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Modalities of the Fiscal State in Imperial China

  • Richard von Glahn (a1)


In the past two decades, increasing attention has been paid to the significance of the fiscal capacity of the premodern state to promote or retard economic growth. In particular, scholarship on economic history has stressed the positive impact the emergence of the “fiscal state” had in enhancing economic growth in early modern Europe. Comparative studies have contrasted the administrative efficiency of the emerging European fiscal state with contemporary Asian empires (the Ottomans, Mughals, and the Ming and Qing empires in China). But the Ming-Qing state represents only one version of Chinese state formation under the Chinese empire. This article identifies four basic types of fiscal state that appeared between the Qin unification and the Ming-Qing era, analyzes their ideological foundations, and assesses their implications for economic growth.


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1 North, Douglass C., Structure and Change in Economic History (New York: Norton, 1981), 201–02.

2 Acemoglu, Daron and Robinson, James A., Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (New York: Crown Business, 2012); see pp. 102–04 and 182–212 on the crucial importance of the Glorious Revolution.

3 Brewer, John, The Sinews of Power: War, Money, and the English State, 1668–1773 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988).

4 Mann, Michael, Sources of Social Power, vol. 1, A History of Power from the Beginning to AD 1760 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

5 Mann, Sources of Social Power, 1, 475–83.

6 Epstein, S.R., Freedom and Growth: The Rise of States and Markets in Europe, 1300–1750 (London: Routledge, 2000).

7 Ormrod, David, The Rise of Commercial Empires: England and Netherlands in the Age of Mercantilism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

8 For influential examples, see Arrighi, Giovanni, Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-First Century (London: Verso, 2007); Findlay, Ronald and O'Rourke, Kevin H., Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

9 Schumpeter, Joseph A., “The Crisis of the Tax State” (1918), rpt. in Schumpeter, The Economics and Sociology of Capitalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 99140.

10 See the following essay collections: The Rise of the Fiscal State in Europe, c. 1200–1815, edited by Richard Bonney (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Crises, Revolutions, and Self-Sustained Growth: Essays in European Fiscal History, 1130–1830, edited by W.M. Ormrod, Margaret Bonney, and Richard Bonney (Stamford, UK: Shaun Tyas, 1999); War, State and Development: Fiscal-Military States in the Eighteenth Century, edited by Rafael Torres Sánchez (Navarra: Ediciones Universidad de Navarra, 2007).

11 Hoffman, Philip T., “What Do States Do? Politics and Economic History,” Journal of Economic History 75.2 (2015), 303–32.

12 Schumpeter, “Crisis of the Tax State,” 110.

13 Mann, Sources of Social Power, 1, 418–27; Nick Barratt, “English Royal Revenue in the Early Thirteenth Century in its Wider Context, 1130–1330,” in Crises, Revolutions, and Self-Sustained Growth, ed. Ormrod, Bonney, and Bonney, 59–96.

14 On the political economy of Spain's colonial empire, see Grafe, Regina and Irigoin, Maria Alejandra, “The Spanish Empire and Its Legacy: Fiscal Re-Distribution and Political Conflict in Colonial and Post-Colonial Spanish America,” Journal of Global History 1.2 (2006), 241–67; Grafe, Regina and Irigoin, Alejandra, “A Stakeholder Empire: The Political Economy of Spanish Imperial Rule in America,” Economic History Review 65.2 (2012), 609–51. On the fiscal regime in the Spanish metropole, see Yun-Casalilla, Bartolomé, Marte contra Minerva: El precio del Imperio español, c. 1450–1600 (Barcelona: Critica, 2004); Comín, Francisco Comín and Yun-Casalilla, Bartolomé, “Spain: from Composite Monarchy to Nation-State, 1492–1914: An Exceptional Case?” in The Rise of Fiscal States: A Global History, 1500–1914, edited by Yun-Casalilla, Bartolomé and O'Brien, Patrick K. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 233–66.

