Household registers (huji 戶籍, also called banji 版籍, buji 簿籍, dingce 丁冊, dingji 丁籍, huangce 黃冊, huangji 黃籍, jizhang 籍帳, minji 名籍, mingshu 名數 or zhangji 帳籍) were in ancient China a means to determine the obligation to pay taxes and deliver corvée labour (see yaoyi 徭役), in early imperial China also, to recruit troops. In some instances, household registers also served to select candidates for state offices (see tribute students).
The ritual Classic Zhouli 周禮 mentions the office of Population Registrar (simin 司民), who was allegedly responsible for registering the population during the Western Zhou period 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE). Yet this book was only compiled during the late Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE), and gives only a putative retrospective to the early 1st millennium BCE.
Regular systems of household registers came up during the Warring States period. The history book Shiji 史記 narrates that in 375 BCE, Duke Xian 秦獻公 (r. 385-362) of the regional state of Qin 秦 ordered to compile household registers, in which every five households made out one administrative group. The registers (ban 版) of Duke Xiao 秦孝公 (362-338) included information on the name and size of households. In regular revisions, new family members were added and deceased ones eliminated.
The surviving fragments of the book Shangjunshu 商君書 give evidence of this custom. Under the reign of King Ying Zheng 嬴政, the eventual First Emperor 秦始皇帝 (r. 246/221-210), information on the age of male household members was added. From the text Falü dawen 法律答問 "Questions and answers to legal matters", found among the bamboo texts of Yunmeng 雲夢 (see Shuihudi texts), it can be learned that the registers also recorded if a family had changed their residence (gengji 更籍 "change of the register"). Local officials making errors in the compilation of the household registers were punished. Copies of the registers were archived in the capital of the empire of Qin. When Liu Bang 劉邦 conquered the Qin capital Xianyang 咸陽 (today in Shaanxi), his advisor Xiao He 蕭何 (d. 193 BCE) therefore saw to it that these data were preserved. When Liu Bang, eventuall known as Emperor Gaozu 漢高祖 (r. 206-195 BCE), founded the Han dynasty 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE), he could therefore rely on important data to collect taxes, recruit labourers and soldiers, and to have an overview of the grain production in all regions of the empire.
The registration process took place annually in the eighth lunar month (see calendar), when the harvest was finished. The local officials "surveyed the households and compared the people [with the figures of preceding registers]" (anhu bimin 案戶比民, short anbi 案比). In the ninth month, the registers were completed and submitted to the district authorities, to ensure that in the tenth lunar month, the new administrative year could begin (according to the calendar of the Qin dynasty – this was changed by the Taichu calendar reform 太初曆 in 104 BCE). The compilation of the registers after the harvest period made it also possible to have an impression of the regular yields of each household. Each individual had to present himself in person during the registration process. The registers included the number of household members, each individual's name and age, information on the origin of the family (jiguan 籍貫), indication on the physical stamina of male household members, as well as the size of field and the height of income of the household. Each local government had a revenue section (hucao 戶曹), where the registers were archived. Basic information was forwarded to the government of the subordinated commanderies (jun 郡), which in turn informed the central government.
The strict rules for the compilation of household registers does not mean that the Qin or Han governments were able to have the whole population registered. Tax evasion was one reason for peasants or even households of higher social classes to avoid registration. Another reason was that at such an early time, the central government was unable to have complete registration carried out in remote regions. A third reason was that a considerable amount of peasant households gave up their business because of crop failure, locust plagues or natural disasters. They left their homeland and wandered around as "floating people" (liumin 流民), i.e. peasant refugees. Contemporary sources say that in 107 BCE, two million refugees were staying in the region of Guandong 關東 around the capital city Chang'an 長安 (today's Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi. Of these, 400,000 people were not registered in any household. Even owners of latifundia from among the distinguished families (haoqiang 豪強) tried to evade registration. Another group of persons not registered were households of client-farmers (dianhu 佃戶). They stood under the protection (yinbi 蔭庇, see yinke 蔭客) of the landowners, who were better able than individual farmers to hide the real size of their lands and income to the authorities.
