Liumin 流民, also called liuhu 流戶, liuli 流離, liumang 流氓, liuwang 流亡, liurong 流冗, liuyong 流庸, liuzhe 流者, mangliu 盲流 or nanmin 難民, were peasant refugees who had left their own land and wandered around in search for new opportunities so survive. The main reasons for them to look for shelter were natural calamities, crop failures, war, or continuing oppression and exploitation by land owners. For this reason, liumin were not just individual families, but consisted of whole villages.
The term is as old as the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE) and is first attested in the book Guanzi 管子 (Chapter Sishi 四時), but the first reference to peasant refugees occurs in the Confucian Classic Shijing 詩經 "Book of Songs" (ode Zhaoman 召曼). Guan Zhong 管仲 (725-645) recommended to the duke of Qi 齊 to forbid to leave one's home village (jin qian xi 禁遷徙).
In 119 BCE, more than 700,000 people left the region of Shandong, and in 107, a number of 2 million landless peasants were recorded from the region of Shanxi (Guandong 關東), and during the reign of Emperor Ai 漢哀帝 (r. 7-1 BCE) of the Han dynasty 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE), south China saw the migration of 100,000 people. During the reign of the usurper Wang Mang 王莽 (r. 8-23 CE), tens of thousands of refugees inundated the metropolitan region Guanzhong 關中 (around today's Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi).
During the Jin period 晉 (265-420), peasant refugees often sought support at the manors of so-called eminent families (menfa 門閥), the gentry, who accepted them as client-farmers (dianke 佃客). The central government often had to go with these circumstances and allowed the gentry to assemble them as government-granted clients (jike 給客).
Each dynasty tried to bring back peasant refugees to their home villages or to resettle them in regions where new land was reclaimed. Local governments were often not able to support the huge numbers of refugees coming into their districts and tried everything to get rid of them. The central goverment regularly took care for their subsistance for some time (kai cang zhen lin 開倉賑廪 "opened the granaries and brought relief from the magazines"), but then attempted to force them to return to their home villages.
The care for hungry and destitute peasants was a central topic in the social policy throughout imperial times. This policy went back to the Confucian philosopher Mengzi 孟子 (385-304 or 372-289 BCE). Besides storing sufficient amounts of grain for cases of famine, the imperial government offered tax wavers (juanmian 蠲免) to regions where crop failures or locust plagues had occurred.
The issue of starving peasants was so common through history, that it even emerged as a genre in Chinese painting, with the earliest example of Zheng Xia's 鄭俠 (jinshi degree 1067) Liumin tu 流民圖 "Painting of homeless peasants". Another, more recent, example is Jiang Zhaohe's 蔣兆和 (1904-1986) painting with the same title, created during the Sino-Japanese War.
Not only did hungry bands of homeless peasants pillage district granaries or take with force the belongings of others to survive – which earned them the label of "roaming bandits" (liukou 流寇). Often enough, peasant refugees decided to stage an uprising against the intolerable economic situation and challenged local authorities, as for instance, in 301, when a Li Te 李特 (r. 303) became the leader of homeless peasant rebels in Sichuan and created an own state, Cheng-Han 成漢 (304-347).
The phenomenon of peasant refugees, paired with rebellions, persisted through the ages. In 1465, a large uprising shook the border region between Shaanxi, Sichuan, and Hunan. The leader, Liu Tong 劉通, proclaimed his own Han dynasty 漢 and adopted the reign motto Desheng 德勝 "Victory of Virtue". The demise of the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644) was also due to a peasant uprising led by Li Zicheng 李自成 (1606-1645). Apart from peasants, many workers also left their hometowns when the situation became unbearable. Salt workers (zaohu 灶戶), for instance, also belonged to those who left their home villages, banded together and pillaged wealthier villages or founded underworld societies.
During the Qing period 清 (1644-1911), many poor peasants left their home provinces and settled in Manchuria or Inner Mongolia, which was actually forbidden. In 1712, more than 100,000 persons left Shandong province and migrated to the northeast. In the 1720s therefore, some prefectures created the position of a settlement administrator (zhucheng tongzhi 駐城同知), who was responsible for refugees and migrants (modern term yimin 移民). In the late 1730s, inhabitants of the province of Jilin were allowed to settle in Manchuria. The prefecture of Fengtian 奉天 (i.e. Mukden or modern Shenyang 瀋陽) even equipped each person with 1.5 qian of "seed capital". In 1800, the sub-prefecture of Changchun 長春 welcomed 2,330 new settlements, in 1806, 1,500, in 1808, 3,010, and in 1810, 6,953 households. The resettlement policy of bringing refugee peasants into Inner Mongolia and Manchuria continued far into the twentieth century and contributed to the spread of Han Chinese into territories formerly inhabited by Mongolians or Manchus.