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Forcing donations distorted charity in Qing Dynasty

By Huang Hongshan | 2016-03-31 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Forced donations, lurking peril


Cartoon by Gou Ben; Poem by Long Yuan


Charity should be an act from the heart,
But Qing rulers forced people to do their part.
Grain quotas became a form of taxation,
Fostering resentment instead of altruistic motivations.
The sources of funding were undermined,
As local officials pockets were lined.
The line between taxes and tributes was grayed,
Which multiplied the price that ordinary people paid.
Since both parties in court dispute were forced to make donations,
What incentive was there to pursue litigation?
Heavy taxes were a hallmark of ancient China’s past,
And they left a legacy that lasts.


Donations, the financial lifeblood of charities, are usually made on a voluntary basis, but in the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911), donations were often forced, especially toward the end of its rule.

Inhibited for a while
In the early Qing Dynasty, when charitable organizations were being built, forcing donations was a common practice.


In 1724, during the reign of Emperor Yongzheng, the central court ordered local governments to encourage good Samaritans to contribute to the establishment of nursing homes and orphanages.

In 1735, Wang Shijun, viceroy of Hedong, modern-day southwestern Shanxi Province, reported to the court that Henan and Shandong provinces had built a number of charity institutions sponsored by officials, gentry and merchants, claiming that the donors had gladly provided the funds.

However, that was not true. When Shandong Province was establishing charity organizations, the government targeted affluent families. It estimated their assets to determine how much they should donate, regardless of their willingness.

The government even required donations from both parties in a court dispute. Those who won the case were pressured to make donations, while those who lost were fined as restitution.

In lawsuits about land, some of the land would be awarded to a charity. In cases involving money or debt, the financial resources would be appropriated to the building of so-called charitable organizations.

Under Emperor Yongzheng’s rule, provincial officials defied the emperor’s wishes and used the practice of involuntary donations to fund public granaries. The emperor decreed that commoners should fill the charitable granaries voluntarily to create a reserve supply to be used in the event of a crisis. The government was responsible only for inspecting them and was forbidden from intervening in their financial affairs.

In fact, however, civilians were compelled to pay tribute when paying taxes. Hunan and Hubei provinces, for instance, required a tribute of approximately 26.4 gallons of grain for every tael of silver paid in tax.

Emperor Yongzheng was aware of the phenomenon and promulgated many decrees ordering local officials not to impose grain quotas on the populace. Nonetheless, in order to promote the building of charitable granaries, he chose to turn a blind eye.

In 1725, Grand Coordinator of Jiangsu Zhang Kai proposed in a correspondence to Emperor Yongzheng that the grain tax on every 614.4 square meters of land should be supplemented by 0.2 liters of donated grain.

In response, the emperor commented, “You mustn’t force the commoners, but try to persuade them within your capacities.” Although Zhang was told not to force the people, his mandatory proposal was apparently approved.

After Emperor Qianlong ascended to the throne in 1736, a few policies were adopted to curb forced donations during the building of charitable granaries. The emperor argued that mandatory grain quotas undermined the original intent of the policy, which was meant to benefit the people.

He ordered local governments not to coerce the people to do good deeds, making clear that violators would be punished. While issuing the ban, the central court also tried to end the practice of forcing donations by financial means.

In Qianlong’s first year on the throne, the Qing court earmarked expenses for orphanages. Local governments responded to the call, providing financial assistance to charities.

In the next year, the Suzhou orphanage in Jiangsu Province received more than 12,000 taels from the government. With an infusion of government funds, the financial situation of charities improved. Because these organizations were no longer reliant on contributions, the practice of forcing donations became less common.

After Emperor Jiaqing ascended to the throne in 1796, there was yet another reversal in policy because the government was struggling with its finances. Some regions in southern China compelled rich people to manage charities and counted on them to close the funding gap. Moreover, the government even formulated punitive measures for those unwilling to contribute.


In 1834, during the reign of Emperor Daoguang, Tao Shu, viceroy of Jiangsu, Anhui and Jiangxi provinces, urged locals to contribute to the Fengbei Charitable Granary. Tao labeled those who would not comply “misers” and “bandits,” and had them arrested.

In the last years of Emperor Daoguang’s reign, Grand Coordinator of Zhejiang Province Wu Wenrong announced a punishment for those refusing to pay tributes. The government would make a plaque with “Heartless Rich” on it and place it above the door of the rich people involved.

After the First Opium War in 1839 and the outbreak of the Taiping Rebellion in 1851, the Qing court was in dire straits financially, and forced donations again became widespread. In 1879, during the reign of Emperor Guangxu, the magistrate of Suzhou ordered butchers to contribute meat to the local orphanage.

The butchers asked for exemptions, claiming that their incomes were too small. Some were even involved in lawsuits for years. The government then imprisoned the first ones who refused and did not release them until all butchers had contributed.

The welfare house in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province, was originally financed by silk businesses. When their contributions were insufficient, the government asked the silk contribution bureau to require another 10 percent on top of regular contributions.

Rugao in Jiangsu Province raised money for the orphanage by soliciting contributions based on a deed tax. When the authority levied a deed tax on land and property, incidental charges were imposed based on the price, with a tael incurring additional 10 coins of tax. The practice was shortly extended to all of Jiangsu Province.

Forcing donations by administrative means could raise large sums of money within a short period of time and ensured charities would operate smoothly. However, from a long-term perspective, it ran counter to the aim of philanthropy.


Coercive measures sparked revolt among the common people against charities and their managers. During the reign of Emperor Jiaqing, the poet Wu Zhouqian was ordered to take charge of the Suzhou nursing home and later wrote a poem saying he “feared the nursing home as one would fear a tiger.” Under Emperor Daoguang’s rule, wealthy people also regarded the position of director of the Changzhou orphanage as dreadful.

 The upper class usually plays a large role in philanthropy, but forced donations created resentment and fear among major donors, which undoubtedly dampened their enthusiasm to contribute.

Forcing donations also created opportunities for corrupt officials and crooked evil gentry to feather their nests. During the reign of Emperor Yongzheng, the wealthy in Changzhou were unwilling to serve as director of the nursing home, so local functionaries took bribes and exempted them from their obligation to take the position in return.

In the last years of Emperor Guangxu’s reign, two heads of charitable organizations in Loumenwan, Suzhou, forced the public to pay tribute, claiming that they were performing their own duties. They extorted merchant ships for hundreds of silver dollars, which got lost on the way to the charities and wound up in the officials’ pockets.

In addition, the practice affected the normal fiscal systems and put a heavier financial burden on the common people. The Qing court was reluctant to increase land taxes, so forced donations became a significant means of raising revenue.

In 1909, when Emperor Xuantong took the throne, the registered regular and irregular tributes totaled 47.69 million taels. The act of forcing tributes out of taxes blurred the line between tributes and tax, but it also brought a convenient source of revenues.

In the Republican Era (1912-1949), the practice continued and people were forced to contribute in various ways. Soon heavy taxes and levies became synonymous with the darkness of the old Chinese society.


Huang Hongshan is an associate professor from the School of Social Sciences at Soochow University in Jiangsu Province.