despite the fact that Confucian orthodoxy was overtly hostile to merchants and even the profit motive itself. Commercial profit was seen as legitimate only as compensation for the labor that merchants expended in transporting goods from one place to another, but never as fruits of speculation. What this meant in practice was that they were pro-market but anti-capitalist.
This seems bizarre, since we’re used to assuming that capitalism and markets are the same thing, but as the great French historian Fernand Braudel pointed out, they could be viewed as opposites. While markets are about using money as a medium to exchange goods, capitalism is first and foremost the art of using money to get more money.
– Exerpted/adapted from ‘Debt: the first 5000 years’ by David Graeber, p260