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Cornell Contemporary China Initiative - Taisu Zhang

Monday, April 15, 2019 at 4:30pm to 6:00pm

Goldwin Smith Hall, G76
232 East Ave, Central Campus

CCCI welcomes Taisu Zhang to speak on: The Ideological Foundations of the Qing Fiscal State.


Scholars increasingly believe that weak fiscal institutions were a major cause of late imperial Chinese decline: Contrary to the still surprisingly prevalent notion of "oriental despotism," the Qing state was in fact characterized by limited power as a result of fiscal weakness, especially after the mid-18th Century. The central element of state revenue, the agricultural tax, remained stagnant in total volume from the mid-18th Century to the end of the 19th, despite a near-tripling of China’s population and economy.

As a share of total agricultural output, it declined from 3-4 percent to less than 2 percent—less than 1 percent if we only count legally authorized “formal” taxes—a mere fraction of what other early modern states, particularly Japan and England, extracted. Ultra-low levels of extraction from the rural economy mired the late Qing state in a perpetual state of fiscal crisis and administrative weakness, stunting its industrial development. 

Despite the crucial role that fiscal institutions played in China’s relative decline, their origins remain inadequately understood. Most importantly, preexisting explanations struggle to explain the stagnation of agricultural taxes in the later 19th Century, when the Qing state was under enormous pressure to expand its revenue base.

Using this as an impetus, this book project provides a new account of Qing fiscal legislation and policymaking that focuses on the interplay between political ideology and state institutions. It argues that the stubborn refusal to raise agricultural taxes was not merely a pragmatic response to the state’s material circumstances, whether geopolitical, economic, or demographical, but also, and probably more importantly, an ideological and intellectual choice. Qing lawmakers locked agricultural tax quotas at very low levels largely because their ideological worldview advised—vigorously—against raising them. The book traces this ideological worldview to paradigmatic changes in political thought generated by the trauma of the Ming-Qing transition.

Taisu Zhang is an Associate Professor of Law at Yale Law School and works on comparative legal history—specifically, economic institutions in modern China and early modern Western Europe—comparative law, property law, and contemporary Chinese Law. 

The Cornell Contemporary China Initiative brings leading figures from around the world to present at a weekly forum on issues crucial to our current world, and also is building an archive of resources on these topics.

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Law School, Asian Studies, East Asia Program, Ethics and Public Life, Global Learning, Asian & Asian American Center, China and Asia-Pacific Studies, Cornell China Center, Economics, Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, Global Cornell





Cornell Contemporary China Initiative
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Amala Lane

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Taisu Zhang

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Yale Law School

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Disability Access Information

wheelchair accessible; hearing assistance provided upon advanced notice

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the public

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