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Published in: Public Choice 1-2/2023

12-08-2023

The political economy of imperial power successions in ancient China

Authors: Yaguang Zhang, Sitian Yu, Shengyi Zhang

Published in: Public Choice | Issue 1-2/2023

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Abstract

This paper studies the succession of power between emperor and crown prince in imperial China as a political game. We begin by developing a model of the succession game that defines the probability of a crown prince being deposed as a function of the strength of the ruling emperor. The model predicts an inverted U-shaped relationship between the probability of crown prince-deposition and the strength of the ruler. We then test the model’s implication against the historical evidence. We find that from the Western Han Dynasty to the Ming Dynasty (206 BC–1644 AD), the power of crown princes first increased, then fluctuated and finally decreased. This trend was linearly correlated to changes in relative imperial power.

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Appendix
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Footnotes
1
Aristocratic clans refer to the elite class in ancient China, and this concept will be explained in detail later.
 
2
We acknowledge that our data collection strategy raises endogeneity concerns, since factors such as the political system, cultural tradition, economic structure and other social characteristics may affect both the dependent and independent variables at the same time, the fact that these factors almost did not vary over time may help us alleviate this concern. In thousands of years of feudal history in China, there were no major institutional revolutions in political system, economic structure, cultural tradition, and other social characteristics (Fairbank, 1989). Since these factors did not vary over time in the historical period we study from the Han to Ming Dynasties, it is less likely that those unobservable characteristics drove the aforementioned inverted-U shape trend.
 
3
The Han Dynasty lasted from 206 BC to 220 AD.
 
4
Chinese historians usually consider the failure of Qin Dynasty to establish a crown prince system, which led to the accession of a famously incompetent emperor, one of the reasons for the downfall of the Qin Dynasty (Sanft, 2018). The Qin Dynasty (221–207 BC) was the dynasty before Han Dynasty, which was the first era of great unification in China. Emperor Qin Shihuang did not follow ministers’ suggestions to establish a crown prince system. Even though he favored his son Fu Su to be his heir, he did not officially establish him as crown prince. When Emperor Qin Shihuang was seriously ill, he still sent Fu Su to defend the border, which gave the chance for another son, Hu Hai to plot the death of Fu Su by fabricating the will of Emperor Qin Shihuang and finally usurp the throne himself. Hu Hai was one of the most incompetent and brutal emperors in Chinese history, and shortly after his accession to the throne, the Qin Dynasty perished due to his barbarous rule.
 
5
Taibao and Taifu were official positions. Their main responsibilities were serving as teachers and assistants to the crown prince or emperor.
 
6
For example, Emperor Taizong of the Tang specially compiled textbooks for Crown Prince Li Zhi, while Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911AD) was personally responsible for the education of Crown Prince Yinreng starting from a very young age.
 
7
The Eastern Palace was the residence and office of the prince in ancient China. It was also used to refer to the crown prince himself or to the political forces formed around him.
 
8
Editorial Committee of the Commercial Press. (1957). Song Huiyao Collection, The Commercial Press: 539. The Song Huiyao Collection is a historical work specifically recording the system for generating laws and regulations in ancient China during the Song Dynasty.
 
9
“Chu Tai Zi Zhan Shi Shang Dian Zha Zi San Shou”. A memorial written by the minister Wang to the emperor.
 
10
In Chinese history, except for rebellions and dynastic overthrows, very few emperors passed the throne to other people when they already had a son, with the most famous exception being Song Taizu Zhao Kuangyin, who passed the throne to his younger brother. In fact, even cases of the emperor passing the throne to his brother were very rare in Chinese history, unless the emperor had no sons.
 
