Analysis of the problems of tax inspector in Ming Dynasty by the example of anti-tax movement

Author: Mabory

In 1599, the 27th year of the Emperor Wanli’s reign,, Zhao Zhigao, a senior minister in the Cabinet, was writing a report to the emperor with his words fierce and urgent, describing the recently happened popular uprising in Linqing of Shandong province.

The root can be traced back to twenty years earlier, when the three Great March of Wanli has exhausted the once substantial savings of nation’s treasury. As the emperor embarrassed by the financial shortage, some eunuchs urged him to start mining to ease the current financial strain by digging out, collecting, and smelting silver and copper into usable currency. Nevertheless, such proposal immediately aroused intense opposition from a number of ministers, many of whom noted that mining did not only requires massive gathering, which could potentially turn into rebellion, but the profits of reselling ores also distract people from farming. However, in the face of the empty state Treasury, the emperor was determined to ratify the plan, releasing his statement: “after years of campaigning, the Treasury has been empty, and the Palaces have recently been renovated. If not utilizing such source of wealth, am I that cruel to put the burden upon the people?” Therefore, he dispatched trustable eunuchs to be in charge of mining, which is known as the the “mining inspector”. Soon after, he sent down more to collect store rents and dodged taxes, which is known as the “tax inspector”[1]

Ma Tang, the eunuch directly responsible for the civil rebellion, was then the tax supervisor of Linqing. During his stay in Shandong, to please the emperor by gathering wealth, much of which he appropriate to himself, he arbitrarily accused local merchants of dodging taxes and then required high fines in the name of the emperor. At the same time, the local gangsters and scoundrels he has been colluded with for collecting fines occasionally robbed bypassing peddlers and handicraftsmen during the day. Linqing, where the shops were originally numerous and merchants were gathering, has now lost its prosperity. At last, people in Linqing can tolerate Ma Tang no more of his plundering. Therefore, in 1599, more than ten thousand citizens led by Wang surrounded the local government office and demanded Ma Tang to appear. However, Ma Tang was too frightened to come out and he even ordered the securities to shoot arrows at the masses, resulting in the death of two men. At that time, the people flocked in, killing more than 30 people who were working with Ma Tang. Ma Tang fled in a hurry, and this event aroused the attention of the central authority.  [2]

Most of the people have been obedient to the people in Confucianism, which advocates the etiquette system and stipulates that “the king is the father and the people are the son”. In this case, Ma Tang, as the representative of the emperor, should have received full respect of the people. The reasons why the people dare to resist the central power so strongly are as follows.

First, the amount of money collection by tax inspectors is too large for civilians to bear and the reasons for fining are too unreasonable. In addition to turning the money over to the state treasury, the tax specters also abused their power to feather their own nests. The assistant minister Shen impeached the eunuchs, saying: “your majesty only see that you are so rich in the present income, yet you are unaware of how much wealth the eunuchs hide in their own pockets, nine out of ten.” [3]Since the eunuchs were to satisfy their own greed and, meanwhile, guarantee enough money to turn in, they demanded payment from people through a wide variety of reasons. Li, minister of rites, revealed how the tax inspectors extorted civilians. According to his reports, many inspectors pointed at a citizen’s house, claiming: “there’s ore under your house,” then that house would be broke as they pay for not to have their house dismantled; if a inspector pointed at a man, accusing him for dodging taxes, then he’s pocket would be emptied for paying fine for the accusation. [4]It was unbearable for people, both mentally and financially, the unlawful pretexts and the huge fine that followed, which eventually led to the people’s fierce opposition.

