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I often read that the Ming dynasty taxed heavily, and that this is one of the reasons it failed.

For example, this says that: "Corruptive officials levied heavy taxes on peasants, triggering countless uprisings".

But how heavy was this tax, really?

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In theory, not very.

The most infamous of the late Ming taxes were what's the known as the Three Payments (三餉), so named because they were instituted to fund payments fo the army. From contemporary and Qing era history works such as the Veritable Records of Ming and the History of Ming, we know these were:

  • 遼餉 (Liao Pay) - fund the defence of Liaodong against the rising Manchurian menace.
  • 剿餉 (Pacification Pay) - fund the suppression of peasant revolts that had been breaking out
  • 練餉 (Training Pay) - levied in the wake of devastating Manchurian invasions in 1638

These primarily took the form of a tax on farmlands. The Liao Pay was the most significant of these, being originally raised in 1618, and quickly increased thrice to 0.9 candareen by 1620. In 1631, it was further raised to increased to 1.2 candareen. The Pacification Pay was levied in 1637 until 1639, when it was replaced by the Training Pay at about 1.4 candareen.

The Liao Pay returned some 6.6 million taels, and another million from various minor taxes on commerce. The Training Pay added 7.3 million taels. Each tael was equivalent to 100 candareen. To put the tax number in perspective, consumer prices according to the 1593 journal 宛署雜記 were:

白米六升,銀四分八厘,白麵五斤,銀三分五厘;豬肉五斤,銀九分;牛肉四斤,銀五分二厘;活鵝一隻,銀一錢八分;活鴨二隻,銀六分

  • One kati of noodles: 0.7 candareen
  • One sho (1% of a dan) of rice: 0.8 candareen
  • One kati of beef: 1.3 candareen
  • One kati of pork: 1.8 candareen
  • One live duck: 3 candareen
  • One live goose: 18 candareen

For reference, each mu of land (the basic land tax unit) had a basic production level of at least 2 dan of rice or equivalent each year. Other taxes such as customs were also low at only 1/30, or 3.33%. Therefore, the nominal tax value was in fact extremely low, especially in comparison to the double digit income tax of modern western societies.

Relatively speaking, these taxes represented a 50% increase over regular government revenues. However, this is due to how incredibly low normal taxes were. The subsequent Manchurian dynasty of Qing levied taxes of up to 5 candareen per mu, for example.


In practice, the peasantry were heavily exploited by an utterly corrupted bureaucratic machinery and social inequality. At every stage of governance, bureaucrats lined their own pockets with "tax" money. Every tael of tax from the provinces entailed several times more money extracted from the peasants to enrich the middlemen. More seriously, the wealthy in late Ming society could bribe and cajole tax collectors into passing their share of the tax burden onto less influential peasants.

This corruption was extended to the tax system as well where local magnates bribed officials to hide the amount of land or property they owned in order to keep their taxes low. Then, when the state was forced to increase taxes for military expenses, the costs were simply passed along to the peasants.

- Swope, Kenneth M. The Military Collapse of China's Ming Dynasty, 1618-44. Routledge, 2014.

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My answer is short but can be a complement to the nice answer by Semaphore.

Already in the early 15th, from 1447 to 1449, un uprising by Deng Maoqi, a peasant in Fujian province occured. This suggest from the earlier stage of Ming's dynasty, the enocomic system was in chaotic mode.

Quote

The failure of these stern regulations against silver mining prompted ministers such as the censor Liu Hua (jinshi graduate in 1430) to support the baojia system of communal self-defense units to patrol areas and arrest 'mining bandits' (kuangzei).[78] Deng Maoqi (died 1449), an overseer in this baojia defense units in Sha County of Fujian, abused local landlords who attempted to have him arrested; Deng responded by killing the local magistrate in 1447 and started a rebellion.[79] By 1448, Deng's forces took control of several counties and were besieging the prefectural capital.[79] The mobilization of local baojia units against Deng was largely a failure; in the end it took 50,000 government troops (including later Mongol rebels who sided with Cao Qin's rebellion in 1461),[80] with food supplies supported by local wealthy elites, to put down Deng's rebellion and execute the so-called "King Who Eliminates Evil" in the spring of 1449.[79] Many ministers blamed ministers such as Liu Hua for promoting the baojia system and thus allowing this disaster to occur.[79] The historian Tanaka Masatoshi regarded "Deng's uprising as the first peasant rebellion that resisted the class relationship of rent rather than the depredations of officials, and therefore as the first genuinely class-based 'peasant warfare' in Chinese history.

It is said the lowest class of peasants had to pay 50-60% of their income to the landlord at that time.

And from the quote

Hongwu was unaware of economic inflation even as he continued to hand out multitudes of banknotes as awards; by 1425, paper currency was worth only 0.025% to 0.014% its original value in the 14th century

This freaking inflation makes me guess easily put so much hardship on the society in general then.

However, ironically, the Ming Dynasty is one of the longest living dynasties somehow ( up to early 17th century ). And personally it is remarkable when we consider in Japan too, the then dynasty Muromachi Period from the early staage almost everywhere fightings between lords continually occured and uprisings by farmers were frequent but lasted 200 years suggests something might have happening in a similar environment in East Asia at that time.

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