What Was The Household Registration System in Ancient China?

In ancient China, a strict Household Registration System was implemented to manage the population and serve as a fundamental basis for taxation and corvée, thus forming a form of social organization and management network based on the small peasant economy. In other words, the Household Registration System was linked to the land and based on the family, which was the basis for the Chinese imperial courts to verify the population, collect taxes, assign Corvée, and maintain the ruling order.

The household registration system in ancient China

The ancient Household Registration System was established at the turn of the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States Periods, where the vassal states were at war with each other for years. The population was the most important resource for the vassal states because taxation, corvée, and conscription were all based on it. In the Qin Dynasty, Shang Yang’s Reform adopted a strict Household Registration System that defined every five families as a Wu and every ten families as a Shi, which helped taxation and conscription and strengthened social management. In contrast to this Household Registration System, the Qin government implemented the harsh “collective liability” (lian zuo), which means those related to or friendly with someone who has committed an offense would be punished. If a person took the initiative to report the crime, he could be exempted from punishment. However, if he concealed the crime, the penalty would be enhanced. This system greatly facilitated the court’s rule and the management of the people. With the help of the system, the state of Qin became a powerhouse and unified China in the end.

In the Qin Dynasty, the Household Registration System had already been institutionalized. After the unification of China, Qin Shi Huang began to overhaul the Household Registration System. Since the corvée was closely related to the household register, the age of adult males was the focus of the registration. The special officials from counties or prefectures were responsible for verifying the household population every three years. The Qin Dynasty also had clear rules for the registration, elimination, and migration of the household. If a person’s household registration changed, he or she had to take the initiative to modify the registration items. The misrepresentation of age and illness to avoid corvée would end in severe penalties. What is more, there were also strict rules for people who transferred their household registration, and violators would be punished. As a fundamental policy of the Qin Dynasty, the Household Registration System ensured that the emperor knew everything about the population in the country, which facilitated the assignment of the corvée and the collection of taxes, thus greatly improving the administrative efficiency of the state and its military strength.

The Han Dynasty attached great importance to the implementation of strict household registration. The household registration of the Han Dynasty was very detailed, including the head of each household, his name, place of origin, address, title, occupation, age, wife, brothers, and the amount of property, and other items. Some of them even recorded their height and skin color in detail, serving as the basis for the government in terms of tax collection and conscription. The Han Dynasty’s strict Household Registration System and its supporting mechanisms were important for the ruler to keep track of the national population, ensure the collection of taxes, and strengthen officials’ assessment, which helped strengthen the central government’s local governance and maintain the social order.

The Household Registration System of the Tang Dynasty was relatively complete. One of the features was the distinction between “official households (编户bian hu)” and “non-official households (非编户fei bian hu).” “Official households” referred to the good and free people (良民liang min), while the “non-official households” referred to the untouchables (贱民jian min), such as artisans and slaves. The untouchables were not qualified to establish a separate household but could only share a registration book (hu tie) with their masters’ families.

In the Song Dynasty, with the further development of private land ownership, the government taxed according to the amount of land. Following the practice of the Tang Dynasty, the Song Dynasty divided households generally into such as liable for tax payment (主户zhu hu, ownership household) and such not liable (客户ke hu, client households) according to the availability of land. However, the ownership households were called native households, and the client households were the people who left their original residence in the Tang Dynasty, with a sharp conflict between them. The reform of household registration in the Song Dynasty took the procession of land and other properties as the basis for distinguishing ownership households and client households, recognizing the legitimacy of the status of the non-natives. Moreover, the Song government abolished the hierarchy of “good people” and “the untouchables” and allowed free migration.

At the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, a census was conducted across the country. Meanwhile, the registration book was issued, and the li jia system was implemented. Every 110 households were to constitute a li, and the adult males who ranked top 10 in corvée and taxation were heads of the li in turn. Apart from the 10 heads, each li was fractionated evenly into ten jia; each jia was to take turns to act as the head of the jia. Every year, the head of li led the heads of jias to undertake the corvée. On this basis, the population of the country was divided into three categories according to their occupations: civil households (民户min hu), military households (军户jun hu), and artisan households (匠户jiang hu). They were registered and managed. According to the rules, the civil households were mainly engaged in agricultural production, and they had to pay agricultural taxes to the government and take corvée; military households mostly carried out military service; artisan households mainly undertook labor for the court, the government, and the government-run handicrafts. Each type of household and occupation was determined to be hereditary and could not be changed at will. To be specific, if the father died, the son would inherit his trade. Each household was registered in detail with the type of household, name, place of origin, age, number of the male, land, property, and so on. Each book was submitted in quadruplicate to the concerned departments of prefectures and counties, provinces, and central government.

