Manors (zhuangtian 莊田, tianyuan 田園, tianye 田業, bieye 別業, zhuangyuan 莊園) were large tracts of land owned by the imperial house, members of the nobility, high state officials, or Buddhist monasteries and Daoist temples. This type of land was common during the Southern and Northern Dynasties period 南北朝 (300~600) and the Tang period 唐 (618-907). In Japan, so-called shōen 荘園 appeared in the 8th century.
The designations of manors changed with the ownership. There were imperial manors (huangzhuang 皇莊), palace parks (gongyuan 宮苑), palace manors (gongzhuang 宮莊), princely manors (wangzhuang 王莊), manors of officials (guanzhuang 官莊), public or state manors (gongtianzhuang 公田莊), agro-colony manors (tuntianzhuang 屯田莊), private manors (sizhuang 私莊), "beneficence manors" (yizhuang 義莊), secondary residences (biezhuang 別莊) and monastery or temple manors (changzhuzhuang 常住莊).
During the Ming 明 (1368-1644) and Qing 清 (1644-1911) periods, the term zhuang 莊 was used for estates owned by the emperor, the nobility, high state officials, eunuchs, and (during the Qing) Bannermen.
The terms tianyuan and tianye were used during the Eastern Jin period 東晉 (317-420) to refer to privately owned land, while the villages or manors were called zhuang 莊 or ye 墅. The term zhuangyuan itself was first used in the later part of the Northern Dynasties period 北朝 (386~581), but became popular not earlier than the mid-8th century. Yao Chong 姚崇 (651-721), for example, used the word in his family instructions.
The official dynastic history of the Northern Zhou 北周 (557-581), Zhoushu 周書, reports that generals Yuwen Sheng 宇文盛 (550-580) and Li Qianzhe 李遷哲 (511-574) were rewarded for their services with tracts of land with a manor house (zhuangzhai 莊宅). An ode (Biao yi xiang yi ci hui shi zhu song 標義鄉異慈惠石柱頌) dating from around the same time explains that an average manor (written zhuangtian 樁田) had a size of 4 qing 頃 (see weights and measures).
The Northern Wei dynasty 北魏 (386-534) introduced a new tax system, the equal-field system (juntian zhi 均田制), according to which each person was – at least in theory – given the same amount of arable land (koufen tian 口分田) and inheritable land (shiyetian 世業田) for growing mulberry trees, but manors were not included in the calculations of this system.
The amount of small private fields owned by individual peasants was relatively high during the late 6th century, and the many military disturbances of the time also caused people to leave fallow tracts of land.
After the foundation of the Tang dynasty, the government encouraged the reclamation of new land, in order to raise the grain output and thus not only the supply of grain for the whole country, but also tax revenue. The Tang also rewarded their supporters (xunguan 勳官 "meritorious officials") not only with state offices or titles of nobility, but also with land (xuntian 勳田 "reward land"). The dynasty adopted the equal-land system of the Northern Wei with some changes. Officials were given land with a size according to their rank (pinji 品級). In villages where arable land was left over (shengtian 剩田) after land distribution, officials were allowed to make use of it. The land was not tied to the office (zhitian 職田), but could be used privately, and be handed down to the next generation (yongyetian 永業田). Emperor Gaozong 唐高宗 (r. 649-683) highly rewarded his comrades-in-arms, like Yu Zhining 于志寧 (588-665), Zhang Xingcheng 張行成 (587-653) or Gao Jifu 高季輔 (596-654).
Political power allowed many office-holders of the next half-century to increase their lands even beyond of imperial grants. In many cases the seizure of land was possible because farmers were not able to pay their taxes or deliver corvée (yaoyi 徭役) to the local government. In other cases, peasants had left their lands because of natural catastrophes and were wandering around as peasant refugees (liuwang 流亡) in search for food. Other methods to acquire land were debt slavery (tiantie 典貼), the pretext of reclaiming wasteland or pastures, to falsify land registers, or simple blackmail to sell the land.
The most important factor for the landowners was not exploit the wealth of the estates, but to profit from the tax exemption granted to lands owned by state officials and the nobility.
The "swallowing" (tunbing 吞并) of land had become so serious that in 762, Emperor Daizong 唐代宗 (r. 762-779) lamented the phenomenon in his edicts. His ministers therefore developed a new tax system in which also manors would be taxed. In 780 the twice-taxation system (liangshuifa 兩稅法) was introduced. On the one hand, the restriction of the size of land, as imposed by the field allotment of the equal-field system, was abolished, and likewise, the ban on the private sale and purchase of land was lifted. On the other hand, the twice-taxation system combined the poll tax with the field tax (tianfu 田賦), which took into consideration the size and yield of land, and was a more fair-minded system of taxation.