Information on registered households in historiographical sources are therefore no reliable source for answering the question of the total size of the population. One of the earliest preserved figures for registered household dates from the year 2 CE. The dynastic history Hanshu 漢書 gives a total figure of 12.233 million households with a population of 95.594 million people. This figure seems quite reliable because the registration system of the late Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE) was quite sophisticated. During the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE) the system again became more relaxed, and "total figures" just represent a part of the total population.
The political and social disturbances of the late 2nd century CE and the Three Empires 三國 (220~280 CE) period caused widespread evasion of registration (tuoji 脫籍). The warlord Cao Cao 曹操 (155-220), who controlled the Yellow River Plain, therefore decided to abolish the poll tax system for adults and under-age persons (suanfu 算賦, koufu 口賦) of the Han dynasty and introduced a household tax system (hudiao zhi 戶調制). This system did not require the registration of individual persons and was thus much easier to realize.
The Jin dynasty 晉 (265-420) adopted and perfected this system and achieved a much more stable registration system than in the two centuries before – and of course also increased the state revenue. Adult males (dingnan 丁男) and females (dingnü 丁女) were registered and had to deliver annually fix amounts of silk fabric or other textiles, in addition to a certain amount of grain to be paid by the household. Households were divided into nine different categories, an arrangement also reflected in the system of nine ranks of state officials.
The field size was restricted according to the rank of the owner (yi ming zhan tian 以名占田). Members of the nobility obtained land with a size of between 7 and 15 qing 頃 (see weights and measures). State officials obtained land according to their rank. For peasants, the size of field was fixed at 70 mu 畝 for an adult male, and 30 for an adult female. The number of tenant farmers working as clients of landowners was restricted, as well as the number of family members not registered as tax-liable persons (yinqin 蔭親). This system did not mean that the state gave these amounts of land to the respective persons, but the figures decreed meant that the state assumed that a person of the status concerned disposed of this and that amount of land (zhantian 占田 "occupied land"), and was taxed accordingly (ketian 課田 "taxed land"). This procedure of just taxing a fix amount of land (zhantian ketian zhi 占田課田制) secured the government a stable tax revenue. How much land an official or a peasant owned in reality, was of no concern.
The household registers were written on wooden or bamboo slips (zha 札) with a length of 1.2 chi 尺 (see weights and measures), and treated with a yellow substance for preservation. They were therefore known as "yellow registers" (huangjo 黃籍). From around 300 CE, the political centre of the Jin dynasty disintegrated, and in northern China, non-Chinese states emerged that constantly fought against each other. The registration of households during that time was so superficial that even "one hundred families or one thousand individuals registered as one single household". Murong De 慕容德 (r. 398-404), ruler of the Southern Yan empire 南燕 (398-410), tried to correct such errors and detected 58,000 "client households" (yinhu 蔭戶) – also translatable as "hidden households".
Not only did families in north China not register, but many of them fled to southeast China, where the Eastern Jin dynasty 東晉 (317-420) had established a new rule. Refugees from the north were temporarily settled in "refugee districts" (qiaoxian 僑縣), "refugee commanderies" (qiaojun 僑郡) and "refugee provinces" (qiaozhou 僑州) along the border to the northern states, with the assumption that they would return one day. Their households were registered, but the registers not treated with preservatives, and thus remained white. These temporary registers were therefore called "white registers" (baiji 白籍). Households recorded in them were not obliged to pay taxes or deliver corvée to the authorities because they did not possess land. Many southern landowners therefore tried to register in white registers instead of in yellow registers. In addition to this problem, the eminent families (menfa 門閥) and owners of large estates refused to register tenant farmers or private troops (buqu 部曲).
When it became evident that northern China would not be reconquered and the refugees not return, the government of the Eastern Jin and the Southern Dynasties 南朝 (420-589) decided to carry out the measure of cutting off land (tuduan 土斷) from existing latifundia to give new land to the refugee families. The latter could then be entered in yellow registers and be taxed.
