Was there ever a Chinese tea party?

…best estimates are that during the second half of the 18th century imperial taxes captured only 5 percent of the gross national product in China, compared to 12-15 percent in Russia, 9-13 percent of national commodity production in France, and 16-24 percent of national commodity production in Britain.  During the 18th century in Russia, moreover, corvees and military service were far more onerous than in China, where most labor services had been commuted.  If we consider that under the Northern Song in 1080, imperial revenue averaged about 13 percent of national income, and under the Ming in 1550 6-8 percent, we find some support for Skinner’s thesis that percentage of the surplus captured in imperial taxes shrank steadily relative to the share retained by local systems.

Victor Lieberman presents “philosophical commitment to low taxes” as a major reason for this pattern.  Further explanations are a lack of foreign threats and that the Chinese state did not always have the capacity to collect much more.

Those points can be found in Lieberman’s quite interesting Strange Parallels, Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830, volume 2, Mainland Mirrors: Europe, Japan, China, South Asia, and the Islands.  The book is even longer than that title, clocking in at 947 pp. and that is only the second part of the whole.


don't you mean a... green tea party

I would be interested those rates correlated against the GDP PPP per capita in those times and places. I would imagine effective tax rates are somewhat elastic with income in the relevant range.

Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty, the second Manchurian emperor in Han China, declared that all future emperors were not allowed to raise taxes above the current level. And this plaque the state treasury for hundreds of years. Kangxi spent a lot of money he accumulated during his reign in infrastructure and military conquest. His son, Yongzheng reduced spending, and accumulate a vast amount of money. Kangxi's grandson, Qianglong, returned to his grandfather's ways, and spent a lot of money building a legacy for himself, and in military conquest (10 perfect military conquest is one of his "legacy"), and that triggered the downfall of the Qing dynasty because all subsequent emperors are not allowed to raise taxes to fill up the treasury. So, the answer is yes, there was a Tea Party in China - Kangxi. And what's more important: Whatever he said, was complied with, for hundreds of years, no questions asked.

It's a bit weird, because (and I'm coming at this from a philosophy background, not history, so correct me if I'm missing something) the traditional authority on taxes is Mencius, who praised the "well"-field system in which a field is divided into 9 squares, and the common square in the center is used for government purposes. That works out to a 1/9 = 11% tax rate. So why did taxes sink to 5% GDP?

The well-field system was something of a disaster and basically died before the beginning of the Chinese Empire proper. From a historical perspective, I don't see why it would be relevant that twenty centuries earlier a philosopher advocated a tax system which varied drastically from the contemporary tax system. I suppose the western parallel would be to ask why modern US tax policy is allowed to differ from policies advocated in Plato's Republic. Things change, even in the most traditional of states.

I don't think you fully appreciate the impact Confucious had on Chinese culture...

Well, the Neocons are often said to highly influenced by Strauss's "esoteric" reading of the Republic, and Popper blamed the Republic for 20th century totalitarianism. It's not crazy to think that ancient philosophers can influence later policy debates. Even just the Tea Party is based to a significant degree on their interpretation of the original tea party. So, "if 11% tax was good enough for Confucius, why is it too high for Kangxi?" seems like the sort of question an enterprising young Qing-era Mandarin might ask…

"16-24 percent of national commodity production in Britain": it needed to be that high to subsidise all those American colonists who wouldn't pay their whack.

From all I've read, you should have still been happy to be rid of us.

Isn't a lot of this explained by increased warlordism over time?

Tea Party in China? Well when the imperial throne had an inscription right above it reading 無為* (Do nothing/make no effort), that sounds pretty Tea Party. Active government was never the ideal at any time during any dynasty after Qin Shi Huang. And what a paradise of free enterprise and individual freedoms that society was.

* From the quotation 無為 [而治] "Do nothing and rule."

I'd love to hear more from someone on the non-tax related controls and restrictions these dynasties enforced. I dont think they were free wheeling engines of creative destruction, and so equating low taxes with economic decline and ignoring everything else seems a bit questionable.

Worth noting also that Tea Partiers are difficult to generalize about. As one, the vibe from meetings is more about limited and fiscally responsible government. To view them/us as a a one note tune about not raising taxes is to diminish them without understanding.

Kangxi is still one of the most popular emperors in Chinese history and Chinese industry boomed under his reign. The Chinese middle class thinks taxes are too high and complex; wealthier people just avoid the complexity and don't pay.

Well, if you believe that the Tai Ping rebellion was only millenarian, maybe not. But to the point that, say, Marxists like Mao were right and that it was a revolt against feudal* conditions, that Green Tea Party killed 20 million people.

*feudal -- a term I myself never use about the Western Middle Ages, because it's wrong.. About other places, other times, it's not a handy portmanteau term for BAD.

Fascinating thesis in that book, but that argument sounds a little strained. Though you can argue that the classical model of medieval society needs serious reform, I'm not sure you can argue the basic features of the feudal system, land grants in exchange for military service (and later scutage), were made up by later historiographers.

*Tai Ping rebellion was only millenarian*

it was principally concerned with the manufacture of hats?

This was a concious choice, during the Song there were high taxes on merchants but by the Ming this was seen as morally degenerate. Since Merchants were to Confucian orthodoxy by definition parasites they were not to be encouraged, any consideration towards them by the state was seen as promoting parasitism. While the Song desperately needed money to fight the Mongols, during the Ming Confucian scholars pointed to their encouragement of commerce in order to increase revenue as corruption. It became orthodoxy that dependency on commerce for revenues poisoned the state by leading it to encourage commerce. To counteract this not taxing merchants would enable the state to be morally protected from the taint of commerce.

It's surprising how often that meme is found across history/cultures.

So, to become insignificant as an active party in the world economy, the best policy is low taxes?

I think that, before the XIX century, looking for the ratio taxes/GDP is not much useful, in any country of the world - most "taxation" in these times consisted in rents and similar things payed to local aristocracy, not to the central government.

Speaking of taxes and protests, at Mid-Autumn Festival many Chinese companies give their workers moon cakes as gifts. Now the government says these moon cakes should be taxed as if they were ordinary income, and the Chinese internet is aflame.

As historian Christian Gerlach has shown, there was a long intellectual tradition in China favouring laissez-faire. During the Enlightenment, sinophile European thinkers borrowed these ideas, which became a key part of the ideology of classical liberalism. Classical liberalism therefore has strong Chinese roots.


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