The liberalization of the acquisition of land led to the strange aspect that in some regions, mainly those around the two capitals, Guanzhong 關中 (southern Shaanxi) and Henan 河南, there was practically no land owned by peasants, but all belonged to state officials, court eunuchs or generals. The situation was similar in the lower Yangtze region, where practically all peasants had become tenant farmers on the lands of distinguished families (haojia 豪家), as Huangfu Shi 皇甫湜 (777-835) reported. The size of manors was between several mou 畝 and twenty or thirty qing.
For high officials, a change in the appointment structure was one reason to acquire as much land as possible. While in the early Tang period, offices were still inherited to sons (shixiguan 世襲官), there was no chance any more for sons of high officials to be appointed to the same office after the middle Tang period, and they had to live from the land their fathers had bought. Zhang Jiazhen 張嘉貞 (665- 729) was already worried about sons of high officials who spend the wealth of the family on drinking and banquets. In addition to this change in the appointment structure, state officials were facing the competition of rich merchants. The economy of the Tang period allowed for the financial raise of traders, many of which were wealthier than state officials or princes.
In contrast to earlier periods, the manors of the Tang period were not targeted at producing certain field crops to earn revenue, like during the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE), nor were they instruments of self-sufficiency, as during the Eastern Jin period. Instead, the owners of Tang manors rented their land out to client-farmers (zhuangke 莊客, tianke 田客, dianke 佃客), and lived from the rent (zuo shi zu shui 坐食租稅), instead of from the agricultural output. For this purpose, a manager (zhuangli 莊吏, zhizhuang 知莊) was necessary who took over the business of leasing and collected the rent (zhuangzu 莊租, zuke 租課). In case of imperial manors, the manager was called nei zhuangzhai shi 內莊宅使, zhuangzhaishi 莊宅使 or gongyuan shi 宮苑使.
The rent was often as high as half of the harvest. Apart from grain, tenants also paid rents in form of oil, firewood, or other objects used to run the household of the manor. The landlord could also require services (yonggong 傭工) like repairing the house, building walls, erecting barns, or gardening. In quite a few cases, tenants did not just rent the field, but also paid for seeds, food, tools or dwelling. The difference between farmer and bondman was thus not very great.
At least, the tenants were allowed to grow their own vegetables and sell leftovers on the market. The work to be delivered on manors was multifold. Apart from arable fields, there were mills, blacksmith's shops, carpenter's shops, retail shops (dianpu 店鋪) or pawnshops (dangpu 當鋪). Many manor houses included parks with pleasure gardens.
Even if the term zhuangtian or zhuanyuan is mainly applied to Tang-period manors, the phenomenon remained common until 1949. Landlords often lived in the cities and never visited the land they owned.
During the Ming and Qing periods, the term zhuangtian referred to lands owned by princes, officials or Bannermen. The Ming called imperial manors huangzhuang 皇莊, those of Empresses or noblemen who were not having an own estate, gongzhuang 宮莊, princes living off an estate, wangzhuang 王莊, those of imperial relatives, meritorious officials (xunchen 勳臣), eunuchs, or monasteries, tianzhuang 田莊. The Qing referred to imperial land as huangshi zhuangtian 皇室莊田, and to such owned by the "nobility" as zongshi zhuangtian 宗室莊田. The size of manors depended on the rank of nobility or the rank of the state office.
Emperor Taizu 明太祖 (r. 1368-1398) of the Ming dynasty bestowed 38,194 households to three dozens of nobles he had freshly invested. Among these, Li Shanchang 李善長 (1314-1390) was given 1,500 households from whose revenue he would live. Princes were granted 1,000 qing of land, the revenue of which was to be used as a salary (lumi 祿米). Princesses had an annual income of 2,500 dan 石 of grain. The revenue was high enough that the Prince of Yan 燕, Zhu Di 朱棣 (the eventual Emperor Chengzu 明成祖, r. 1402-1424), could built up an own army, as the rent sufficed for the military pay (xiangliang 餉糧). Until 1514 the total amount of manors amounted to 37,000 qing.
Manors of officials were normally bestowed (qinci 欽賜) by the emperor (on a hereditary basis), but it became common that owners increased their holdings illegally or by purchase (which was actually also not allowed). Cases of enforced appropriation were so blatant that Emperor Taizu issued several edicts against the illegal acquisition of land. In some cases he even forcibly expropriated members of the nobility or pocketed their rent. The total amount of non-imperial manors was more than 300,000 qing in the late Ming period. The size of imperial manors under the Qing was 39,000 qing, that of the nobility 13,000. This was substantially less than under the Ming dynasty. Manors were generally not taxed, and tenant households (dianhu 佃戶) were not liable for taxation or corvée. Yet tenants had to serve the landlord in various ways.