The Northern Wei dynasty 北魏 (386-534), having pacified northern China in the late 4th century, introduced a novel system of land distribution and taxation. This was the so-called equal-field system (juntianzhi 均田制), by which male and female persons were each given a fix amount of land, from which a defined amount of tax was to be paid. The tax was collected by "tax captains" on three different levels of administration (sanzhang zhi 三長制 "three-heads system"). In some regions, the household registers were called jizhang 計帳 "calculation lists", for instance, those discovered in Dunhuang 敦煌, Gansu. They date form 547 and provide detailed information on the members of each household as well as the size of their fields.
The Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907) took over this system and decreed that household registers were to be revised every three years. They included information on the number of male, female, adult, infant and eldlerly family members (hukou 戶口, including names and professions), the size of land, and the amount of tax (grain, fabric) and labour service to be delivered. In case the head of the household was a state official, exact information on the career was recorded.
At the beginning of each year, the district (xian 縣) authorities submitted the basic document (shoushi 手實 for data on household members, field, and taxes and services, and jizhang 計帳 for the calculation of the tax) of the past two years to the prefectural (zhou 州, fu 府) government, where the data were counter-checked and the new ones recorded. At that time, the authorities controlled the land quota (imposed on each individual household member, koufen 口分) with the land in possession, and granted new tracts of land to households whose possessions did not meet the legal quota. In any case the registers also included information on each tract of land, and on the site where the family had their dwelling. Land meeting the quota was given as an "eternal calling" (yongye 永業) and was inheritable.
Each register was inscribed with the exact administrative location and sealed, and two copies were made, one sent to the Revenue Section of the Imperial Secretariat (shangshusheng hubu 尚書省戶部, the eventual Ministry of Revenue 戶部), and one back to the district. The original remained in the prefectural archive. The Ministry preserved the household registers for 27, the local administration only for 15 years. Any change in the number of household members, including the purchase of slaves (nubi 奴婢), was to be notified to the authorities, and was accordingly corrected in the basic documents.
The cost for the compilation of such detailed registers was passed on to the households, with 1 qian 錢 "cash" per person. Emperor Xuanzong 唐玄宗 (r. 712-755) required to note down the names of the grandfather and great-grandfather of the head of the household (a procedure called sanzhuang 三狀 "triple description"). In order to prevent forgery, blank columns were blocked by the word kong 空 "blank".
In the second half of the Tang period, this system was not any more carried out as meticulously as in the beginnings. The negligence in the compilation of exact household registers was one reason for the declining revenues of the Tang dynasty.
Fragments of Tang-period household registers were discovered in Dunhuang and Turfan 吐魯番. The early empire of Japan imitated the system of household registration in the famous code Yōrō ryō 養老令 from 718. Preserved household registers from the Nara period 奈良 (710-794) reflect the Tang system.
In the late 8th century, a change in the tax system was carried out. Instead of taxing once a year and collecting grain and textiles, the twice-taxation system (liangshuifa 兩稅法) included household tax and field tax (tianfu 田賦) which were collected in two rounds, hence the name.
The Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279) divided households generally in such liable for tax payment (zhuhu 主戶 "ownership household") and such not liable (kehu 客戶 "client households"). The former were divided into five classes, depending on the income. In cities, "ownership households" were divided into ten classes. This was the household classification system (hudeng zhi 戶等制) of the Song dynasty.
The system of household registers was also different from that of the Tang. There were household registers (hukou banji 戶口版籍, short huji or banji 版籍, also called renhu chanye bu 人戶產業簿, dingchan dengdi bu 丁產等第簿, wudengbu 五等簿 or wudeng dingchan bu 五等丁產簿) and tax registers (ershui banji 二稅版籍, also called shuizubu 稅租簿, xiaqiu shuibu 夏秋稅簿, xiaqiu shuiguan ezhang 夏秋稅管額帳). These two types of documents corresponded to the Tang-period household registers (huji, once revised every three years) and the basic calculation registers (jizhang, revised annually). A third type of document were registers of individual persons (called dingji 丁籍, dingzhang 丁帳 or dingkouzhang 丁口帳).
The calculation registers took into consideration the performance of each individual household member by using the classes "adult" (ding 丁), "younger [sons/daughters]" (zhong 中), "children" (xiao 小), "old" (lao 老), and "ailing" (jibing 疾病). In addition, new family members were registered (xinshou 新收), those having entered official careers (kaige 開閣), those having fled or moved (taoyi 逃移), and the sum of all existing household members (xianguan 見管).
