State Formation and Bureaucratization: Evidence from Pre-Imperial China

60 Pages Posted: 12 Jun 2019 Last revised: 1 Jul 2021

See all articles by Joy Chen

Joy Chen

Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business

Date Written: May 6, 2021


How does one build a centralized bureaucratic state? A dominant view is that wars incentivize rulers to directly extract resources, thereby increasing state capacity. The Chinese empire, one of the earliest states to develop a centralized bureaucracy, can provide useful insights. Using hand-collected data, I present the first systematic evidence on patterns of military conflicts and state-building in pre-imperial China. I develop an incomplete contract model to examine ruler's and agent's incentives at conflict, and demonstrate that defensive and offensive wars exert opposite effects on state-building. Defensive needs drive decentralization: land-owning local administrators have more to gain from a successful defense, and are therefore more committed. Offensive needs drive centralization: the landowning ruler has personnel control over the non-land-owning local administrator, and can therefore force the latter to participate in less lucrative attacks. Empirical tests and historical examples are consistent with model predictions.

Keywords: State Formation, Bureaucratization, Centralization, China

JEL Classification: D73, H70, N45

Suggested Citation

Chen, Joy, State Formation and Bureaucratization: Evidence from Pre-Imperial China (May 6, 2021). Available at SSRN: or

Joy Chen (Contact Author)

Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business ( email )

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