In some instances, the district government fell back on the managers (zhuangtou 莊頭, in case of imperial or princely manors called chengfeng 承奉) to collect the taxes in the district. Data on the rent of land are preserved. In 1480, for instance, the summer rent in Qinghe 清河, Zhili 直隸 (today's Hebei) was 7.4 fen 分 of silver (in specie or as unit of account) per mu of land, the autumn rent 5 fen. In Yanzhou 兗州 or Linqing 臨清, it was 2 dou of grain per mu. During the Kangxi reign-period 康熙 (1662-1722) of the Qing era, the land rent was between 2.5 and 4.1 dou of grain per mu, or 5-6 qian 錢 (in money), or up to 7-8 qian. This level of rent was not quite different from that of private leaseholds.
The earliest reference to imperial manors (huangzhuang) dates from 1464. There were several instances when Ming emperors seized the manors of others, like Zhu Di, or Emperor Xianzong 明憲宗 (r. 1464-1487), who appropriated the land of the chief eunuch Cao Jixiang 曹吉祥 (d. 1461). There were also cases when princes or high officials virtually begged (qiqing 乞請) for land, and received estates which had been robbed from their true owners. During the many purges the founder of the Ming dynasty carried out, the land owned by victims like Hu Weiyong 胡惟庸 (d. 1380) or Lan Yu 藍玉 (d. 1393) were confiscated by the state, or quite probably by the imperial household, making it imperial land.
In 1550 the hereditary character of the manors of imperial relatives and officials was restricted. 30 per cent of the land remained with the family (in case of princesses and dukes), but the rest was given back to the state. In 1568 the size of land for meritorious officials (xunchen) was restricted to 200 qing for the fifth generation, and that for imperial relatives fixed at a size of between 70 and 700 qing. A further regulation from 1588 stipulated that the kinsmen of empresses could possess 100 qing of land after the fifth generation, and imperial brothers-in-law only 10 qing. The families of secondary wives (feijia 妃家) only held the land for three generations. Under the Qing, no such restrictions were known.
During the Ming period, a grant of land was accompanied with tenant population, which means that the population was for generations bound to the land and its owner (qinci dianhu 欽賜佃戶 "gift tenants", yuanli dianhu 原隸佃戶 "appendant tenants"), even if it was regularly registered in household registers.
Under the Qing, there were two types of labourers, the first was called zhuangding 壯丁 "strong men". They stood under the supervision of the manager of the manor and were thus not different from bondservants. The second type were normal tenants (dianhu, zhuangmin 莊民). The institution of zhuangding was abolished during the Kangxi reign-period because too many of them had deserted the slave-like conditions. Sometimes impoverished peasants offered their services to landowners and became tenant farmers. Others donated (touxian 投獻) their land to princes and high officials, to evade taxes.
The imperial manors (huangzhuang) of the Qing were also called "state manors" (guanzhuang 官莊). They were located close to Beijing and were administered by the Imperial Household Department (neiwufu 內務府). Managers (zhuangtou) were normally responsible for the supervision of an area of 42 mu (called sheng 繩 "rope"), but later on the imperial manors were divided into four classes of size, with a revision of the arrangement every ten years. The Household was supplied with grain from "grain manors" (liangzhang 糧莊) with a size of 300 jiong 坰 (1 jiong = 6 mu).
Members of the Eight Banners in the capital (jingqi 京旗) were also given manors (zongshi zhuangtian). These were also known as "Banner land" (juandi 圈占, qidi 旗地 or baqi zhuangtian 八旗莊田) and had sizes of between 60-180 (yuan 園), 240-360 (banzhuang 半莊) and 420-720 mu (dazhuang 大莊), depending on the rank of the owner. For each zhuangding bondsman a Bannerman was served by, 36 (or 5 jiong) of land were granted, which means that Banner officers having more bondservants were given a larger tract of land. Land was allotted according to the number of persons of the Banner household (fendi 份地). In 1644, the Qing government thus distributed land with a total size of 140,158 qing.
While this type of Banner land was located close to Beijing, Banner troops in the provinces were also granted manors, but of much smaller size. Each common soldier (bingding 兵丁) of a provincial Banner was given 3 mu of land, while officers were given between 60 and 240 mu. In theory, Bannermen were soldiers in war, and peasants in peacetime (chu ze wei bing, ru ze wei min 出則為兵，入則為民). For common Banner troops, this was a life with modest prospects, and many therefore sold their land. During the Qianlong reign-period 乾隆 (1736-1795), already half of the Banner manors was in foreign hands or pawned.
The institution of imperial manors was abolished in 1912.