After more than a century of political disintegration, the Song dynasty revived a coherent system recording all households in the core areas of the empire. The first empire-wide registration was carried out in 995. Revisions were to be realized in years with an intercalary month (runyue 閏月, see calendar). The registers were compiled under the supervision of district magistrates (xianling 縣令), whose staff inspected the taxable income, means of production (fields, animals, tools, capital) and size (persons) of each household, and whether taxes and services had been delivered in the foregoing period. During the reign of Emperor Shenzong 宋神宗 (r. 1067-1085), there were different arrangements concerning corvée and the organization of tax collection (see Wang Anshi reforms).
The Liao dynasty 遼 (907-1125), founded by the Kitans, divided the inhabitants of their empire into three groups, namely those of the ordo (woluduo 斡魯朵), i.e. the members of the imperial family and of vassal tribes, in the palace registers (gongzhang 宮帳, gongwei 宮衛, zhuzhanghu 著帳戶, xingying 行營), the family members of non-allied tribal heads in special registers (buzu 部族), and the inhabitants of the five capitals and of the prefectures and districts in normal registers. Of particular interest were military households. Information of these can therefore be found in historiographical sources like the dynastic history Liaoshi 遼史 (31-33 Yingwei zhi 營衛志). Even normal households were treated in the chapter on military (34-36 Bingwei zhi 兵衛志). Each full household, independent of the basic group, included two adult males (ding).
The Jurchens, having founded the Jin dynasty 金 (1115-1234), separated the normal population from their own tribal structure, which was organized in "companies" and "brigades" (meng'an mouke 猛安謀克). Yet the procedures for the tribal groups were much similar to those of the peasant population. In 1164, a general revision of all household registers was carried out.
In 1206 the Mongols organized their first cencus, and came to a figure of 95,000 pastoral households. With the conquest of northern China and the Muslim city states in the Western Territory (today's Xinjiang), more non-pastoral households were recorded. These documents were called green registers (qingce 青冊, kökö debter). In 1234 the sedentary population of north China was registered in the so-called yiwei registers, yiwei huji 乙未戶籍 (called so because 1235 was the year with the cyclical signs yi and wei), yet regular taxation was not possible because huge numbers of peasants had fled from their homelands.
In 1252, the renzi registers (renzi huji 壬子戶籍) were compiled. They were the base of all revisions (xukuo 續括 "extensions") during the Yuan period. Even if Emperor Shizu 元世祖 (Qubilai Qaɣan, r. 1260-1294) ordered in 1270 to extend the registration system to all parts of the empire, only the registration for the larger region around the capital Dadu 大都 (today's Beijing) and several provinces of southern China were regularly carried out. A year later an edict defined the rules for household registration (hukou tiaohua 戶口條畫), but after the reign of Shizong, no revisions of the household registers were realized until 1330. The northern tax captains still relied on the figures of 1252, and those of southern China on those of 1290.
With the help of advanced printing techniques, the government was able to provide the population with questionnaires (hutie 戶帖, huquan 戶券), forms, into which the heads of the household wrote information about the household members, the means of production, and the tax quota.
The Mongols introduced a classification system for professions that was even more intricate than earlier Chinese systems. Apart from peasant households (minhu 民戶), there were soldiers (junhu 軍戶), overseers of courier stations (zhanhu 站戶), craftsmen (jianghu 匠戶), salt producers (yanhu 鹽戶), scholars (ruhu 儒戶), physicians (yihu 醫戶), musicians (yuehu 樂戶), clerics (seng-dao 僧道), falconers (yinghu 鷹房) and hunters (dabu 打捕). According to law, this type of classification was hereditary, and it was not allowed to change profession.
