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Up until the final four decades of the Qing Dynasty, fiscal extraction in imperial China was primarily a matter of taxing agricultural production, generally in the form of an annual property tax assessed on the basis of landholding, and collected in either grain or cash. All major dynasties prior to the Qing wielded this fiscal instrument somewhat flexibly, with large-scale reforms, usually leading to significantly higher taxes, occurring around mid-dynasty, but the Qing broke this trend: the absolute volume of agricultural taxes remained locked in place for the great majority of its 278-year life span, despite a near tripling of both the population and the economy. This eventually rendered the Qing fiscal state an extreme outlier in both horizontal and vertical comparisons: relative to the economy it governed, not only was it much smaller than its major early modern competitors, ranging from Japan to Western European states to other central Asian empires, but it was also probably the smallest post-Qin dynastic state by far. Preexisting scholarship has largely failed to identify, let alone explain, this sudden and dramatic shift in fiscal policy towards the end of China’s imperial history. There are a number of possible explanations for it, some of which have appeared in the extant literature, but the most promising one—which has not appeared—seems to be that the extraordinary circumstances of the Ming–Qing transition served as the catalyst for a decisive conservative turn in Chinese fiscal thought, pushing the Qing state into a fundamentally different political and institutional equilibrium than its predecessors.

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The ruling elite of imperial China was composed of diverse groups, including imperial clansmen and in-laws, eunuchs and other palace attendants, as well as incumbents of a vast civil and military bureaucracy who had hailed, in some historical periods, from different social, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds. The distribution of power among these groups shifted constantly in tandem with the vagaries of political situations. Of these groups, the most prominent and best documented were the shi, who derived their status from a confluence of economic, social, political, and cultural resources. What it meant to be a shi and who qualified as a shi varied greatly over time. The first shi were men of talent who were recruited into government on account of their administrative, military, and diplomatic abilities, regardless of their family or regional origin. The rise of these shi was itself a corollary of China’s transition into the imperial era, which was marked by a persistent endeavor by warring states to build an effective bureaucratic administration staffed by capable men. Within a few centuries, however, the shi had become a semi-hereditary elite, comprising a relatively small number of families that monopolized high offices in government, resided in the capital, and married almost exclusively among themselves. This superelite dissipated in the 10th and 11th centuries, in the midst of a series of economic, social, and political changes that profoundly transformed the character of the shi as well as their relationship to the imperial state and local society. In the subsequent millennium, learning took precedent over pedigree and officeholding in defining shi status. Hence, the shi became a more inclusive epithet and was adopted by all men who had the education that qualified them for government service, thus blurring the distinction between government officials and a more diffuse stratum of local leaders. These transformations took place in the context of longue-durée economic and social changes from Song times onwards, including the growth of private wealth, the spread of printing, the expansion of the educated population, and the development of various local social institutions.