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Fiscal Policy and Institutions in Imperial China  

Taisu Zhang

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.