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This article engages critically with William Rowe's notion of an “alternative economic discourse” linking the market-consciousness shown in some aspects of Dong Wei's approach to famine relief in the Song dynasty to that which informed many subsistence-policy discussions and some aspects of bureaucratic practice during the high Qing. The longevity of the discursive tradition is shown to be understated if we start with Dong Wei, but it is also taken as an interpretative challenge. Comparison with the case of ancien régime France is used to suggest an alternative conceptualization that enables us to differentiate between (1) a mainstream tradition of conventionally accepted market-conscious prescriptions that were not perceived as challenging Confucian moralism, and (2) avant-garde departures. A review of the arguments used down the centuries to justify distributing famine relief in monetary form is used to pinpoint one such departure and to reflect on its significance in a multi-century perspective.