Rural Life in Imperial China

From the lecture series: The Fall and Rise of China

By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles

As one may think, life in the villages of imperial China was not peaceful and harmonious. There was a precarious political equilibrium between the local administration and the peasants. What were the challenges that the local population and the administration faced?

Image of ancient royal palace in Beijing, China.
In imperial China, the peasants were economically dependent upon members of the landlord-gentry class. (Image: Zhao jiankang/Shutterstock)

The Rural Population

In imperial China, the rural population lived in clustered villages, each of which had its own distinctive local customs, festivals, deities, and temples. Clans (made up of multi-generational, extended family units based on common ancestral lineage) were the social cement that bound rural villages into cohesive communities.

There were approximately 100 to 150 distinct, Chinese lineages, each with its own family surname—with names like Wang, Chen, Li, and Zhang being the most common.

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Social Relations in Villages

Despite the pervasive Confucian norms of patriarchal authority and reciprocal rights and obligations, social relations were not always peaceful and harmonious within traditional village communities.

For one thing, within a single village there might be two, three, or even more lineages living in close proximity. And it was not uncommon for disputes to break out among them over such things as property boundaries, water rights, tax obligations, and the like.

Social Class Distinctions

There were substantial social class distinctions both between and within lineage groups. The primary measure of socio-economic status in imperial China was land ownership, which was highly uneven in distribution.

In some parts of China, it was not uncommon for as much as 70 or 80 per cent of all land in a village to be owned by a few landlord families, who in turn might either hire laborers to work the land or rent out small parcels to tenant farmers.

Notwithstanding the blood ties that sometimes existed between landlords and tenants, land rents commonly exceeded half the family’s annual harvest, and were often supplemented by a series of customary fees and corvée labor obligations.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Dependence on Landlords

Hand-drawn sketch of old Chinese landlord.
The landlord-gentry class were called dizhu, or ‘masters of the land’. (Image: vvoe/Shutterstock)

Peasants were economically dependent upon members of the landlord-gentry class, who were called dizhu, or ‘masters of the land’.

Even those peasants who were otherwise self-sufficient, and who normally earned a sustainable livelihood from farming their own land, were often dependent upon landlords, as dispute mediators, as money lenders, and as tax intermediaries and middlemen in their relations with district administrators.

Rural Administrative Authority

For more than 1,000 years, the rural administrative authority was delegated by the imperial court to appointed magistrates, who were recruited from the ranks of degree-holding civil servants.

Insofar as the district magistrates were the sole formal agents of imperial authority within their jurisdictions, they were ‘little emperors’ in their own right. Within each district, which generally encompassed several hundred villages, the power of the magistrate was absolute and unchecked.

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Local Administration

To help administer the functions of local governance—tax collection, law enforcement, the observance of ancestral rituals, record keeping, water management, labor and military conscription, and so forth—each magistrate was entitled to bring with him from his home district, at governmental expense, up to eight or 10 lesser degree-holding scholars who served as secretaries and financial advisors. Ten or more additional district functionaries, mainly clerks, scribes, and notaries, were paid out of the magistrate’s own funds.

Additionally, up to several hundred underlings were informally retained by the magistrate in each district, without official pay or title; these latter personnel, including such people as gatekeepers, attendants, runners, jailers, and night watchmen, were expected to earn their keep through side payments collected from their unofficial clients.

Such payments were called ‘cumshaw’ (or ‘thank-you money’, from the original Chinese term ganxie, meaning ‘many thanks’), and they were collected for a variety of services performed on behalf of village residents.

Underling Services

The most important of the underling services, most of the time, was that of lobbying district officials on behalf of local residents who needed a favorable judgment or dispensation. Alternatively, villagers would sometimes employ the underlings to help shield them from scrutiny by local officials.

Because more than 90 per cent of peasants were illiterate, the magistrate’s underlings were often paid to read out official notices and documents, and to write petitions, appeals, and tax protests on behalf of village residents.

Insofar as they earned a good deal of their income from such informal representations on behalf of the illiterate peasantry, they were sometimes called ‘litigation tricksters’.

Image of a former Yamen in China.
A Yamen was the district headquarters of the underlings retained by the magistrate in each district. (Image: Abasaa/Public domain)

The underlings’ place of business, the district headquarters, or Yamen, was often a beehive of activity, much of it only marginally legal or official in nature.

Because there was no administrative transparency or political accountability below the district level, villagers were extremely vulnerable to financial predation and physical intimidation by a magistrate’s unscrupulous underlings. In such situations, their only recourse, if petitioning the magistrate failed, was rebellion.

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The Magistrates: Roles and Responsibilities

For their part, magistrates were most likely to receive promotions if their districts remained peaceful and peasants voluntarily complied with their tax and corvée obligations. Thus, it was in a magistrate’s own self-interest to, for example, have high crop yields in his district.

And this in turn gave him an incentive, first, to ensure that the district’s water works, roads and granaries were maintained in good order; second, to see that public safety was well preserved; and third, to keep exploitation of the peasants down to tolerable levels of discomfort.

If these three tasks were reasonably well performed, then a fourth and most important purpose would be served, namely, reducing the likelihood of peasant rebelliousness.

Peasant Rebellions in Imperial China

There can be little doubt that fear of peasant rebellion was a prime motivation for good governance at the district level, as well as a prime deterrent to egregious predation by the magistrate’s underlings. Impose too heavy a burden, or exert too heavy a hand, and the peasants might rise up.

It was a precarious political equilibrium, to be sure; but in ‘normal’ times, defined by fairly favorable weather, fairly stable crop yields, fairly effective tax collection, and fairly minimal social outlawry, it was an equilibrium that could be sustained by an enlightened, self-interested district magistrate.

Common Questions about Life in Imperial China

Q: How did the rural population live in imperial China?

In imperial China, the rural population lived in clustered villages, each of which had its own distinctive local customs, festivals, deities, and temples.

Q: What was the primary measure of socio-economic status in imperial China?

The primary measure of socio-economic status in imperial China was land ownership.

Q: When were the magistrates most likely to receive promotions?

The magistrates were most likely to receive promotions if their districts remained peaceful and peasants voluntarily complied with their tax and corvée obligations.

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