15 On the role of American silver as the basis of juro issuance and its dominant place in the finances of the Spanish Empire, see Stein, Stanley J. and Stein, Barbara H., Silver, Trade and War: Spain and America in the Making of Early Modern Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 4056.

16 de Vries, Jan and van der Woude, Ad, The First Modern Economy: Success, Failure, and Perseverance of the Dutch Economy, 1500–1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 91129; Wantje Fritschy, Marjolein ’t Hart, and Edwin Horlings, “Long-Term Trends in the Fiscal History of the Netherlands, 1515–1913,” in Rise of Fiscal States, ed. Yun-Casalilla and O'Brien, 39–66.

17 Ormrod, Rise of Commercial Empires, 15–27; O'Brien, Patrick, “Mercantilism and Imperialism in the Rise and Decline of the Dutch and British Economies, 1585–1815,” De Economist 148.4 (2000), 469501.

18 O'Brien, Patrick K., “The Nature and Historical Evolution of an Exceptional Fiscal State and its Possible Significance for the Precocious Commercialization and Industrialization of the British Economy from Cromwell to Nelson,” Economic History Review 64.2 (2011), 408–46.

19 Martin Daunton, “The Politics of British Taxation,” in Rise of Fiscal States, ed. Yun-Casalilla and O'Brien, 112.

20 On the concept of “fiscal revolution,” see Richard Bonney and W.M. Ormrod, “Introduction: Crises, Revolutions and Self Sustained Growth: Towards a Conceptual Model of Change in Fiscal History,” in Crises, Revolutions, and Self-Sustained Growth, ed. Ormrod, Bonney, and Bonney, 1–21.

21 Fritschy, ’t Hart, and Horlings, “Long-Term Trends,” 47.

22 Fritschy, ’t Hart, and Horlings, “Long-Term Trends”; Bonney and Ormrod, “Crises, Revolutions and Self Sustained Growth,” 17. As Bonney and Ormrod note, despite amassing much greater debt, the Dutch and British paid far lower interest rates than the French because of their superior creditworthiness.

23 A classic statement of the different models of state formation in early modern Europe is Charles Tilly's distinctions among coercive-intensive, capital-intensive, and capitalized coercive state-making: Tilly, , Coercion, Capital, and European States, ad 990–1990 (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1990).

24 See O'Brien, Patrick K., “Fiscal and Financial Preconditions for the Formation of Developmental States in the West and the East from the Conquest of Ceuta (1415) to the Opium War (1839),” Journal of World History 23.3 (2012), 513–53.

25 Wong, R. Bin, China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997); R. Bin Wong, “Taxation and Good Governance in China, 1500–1914,” in Rise of Fiscal States, ed. Yun-Casalilla and O'Brien, 353–77.

26 Rosenthal, Jean-Laurent and Wong, R. Bin, Before and Beyond Divergence: The Politics of Economic Change in China and Europe (Cambridge: Harvard University Pres, 2011), 209.

27 Vries, Peer, State, Economy, and the Great Divergence: Great Britain and China, 1680s–1850s (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).

28 Apart from the body of scholarship already mentioned above, see Reinert, Eric S., “The Role of the State in Economic Growth,” Journal of Economic Studies 26.4/5 (1999), 268326; Reinert, Eric S. and Reinert, Sophus A., “Mercantilism and Economic Development: Schumpeterian Dynamics, Institution-Building, and International Benchmarking,” in The Origins of Development Economics: How Schools of Thought Have Addressed Development, edited by K.S., Jomo and Reinert, Eric S. (London: Zed Books, 2005), 123.

29 Bonney and Ormund, “Crises, Revolutions, and Self-Sustained Growth.”

30 Bartolomé Yun-Casalilla, “Introduction: The Rise of the Fiscal State in Eurasia from a Global, Comparative and Transnational Perspective,” in Rise of Fiscal States, ed. Yun-Casalilla and O'Brien, 1–35.

