This article examines how quantification created perceived certainty in government finance in early modern China. Using the cases of formal and informal tax management, this study demonstrates the role of quantification in rendering governable objects visible and constraining the interactions between diverse agents in the process of state building.
During the period examined, the Chinese state attempted a highly centralised fiscal structure with the continued expansion of administrative control via target setting and performance auditing. This was particularly the case in tax surcharges, where the pursuit of formalising fiscal informality endured throughout the eighteenth century. The central authority not only fixed the overall amount of tax and surtax incomes but also classified their uses into hundreds of categories, each specified in an exact figure. Nevertheless, these quantifying practices represented no institutional superiority, as they reflected more the central visions and intentionally ignored local realities. What the expansion of quantification brought, instead, was the perceived certainty in governance, for it produced facts about the fiscal relationship between authorities and provided reference to perform fiscal administration. The formal and informal setting of institutions made clear what the central authority preferred and what local authorities can complete.
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