The Qing Dynasty followed the system of the Ming Dynasty. It implemented a new system of population management (人丁编审ren ding bian shen)which put the household registration into four categories: soldiers (军jun), civilians (民min), salt producers (灶zao), and craftsmen (匠jiang). Every category of the population was divided into three levels: upper, middle, and lower. During the Qianlong period, the pao-chia system, a traditional Chinese system of a collective neighborhood organization, was set up to manage the national population. Then household registration was no longer substantially related to the corvée and taxation.

The Household Registration System, as an important way for the ancient Chinese government to verify the population, collect taxes, assign écorve, and maintain order, has been inherited and improved by successive dynasties for more than two thousand years. As a critical basis for state governance, the ancient Household Registration System was inextricably linked to taxation and corvée, military service, and order and control. Through this system, the state was able to manage people’s residence, migration, property, marriage, etc. In this way, governments could control essential resources such as land, taxes, and manpower and maintain social stability. However, it also led to social solidification, which was not conducive to the flow of social classes.

The tax systems in Ancient China

On the basis of the Household Registration System, ancient Chinese governments implemented corresponding taxation systems, such as the Tripartite Tax System.

Lu Zhi (754-805), one of the prime ministers of the Tang Dynasty, once made a comprehensive evaluation of the Tripartite Tax System, saying that it was uniform in collecting taxes, powerful in stabilizing the people, simple in setting up the system, and thoughtful in the arrangement.

The Tripartite Taxes refer to the three kinds of obligations that the people of the Tang Dynasty fulfilled to the court. Each adult male citizen had to pay about 120 pounds of millet as tax under the name of land taxes (租zu)and pay 6 meters of tough silk and 150 grams of silk floss or alternatively 7.7 meters of fabric and 3.3 pounds of hemp under the name of household tax (调diao). Every adult male was required to serve 20 days’ corvée per year, or alternatively paid 1 meter of tough silk or 1.3 meters of fabric for each day of his absence, which was called “庸yong.”

According to the proportional calculation at that time, people needed to pay a tax of one-fortieth of the annual harvest, which belonged to the “light corvée.” At the same time, the imperial court required that all incomes be clearly listed to avoid arbitrary levies and the situation in which peasants lost their land and became tenant farmers and then slaves.

In terms of origin, the Tripartite Taxes of the Tang and Sui dynasties were inherited from the Northern Wei Dynasty. Based on the Sui Dynasty, the Tang Dynasty reformed the taxation system based on reducing taxes and corvée, and improved and implemented the taxation system based on the number of adult males ranging from 16 to 60 in age, regardless of the amount of land and property. With the simultaneous implementation of the Equal-field System, farmers had land to cultivate and enough time for farming, thus promoting the development of agriculture. Among them, replacing the actual corvée with a fixed amount of silk and cloth ensured enough time for agricultural production, bringing prosperity to agriculture.

The burden of the people under the Tang Dynasty’s tax system was very light. The government of the Tang Dynasty also temporarily reduced or waived the levy from time to time depending on the situation. At that time, the Tripartite Taxes System explicitly provided that taxes could be reduced in case of natural disasters. The tax relief could encourage farmers in the disaster area to resume production, help themselves, and prevent social conflicts from intensifying. The Tripartite Taxes System of the Tang Dynasty reflected that taxation management in ancient China was pretty good.

The Household Registration System guaranteed the successful implementation of the Tripartite Taxes System. After the An-Shi Rebellion, due to the sharp decline in population and an increase in migration and exile resulting from the war, the Household Registration System of the Tang Dynasty became increasingly chaotic, which directly affected the normal implementation of the tax system.

The Tripartite Taxes System also needed the cooperation of the Equal-field System. A certain share of land owned by the peasants was the essential condition for the existence of the tax system. With the abolishment of the Equal-field System, the Tripartite Taxes System lost its foundations. As a result, the state’s tax revenue was stretched to the limit.

To solve the financial difficulties, in 780, Emperor Dezong of Tang accepted the suggestion of Prime Minister Yang Yan and implemented the Two-taxation System, which levied taxes according to the amount of property in summer and autumn. It increased the revenue, reduced the pressure, and liberated the peasants who lost their land.

The Two-taxation System advocated and levied property tax, which was a great change in the taxation system. Based entirely on assets (i.e., land and property), it changed and abolished the taxation system based on the number of adult males since the Warring States, making the tax collection reasonable and the source of revenue more reliable.

