Leviathan Reborn: Bureaucratic Legacies of China and the First Great Divergence

By Joy Chen, Erik H. Wang, and Xiaoming Zhang

Few tasks of governance are as important and challenging at the same time as state-building. A strong state is pivotal for economic development and human welfare, but making it possible in the first place has proven prohibitively difficult in many regions of the developing world. This conundrum shouldn’t be surprising to political scientists. State-building often entails the shifting of resources from localities to a central government, inevitably creating winners and losers. While the ruler takes the “spoils”, local powerholders lose their vested interests. Be it chiefs in sub-saharan Africa, armed lords in Central Asia, or encomienda in colonial Mexico, local potentates across time and space have strong incentives and wherewithal, including their cultural and political capital as well as coercive power, to block or undermine reforms that erode their powerbases. How could state-builders soften resistance from local powerholders?

This question is not just important for understanding the developing world. It also deserves attention from the perspectives of global history and historical political economy. Recent scholarship has traced the political divergence between the West and the East to a “historical accident” in Late Antiquity. Accordingly, the so-called “barbarian invasions” of the Roman Empire led to prolonged political fragmentation. The resulting absence of centralized rule and proliferation of local lordly power became dominant themes of history since then. This development underlied a unique political and economic trajectory taken by modern-day Western Europe vis-a-vis the Middle East and East Asia.

Interestingly, Early Medieval China also experienced a similar “accident.” In the 4th Century CE, the Inner-Asian equivalents of the Visigoths and Vandals sacked China’s “Eternal City,” Luoyang, and destroyed the Chinese Empire. Political order collapsed into a highly fragmented scene consisting of numerous weak states unable to extend their control beyond the capital regions. Local governance in the vast area of northern China fell to aristocratic families who had risen to prominence in the previous centuries. With castles and a large number of armed clients and serfs, who had fled to them for protection from incessant wars and natural disasters, these aristocrats defended their self-sufficient manors against state intervention.

This almost identical cycle of fragmentation and state weakness to that of Europe was then inherited by the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534 CE). Its rulers initially conquered northern China the same way Charlemagne did for western Europe: “unification” on paper. However, Northern Wei succeeded where the Carolingians failed: imposing centralized direct rule over the localities. In 485 CE, Northern Wei carried out a state-building Reform that took away aristocrats’ local autonomy and revived the mobilization capacity of the Chinese state for centuries to come. The Reform deployed state-appointed agents at the grassroots for population registration and established a state-controlled land redistribution program for the commoners. The end result was a substantial deepening of state penetration in regions previously dominated by local aristocrats, and therefore an enhancement of the state’s fiscal foundation as a whole. While the Carolingians’ episode set the stage for the “Feudal Revolution,” state-building in Northern Wei laid the foundation for China’s eventual reunification in 589 CE. Dynasties since then were more or less characterized by political unity and direct rule over the imperial territory, the institutions of which were later strengthened under a full-fledged imperial examination system, until the end of imperial China in 1911 CE. The Reform is thus a critical juncture from which the political economy of China began to bifurcate from Europe, paving the way for what historian Walter Scheidel calls “The First Great Divergence” between the East and the West.

Why didn’t the powerful local aristocrats in China, the potential losers of the Reform, block or undermine such a transformative state-building effort? In a recent working paper, we address this puzzle by documenting an important yet often overlooked strategy for state-building: compensating the losers through the bureaucracy. Besides offsetting the loss of economic rents, offices in the bureaucracy also serve the purposes of: 1) mitigating the credible commitment problem for the ruler, and 2) aligning the interests of local powerholders and the central government. We compile a unique dataset from a wide range of historical and archaeological sources from the 3rd to the 7th centuries, such as dynastic archival records and excavated epitaphs and monuments. At its core are geocoded career histories of around 2,600 elites, complemented with variables that measure numerous aspects of medieval political economy. Our data validates historians’ long-held view that the Reform was indeed successful. It shows that the Reform enabled Northern Wei to establish a much stronger state presence in localities with geocoded mentions of locally-built fortified castles, which we use to proxy for a lack of prior state presence as aristocrats employed such defense structures to guard their de facto fiefs against state penetration. Our data also shows that the Reform did not lead to more rebellions, either led by the aristocrats or by commoners, in the regions affected by the Reform. It is another sign of success since centrally-imposed reforms often do incite rebellions, as in the cases of Bourbon Mexico and Tsarist Russia.

