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juanmian 蠲免, tax remissions or waivers

Dec 1, 2015 © Ulrich Theobald

Under certain conditions the government of premodern China used to allow tax extensions, tax reductions or tax remissions, either for the whole empire, or only certain provinces or districts. Such conditions were long-term military conflicts, natural disasters like flood, draught or locust plagues (zaijuan 災蠲), or auspicious events like the emperor’s birthday. In many cases, taxes waived were sums in arrears. The normal way that a local official, in most cases the governor or governor-general reported to the throne the situation of distress, explaining that there would be difficulties to pay the tax, and asked for a reduction or else. The final decision was made by the emperor.

During the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) tax reductions or exemptions were part of the policy of benevolence and graciousness (enxu 恩恤, enmian 恩免) displayed by a Confucian regime. During the eighteenth century, when the state treasury was abundant, tax waivers were often carried out, but under the financial distress in the later part of the Qing period this policy ceased. Most tax waivers were allowed during the Kangxi reign 康熙 (1662-1722), for instance, remission or reduction for one year and several provinces, or for one province in several successive years. The Kangxi Emperor established an "eternal rule" that landowners (yezhu 業主) were to be allowed a waiver of seventy percent of the tax (juanmian qi fen 蠲免七分), and tenant farmers (dianhu 佃戶) thirty. In practice, there were also different percentages by which taxes were reduced. In earlier times, governments from time to time abstained from recruiting the peasantry for corvée labour (yaoyi 徭役).

The only Chinese term for tax waivers is juanmian 蠲免, without further specification. Full waivers were called quanmian 全免. Tax remission in the literary sense (re-sending) was not common, as it was very often the case that provinces were in arrears with the tax payment. Taxes brakes were therefore also an expression of the central government's abandoning further demand of payment (zhuijiao 追繳). There was also the possibility to pay in instalments or to prolong the deadline of payment (juanhuan 蠲緩), or to reduce payments due monthly in years with intercalary months (juan runyue yin 蠲閏月銀).
Common Qing period expressions are:

Quotation 1. Examples for decrees on tax waivers
該年應徴錢糧一體蠲免。 We relinquish this year the payment of all [field] taxes.
該處應徴本年錢糧着加恩概行蠲免。 We gracefully allow a complete tax waiver for this year in that place.
該七縣本年額徴銀两蠲免一半。 In the [following] seven districts We waive fifty per cent of the taxes due according to the quota.
凡三次普免天下地丁錢糧兩次普蠲各省漕糧。 We have already in total three times renounced the payment of the poll-and-field tax in the whole empire, and two times waived the delivery of the tribute grain in all provinces.
上年本年應納賦課錢糧全行蠲免。 We fully set aside with the taxes due for payment last year and this year.
惟各城應徵糧石已奉恩旨蠲免二年。 We have already bounteously decreed that We waive the payment of the grain tax of two years in these cities.
Sources:
Huang Yunwu 黃運武, ed. (1992). Xinbian caizheng da cidian 新編財政大辭典 (Shenyang: Liaoning renmin chubanshe), 1023.
Own research.