Contributions were sums of money donated to government institutions. The procedure was called "repayment of kindness" (baoxiao 報效 also written 報効, abbreviation of bao'en xiaoli 報恩效力) because the government rewarded donations with the title of an office (guanxian 官銜, guanjue 官爵) - mostly just a brevet title (xuxian 虛銜) - or a real office (shizhi 實職). Contributions were thus in fact a method of selling titles and offices. Yet contributions were not entirely voluntary. The government often enforced contributions as a kind of para-taxation of wealthy merchant associations or state officials. The procedures of contributions were fixed in particular statutes or case-related rules (zhangcheng 章程, shili 事例).
There were two different types of contributions. Some were of permanent character, while others were carried out in the frame of contribution campaigns launched to finance large government projects, collect funds for disaster relief, military campaigns (military supplies, junxiang 軍餉) or imperial inspection tours (xunxing 巡幸), or at the occasion of festivities (qingdian 慶典) like an Empress Dowager's birthday. Such temporary contributions were called juanshu 捐輸.
The earliest contribution of this type was carried out in 1645 for the southern campaign of Prince Dodo (Duo-duo 多鐸, 1614-1649). The rich merchant brothers Wang Wende 汪文德 and Wang Jianxiong 文健兄 contributed 300,000 liang of silver to buy supplies for the army. The merchant family Fan 范 from Jiexiu 介休, Shanxi, for many decades supported the military campaigns of the Qing dynasty 清 (1644-1911) against the Dzungars 準噶爾. For the long and costly Second Jinchuan War 金川 (1771-1776), merchant associations from the salt regions of Liang-Huai 兩淮, Liang-Zhe 兩浙, Hedong 河東, Shanxi and Changlu 長蘆 donated 6 million silver liang. For the Qianlong Emperor's 乾隆帝 (r. 1735-1796) six southern inspection tours (nanxun 南巡), salt merchants from Liang-Huai donated a million liang each time, and the other salt merchant guilds, several 100,000 liang.
In return, the Qianlong Emperor rewarded those among the merchants who were already in possession of an official rank 3 with the honorific title of chief minister of the imperial parks (fengchenyuan qing 奉宸院卿), and those of a lesser rank with the title (xian 銜, not the office) of surveillance commissioner (anchashi 按察使) and an increase of one half-rank, visible in the corresponding hat button (dingdai yi ji 頂戴一級). The emperor also rewarded donations with honorific titles such as salt distribution commissioner (yanyunshi 鹽運使) or regional vice commander (fujiang 副將), or allowed donors to bear a peacock feather (hualing 花翎), which was actually the expression of outstanding merits. Even if these titles were but vain, they expressed the high appreciation by the emperor himself.
After the end of the Qianlong reign-period, such contribution campaigns became a regular institution with well-defined rules (changli 常例), and thus substantially added to government revenue. After signing the Boxer Protocol in 1901 which imposed heavy reparations on the Qing government, a field tax (tianfu 田賦) increase in several provinces was carried out that was also called "contribution".
In contrast to contribution campaigns (juanshu), regular and permanent contributions (juanna 捐納) followed strict rules with fixed prices for titles or offices. Such campaigns were implemented as early as 243 BCE in the regional state of Qin 秦, where a plague of locusts caused crop failure in some regions. The king of Qin therefore ordered to contribute grain. For each 1,000 shi 石 (see weights and measures) of grain, the donor was rewarded with one additional half-rank in office (jue yi ji 爵一級). The Han dynasty 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) followed this precedent and even allowed delinquents to buy themselves free from punishment (shuzui 贖罪) by donating grain.
In the very early Qing period, the purchase of the titles of university student (jiansheng 監生), tribute student (gongsheng 貢生) and clerk or archivist (li-dian 吏典 = limu 吏目 + dianbu 典簿) was introduced. Whoever paid grain for the army, was allowed to enrol at the Directorate of Education (guozijian 國子監) – even if he would not really engage in studies. Students having purchased their titles were called nagong 納貢 "purchased tribute [students]" and lijian 例監 "university [student] according to the precedent rules [for contributions]". It can be seen that the term juanna was originally tied to supplies in grain, later also money, delivered to the Directorate of Education.
The Kangxi Emperor 康熙帝 (r. 1661-1722) sold titles and offices to finance his war against the Three Feudatories. Contributions yielded 2 million liang from more than 500 persons who had purchased the title of a district magistrate (zhixian 知縣). Minister Song Deyi 宋德宜 (1626-1678) warned the emperor against continuing such methods to fill the government treasure. In fact, the purchase of offices stopped after the end of the war, but was resumed when the government faced natural disasters in Shaanxi, the need for hydraulic works at the Grand Canal and the new campaign against the Mongols in Qinghai 青海.
The Yongzheng Emperor 雍正帝 (r. 1722-1735) likewise fell back on contributions to finance his wars. During his reign, government officials below the rank of circuit intendant or prefect (dao-fu 道府 = daoyuan 道員 + zhifu 知府) were allowed to donate and purchase offices, even that of military personnel. This custom began with low titles like squad leaders (bazong 把總) or company commanders (qianzong 千總, see Green Standard Troops).
When the Qianlong Emperor came to the throne, he first reduced the purchase of offices and just allowed the traditional one of buying the title of university student, but as time went on, he also felt the need to finance his wars by contributions. The purchase was extended to the offices of circuit intendant, prefect, director in the central administration (langzhong 郎中) and brigade commander (youji 游擊). After 1744 it was possible to buy even the title of assistant regional commander (canjiang 參將). There were 38 larger contributions delivered by merchant associations during the Qianlong reign-period. Of these, 11 were intended for disaster relief, 23 for military campaigns, 3 for river conservation or other construction projects, one for an imperial festivity, and one for the creation of agro-colonies (tuntian 屯田). They yielded a total amount of 22.85 million liang, which corresponded to about one third of the annual budget of the empire.
