Current Research, January 2022
In his paper on “The Cost of Security. Financing Yellow River Hydraulics during the late Imperial Period", Iwo Amelung investigates the effect of paternalistic views at the Qing court, inspired by Confucianism, on financing hydraulic projects on the Yellow River and on the Great Canal. On the basis of a detailed study of the existing documents he shows that expenditures for hydraulic engineering constantly increased well into the 1840s and eventually amounted to more than 20 per cent of the total expenditure of the central government. While research in the past generally assumed that the high costs of hydraulics were due on the one hand to ecological factors and on the other hand to administrative corruption and inefficiency, Amelung shows that the fiscal catastrophe was due mainly to the desire of the Qing emperors – and specifically of the Kangxi and Qianlong emperor – to bring as much relief to the peasant population as possible in accordance with the image of the “provisioning state" (von Glahn). The fact that after the relocation of the river bed in 1855 the responsibility for the control of river and canal was transferred to the regional administration can thus also be interpreted as an attempt to free the Qing state from financial burdens that were ideologically motivated. This was only partially successful and in fact it was no longer of great urgency because the Qing state in the last years of the empire managed to broaden its fiscal basis by introducing Lijin and the highly efficient maritime customs service. The restraint of the central government also implied a diminishing moral commitment from the state which added to the de-legitimization of the imperial government during the final phase of the empire.
Iwo Amelung, “The Cost of Security. Financing Yellow River Hydraulics during the late Imperial Period", in: Iwo Amelung, Bertram Schefold (eds.), European and Chinese Histories of Economic Thought Theories and Images of Good Governance, London: Routledge 2022, pp. 33-46, DOI https://doi.org/10.4324/9780367434496