Making Sense of the Accounts: Provincial Finance in Mid-Qing China

People Involved

Professor Helen Dunstan

Project overview

This project seeks to make sense of the vast wealth of fiscal data contained in the archives of China’s last imperial dynasty. By probing the documentary record generated by one seemingly minor incident in the 1740s, it will add significantly to our knowledge of the financial underpinning of one of the greatest empires in world history. The knowledge gained through intensive scrutiny of the 1740s statistics will inform further research on the remaining decades of a so-called “golden age” in China’s premodern history.

Project Details

This project starts out with a very simple question: how did the government of the world’s largest and most populous polity manage to finance its normal functions when its ruler, the Qianlong emperor (reigned 1735-96), decided to celebrate the tenth anniversary of his accession by cancelling the state’s largest source of revenue for a year? To be sure, landowners may have rejoiced that they would not have to pay the usual tax. But how did the treasury cope, given that the three years over which the tax holiday was staggered turned out to coincide with the fighting of an unexpectedly expensive war?

Progress towards answering this question is now well under way, thanks to a large number of archival documents retrieved at the First Historical Archives in Beijing, and at Academia Sinica and the National Palace Museum in Taiwan. But larger questions have come to the fore in the course of processing the rich statistics extracted from these eighteenth-century reports. How exactly did the fiscal system of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) work? Historians already know a great deal about the taxation system, but-despite a handful of outstanding studies-we have only a general understanding of budgetary procedures and public expenditure in the eighteen provinces of China Proper under Manchu rule. We have, moreover, an understandable tendency to assume that any six-figure sum of money is a large one. It is only when we undertake systematic comparison of a wide range of fiscal data that we become able to attach precise significance to any given number.

The book-length study that is now being drafted will not be only an in-depth exposition of the planning capacities of the “high Qing” Board of Revenue and its relationships with the provincial administrations. Nor will it be only the first quantitative probing of the bullion holdings of provincial treasuries. The more ambitious goal is to produce a new understanding of the strategic map of the Sino-Manchu empire, based on investigation of the relative distribution of troop strengths and the revenue sources required to support them. Conventional depictions of eighteenth-century China tend to highlight Beijing and the wealthy, commercialized, culturally sophisticated Yangzi Delta. A completely different picture emerges when we ask which provinces’ tax revenues were most important for underpinning the Qing state’s military control of the eighteen Chinese provinces.

It is hoped that, following the establishment of a secure, quantitative benchmark understanding of the Qing state’s fiscal system in the 1740s, further archival study will shed light on two puzzling questions about the later decades of the Qianlong reign. First, given the Qianlong emperor’s famous wars, some of which were very costly, and given his ostensible commitment to Confucian fiscal doctrine, which stressed monarchical frugality and generosity to taxpayers, how did the Sino-Manchu state become so rich? Second, what light can examination of the fiscal record shed on the decline of this great empire? We know that most existing explanations are too simple: how should we replace them?