With the founding of the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644), Emperor Taizu 明太祖 (r. 1368-1398) decreed in 1370 to conduct a nation-wide census and to compile household registers (huji), which were based on household forms (hutie). The shape of the latter was determined by the Ministry of Revenue, and samples of forms were distributed to all prefectures and districts, which reproduced copies according to need. The forms were handed over to the tax captains who cared for the collection of data. An imperial decree ordered to record the names of household heads, the origin of the family down to the neighbourhood security group (bao 保, see baojia system), the type of household according to the profession, and the number and age of males, females, children and elderly persons. The next step was to provide details on the means of production, including fields, orchards, hills (for timber, firewood or other plants) and ponds, buildings, boats, charts, and draught animals or horses. The final part of the household register listed the names of the responsible officials of all levels, up to the Ministry.
Household forms consisted of two identical parts containing the same data. The district authorities applied one seal in such a mode that half of the seal was visible on each of the two copies (a procedure called banyin kanhe 半印勘合 "joined halves of imprinted seals"). One copy remained in the district archive, and the other was sent to the household register section of the Ministry of Revenue. Based on this register, the Ministry was able to determine the tax quota and labour quota of each district. The central register was therefore also known as "yellow register for taxes and corvée" (fuyi huangce 賦役黃冊). The household forms were to be revised annually, yet with the introduction of the fuyi huangce, they were by and by neglected and finally abolished.
The central registers thereafter were based on so-called small registers (xiao huangce 小黃冊) compiled in booklets (ce 冊), each for a group of 110 households, or one village or hamlet (li 里). In order to understand the local situation somewhat better, the shape of fields was drawn in crude maps (tu 圖). Households consisting of widowers, widows and orphans were not taxed, but recorded in an appendix (qiling 畸零). The compilation of the registers was carried out according to the rural self-administration system (lijia 里甲) by so-called "headman" (jiashou 甲首).
The central part of the registers was the "clearance booklet" of the household (qingce gongdan 清冊供單), also called "four-staves booklet" (sizhu qingce 四柱清冊) because it was arranged according to four bookkeeping items, namely amount carried forward from the period before (jiuguan 舊管), new debts (xinshou 新收), cleared debt (kaichu 開除), and sum of the period (shizai 實在). This clearance booklet helped to evaluate whether a family had delivered all taxes and services or if an amount of the foregoing peiod was still due. The form was handed over to the headman, who submitted it to the village head (guanlizhang 管里長) and the corvée head (yilizhang 役里長). These two instances classified each household into one of three classes and calculated the taxes and services to be delivered by the village as a whole and compiled a draft register (caoce 草冊). The supervising official (tidiaoguan 提調官) counter-checked the forms and compiled a final register (zhengce 正冊), which was submitted to the district authorities. The latter compiled a general district register (zongce 總冊). Each district register was copied three times. While the original remained in the district, the three copies were sent to the prefecture and the province (the administration commission, buzhengsi 布政司). At the end of the year the third copy was submitted to the Ministry of Revenue, along with a provincial register. All booklets were bound in yellow envelopes, while the remaining originals were covered in blue-gray ones.
When this process of compiling the population registers (minji huangce 民籍黃冊) was finished, each household was sent a notification, in which the clearance booklet was reflected in short. Every household was thus aware of the amount of taxes still to be paid, or services to be delivered.
Every ten years a large revision of the central registers was carried out, at least in theory. In the second half of the Ming period, the gap between the situation in the villages and the information in the central archive grew. As village heads had substantial influence on the entries in each register, they could determine what the authorities were informed about. As the situation grew worse, the district governments compiled registers for their own purpose. They were not strictly speaking official and not bound in yellow envelopes, and therefore known as "white registers" (baice 白冊).
Apart from normal household registers, the Ming had also military registers (junji huangce 軍籍黃冊) compiled which had the same structure and followed the same procedures as that for peasant households.
The documents were preserved in the central Archive of Household Registers (huangceku 黃冊庫). It was located on islands of Lake Houhu 後湖 (today called Xuanwuhu 玄武湖) in the capital Nanjing 南京 (today in Jiangsu), and remained there, when the central government moved to Beijing. The archive was guarded by soldiers, and the documents were treated with particular care, for instance, protecting them against mould. In case of a general revision, university students (jiansheng 監生) from the secondary Directorate of Education (guozijian 國子監) in Nanjing checked the entries carefully and asked for strict amendment in case of deviations. The archive grew over the years, and included in the late Ming no less than 1.7 million registers. The archives of the local governments were called jiageku 架閣庫.
