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Bending the Rules: Networks, Precedents, and Negotiation over “Harmonious Purchase” in Southern Song China (1127-1279)

Sun, June 26, 5:00 to 6:50pm, Shikokan (SK), Floor: BF, 012


“When the roof leaks above, [the effects are] felt only by those below.” So did Wang Yan (1137-1218), a Southern Song prefect, lament the disjunction between local realities and policies made by higher levels of the state bureaucracy. How did local administrators like Wang Yan respond to this disjunction? How did they manage to change the policies? How did their governmental ideals and actions shape the workings of the state? This paper addresses these questions by examining how Southern Song local administrators at various levels (including circuit, prefectural, and county levels) shaped the implementation of “Harmonious Purchase.” Despite its name, “Harmonious Purchase" was the semi-coercive purchase of grain by the government. Designed to increase the central government’s access to grain supplies, this policy often caused trouble for local administrators by extracting too much badly-needed grain from their jurisdictions.
This paper shows that individual local administrators often managed to remove, reduce, or redistribute the purchase quotas by negotiating with their superiors. It reveals that local officials’ active use of their personal networks and the precedents of benevolent governance contributed greatly to their successful negotiation. These officials made changes in imperial policy in ways that suited their perceptions of local conditions. They were able to do so mostly outside the court's purview, simply by pulling the right strings. Accordingly, these individual officials resolved tensions between central demands and local interests through flexible field administration, with little court involvement. While this multi-layered form of political communication, manipulated by individual actors, in some senses undermined the central government’s ability to impose its will, I argue that, it paradoxically enhanced the flexibility and stability of the state as a whole.