31 Monson, Andrew and Scheidel, Walter, “Studying Fiscal Regimes,” in Fiscal Regimes and the Political Economy of Premodern States, edited by Monson, Andrew and Scheidel, Walter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 327.

32 Liu, William Guanglin, “The Making of a Fiscal State in Song China, 960–1279,” Economic History Review 68.1 (2015), 4878.

33 Kent Gang Deng, “Imperial China under the Song and late Qing,” in Fiscal Regimes, ed. Monson and Scheidel, 308–42.

34 Haruki, Emura 江村治樹, Sengoku Shin Kan jidai no toshi to kokka: kōkogaku to bunken shigaku kara no appurōchi 戦国秦漢時代の都市と国家:考古学と文献史学からのアップローチ (Tokyo: Hakuteisha, 2005).

35 For a recent translation and study, see Pines, Yuri, The Book of Lord Shang (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

36 For details, see von Glahn, Richard, The Economic History of China from Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 108–13.

37 For further details on Qin–Han household registration and population data, see von Glahn, Economic History, 87–95, 142–45 and the specialized studies cited therein.

38 Scott, James C., Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

39 The anomalies found in Qin–Han civil registration—imbalances in age–cohort gender ratios, high proportions of lame individuals, and improbably high numbers of elderly—reveal that strenuous efforts were made to evade military conscription and obtain the generous privileges awarded to the elderly. By the same token, these efforts testify to the degree to which the state did govern society at the household level.

40 For a synopsis of the equal-field land tenure system and household registration in the Northern Wei and subsequent dynasties, see von Glahn, Richard, “Household Registration, Property Rights, and Social Obligations in Imperial China: Principles and Practices,” in Registration and Recognition: Documenting the Person in World History, edited by Keith Breckenridge and Simon Szreter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 4751.

41 Von Glahn, Economic History, 285–88.

42 Von Glahn, Economic History, 120–26; on the place of the Guanzi in Han discourse of political economy, see also Chin, Tamara T., Savage Exchange: Han Imperialism, Chinese Literary Style, and the Economic Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2014).

43 On economic development in Song China, see von Glahn, Economic History, 208–78; Liu, “Making of a Fiscal State”; Deng, Kent and Zheng, Lucy, “Economic Restructuring and Demographic Growth: Demystifying Growth and Development in Northern Song China, 960–1127,” Economic History Review 68.4 (2015), 1107–31.

44 For studies of Wang Anshi's New Policies, see Smith, Paul Jakov, “Shen-tsung's Reign and the New Policies of Wang An-shih, 1067–1985,” in The Cambridge History of China, vol. 5, The Sung Dynasty and its Precursors, 907–1279, edited by Twitchett, Denis and Smith, Paul Jakov (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 347483; Xia, Qi 漆侠, Wang Anshi bianfa 王安石变法 (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin, 1979).

45 Smith, Paul J., Taxing Heaven's Storehouse: Horses, Bureaucrats, and the Destruction of the Sichuan Tea Industry, 1074–1224 (Cambridge: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1992).

46 Liu, “Making of a Fiscal State.”

47 For details on the Song household ranking system, see Setsuko, Yanagida 柳田節子, Sō Gen gōsonsei no kenkyū 宋元郷村制の研究 (Tokyo: Sōbunsha, 1986).

48 Hartwell, Robert M., “The Imperial Treasuries: Finance and Power in Song China,” Bulletin of Sung-Yuan Studies 20 (1988), 7879.

49 Hartwell, “Imperial Treasuries”; von Glahn, Economic History, 240–42, 256–65.

50 On the use of salt certificates and other commodity certificates as financial instruments, see Kunhe, Miu 繆坤和, Songdai xinyong piaoju yanjiu 宋代信用票據研究 (Kunming: Yunnan daxue, 2002), 4790.

