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Chinese History - Sixteen Barbarian States Economy

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Permanent warfare and the need of the various governments to use the narrow tax revenues for the building-up of an administrative structure and to finance the military campaigns led to a very unstable economic situation in most parts of northern China during that era. Landless peasants offered themselves as servants to the landowners in their large fortified manors (wubi 塢壁) or flocked to the military garrisons that offered employment. Both employment situations freed the peasants from being taxed but lowered the tax income of the state. In order to ensure a stable supply for the capitals, the rulers of the various states captured people in conquered regions and forcibly settled them down in their capital regions. When the dynasty broke down, a lot of these war captives returned to their native places or were forced into slavery by the next dynastic founder. Life was therefore extremely instable, and both the population as well as the states founded in these centuries were caught in a permanent status of improvisation. Yet there were also exceptions. The state of Cheng-Han, for instance, enjoyed decades of peace and so made possible a certain economical prosperity. The same is valid for the Former Liang in the far west and the Former Yan empire in the northeast. The population in northern China during the 4th century decreased in comparison to the centuries before. It was especially the inhabitants of the area south of the Yellow River that sought refuge in southern China, where the Jin dynasties continued to rule as Eastern Jin 東晉 (317-420). People of the ancient capital region around Chang'an 長安 (modern Xi'an, Shaanxi) fled to Sichuan and to the middle Yangtze region, others emigrated to the west. In the northeast, a lot of people moved eastwards into the region of the River Liao 遼河. All these movements of population depopulated northern China, but on the other side contributed to the economical prosperity of southern China and Sichuan and to the relatively good situation in the west.
In order to enhance the agricultural productivity, the ruler of Former Yan opened areas for cultivation that had formerly been reserved for the hunting sports of the elites. The rulers of the Former Liang cared for an open trade along the Silk Road and the market towns in the west. Military campaigns were, of course, also interrupted by short periods of peace. Most rulers in the Yellow River plain tried to promote the agricultural production during such times and to help the economy recovering. Shi Le 石勒 (r. 319-333), the notorious warlord of the Later Zhao, for instance, lowered the amount of taxes in kind (grain and textiles) to be delivered and encouraged the peasants to cultivate mulberry trees for the production of silk. His successor Shi Hu 石虎 (r. 334-349) did not only request that a large amount of grain be shipped to the capital each year, but also took care for the erection of granaries along the waterways. Similar measures were taken by Fu Jian 苻堅 (r. 356-384), ruler of the Former Qin, during the first half of his reign. He had a Chinese advisor called Wang Meng 王猛 who suggested using the traditional Chinese methods of economic politics rather than supporting the nobility of the "barbarians". Under Fu Jian's reign Chang'an regained some of its former economic strength as a place where merchants gathered from throughout the country and men of the trades produced their crafts. Yao Xing 姚興 (r. 393-415) of the Later Qin saw to it that peasants did not sell themselves as slaves because of famine and drought, and proclaimed a liberation of all slaves. Yet curruption and harsh punishments ruined his good intentions. The rulers of Western Liang, Southern Liang and Nortern Yan likewise supported a opening of fields and cut taxes.

Source: Tang Changru 唐長儒 (1992), "Shiliuguo 十六國", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, pp. 922-928.

October 30, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail

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