Qing Taxation

My Christmas stuff

Since I got a bit of flak for asking for Taisu Zhang’s The Ideological Foundations of Qing Taxation: Belief Systems, Politics and Institutions for Christmas I thought I would post…not a review but at least some thoughts.

The main purpose of the book is to explain the fiscal weakness of the Qing state, especially the late Qing state. To some extent this is a comparative book, in that Zhang is putting the Qing in an early modern context, and trying to explain why the Qing only taxed the population at a rate of 1-2% a year, as opposed to Tokugawa and Meiji Japan with state revenue making up 15-20% of GDP, England at 10-15%, Tsarist Russia at 6-7 % and Ming China at 5% (pg. 4 and chapter 1). This was the source of all sorts of problems for the Qing  and even into the Republic. Zhang attributes this primarily to a strong ideological commitment to low agricultural taxes,  He sees as being unique in Chinese history, since almost every other dynasty expanded agricultural taxes at some point. So the book fits into both long run Chinese history and early modern global history.

This is all really interesting, but not really relevant to my research, or to my teaching. Even for Late Imperial China, which I am teaching next semester I will probably not get that deep into tax policy, and I will not do much comparative stuff. The book is a lot of fun to read, however, in part because it summarizes a lot of the recent work on state capacity, economic history, demographics the Great Divergence etc. Admittedly, it is written by someone from a Law school, so he spends a lot of time encouraging readers to take ideology seriously and explaining that a crude rationalism does not really work here. Nor does he have much truck with crude theories of “Confucian” aversion to “speaking of profit”. Rather, he argues that Qing taxation was driven by the empirical assumption that higher agricultural taxes were simply not possible.

This book argues that the Qing’s turn toward political pragmatism did not render its fiscal policymaking, at least in agricultural taxation, any less ideological than its Ming or Song predecessors. Instead, it merely rendered it ideological in a different sense: empirical and descriptive, rather than deontological and normative. Qing agricultural taxation was premised on the empirical belief that agricultural production was constantly in real danger of falling below subsistence levels, and simply could not support additional government extraction. By the early eighteenth century, the empirical validity of this belief had become deeply questionable, and would remain so for the rest of the dynasty, but it would maintain a vise-like grip over fiscal politics for another two centuries. Much more than any normative distaste for “snatching profit away from the people,” the longevity and political power of this dubious empirical belief was what made Qing tax policy ideological. In fact, only when we see Qing fiscal ideology through this empirical, rather than normative, lens, can we begin to explain the fundamental differences between Ming and Qing tax policies, or explain the latter’s differential treatment of agricultural versus non-agricultural taxes. pg. 17

The real fun of the book, for me anyway, is how it gets in the weeds of tax debates in in the Ming and Qing courts.1 He discusses the Ming tax debates, especially those over the Single whip reforms, and concludes that in the Ming the empirical link between higher land taxes and peasant rebellion was not as iron-clad as it would be later. (pg. 147) Indeed, the Ming lacked much of a theory of dynastic collapse at all. They blamed the Yuan collapse on them being Mongols, and earlier dynasties were far enough in the past that they did not work well as examples.

The Qing of course had very clear theory of dynastic failure, based on the Ming. In fact, I might say that the Qing was the most historically theorized dynasty in Chinese history. The Ming had just fallen, it was  close match in many ways, many Ming officials served in the Early Qing and the compilation of the Ming History was not completed till 1739. The big lesson that the Qing, and especially Qianlong, took from the Ming was that agricultural taxes, and even land surveys, would lead to peasant revolts.

The land survey problem is particularly interesting. At one point land surveys had been seen as a way of controlling the rapacious big landlords who oppressed the poor and did not pay their fair share of taxes.(pg.205) Surveys came to be seen as a major expense and undertaking (both true) and as something that would lead directly to unrest, as they were seen as harbingers of higher taxes and probably being instigated by local officials who just wanted to collect more money.

as Qianlong put it

If land surveying truly does not burden the people, but instead benefits them, then presumably they would welcome the practice. I have, however, never known this to be true. If land surveying will not lead to tax hikes, then why would local governments wish to spend their funding on it? If the argument is instead that surveying will lead to greater fairness in quota distribution, then why do the people fear land surveying as they fear fire or water hazards?pg. 225

After 1740 it was forbidden for provinces to conduct land surveys on their own authority, and it was pretty clear that the center would not approve them either.  (pg. 226). So the Qing was a modern enough state to have population statistics that told them about the huge population run-up of the High Qing, but not the statistics about growing amounts of arable and land productivity that would make them  less panicked about the pressure on the peasants. Almost the perfect (or imperfect) statistically misinformed modern state.

The book has its problems (including an apparent assumption that ever-growing revenue is the purpose of the state), but there is a lot of interesting stuff in here.


  1. Why yes, I am great fun at parties.  

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