How an Emperor Can Lose His Power

Spotlight: Yuhua Wang, Professor of Government

When Harvard Government Department Professor Yuhua Wang set out to study China’s imperial history, his analysis of taxation, state strength, and imperial rule revealed a baffling contradiction: the longest ruling emperors presided over a weakened state, while the short-lived emperors ruled over a strong state.

Tang emperors, ruling from 618 to 907 AD, had very short reigns (there were 12 emperors in the late Tang): five were deposed by the elite. And yet the Tang Dynasty was known as China’s glorious age, a cosmopolitan time when the Silk Road flourished as an Eurasian trade route and the economy accounted for a quarter of global GDP.

“Chinese rulers faced a trade-off, a ‘sovereign dilemma.’ If you wanted to stay in power a long time, you needed to weaken the elites—if they are strong, they will assassinate you! And so you needed to break their networks so they are unable to take collective action.”

By contrast, the Qing emperors, who ruled from 1644 to 1911, were among the longest ruling monarchs in the world. And yet the Qing Dynasty is generally viewed a time of decline for the state, with anemic tax revenues, the Taiping Rebellion, the Opium Wars, and the ensuing humiliation of colonization by western powers.

“This was a puzzle that I wanted to solve,” says Wang, whose new book, The Rise and Fall of Imperial China: The Social Origins of State Development, explores this contradiction. Traditional approaches to dynastic history focused on the origins of dynastic system, but Wang was interested in change. Karl August Wittvogel argued that “oriental despotism” arose in response to the need to manage floods and irrigation. Others argued that Confucian thinking—organized around strict social hierarchy and moral codes—shaped a Confucian dynastic state. John King Fairbank pointed to dynastic cycles, ending in peasant rebellions.

But what changed over time—and what might explain the contradiction between tenure and national strength? Wang brought a political scientist’s eye to his research.  A graduate of Peking University and the University of Michigan, Wang joined the Harvard Government Department in 2015, and received tenure last year. He began researching his latest book eight years ago. “Contemporary politics changes so quickly, and I wanted to work on something that has more long-lasting meaning.”

And Wang believed that studying historic trends just might help us understand China today. “My argument is that Chinese rulers faced a trade-off, a ‘sovereign dilemma,’” says Wang. “If you wanted to stay in power a long time, you needed to weaken the elites—if they are strong, they will assassinate you! And so you needed to break their networks so they are unable to take collective action. But a weakened elite would not be able to strengthen the state”

Through detailed kinship analysis, Wang found patterns emerging. The most dramatic change occurred following the Sui and Tang Dynasties, when the Song Dynasty Emperor Taizong introduced the imperial examination system. Before that, Wang found, China had a very strong elite—an aristocracy of some 200 families who monopolized the central government. They were centered in the capital cities of Chang’an and Luoyang, where they intermarried and created a close-knit elite that managed to build the state coffers by implementing tax reforms, strengthening the central government.

But Huang Chao and his rebel army conquered Chang’an and Luoyang in the 9th century (881 AD)—and killed almost the entire elite class. During the Song Dynasty that followed, the imperial examination system—instead of elite connections—became the primary channel for selecting officials. Scholars from around the country went to work in the central government. Wang’s analysis of elite families during the Song era showed that these families built strong social intermarriage connections with neighbors at home, but as officials in the capital had few personal connections with each other, and no particular loyalty to the national government. They were politically vulnerable: The emperors could play factions against each other, strengthening their own power. “The Chinese state was weakened,” says Wang, “but the emperors remained in power for a very, very long time.”

So what can the rise and fall of dynasties in ancient China teach us about China today? “When the ruler wants to strengthen his power and stay for a long time, he must make sure elites are not connected to each other,” says Wang. “Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign had consequences: it broke the networks among elites in China. In factions, you can trust each other. But when officials are not connected, they cannot trust each other.”

And how, in turn, does that affect economic development? “Officials in China today are uncertain about their future. They may work in the same province, but they don’t trust each other. This has negative implications for the economy,” says Wang. “Local officials are not interested in developing the economy. If there is a new project, they feel they might be exposed to danger—there is always the risk of being accused of corruption.”