The role of the Maritime Customs Service in Chinese domestic taxation and the shaping of modern China, 1858 to 1931

  • Yiran Zhang

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis investigates the role of the foreign-dominated Chinese Maritime Customs Service in China’s domestic taxation, extending from the collection of Transit Dues in 1858 to the abolition of internal transit duties in 1931. It draws on Customs Service records, correspondence and official publications, newspapers, and other contemporary publications in Chinese and English. The research examines particularly the links between the domestic role of the Customs and China’s modern transformation. The thesis argues that the Maritime Customs was constructed through foreign imperialism but was nevertheless an efficient tool for consolidating central governance over localities. As a result, it paradoxically contributed to China’s state building even while undermining China’s state authority. While China underwent significant decentralisation, the Customs served as a national institution that contributed to holding Chinese governance together, recentralising taxation powers back to the state. It helped China establish a modern taxation system, providing Chinese central government with sustainable military funding, and ultimately assisting China to transform into a modern fiscal state. At the local level, it promoted standardised taxation methods, and brought lower-class merchants into direct contact with the state through tax payments. Meanwhile, it also upheld unequal treaties, with anti-Customs movements widely employed by Chinese political parties for social mobilisation. Especially locally, the Customs encountered resistance that it could not solve. Its colonial nature made the Customs inherently unstable, and the sinicisation of the Customs during the twentieth century made it increasingly reliant for authority on a Chinese government which remained weak after decades of foreign interference. In short, the Maritime Customs’ state-building efforts were hindered by its imperial origins and indeed by its own existence. Nevertheless, through collecting domestic taxes, the Maritime Customs gradually integrated with the Chinese central state and embedded itself in local society. Although its domestic taxation function terminated in 1931, the influence that it had on China was profound and long-lasting.

Thesis is embargoed until 31 July 2028.
Date of AwardJul 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorEmma Reisz (Supervisor) & Aglaia De Angeli (Supervisor)


  • modernisation
  • state formation
  • imperialism
  • decolonisation

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