Why War Didn’t Make the Chinese State

War made the state, as Charles Tilly famously argued. This bellicist explanation is still the dominant theory of state formation. Even scholars who claim to have challenged it prove its applicability in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, where there were no (large-scale) wars and no state building.

War seemed to have contributed to ancient state formation in China. The frequent wars during China’s Warring State period (475–221 BCE) led to the unification under the Qin state (221–206 BCE). With a centralized bureaucracy, Qin China was the world’s pioneer in state administration. China embarked on what David Stasavage calls a bureaucratic path of political development.

At that time, Europe was ruled by the Celts. The Roman Empire was yet to form. Anyone who had the slightest knowledge of the two ends of Eurasia would expect the modern state to rise in the east rather than in the west. Fast forward to the early 20th century, modern nation states had become the dominant political organization in Europe; the Chinese imperial state collapsed.

Why, then, did China suffer a dramatic reversal of fortune, given its early bureaucratic development?

Warfare does not appear to differentiate Europe from China. According to Philip Hoffman, for example, early modern China fought interstate wars in 56% of all years, while England fought 53% of the time and France 52%.

The nature of war, however, differed in Europe and China. Based on the data Mark Dincecco and I have collected, from 1000 to 1799, while the vast majority of conflicts in Europe were battles or sieges fought between rival states (e.g., England versus France), more than 65% of conflicts in China were rebellions and civil wars. China’s internal conflicts are what Miguel Centeno terms the “wrong kinds of war” to make the state. We attribute China’s high proportion of internal conflicts to its political geography: China was unified early and remained unified for a long time. The average number of sovereign states between 1000 and 1799 was nearly 85 in Europe, but only 1.5 in China. Political unification meant that, by definition, conflicts in China were mostly within the borders.

But what about the 35% of conflicts that were external? Why didn’t they “make” the Chinese state?

Let’s examine what these external conflicts were and when they occurred. According to our data, more than 80% of external conflicts in China between 1000 and 1799 were fought against the nomads. More importantly, most of these external conflicts occurred from the 12th to the 13th centuries. This is a period that meteorologists call the “Medieval Warm Period.”

The figure below (upper panel) shows a time series of temperature anomalies from 0 to 1900 CE in China. Between 951 and 1320 CE, the Northern Hemisphere experienced some of the warmest years in the last two millennia. The lower panel presents the number of external war battles in each year during this period. Theoretically, warmer temperature should improve crop yields, making the territory a more attractive target for external attack from the nomads. As James Scott points out, the harvest of an agricultural state is the “golden age of barbarians.” An agricultural state after harvest time is a juicy site for plunder and tribute. The concentration of settled people with their grain, livestock, manpower, and goods represents a ripe target for more mobile predators.

Did this period of intensive external threat incentivize the Chinese elites to carry out state-strengthening reforms to build the state?

It did, but the state-strengthening reform failed. In 1069, the Chinese emperor Shenzong (1067–1085), along with his cabinet member Wang Anshi, initiated a series of reforms to strengthen the state’s fiscal and military capacities. These policies were similar to the state-making activities described by Tilly: building a national standing army and centralizing the fiscal system. But powerful politicians fiercely opposed these reforms and orchestrated their abolishment in 1085.

Political opposition to a state-strengthening reform while facing existential threat is counterintuitive. To understand Chinese elites’ calculations, we need to go beyond their external environment and examine their social relations. This is a period that historians call the “localist turn” in Chinese history. With the demise of the medieval aristocracy in the 9th century, the Chinese bureaucracy during this period was staffed by a class of gentry elites who were selected through the civil service examinations. These gentry elites were from local landowning families, which were embedded in complex local social networks. Marriage alliances between these local families helped them perpetuate their power and status in their hometowns. Their sons and grandsons, once succeeding in the examinations, became representatives of local interests. They sought to influence central policies to benefit their home societies and kin groups. Despite severe external threats from the steppe nomads, the Chinese elites in this era were interested in only maintaining a state with mediocre strength.

In a working paper, I use tomb epitaphs to construct the kinship networks of 137 major politicians during the Shenzong reign to analyze why some supported the reform while others opposed it. In the figure below, the upper panel depicts a reform critic’s kinship network in which the ego (the large circle) had kin (small dots) mostly located in nearby provinces; the lower panel shows a reform leader’s kinship network in which the ego had kin located all over the country.

Elites embedded in local kinship groups have parochial interests in maintaining their kinship groups’ autonomy from the state. Economically, it is more efficient for elites to rely on private-order institutions (e.g., families) for protection, because the marginal costs of funding kinship organizations to service a local area are relatively low compared with the taxes paid to support the central state. They thus prefer to retain resources in the hands of their kin rather than pay taxes to the state. Geographically concentrated kinship networks, therefore, reinforce existing regional cleavages.

The failure of the reform is a classic example of individual rationality aggregating to collective irrationality. In 1127, the Chinese state was defeated by the Jurchen and retreated to the south.

Since then the Chinese state followed a trajectory that was diametrically opposed to the European model of state development. Chinese elites increasingly relied on private-order institutions, especially the lineages, for local defense, justice, and public goods provision. They competed, sometimes collaborated, with the state. They kept the state minimally functional, and opposed any attempts to strengthen it.

By the mid-19th century when the British arrived with steamed warships and advanced weapons, the Chinese army could barely protect itself. The Qing state, throughout the 18th-19th centuries, taxed no more than 1% of the economy. Local lineage groups and their private militias flourished in the last decades of the 19th century, especially during the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864). The state lost its monopoly over violence to these centrifugal social forces, which eventually overthrew the state.


  • Wang is the Frederick S. Danziger Associate Professor of Government at Harvard University. He received a B.A. from Peking University and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. His research has focused on the emergence and constraints of state institutions, with a regional focus on China. He is the author of Tying the Autocrat’s Hands: The Rise of the Rule of Law in China (Cambridge University Press, 2015). He is currently working on a new book "Social Origins of Durable Rule in Imperial China" (under contract at Princeton University Press) to examine the long-term state development in China.

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