The sale of offices intensified because of the financial pressure in the second half of the nineteenth century. As prices for titles and offices even declined, it was relatively easy to purchase the title of a district magistrate or even a 2nd-class prefect (zhizhou 知州). For some money more, even the privilege of being an appointee could be bought (buque 補缺). Many officials bought themselves "up" in the hierarchy (jiaji 加級), others, being dismissed or demoted, rebought their right for an office. Persons not having an office or an "academic" title like provincial graduate (juren 舉人) could buy such a title, buy a higher title (jiaxian 加銜), and yet others bought a record in a list of appointees (jilu 紀錄). Owners of a purchased juren title, for instance, had the right to participate in the metropolitan examination (huishi 會試).
Sometimes the government ordered whole groups of officials to contribute, like in 1668, when the following guidelines were published: Persons donating 2,000 dan 石 (volume) of rice or paying 1,000 liang of silver were rewarded by an upgrading of a half-rank (jia yi ji 加一級), those donating half of these sums, with a double record in the list of persons awaiting promotion (jilu er ci 紀錄二次). Donors of 250 liang or 500 dan of rice were recorded once in this list (jilu yi ci 紀錄一次). Graduates of the metropolitan examination (jinshi 進士) and of a provincial examination (juren) as well as tribute students recommended as students in the Directorate (gongsheng) were treated like regular officials when it came to establishing a list for discussing the filling of a vacancy (yixu 議敘), provided that they had paid contributions or had served unpaid in exceeding the quota of regular officials (echu shi 額出仕). Government students (shengyuan 生員) donating 200 liang of money or 400 dan of rice were granted the status of university student, and persons not having passed any examination (juanxiu 俊秀 "outstanding persons") could obtain the same privilege by paying just 300 liang or delivering 600 dan of grain.
Merchants delivering contributions were rewarded as follows: For 300 liang of silver or 600 dan of rice, a hat-knob of rank 9 (jiu pin dingdai 九品頂帶) was granted, and for a donation of 400 liang of money or 800 dan of rice, one of rank 8.
The statutes fixing the rules of contributions were called shili 事例 or juanli 捐例. There were temporary rules for contribution campaigns (zanshi shili 暫時事例), and current rules for permanent contributions (xianxing changli 現行常例). Because some contribution campaigns were carried out in the aftermath of natural disasters, the regulations for them were found among the regulations for tax exemptions (juanxu shili 蠲恤事例, see tax reduction).
During the Shunzhi reign-period 順治 (r. 1643-1661), even donors of 8,000 liang of silver or of large amounts of gold had still to pass an examination before being appointed to an office. Those not having passed were given the honorific title of assistant brigade commander (shoubei 守備). The Kangxi Emperor did not confer real posts to donors, but just brevet titles (xuxian) or retrospective rights for fathers and grand-fathers (fengdian 封典) to wear an official's headdress.
From the late eighteenth century on, statutes like the Haifang juanli 海防捐例 (to finance maritime defence measures) or Hegong juanli 河工捐例 (to finance hydraulic projects) defined the prices of titles and offices, at least for those of central government directors (langzhong) and lower in the central government, and circuit intendant (daoyuan) and lower in the provinces. The price for a langzhong title, for instance, was in 1774 fixed at 9,600 liang, that of a vice director (yuanwailang 員外郎) 8,000, that of a circuit intendant 16,400, a 1st-class prefect (zhifu) 13,300, a district magistrate (zhixian) 4,620, and a petty official of the ninth rank 180 liang. In 1851 the prices had decreased to 6,900 for a director, 5,760 for a vice director, 11,800 for a circuit intendant, 9,570 for a 1st-class prefect, 3,300 for a magistrate, an 126 for a ninth-rank petty official. In the last decades of the Qing, the title of a circuit intendant just cost 4,700, that of a magistrate 1,000 liang.
After the donor had submitted the money to the contribution bureau (juannafang 捐納房), he had the status of a "government student" (guansheng 官生) and was given a certificate of his title or post (zhizhao 執照) by the Ministry of Revenue (hubu 戶部), or an enrolment certificate (jianzhao 監照) by the Directorate of Education.
Even with such relaxed rules, there were certain restrictions: Donors could not be employed in the ministries of Personnel (libu 吏部) or Rites (libu 禮部), and those having bought the title of a circuit intendant or 1st-class prefect could not be appointed to a real vacancy (shique 實缺) and were just given a "honorary post" (jianque 簡缺) without the right to hold a seal (which was restricted to so-called zhengyinguan 正印官 "genuine-seal officials"). During the Xianfeng reign-period 咸豐 (r. 1850-1861), when new types of money were introduced to compensate for the breakdown of the copper supply during the Taiping rebellion 太平, the Ministry of Revenue created a copper office (jingtongju 京銅局), which received donations.
The contribution bureau had a staff of six Manchu and six Chinese members which were selected by the Minister of Revenue (?) from among the officials in the central administration. This staff was exchanged every two years.
The intensification of contributions to add to government revenue distorted the reason behind the traditional examination system that had originally been the only way of access to government posts. In the late nineteenth century, participation and success in the metropolitan examination was no more a prerequisite for an appointment to a government post of considerable standing.