11
In contrast to the common European system of primogeniture, China gradually switched from primogeniture to monogeniture in the Qin and Han Dynasties (Thompson et al., 1976; Bertocchi, 2006; von Glahn, 2016). Even though the status of the emperor’s sons was somewhat impacted by their birth order or their mother’s status, they were all potentially qualified to inherit the throne. Moreover, due to the legal ownership of an unlimited number of concubines by Chinese emperors, the number of possible heirs to the throne far exceeded that of their European counterparts. Therefore, Chinese emperors had a lower possibility of linage extinction. However, most European countries had a primogeniture system and did not recognize the right to inheritance of children born out of wedlock, which greatly increased the probability that the monarch would pass the throne to a distant blood relative or even to an unrelated person if the lineage became extinct. This was even more likely to happen in nations where the Lex Salica was implemented. From the perspective of imperial power, when their European counterparts faced strong constraints from the law and the Christian church (Bracton, 1968; Mann,1986; Fukuyama, 2011; Johnson and Koyama, 2019), Chinese emperors were much more dictatorial (Finer, 1997; Stasavage, 2016; Ma and Rubin, 2019). They had greater power to decide national affairs according to their own will, including choosing or deposing their own heir (Wittfoge, 1957). For the above reasons, the majority of Chinese emperors successfully made their own sons crown prince.
 
12
The main difference between feudal China and Europe was that ancient China was, for the most part, a “complete unified” state in the true sense (Wittfoge, 1957). In contrast, after the fall of the Roman Empire, most European states claimed allegiance to the same king but in fact existed as individual independent regimes (Jia and Roland, 2021; Blockmans and De Weerdt, 2016).
 
13
In fact, in ancient China, there were several forces involved in the governance of the state that were sufficient to restrain imperial power, e.g., the aristocratic forces in the pre-Qin period and aristocratic families during the Wei, Jin, Northern and Southern Dynasties and even the Sui and Tang Dynasties. During the Song and Ming Dynasties, as bureaucratic politics tended to take shape, these restraints weakened.
 
14
This paper does not account for the Qin Dynasty, the first completely unified dynasty, because it did not have a crown prince system. The last dynasty, the Qing Dynasty, is also not considered because during that dynasty, only the Kangxi Emperor appointed a crown prince.
 
15
Military landlords refers to those who provided military assistance to the emperor in gaining political power, thereby obtaining land rewards from the emperor and becoming landlords.
 
16
The Recommendatory System and the Nine Ranks System were institutions by which local governors selected talented officials and recommended them to their superiors and the central government for appointment to official positions after assessment.
 
17
Many poor people defected to the aristocratic families to become tenant farmers, since the aristocratic families told the poor that if they joined their clans, they would receive protection and financial support, although these promises were rarely kept.
 
18
The Western Jin Dynasty relied on the Langya Wang Clan, the Hedong Pei Clan, and the Taizhou Yang Clan to gain power. After the fall of the Western Jin Dynasty, the Eastern Jin Dynasty relied on the Langya Wang Clan to gain a firm foothold in the area south of the Yangtze River. After the Eastern Jin Dynasty, the ascension of the Northern and Southern Dynasties was strongly reliant on support from the aristocratic clans.
 
19
This refers to an emperor who holds little or no real power and is largely controlled by other individuals or groups.
 
20
“Liang Shu·Xiao Tong Zhuan”. Liang Shu is a biographical historical book written by Yao Cha and Yao Silian in the early Tang Dynasty. It mainly describes the politics of the last years of Xiao Qi in the Southern Dynasties and the history of the Xiao Liang Dynasty (502–557 AD) over more than 50 years. It is a part of the Twenty-Four Histories.
 
21
The imperial examination system provided a channel for commoners to enter the bureaucracy. Officials selected through the imperial examinations were deemed disciples of the emperor because their ranking was ultimately determined by an interview with the emperor. As a result, they were loyal to the emperor rather than the aristocratic clans.
 
22
Common landlord refers to commoners who possessed a large amount of land but did not hold noble status.
 
23
After the Sui Dynasty was established, Shandong forces supported crown prince Yong. However, the Shandong forces were suppressed after Yong’s deposition. Then, they angrily overthrew the imperial family, leading to the fall of the Sui Dynasty.
 
24
Aristocratic clans could hire renowned teachers for their children, provide sufficient material support for study, and obtain exam content in advance or bribe examiners through improper means.
 
25
“Jiu Tang Shu: Xu Jingzong Zhuan”. Jiu Tang Shu is an ancient Chinese historical book, which records a total of 290 years of history in the Tang Dynasty, which is a part of the Twenty-Four Histories. It records many stories of historical figures.
 
