Examples of Tax Resistance in the Lower Yangzi Region

Kathryn Bernhardt’s Rents, Taxes, and Peasant Resistance: The Lower Yangzi Region, analyzes the maneuvers of the tenant & small landholder farmers, the large landlords, and the government as each tried to maximize their claims to the output of the farmers’ labor.

I read through the book hoping to find examples of how tax resistance campaigns played out in this region during this time period. Unfortunately, Bernhardt is not very interested in the tactics deployed by resisters or in the dynamics of a resistance campaign. She is more interested in why resistance broke out at some times and not others, why it sometimes was directed at landlords and other times at government officials, and why it sometimes focused on rent and other times on land tax.

There were a few examples of tactics and dynamics, though, and I’ll excerpt some of those here.

The first example comes from Zhaowen in . The government had different rates of land taxation for large landholders and for small landholder-farmers, and these rates favored the large landholders. So a way of gaming this system (called “baolan”) became popular: large landlords would pretend that they also owned the small lands, would pay the smaller rate of tax on them, and the small landholders would pay the large landlords some amount greater than that, but smaller than what they would have had to pay if they had paid the higher amount legally dictated by the government.

In , the government moved to put an end to this scheme by banning the practice and by equalizing the land tax to remove the arbitrage opportunity.

The Changshu magistrate put the new regulations into effect immediately, and landowners were reported to have “eagerly delivered” their tax at the new reduced rate. The Zhaowen magistrate Yu Cheng, however, delayed implementation and continued to collect the tribute levy at the former extortionate level. His tardiness brought some forty wrathful landowners from Meilizhen to the gates of his office in . After destroying the furnishings in the main yamen court, the crowd wrecked the house of Xue Zheng’an, the retired tribute clerk who had been implicated in the baolan scandal.

The instigators of this incident were a local landowner by the name of Ji Cuicui and a ruffian (tugun, literally “local stick”) called Jin Deshun. Ji Cuicui, in addition to his indignation about the Zhaowen magistrate’s failure to carry out the tax reforms, held a grudge against Xue for an earlier disagreement over the amount of tribute grain he owed. Jin Deshun had led a checkered life as first a monk, then a pirate, and then the holder of a minor military rank awarded for his service in capturing his former pirate comrades. At the time of the tax revolt, he was living off his skills as a doctor. Jin did not own any land, but he too harbored a grudge against the former clerk for refusing to cut him in on the proxy remittance ring.

After the disturbance at the county seat, Jin and Ji and their followers fled back to Meili, where they set about mobilizing several thousand people in preparation for the anticipated official reprisals. This secular aid was supplemented by sacred assistance. Gods, speaking through child mediums, informed the protesters that 3,000 heavenly soldiers had been dispatched to keep government forces at bay, and divinations cast at local temples further assured them that they would come to no harm.

Magistrate Yu Cheng did little to cast doubt on these oracles. Soon after the attack on the yamen, he sent some runners to Meili to arrest the ringleaders, but Jin and Ji, with the help of some of their supporters, killed two of their number and drove the rest away. Apart from this aborted effort, Yu took no action, apparently neglecting even to report the matter to his superiors, probably for fear that his own role in provoking the tax revolt would be exposed.

No serious military challenge was put to the resisters for . Then, , with the outbreak of the second rent conflict in Zhaowen and of a tax uprising in nearby Taicang, in which the participants were reputed to have been consciously emulating the example of Jin and Ji, Magistrate Yu’s bungling of his county’s tax dispute came to light. Governor Li removed him from his post and ordered the Suzhou prefect, Gui Danmeng, and the newly appointed Zhaowen magistrate to lead provincial soldiers to Meili to suppress the resistance movement. This force soon captured Jin Deshun, Ji Cuicui, and twenty of their followers. Jin and Ji were beheaded; five of the supporters were strangled for their role in killing the runners, and the other fifteen were permanently exiled to a distance of 3,000 li. For good measure Prefect Gui ordered the “arrest” of the local gods for their part in inciting the tax resistance. He instructed that their images be tied up and transported to Zhaowen city for display at the city god’s temple as a warning to other troublemakers who might similarly be inspired by favorable celestial responses. A year later the gods, their sentences served, were carried back to Meili in a formal procession complete with appropriate musical accompaniment.

The next story concerns Zhou Lichun, who went from being a precinct land tax collector (baozhheng), known for his atypical honesty and integrity, to being the leader of a tax rebellion.

Zhou’s involvement in the Songjiang-Taicang uprising began modestly as the leader of a tax resistance movement in Qingpu. In , the magistrate, apparently without any authorization from his superiors, tried to collect some taxes from which landowners had been exempted by imperial decree. This effort meeting with little success, he had some tax runners beaten to impress on them the urgency of their task. One of these hapless men was the runner for Zhou’s precinct, who appealed to the baozheng to lead a group of landowners to the yamen to report poor harvests in the hope that the magistrate would permit the remission to remain in force and thus spare him further punishment. Zhou Lichun and several hundred taxpayers, no doubt acting more in their own interests than for the sake of the runner, marched into Qingpu city, destroyed the house of the tribute grain clerk who had had a hand in rescinding the exemption, and then forced their way into the yamen to present their case to the magistrate. When he refused to listen to their appeal, the crowd of landowners beat him severely.

Zhou Lichun and his followers immediately fled back to Baihejiang Village. Zhou carried on in hiding for the next year, and his prestige and power grew. Drawing on his connections with other baozheng, he made pacts with the landowners in villages of more than twenty precincts not to deliver taxes to the government. The protesters extorted money from wealthy households for expenses and recruited martial arts experts for protection. Zhou Lichun, as one account put it cryptically, “became entrenched” in the northern Qinpu countryside; and government troops, dispatched on three separate occasions, were unable to penetrate the ring of defense his supporters had drawn around him.

The Qingpu resistance, while far-reaching in its consequences, was initially but one of a number of popular protests against taxes in the eastern part of Jiangnan in . more than 2,000 taxpayers in Nanjui County attacked government offices twice with the intention of slaying the magistrate; he managed to escape unharmed both times. Three granary clerks in neighboring Fengxian were not so fortunate; a group of landowners, enraged by a 10 percent increase in the tribute conversion rate, boiled them to death in a vat of vegetable oil. In rural residents of Huating County set fire to the boats of mercenaries who had accompanied the magistrate to the countryside to dun for the payment of taxes. Shortly thereafter a runner mobilized a crowd to storm the Shanghhai yamen in protest of tax collection.

The last tidbit is a quote Bernhardt inserts from Elizabeth Perry’s Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China, :

In the mid-nineteenth century, the proliferation of militia was associated with a dramatic rise in the frequency and scale of tax resistance in Huai-pei. The relationship was two-fold. In the first place, the surcharges levied to support the organization of militia were a cause of considerable resentment. In the second place, these same militia in turn offered an organizational base for opposition to government policy.… Under the pretext of local defense, peasants were encouraged to stockpile weapons and participate in military training. The result was a powerful force that could be mobilized to promote local interests when these conflicted with government demands.… Hundreds of cases have been recorded of militia leading assaults on county offices, burning tax registers, and killing magistrates and other officials.