Internal Rebellions and External Threats: A Model of Government Organizational Forms in Ancient China

By Zhou, Haiwen | Southern Economic Journal, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Internal Rebellions and External Threats: A Model of Government Organizational Forms in Ancient China


Zhou, Haiwen, Southern Economic Journal


[Author Affiliation]

Haiwen Zhou, , , , hzhou@odu.edu

[Acknowledgment]

I thank Laura Razzolini and two anonymous referees for their extremely insightful suggestions. I am solely responsible for all remaining errors.

1. Introduction

In ancient China, to continue his reign, a ruler needed to prevent and put down internal rebellions and deal effectively with external threats.1 Internal rebellions were frequently observed in China's history, as recorded in Sima (1988) and Sima et al. (1984). A general might rebel, a high ranking civilian officer might usurp power, and peasants might rebel. External threats were also common in China's history. For example, in the early stage of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220), the threat from Xiongnu was severe.2 More significantly, the Song Dynasty (960-1279) was replaced by the invading Mongols, and the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) was replaced by the invading Manchu.

To prevent internal rebellions and to deal with external threats, a ruler may choose from three types of government organizational forms.3 First, the ruler might adopt the feudalism (fengjian ) form.4 Under this organizational form, kingdoms were established. Important positions of the country would be inherited and would not be controlled by the central government, and the power of the central government would be limited. Second, the ruler may adopt the commandery-county (jun-xian ) organizational form. For simplicity of presentation, for the rest of this article, this organizational form is referred to as the county form. Under the county form, local officials would be appointed by the central government and administrative power would be concentrated at the central government.5 Although the county form would be useful to pool resources for the central government and might make the handling of external threats more effective, internal rebellions could be a threat to the ruler because a minister's control of the central government would lead to the usurpation of power. Third, the ruler might adopt a mixed organizational form in which some parts of the country were organized as kingdoms and other parts of the country were organized as counties.

As discussed in more detail in section 2, within a given government organizational form, a ruler could take various measures to decrease the possibility of internal rebellions. Those measures worked by decreasing the concentration of power among ministers. But the decentralization of power means that organizational efficiency could be harmed and the handling of external threats would be less effective. That is, although an institution could decrease the possibility of internal rebellions, at the same time it could make defense against external threats less effective.

Scholars in China have long debated the choice of organizational form, going back to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) more than 2000 years ago. Each type of organizational form has its pros and cons. Under the county form, without kingdoms established, powerful ministers could usurp power. Under the feudal form, when kingdoms were established, the existence of kingdoms could deter powerful ministers from usurping power. However, kings might rebel and fight among themselves. Although no organizational form proved suitable for various situations, historically a ruler's choice of government organizational form was not random and was affected by factors such as the size of the population, the magnitude of external threats, the level of coordination efficiency, and the degree of returns to scale in the military. For example, the choice of organizational form could be affected by the degree of returns to the military sector. If an organizational form leads to multiple small armies rather than one large army, the possibility of internal rebellions by a military leader would be smaller, but the aggregate military strength of the country, and hence the ability of this country to defend against external threats, would be sacrificed with increasing returns to the military sector. …

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