26
“Jiu Tang Shu: Zhuang ke Tai zi zhuan”. It was a biography of Li Yong, which was included in Jiu Tang Shu.
 
27
“Zizhi Tongjian Volume 236”. Zizhi Tongjian is a multivolume historical chronicle compiled by Sima Guang, a historian of the Northern Song Dynasty. It mainly covered time and events, from 403 BC to 959 AD, covering 1362 years and 16 dynasties. In this book, the editor summed up many experiences and lessons for rulers to learn from.
 
28
Aristocratic clans in the true sense were completely destroyed in the Tang Dynasty, and the term aristocratic clan here mainly refers to the separatist forces that rose by relying on military strength.
 
29
Although there were powerful ministers who temporarily controlled the imperial government or military generals who had their own troops, it was only for a short period and not enough to pose a long-term threat to imperial power.
 
30
Editorial Committee of The Commercial Press. (1957). Song Huiyao Collection, The Commercial Press: 539.
 
31
“Song Huiyao Collection: Officials”. The Song Huiyao Collection is a historical work specifically recording the system for generating laws and regulations in ancient China during the Song Dynasty.
 
32
“Song History: Kou Zhun”. Song History is a great work recording the history of the Song Dynasty, which is a part of the Twenty-Four Histories.
 
33
“Chu Tai Zi Zhan Shi Shang Dian Zha Zi San Shou”. A memorial written by the minister Wang to the emperor.
 
34
Of course, the discussion in this section is only a generalization of the overall trend. History always moves in a roundabout way, and general trends are always accompanied by outlier events. For example, the systems established by minority groups in the Central Plains often deviated from the traditional track of Han dynasties, as evidenced by the fact that the Yuan Dynasty's (1271–1368 AD) power was vested in the single department of the Central Secretariat, resulting in the collapse of imperial power and the rebellion of powerful ministers. Another example is that local power in remote areas often had a strong voice or the regime itself was formed by the support of local power, which also increased the power of aristocratic clans, further constraining imperial power. This is evidenced by the existence of aristocratic politics in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317–420 AD). However, this does not detract from our claim since the majority of outlier dynasties were not established by Han rulers, which are excluded from our study.
 
35
The Twenty-Four Histories were the most authoritative Chronicles of China (Huang, 2012), which was a collective term for the twenty-four official histories written under the various dynasties in ancient China; all of them were compiled with government support. They cover various aspects of ancient Chinese politics, economy, military, ideology, culture, astronomy, geography, etc., from approximately 2550 BC to 1644 AD. The Twenty-Four Histories are called official history in China., Chinese historical scholars often use them as raw materials for analysis (Clark, 2011; Ess, 1993; Ho, 1963; Qian and Watson, 1993; Sima, 1993; Van Ess, 2006; Yang, 1960).
 
36
“Zizhi Tongjian (资治通鉴)” was one of the most reliable ancient Chinese history books which recorded important historical events. It was a multivolume chronological history book edited by the historian Sima Guang of the Northern Song Dynasty. In this book, Sima Guang summarized many experiences and lessons for rulers to learn from. Emperor Shenzong of Song believed that this book "is valuable for governing based on past events". The Zizhi Tongjian "is also an authoritative work frequently used to study Chinese history since the Song Dynasty, and many emperors even learned how to govern the nation through repeated reading of the Zizhi Tongjian.
 
37
A distaff relative is a relative of the emperor on the side of his mother or wife.
 
38
“Liang Shu·Xiao Tong Zhuan”.
 
39
“Chu Tai Zi Zhan Shi Shang Dian Zha Zi San Shou”.
 
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Metadata
Title
The political economy of imperial power successions in ancient China
Authors
Yaguang Zhang
Sitian Yu
Shengyi Zhang
Publication date
12-08-2023
Publisher
Springer US
Published in
Public Choice / Issue 1-2/2023
Print ISSN: 0048-5829
Electronic ISSN: 1573-7101
DOI
https://doi.org/10.1007/s11127-023-01085-6

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