With the introduction of the single-whip method of taxation (yitiaobian fa 一條鞭法) in 1581, the government transformed the ancient labour service (corvée) into monetary payment. Such a procedure made the assessment and collection of taxes much easier, while labour services still could be required by the government in case of need, against remission of taxes.
The Qing dynasty 清 (1644-1911) took over this system of household registration. The first empire-wide census was ordered in 1644. A revision was to be carried out every three years, but from 1656 on every five years. Households were also classified according to their income and number of persons, but the Qing discerned between military households, peasant households, artisan households, and salt producers. 100 military households were merged to one fang 坊 "quarter", while the corresponding term of urban households was xiang 廂 "neighbourhood", and that of rural households li 里 "village" or "hamlet". The rural self-administration (lijia) system was also applied under the Qing, with a tithing head (jiazhang 甲長) organizing the registration and entry of data into the forms. The master over ten households (one pai 牌) was called "decade head" (paizhang 牌長), while the Ming had used the term lizhang. Ten pai 牌 made one jia 甲, and ten jia one bao 保. This organization was therefore called hukou paijia 戶口牌甲. Buddhist and Daoist monks, and merchant travelers were also recorded.
In 1757 an edict promulgated new rules for the household responsibility system (baojia 保甲). According to these regulations, the provincial administration distributed "door marks" (menpai 門牌) to each household. The decade heads (paizhang) and village heads (jiazhang) had a service period of three years, while the duty of the headman (baozhang 保長) was handed over to another person each year. The supervision of the household registration was but one duty of the heads. The main part of their work was more or less policing the population, to make out bandits and rebels, suppress gambling and the illegal production of coins and salt.
Special regulations were promulgated for the registration of the pastoral nomads, the workers in salterns, "shed people" (pengmin 棚民 or liaomin 寮民, i.e. migrant workers living in sheds) and the mountain population, the native tribes in the southwest and the fisherfolk of the southern seacoast living on boats (e.g. the Tanka people 蜑家).
In 1712 the Kangxi Emperor 康熙帝 (r. 1661-1722), desiring to express the benevolence of the Manchu government to the Han population, ordered to freeze the tax quota, with the intention, "never to raise taxes" (yong bu jia fu 永不加賦). The then-valid status of households, including size of fields, income, and number of household members, would be used as a fix quota (ding'e 定額) for future tax evaluations. During the Yongzheng reign-period 雍正 (1723-1735), the poll tax was merged with the field tax, and both items were to be paid in one single monetary payment (see tanding rumu 攤丁入地). From 1726 on, the exact compilation and revision of household registers, with detailed information on the situation of each individual family became obsolete. The Qianlong Emperor 乾隆帝 (r. 1735-1796) ordered in 1740 that in the autumn of each year, the local governments report to the Ministry of Revenue the real number of households and the amount of tribute grain (caoliang 漕糧) collected . The final evaluation was carried out in 1772. The population growth of the late 18th century distorted the old figures. Many local administrators feared that a report about the real increase in population might cause a raise of the tax quota to be delivered to the provincial treasury.
The two most important shortcomings of the traditional household register of imperial China was first that the government was never able – or willing – to register all households of all regions, and was content to reach a certain status of control over the collection of revenues; and second, that the control over the income of merchants was far from perfect. Because peasant households were the focus of the household registers, the government neglected an important source of income from travelling merchants. A merchant tax was only introduced in the mid-19th century, the so-called Likin (lijin 釐金). The different treatment of peasants in comparison to urban residents is still prevailing in the social and labour policy of the People's Republic of China. The rural population is still strictly subject to the hukou 戶口 household system and thus to an instrument or residence control and control over access to education, health insurance and social benefits.
Nonetheless, the detailed regulations of the household registration system that were developed over the ages show how successful the central government was in gaining control over potential revenues. In contrast to other states and empires, the traditional Chinese mode of taxation was more sophisticated, more regulated, and more humane. The central government, at least in times of peace, did not fall back on arbitrary requisitioning, nor made it use of ominous tax farmers.