The Rise and Fall of the Chinese State

If we went back in time 1500 years ago and looked at the two halves of Eurasia, would we predict that Europe or Asia was destined for long-run success in state development? The Roman Empire had just fallen, and the Chinese dynastic cycle was at the pinnacle of strength under the Tang Dynasty. However, that trend changed quickly. Europe consolidated into a system of nation-states, while 20thcentury of China descended into a period of warlordism after the collapse of the imperial dynasties. How do we explain “reverse of fortune” for state development?

Yuhua Wang, Associate Professor of Government at Harvard University, seeks to answer this question through a historical analysis of Chinese state development. He argues that in the face of threat, citizens can choose either a “public” option in which they allow the state to provide security for them and thus are willing to pay taxes leading to enhanced state and economic development, or they can choose a “private” option that allows local communities to consolidate resources for themselves against threats, refusing to pay taxes leading to a weaker state. Before the transition to the Song Dynasty, Chinese officials seemed to have followed the public option, but then after the Song Dynasty around the year 1000 CE the state started to weaken.

What explains this shift? Wang looks at a theory of kinship networks, the concentration or dispersion of family members of bureaucratic officials in China. He uses historical data from tomb epitaphs to construct family trees of major officials during the Song Dynasty. Wang claims that politicians, above all, care about their family and tribal interests than the wellbeing of the state. If an official’s family is dispersed across the country, then the politician will be more likely to support the public option of violence and a stronger state, so that the government is responsible for protecting the entire country and thus the politician’s family is covered in all areas. However, if an official’s family is more concentrated, then Wang predicts they are more likely to support the private collectivization of resources for protection and thus will advocate for a weak state. 

Ultimately, Wang concludes that the Chinese state collapsed because self-interested officials, even in the face of severe external threats, advocated for state strengthening or weakening policies based on their familial interests. His research today is part of an ongoing book project. If you want to learn more about some of his other research, please click here.

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