An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

fenglu 俸祿, salary of state officials

May 7, 2016 © Ulrich Theobald

Fenglu 俸祿 was the traditional term for the salary of state officials. In pre-imperial times the servicemen of regional rulers (zhuhou 諸侯) were granted serfs as well as lots of land from whose produce they could live. These lots of land were interitable. From the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) on this system of regional states declined, and the regional rulers (zhuhou 諸侯) appointed ministers, administrators and functionaries according as individuals, rewarding them with a sum of money directly disbursed from the state treasury.

In the Qin 秦 (221-206 BCE) and Han 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) periods the salary was paid out in kind (millet or rice), the so-called salary grain (fengmi 俸米). The amount depended on the status or rank of an official, and was fixed by law. Each official rank (ji 級) was endowed with a fix amount of grain (calculated in the weight measure shi 石, see weights and measures). When the tribute grain (caoliang 漕糧) shipped annually to the capital did not suffice any more to pay out the salaries of all state officials, it was decided to pay out half of the salary in kind, and the other half in money (fengqian 俸錢), during the period of the Southern and Northern Dynasties 南北朝 (300~600) also in the form of textiles which was at that time still one form of taxes (see tripartite tax system). The Northern Wei dynasty 北魏 (386-534) decided to endow local officials with public fields (gongtian 公田) whose revenue was to be used to pay the salary.

The official dynastic history Hanshu 漢書 (ch. 19 Baiguan gongqing biao 百官公卿表) explains that, for instance, district magistrates of larger districts (xianling 縣令) had an annual salary of between 600 and 1,000 shi, and those of smaller districts of less than 10,000 households (xianzhang 縣長) a salary of 300-500 shi. Their senior subalterns (zhangli 長吏, namely cheng 丞 and district defenders, wei 尉) were salaried at between 200 and 400 shi, and the junior subalterns (xiaoli 少吏, namely archivists, zuoshi 佐史) at less than 100 shi (therefore called doushi 斗食 "eaters by the peck").

Right at the beginning of the chapter, a commentary by Yan Shigu 顏師古(581-645)is inserted. It explains that according to the Han system, there was a difference between nominal salaries and real salaries. Nominal salaries discerned between two or three sub-categories, expressed by the designations zhong 中 (higher than normal) and bi 比 (lower than normal).

Table 1. Monthly salaries in grain during the Han period
Rank in shi salary in hu (fivepecks) 斛 of grain/month
10,000 350
中2,000 180
2,000 120
比2,000 100
1,000 90
比1,000 80
600 70
比600 60
400 50
比400 45
300 40
比300 37
200 30
比200 27
100 16
Source: Hanshu 19, commentary of Yan Shigu. See also Huang & Feng 2005: 38.

The Sui dynasty 隋 (581-618) inherited this system, but only for local officials, not for those serving in the capital. While officials were paid out a salary, subofficial employees without rank (juewei 爵位) were granted a "firewood allowance" (xinxiang 薪餉). Emperor Taizong 唐太宗 (r. 626-649) of the Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907) divided the annual payment of the salary into two periods of payment, one in spring, and one in autumn. From 736 on officials were given a monthly salary (yuefeng 月俸).

Apart from the salary, Song-period 宋 (960-1279) officials were given a wide range of allowances, some for general purposes (gongyong qian 公用錢), others designated as clothing allowance (fuzhuang fei 服裝費), firewood and food allowance (huoshi fei 伙食費), for tea and hot water (chatang qian 茶湯錢) or to buy stationery (bangong fei 辦公費). The prodigious salaries of the Song period dropped under the Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368), but the Mongols endowed their princes with lavish appanages.

Under the Ming 明 (1368-1644) and Qing 清 (1644-1911) dynasties the salaries for state officials made out a considerable part of the state expenditure. Manchus were generally granted higher salaries than Chinese officials.

Table 2. Annual salaries (nominal) during the Qing period
rank nominal salary 1644 in tael/liang salary in 1656 (money fengyin 俸銀 + rice fengmi 俸米, in hu 斛)
1A 215.51 180 + 180
1B 183.84 180 + 180
2A 152.17 155 + 155
2B 120.5 155 + 155
3A 88.84 130 + 130
3B 66.91 130 + 130
4A 62.04 105 + 105
4B 54.73 105 + 105
5A 42.55 80 + 80
5B 37.68 80 + 80
6A 35.46 60 + 60
6B 29.08 60 + 60
7A 27.49 45 + 45
7B 25.89 45 + 45
8A 24.3 40 + 40
8B 22.7 40 + 40
9A 21.11 33.1 + 33.1
9B 19.52 31.5 + 31.5
Huang & Feng 2005: 560-561.
Huang Huixian 黃惠賢, Cheng Feng 陳鋒 (2005). Zhongguo fenglu zhidu shi 中國俸祿制度史(Wuhan: Wuhan daxue chubanshe).
Huang Yunwu 黃運武, ed. (1992). Xinbian caizhzeng da cidian 新編財政大辭典 (Shenyang: Liaoning renmin chubanshe), 1023.