Shengyu Yang

Faculty Advisers: Benjamin Elman and He Bian

Business Magnates, Public Philanthropists, and Art Connoisseurs : Suzhou Gentry and the Nationalization of Lijin in Qing China


This dissertation bridges the gap of modern Chinese history divided by the Taiping wars. The first three chapters cover the consolidation of commercial taxes and charitable organizations by the central state, which culminated in the reinvention of the lijin merchant funds for public finance in the 1850s. The middle chapter on upper gentry activism during the Taiping wars detail s how elites altered national policies in diplomacy as well as military deployment. From Shanghai, upper gentry elites persuaded the central state to request foreign powers to intervene in the Chinese civil war. Elites also lured the Hunan army commended by Li Hongzhang to Shanghai with lijin revenue. The final two chapters document how upper gentry elites drew from both recent experiences and long-established practices to achieve the gentrification of lijin by perpetuating war time contingencies for the long-term successes of their families. By formalizing lijin as a replacement of land tax in the post war reconstruction period upper gentry elites shifted the fiscal burden from landowners to everyday consumers.

At the core of this dissertation is a prosopography on a group of upper gentry elites associated with Suzhou. Having earned the official status with exam degrees and/or office purchase, their experience as refugees in Shanghai during the Taiping wars enabled new plans for the future: some left officialdom and became indulged in collecting art; some continued to work for the public sector and benefited from social networks forged during the war; some built new business empires and expanded them to charitable organizations; some got lost in the economic downturn after the war and had to live on borrowing.

By joining individual experiences with long term structural changes, this study revises prevalent conclusions on post Taiping China as either in devolution or restoration. Challenges from the Taiping rebels and foreign imperialists in the new era were simultaneously opportunities for the elites and the state to bound more firmly This trusting and interdependent relationship between the emperor and his ministers in and out of office, I argue, is the crucial condition to understand Qing ,history, which also hints why everything seemed different in the twentieth century.