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Ming Dynasty (1368-1644): The Single-Whip Reform

Ming Dynasty (1368-1644): The Single-Whip Reform


Causes of Reform. During the sixteenth century the Ming government faced several fiscal problems, one of which was the inadequacy of the monetary system. To supplement the shortage of copper coins, the government introduced unminted silver in tax transactions. When converting

commodities into silver, surcharges were often imposed on the peasants. In addition to this monetary problem, the increasing burden of military expenditures proved onerous. Ming armies were largely supported by the land tax, and a substantial portion of the government revenue was allocated for military expenses. The third problem was the inadequacy of government officials’ salaries, which were paid in grain. These payments were often converted into commodities at a low exchange rate when government funds were insufficient. The shrinkage of the salaries affected morale and encouraged corruption. The biggest problem, however, was the confusion and complexity of taxes on land and labor. The tax was assessed according to the classification of the land, which was reevaluated around every ten years. This system was maintained by local wealthy household heads who therefore were able to avoid their responsibilities by falsifying land records, a problem compounded by the complexity of taxes and labor services. Eventually, these problems negatively affected the peasants.

Single-Whip Reform. To solve these fiscal problems, the Ming government, from 1522 to 1619, undertook a series of reforms to simplify the tax structure and to secure tax collection. Many taxes were combined and simplified into monetary payments, a reform known as the yi tiao bian (combining many items into one) or Single Whip Reform. The Chief Grant Secretary, Zhang Juzheng, was the engineer of these reforms. His first major measure simplified land classifications from around one hundred different rates to only two or three rates. The second measure combined land taxes from thirty or forty types into two or three. Third, both land and labor taxes were computed into one tax to be paid in silver. Finally, the government established uniform tax collection dates to reduce the possibility of tax fraud and evasion.

Significance of Reform . These reforms were a prototype of modern taxation practices. Its principles, such as computation of taxes by government officials and use of cash payments, are employed in current tax structures. The assessment of taxes was based on the budgetary needs of the state, and therefore it assured a reliable income to run the government. Silver could be used to pay government officials and hire laborers. Peasants were also freed from the trouble of transporting grain to the government granaries, instead paying their taxes directly to collecting agencies at the local level.


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Ray Huang, 1587, A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981).

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