The principle of paying tax in currency in the Two-taxation System adapted to and promoted the development of the commodity economy, marking the transfer of the form of taxation from material objects to currency in ancient Chinese society.

However, the Two-taxation System also had disadvantages. The amount of taxation was based on the central government’s expenditure, which did not match the reality of the agricultural economy at that time. The non-grain form of taxation would lead to a shortage of key strategic reserves for the imperial court. More importantly, the imperial court no longer took ultimate control over the land distribution, which inevitably led to severe land annexation and class conflicts. The Two-taxation System reduced peasants to sharecroppers who were dependent on landlords and led to the centralization of local wealth, resulting in the gradual expansion of regional power and the decline of imperial power.

After the Tang Dynasty, China adopted this taxation model, which determined the amount of taxation based on expenditures. It lasted until the Kangxi period of the Qing Dynasty. During the reign of Kangxi, the policy of Apportionment of a Poll Tax to Field Tax (摊丁入亩tan ding ru mu)was implemented, which took the amounts of farmland as the basis of taxation. Theoretically, it reduced the burden of landless peasants. This policy was an important reform of the taxation system in ancient China, marking the abolition of the poll tax that had been in effect in China for more than 2,000 years. However, the landless peasants still had no way to meet ends because they had to bear the various social burdens of the landlord class. Once they could not survive, they had to revolt and break the feudal private land ownership to fight for liberation.

The military system in ancient china

Matching with the small peasant economy and Household Registration System and complementing the centralized rule, the ancient Chinese military system, the Militia System, was formed.

In the early days of China, when productivity was still very underdeveloped, conquest by force was one of the ways to survive. Everyone was a militia. During the Zhou Dynasty, there was a standing army, which was actually a militia made up of peasants. They trained the attack and defense with agricultural tools as their general weapons through the usual farming.

The Spring and Autumn and the Warring States Periods were times of tremendous changes. In each state’s reform, the military system was an inevitable target, aiming at victory in warfare. To secure victory in wars, each state rewarded the people with military talent and put them in important posts, resulting in the decline of hereditary nobility with military power. The state of Qin took the initiative to reform, which led to an unprecedented increase in military strength and laid the foundation for the sweep of the other six powers and the completion of unification.

In the Western Han Dynasty, although military merit was no longer directly tied to official titles, the Qin’s military structure was heavily borrowed. First of all, by continuing to implement a centralized military leadership, the supreme power of the army was in the hands of emperors. The Han government also inherited the bu qu System of the Qin Dynasty. The general-in-chief was in charge of five divisions (部bu), and every division was subdivided into regiments (曲qu), which were further divided into smaller units as companies (屯tun), squads (什shi), and groups (伍wu). A regiment generally had a thousand people. Officers at all levels led troops in wartime, and they were also responsible for military training during the peaceful time.

In the Western Han Dynasty, conscription was based on households. The combination of labor service and military service was called “corvée.” After Emperor Wu of Han, to ensure sufficient military strength, there was a practice of recruiting prisoners to serve as soldiers apart from the regular conscription.

From 169 BC, Emperor Wen of Han began to recruit people to migrate to the border counties as garrison troops (屯田tun tian). He stipulated that the soldiers stationed in the border counties would also engage in agricultural production at the same time, which led to the Garrison System. By the time of Emperor Wu of Han, a large number of new counties were established in the northwestern border areas, and a Garrison System was set up. The soldiers in garrison troops fought when there were attacks and farmed in a peaceful time, forming a unique army with a well-organized system. By the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty, Cao Cao implemented the Garrison System near Xudu (present-day Xuchang, Henan Province), with both a civil garrison (民屯min tun) and a military garrison (军屯jun tun). In the civil garrison, peasants were not allowed to leave the garrison troops, and later they were defined as “military households,” forming the Military Household System. During the chaotic times of the Wei and Jin dynasties, a large number of desperate people were willing to become military households, thus giving rise to the System of Hereditary Conscription (世兵制shi bing zhi). By the time of the Northern and Southern dynasties, the System of Hereditary Conscription had become a basic system for various states to train soldiers.

In addition to the System of Hereditary Conscription, the Southern dynasties also used the Mercenary System (募兵制mu bing zhi) to form some short-term troops to supplement the military supply. In the Northern Dynasties, the powerful ministers in the Western Wei Dynasty and the Northern Zhou Emperor Yuwen Tai (507-556) introduced the Garrison Militia System, a military system in medieval China lasting about 200 years. When off-duty, they would farm their land, but they would bring their own weapons and horses to join the army when a war occurred. The government set up a military center (折冲府zhe chong fu) to select and train the soldiers in each prefecture.

