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State or Merchant

State or Merchant

Political Economy and Political Process in 1740s China

Helen Dunstan

ISBN 9780674022621

Publication date: 09/30/2006

What did it mean to run a large, commercialized agrarian polity according to the best Confucian principles?

This book is intended as a contribution to both intellectual and political history. It is partly a study of how Confucian-trained officials thought about the grain trade and the state's role in it, particularly the "ever-normal granaries," the stockpiles of grain maintained by every county government as protection against shortages and high prices. The author investigates the scope and limits of belief in market forces among those critical of government intervention, establishing that rudimentary economic arguments for state withdrawal from the grain trade were available by 1750. She then explores challenges, from within the ruling apparatus, to the state's claim that its own stockpiling served the public interest, as well as the factors behind decisions in the mid- and late 1740s to suspend or decrease state purchases of grain.

As a study of Confucian government in action, this book describes a mode of public policy discussion far less dominated by the Confucian scriptures than one might expect. As a contribution to intellectual history, the work offers a detailed view of members of an ostensibly Confucian government pursuing divergent agendas around the question of "state or merchant?"


  • Dunstan brings to life the fascinating story of the domestic Chinese grain trade during the 1740s, in particular the imperial state's attempt to control the buying and storing of grain in granaries throughout the country for the purpose of grain price stabilization and famine prevention. Her excellent, well-written analysis rests on the careful reading of a vast amount of archival documents written by Qing dynasty officials, and it invites the reader 'to spend time with them' in order to understand the thoughts, complex decision-making processes, and actions of Confucian bureaucrats. Dunstan's book approaches the problem of the state's role in the grain trade from the viewpoint of Chinese intellectual and political history but also addresses issues of interest to economic historians. Her study focuses on government actions against hoarders and the surprisingly challenging debate within the imperial bureaucracy about the state's policy of stockpiling grain and interference in the market. However, as the author convincingly argues, changing fiscal and militaristic priorities of the Qianlong emperor, rather than the decision to trust the market, were the reasons behind the decrease in state famine relief in mid-18th-century China.

    —E. Köll, Choice


  • Helen Dunstan is Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Sydney.

Book Details

  • 523 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Asia Center