Second,  due to the fact that the tax rate of the Ming Dynasty was relatively low. In many exigencies like war, the state could not cope with the sudden increase in expenditure, so the emperor would increase taxes. The reason why the burden of additional taxes on people did not initiate rebellion was that the local county officials and folk tax agents played a lubricating role in the process of tax implementation. In the Ming Dynasty, the arrears and evasion of tax were very pervasive. Even though there are clear legal provisions stipulating that those who fail to pay taxes on time would be punished by whipping, and though there are even precedents of people being whipped to die[5], many rich people still found ways to evade taxation by donating money to the government, bribing, and hiring someone to take the punishment for them[6]. Such phenomenon reveals that even the government has monopolized the legitimate use of violence, the carrying out of the central authority’s will is still hindered in local areas. Or theoretically, people cannot publically disobey the emperor, yet they do not have a say in the determination of the amount of tax, so they find ways to escape the punishment of the laws, upon which they have not agreed. Therefore, local county officials, which is the tip of the executive branch, have to be flexible in their approaches when collecting taxes. Ray Huang writes in his book: “the most common way is to conduct moral admonition. The magistrate would personally persuade some wealthy gentry in the county to pay taxes on time, hoping that the actions of this small number of well-known people can lead the others to follow suit.(Ray Huang).[7]” Sometimes, the local magistrate even made compromises, suggesting the emperor to exempt taxes that were supposed to be paid before. The other way is to build a collective responsibility system: the magistrate would appoint, from common people, many “great urgers” each of who is responsible for the tax revenue of 120 families of tax payer. If there is any delay in payment, the urgers would report to the magistrate[8]. The urgers have no power officially been authorized by the higher authority, and they are common people who live side by side with other people, so the means by which they implement taxes are very likely to be mainly moral advice and urging(as they were called). The measures of both local magistrate and folk tax agents(urger) are relatively mild. Although this kind of administration can not strictly grip the substratum of the society, it has ensured the stability and prosperity of the country for years. Therefore, the central power was voluntarily decentralized to local autonomous organization and gentries, gradually forming the situation that “the state power does not go down to the county, and the county is governed by clan based on the etiquette.(Qin Hui)[9]” Chinese feudal society seemed to be a period of extreme dictatorship. The emperor had the highest power and could force the people to obey his own orders and meet his own needs. However, in fact, when the central government’s policies were difficult to accept by the masses in the substratum of the society, there would be many difficulties in their implementation. In Yunan, local autonomous organization founded by civilians in the village can even negotiate with the local government, and as long as it refuses to comply if they found the policy unreasonable[10]. This time the emperor skipped the normal procedures of collecting money(taxation), trying to exploit civilians by appointing trusted eunuchs, which is basically attempting to directly carry out his will to the substratum of the society without the lubrication of local magistrate and folk agents, and the eunuchs were so eager to make benefits for themselves that they colluded with rogues. Eventually, frictions were created between the masses and the royal power.

In a word, during the Wanli period, the tax and mining specters aroused widespread and fierce public resentment. The main reasons are: first, the corruption and short vision of eunuchs made the public overburdened. Second, the more important reason is that the central government overestimated its power so much that it ignored the important role of local officials in policy implementation. After the uprising in the Qing Dynasty, the emperor quickly ordered to recall the Ma Tang and sent people to arrest the leader of the rebellion. When the people were in danger, Wang stepped forward and offered to take all the punishments. Finally, when he went to the execution ground, he faced his death without fear. Later, his story was engraved on the monument erected for him by the people of Linqing, and his story was passed down from mouth to mouth.


[1]Nan Bingwen,Li Xiaolin.  Mining and tax inspectors in the Wanli period[J], Journals of social science,1990,68(3):95-101

[2]Jia Wenzhi. The citizen movement in Wanli Dynasty[D],Harbin:Harbin Normal University,2010.

[3],[4]Yang Sanshou. The creul plunder of Wanli mining tax and its influence [J]. Journal of Mengzi Teachers College, 2003(03):21-24.

[5],[6],[7],[8]Huang Ray. Taxation and Governmental Finance in Sixteenth-Century Ming China [M],Shanghai:Life · reading · Xinzhi Sanlian Bookstore Co. Ltd,2001,1167-1177

[9] Qin Hui:Rural grassroots control in the traditional Chinese Empire, edited by Huang Zongzhi: Chinese Rural Studies (Volume 1), commercial press, 2005 edition, page 2

[10]Fei Xiaotong .Chinese Gentry[M],Shanghai:China Social Sciences Publishing House,2006,373-381

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