Saturday, December 16, 2017

Manchu Status Taxes

The Manchus had their own aristocracy of a kind, formed from the descendants of Nurhaci and other famous warriors, and from the powerful Chinese generals who had submitted early to the rising Qing state. But the Manchus’ ingenious policy held that, within a system of nine aristocratic ranks, a given family dropped one rung on the ladder with each noble incumbent’s death: thus, a title of the third rank would be inherited as a fourth-rank title and then drop to the fifth. Ultimately – unless the emperor repromoted a member for conspicuous merit – the once-noble family would would re-enter the ranks of the commoners. (Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, p. 45).
This is clever: automatic family status depreciation acts as an incentive for the younger generation to prove itself in the eyes of the emperor. Spence does not say much how this system actually worked (or even whether it worked at all – was there a lot of status churn or mobility? did some families retain their status generation after generation?) but it’s still an interesting twist on the idea of aristocracy. Are there any other aristocratic societies where this sort of tax on status inheritance has existed?

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