Single Whip Reform

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  • Date: 1580
  • Chinese: 一條鞭法 (Yītiáo biān fǎ)

The Single Whip Reform was a shift in Ming Dynasty China's tax structure, from payments in kind (e.g. rice, grain, textiles) to tax payments in silver, implemented throughout the Ming empire c. 1580. It has been argued that this change was not only significant within Chinese history, but had a profound impact on world history, as the newly increased demand for silver within China drove Asian & European trade networks & empires linking sources of silver in Japan and New Spain with sources of Chinese goods such as porcelains and silks.

The reform was implemented under Grand Secretary Zhang Juzheng, chief advisor to the Wanli Emperor. Thirty or forty different categories of taxes were now simplified into a singular, streamlined, tax structure, and where taxes were previously paid in some combination of cash (coin) and kind (grain or other products), all taxes were now to be paid in coin.[1] Whereas people previously simply gave a portion of what they produced to the government, they now had to sell their products at market, and give a portion of their monetary earnings to the government as tax payments - a system much more like that which is most common in the world today.

While the standard narratives of world history have previously suggested that 16th century globalization - linking East Asia and Europe via the New World - was mostly driven quite simply by Spanish greed, prominent historians are today arguing that it was the enormous demand within China for silver created by this Reform that drove the success of Spanish global trade linkages, and of other Asian & European trade networks in the region. A massive volume of silver poured out of Japanese and New World mines (esp. that at Potosi in Bolivia) over the next century or so, with the vast majority of it flowing into China.


  1. Ray Huang, 1587: A Year of No Significance, Yale University Press (1981), 1-41.