During the Tang Dynasty, the Garrison Militia System was first implemented. After the middle of the Tang Dynasty, the government’s control over the land and household registrations declined, and the Equalfield System and the Tripartite Taxes System became unsustainable. As a result, the Garrison Militia System, which was based on yeoman, was gradually replaced by the Mercenary System. In contrast to the simple structure of the Garrison Militia System, the army organization under the Mercenary System became more elaborate. Since the implementation of the Mercenary System in the border towns, the power of the central control of the army was transferred to regional military governors (节度使jie du shi), which eventually led to the collapse of the Tang Dynasty due to the increasing power of local militia forces (藩镇fan zhen). Then the chaotic period of Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms ensued.

The Song Dynasty implemented the Mercenary System. It mainly recruited famine victims or prisoners and encouraged the offspring of battalions to succeed their fathers and brothers and continue serving as soldiers. However, the Song Dynasty esteemed literacy and despised martiality, which resulted in poor training and military deployment. The Mongolian army took advantage to capture China in 1276.

After the fall of the Southern Song Dynasty, the Yuan government constructed the Mongolian military system in the Central Plains. The army was divided into three parts: the imperial army, the imperial guards, and the local garrison. The original Mongolian army maintained the tribal military system, and the primary source of soldiers was from hereditary conscription. First, a population census was conducted. According to their properties and labors, the households were divided into three classes. Those with more property and strong laborers were the upper-class households, followed by the middle-class households, and those who were poor and lacked laborers were the lower-class households. Generally, some middle-class households were explicitly designated as military households, and their taxation and corvée were exempted and taken over by other civilian households. In so doing, both the military strength and the financial source were guaranteed. In the late Yuan Dynasty, military households were overwhelmed by the heavy military service, so they often hired people to replace them or simply fled. As a result, the Military Household System came to an end.

The military system of the Ming Dynasty took three models: the garrison system (卫所制wei-suo system), the mercenary system, and the system of hereditary conscription. Among them, the garrison system was borrowed from the Mongolian local garrison army structure. That is to say, the local governor’s office had many “garrison systems (卫wei)” under its command. Each garrison was subdivided into battalions (所suo), and each battalion contained 1, 000 or 100 military households. For generations, they were farming and fighting. The system of hereditary conscription selected the military officers from the generals’ families, and they were inherited from generation to generation. They commanded the recruited soldiers or soldiers in wei and suo. In the middle and late Ming dynasties, more and more military households fled. Therefore, the main force of the army had to rely on mass recruitment.

After entering the Shanhai Pass of the Great Wall, the Qing army didn’t build the garrisons and battalions. Still, they also drew on the experience of the Central Plains’ military system. The main military system of the Qing Dynasty was the Eight-Banner Army (ba qi jun) and the Green Standard Army (lù ying bing), which was a fusion of the System of Hereditary Conscription and the Mercenary System. The Eight-Banner Army was created when the Qing army was prosperous. They were divided into eight parts: Plain Yellow Banner (正黄旗zheng huang qi), Plain White Banner (正白旗zheng bai qi), Plain Red Banner (正红旗zheng hong qi), Plain Blue Banner (正蓝旗zheng lan qi),Bordered Yellow Banner (镶黄旗xiang huang qi), Bordered White Banner (镶白旗xiangbai qi), Bordered Red Banner (镶红旗xiang hong qi), and Bordered Blue Banner(镶蓝旗xiang lan qi). Manchu Eight-Banner Army, the Mongol Eight-Banner Army, and Han Eight-Banner Army established later took the system of hereditary conscription of the integration of military and civilian, and the army and politics. The soldiers farmed in peacetime and went out to fight in wartime. After entering the Shanhai Pass of the Great Wall, the Qing army incorporated the surrendered troops of the Ming government and the provincial reorganized army. They used the green army flag, hence the name.

The Eight Banners were stationed in the capital city and provincial towns and cities. They interspersed with the Green Standard Army of hereditary conscription, forming a military control network over China. Later, the Eight Banners, with their arrogance and privileges, gradually became corrupt. And the Green Standard Army, with its decreasing combat power, became vulnerable in the late Qianlong period. With the rise of the Taiping Rebellion, which swept through most of China, the private armies and new armies trained by the Han Chinese bureaucrats under the Mercenary System became the primary military force of the late Qing Dynasty. However, even though the important ministers of the late Qing Dynasty put on their armor and went to war to fight at all costs, they failed to change the doomed fate of the Qing Dynasty.

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