We empirically demonstrate the bureaucratic compensation strategy by first showing that the Reform led to a sustained, substantial increase in the total number of aristocrats from localities with fortified castles recruited into the imperial bureaucracy as compensation for the loss of economic rents. Our rich evidence further highlights the strategic nature of this surge in recruitment and rules out any functionalist or demographic explanations. More detailed findings from career histories indicate that those local powerholders were more likely to receive higher-ranked and more prestigious offices after the Reform. This shows that the rulers were actively delivering direct political benefits to compensate them for the loss of their vested interests in the pre-Reform status quo.

How did the ruler credibly sustain this deal with the aristocrats? An advantage of bureaucratic compensation is that bureaucracy itself provides institutional mechanisms to mitigate commitment problems. Our paper exploits libu—offices in charge of the recruitment, evaluation and promotion of bureaucratic personnel, which would enable their holders to develop networks of political allies. Our data and qualitative evidence verify that such officeholders in Northern Wei were able to grow more politically powerful. We then find that the Reform led the local powerholders to assume such offices in higher probabilities. This result reflects a deliberate move by the rulers to facilitate credible commitment by tying their own hands via the bureaucracy.

Furthermore, bureaucratic compensation could also help achieve interest realignment. Via specific types of bureaucratic offices, the Northern Wei rulers sought to transform erstwhile local powerholders into national stakeholders. Our data shows that the aristocrats from castle areas were more likely to take senior posts in the national government after the Reform, but not regional governments, suggesting that the rulers actively tried to induce these local powerholders into cultivating their interests in the core of the regime. Our auxiliary results show that those taking senior positions in the national government were more likely to let their offspring reside in the national capital and marry members of the Northern Wei royal family. At the same time, these powerful aristocrats, when they did serve as regional governors, tended to be stationed in jurisdictions away from their hometown, indicating that the rulers deliberately adopted a rotation scheme to further reduce their localist orientation.

Importantly, our specific findings about interest realignment in Northern Wei speak to a broader trend of medieval Chinese history, known as the “centralization of the aristocracy” (士族中央化). Recent work in historical political economy sheds significant new light on the nature of a centralized elite in Tang to mid-Song (ca 618 to 1086 CE) China, demonstrating that they were supportive of state-building because of their encompassing interests. It is therefore little wonder that the interest realignment effort through bureaucratic compensation was successful: the compensated local aristocrats in Northern Wei were the biological antecedents of the centralized Tang aristocracy.

The strategy of bureaucratic compensation for state-building has also been applied beyond China. It was arguably the political force behind the hyangni-to-yangban transformation in a series of state-building efforts during the Goryeo dynasty of the Korean peninsula (918 to 1392 CE). Historian Peter Heather notes that the Late Roman Empire also adopted a similar strategy to extract fiscal resources and take away local notables’ autonomy in its eastern regions, and achieved immediate success as well as long-term gains. The western regions had been significantly de-bureaucratized, and this might be one reason why bureaucratic compensation was not utilized by the so-called “barbarian” rulers from the 5th to the 8th centuries in Western Europe to rebuild the state like their Northeast Asian counterparts did in China. While the legacies of the bureaucracy in earlier Chinese empires were available for the latter to capitalize on, the equivalent Roman legacies might have been much less so for the former.


  • Joy Chen is an Assistant Professor of Economics at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business. Her research interests are in economic history, political economy and institutions, with a special focus on state-building and state-elite relations in historical China. She received a PhD in Economics from Stanford University in 2019.

  • Erik H. Wang is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political and Social Change (PSC) at the Australian National University. Previously, he was a Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse (IAST). He obtained a PhD in Politics from Princeton University in 2020. His research interests center on historical political economy, politics of state-building, and bureaucracy. His work has appeared in American Journal of Political Science, Comparative Political Studies, Journal of Politics, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Research and Politics, among others.

  • Xiaoming Zhang is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Business School at the University of Hong Kong. His research interests cover political economy and economic history with a focus on bureaucracy and state capacity in historical China

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