Chia Ssu-tao

Chia Ssu-tao (1213-1275) was a Chinese statesman who served as chief minister in the closing years of the Sung dynasty and inaugurated a program of radical agrarian reform.

Chia Ssu-tao was born on Aug. 23, 1213, into a military family originally from T'ai-chou in Chekiang Province. Because of his father's distinguished service against the Chin, Ssu-tao was privileged to enter the bureaucracy, and he began his career as a granary superintendent in 1231. The influence of his elder sister, who became an imperial concubine in 1231, may have helped his career initially, but it was only after her death in 1247 that he received his most important posts. After a number of appointments involving financial and military affairs in the capital and in the provinces, Chia became an assistant state councilor in 1256 and right grand councilor in 1259. As right grand councilor, he dominated the government from 1259 until 1275, serving after 1267 concurrently as commander of all Sung forces.

Land Reform

The agrarian reform Chia initiated in 1263 went much further than earlier attempts. Limitations were enacted on the size of land holdings and one-third of the land held over the limit was purchased by the state, which affected payment in a combination of money, patents of office, and tax exemptions according to a formula which favored large landowners. The income from the resulting government estates went to pay for the expenses of the army, replacing the previous system of forced sale of grain to the state. At first applied only to land held by officials, the program was later extended to all land. In 1274 Chia undertook a further radical step when he made the landholdings of Buddhist and Taoist monasteries subject to taxation.

Chia's program earned him powerful enemies, and one critic charged that he intended "to subdue the mighty and impoverish the rich." His enemies also charged him with incompetence in foreign policy, accusing him of attempts to negotiate a secret peace treaty with the Mongols in 1259 to provide for the surrender of territories north of the Yangtze River and the payment of tribute. And they maintained that he misinformed the court about the military situation. These charges were, at best, exaggerated but contributed to the later image of Chia as a "bad last minister," responsible for the fall of the dynasty, a view propounded by Chinese historians and perpetuated, in embellished form, in literature and on the stage.

In his personal life Chia is portrayed by various sources as a sophisticated hedonist fully enjoying worldly pleasures, a connoisseur and collector of art and calligraphy, and an enthusiast for cricket fighting, on which he wrote a systematic treatise.

Chia's land program was rescinded 4 days after he lost office in disgrace after a disastrous defeat by the Mongols. He was banished but was murdered on the way to his place of banishment on Oct. 9, 1275.

Further Reading on Chia Ssu-tao

The only study of Chia in English is Herbert Franke's excellent chapter "Chia Ssu-Tao (1213-1275): A 'Bad Last Minister'?" in Arthur F. Wright and Denis Twitchett, eds., Confucian Personalities (1962). See also Wolfram Eberhard, A History of China (1950; 3d ed. 1969).