51 von Glahn, Richard, “Origins of Paper Money in China,” in Origins of Value: The Financial Innovations that Created Modern Capital Markets, edited by Rouwenhorst, K. Geert and Goetzmann, William N. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 6589; Glahn, von, “Cycles of Silver in Chinese Monetary History,” in The Economic History of Lower Yangzi Delta in Late Imperial China: Connecting Money, Markets, & Institutions, edited by So, Billy K.L. (London: Routledge, 2013), 1831. I disagree, however, with William Guanglin Liu's characterization of huizi and other forms of paper money in the Song as “government securities” and the implication that they constituted a form of state debt. See Liu, “Making of a Fiscal State,” 67–72.

52 Its ideological sources can be traced back to Confucian philosophers since the Warring States era, but in the interest of concision the early development of these ideas will be omitted here.

53 A recent study suggests that the Ming salt certificates served as a form of public debt. See Puk, Wing-kin, The Rise and Fall of a Public Debt Market in 16th-Century China: The Story of the Ming Salt Certificate (Leiden: Brill, 2016). In my view, this characterization of salt certificates misconstrues their nature and function.

54 Measuring GDP in premodern China is fraught with difficulties, as the range of widely varying estimates in recent scholarship demonstrates; see von Glahn, Economic History, 354–59. For the estimate that government spending ca. 1900 (at a time when state spending was significantly higher than in the eighteenth century) totaled no more than 3 percent of GDP, see the literature cited in ibid., 381–82.

55 On the operation of the brokerage system in the Qing, see Mann, Susan, Local Merchants and the Chinese Bureaucracy, 1750–1950 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987).

56 Wong, China Transformed.

57 To be sure, a revisionist argument to this assessment of late Qing fiscal reforms has been proposed in Halsey, Stephen R., Quest for Power: European Imperialism and the Making of Chinese Statecraft (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015). While I agree with Halsey that the late Qing fiscal reforms demonstrated institutional creativity and marked “the first step toward the creation of a military-fiscal state” (ibid., 112; Halsey here alludes to John Brewer's “fiscal-military state” [see note 3 above]), I view this transformation as incomplete and tentative at the time of the demise of the Qing empire in 1911. For other positive assessments of the transformational character of late Qing fiscal innovations, see Wong, “Taxation and Good Governance,” 372–77; Ni, Cong guojia caizheng dao caizheng guojia.

58 Wong, China Transformed; Pomeranz, Kenneth, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000); Wong and Rosenthal, Before and Beyond Divergence.

59 See, respectively, Mio, Kishimoto 岸本美緒, Shindai Chūgoku no bukka to keizai hendō 清代中国の物価と経済変動 (Tokyo: Kenbun shuppan, 1997), 309–21; Dunstan, Helen, State or Merchant? Political Economy and Political Process in 1740s China (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2005), 9195.

60 My characterization of eighteenth-century Chinese political economy is derived from Will, Pierre-Étienne, “Développement quantitatif et développement qualitatif en Chine à la fin de l’époque impériale,” Annales: Histoire, Sciences Sociales 49.4 (1994), 863902.

61 Brandt, Loren, Ma, Debin, and Rawski, Thomas G., “From Divergence to Convergence: Reevaluating the History Behind China's Economic Boom,” Journal of Economic Literature 52.1 (2014), 45123.

62 Zhang, Taisu, “Property Rights in Land, Agricultural Capitalism, and the Relative Decline of Pre-Industrial China,” San Diego International Law Journal 13 (2011), 129–99.

63 He, Wenkai, Paths Toward the Modern Fiscal State: England, Japan, and China (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013).

64 Scheidel, Walter, “State Revenue and Expenditure in the Han and Roman Empires,” in State Power in Ancient China and Rome, edited by Scheidel, Walter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 150–80.


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Modalities of the Fiscal State in Imperial China

  • Richard von Glahn (a1)


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