An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

yaoyi 徭役, labour corvée

Nov 24, 2015 © Ulrich Theobald

From oldest times the state requested the common population to deliver annually certain amounts of labour for state projects, like building dams and dykes, roads, city walls, or royal/imperial tombs. Apart from labour (liyi 力役), the state also requested service (yaoyi 徭役) for miscellaneous duties (zayi 雜役), as well as military service (bingyi 兵役).

In Shang period 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE) oracle bone inscriptions, labourers in the military service were called dengren 登人. Regulations for labour service are recorded in the Confucian Classics Zhouli 周禮 and Liji 禮記, and the book Mengzi 孟子 also mentions it. Not only the kings of the Zhou dynasty 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE), but each regional ruler made use of labour corvée, which can be considered as one type of tax.

During the Qin 秦 (221-206 BCE) and Han 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) periods labour was delivered as service-in-turn to government agencies (gengzu 更卒), as long-term service as local soldier (zhengzu 正卒) or long-term service as soldier in the capital guard or in the border zone (shuzu 戍卒). There were never official regulations about labour or military service, but the recruitment depended on the actual need. It seems to have been custom that each male person served for one full year in his life in the military, and one year in the border zone to open up fields which would nourish the garrisons.

The Qin emperors recruited 70,000 persons to build the Epang Palace 阿房宮, 50,000 for the protection wall in the north (the precursor of the "Great Wall"), 50,000 to open up fields in the newly conquered regions in the south, and 30,000 to build fortifications against the Xiongnu 匈奴 in the north.

In addition to that, each male person was to deliver service to the local government one month each year. During the Han period the custom emerged to pay a fee (gengfu 更賦) instead of serving. Members of the ruling house and of the nobility, as well as all members of their households, were exempted from labour corvée.

The first regulation dates from the Eastern Jin period 東晉 (317-420) and fixed a service period of 20 days per year and able-bodied male. Yet it must be doubted whether this corresponded to reality. Corvée was extended to one month during the Sui period 隋 (581-618), and even to females. The Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907) introduced two new systems, one for the garrison militia (fubing zhi 府兵制), and one for taxation. The latter, the tripartite tax system (zuyongdiao zhi 租庸調制), regulated that apart from the field and the household tax, grown-up males had to deliver 20 days of labour annually, and in case they were unable to serve, paid a compensation in kind (yong 庸). With the introduction of the twice-taxation system (liangshuifa 兩稅法) in the second half of the Tang period, the labour corvée was merged with the field tax (tianfu 田賦), but various services for the local governments continued to be claimed.

During the reform years of the Song period 宋 (960-1279), the government tried to abolish the corvée and to replace it by payment of money with a height depending on the possessions of the household, yet this attempt was soon abolished. On various occasions male peasants served in "miscellaneous services" (zayao 雜徭) and repaired roads, dug out and repaired channels, built dams, palaces and other official buildings, or carried officials around. The Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368) added to these obligations that of army service, yet it was soon transformed into a lifetime service of professional "military households" (junhu 軍戶, recorded in "military registers" junji 軍籍). Civilian service included some novel duties, like the management of courier stations (zhanyi 站役), or work as craftsman (jiangyi 匠役) or yamen runner (chaiyi 差役).

The Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644) retained three types of service, namely one for organizing the village self-administration (lijia 里甲), one for "equally distributed" service (junyao 均徭), and one for "miscellaneous, non-specified matters" (zafan 雜泛). The amount of labour was geared to the height of the field and the poll tax (dingfu 丁賦). These remainders were merged with the field tax in the late decades of the Ming, and disappeared in the early eighteenth century (see tanding rumu 攤丁入畝).

Huang Yunwu 黃運武, ed. (1992). Xinbian caizheng da cidian 新編財政大辭典 (Shenyang: Liaoning renmin chubanshe), 1015.
Ma Kewei 馬克偉, ed. (1991). Tudi da cidian 土地大辭典 (Changchun: Changchun chubanshe), 985.
Wang Meihan 王美涵, ed. (1991). Shuishou da cidian 稅收大辭典 (Shenyang: Liaoning renmin chubanshe), 815.
Wu Hanmin 吳漢民 (1993). "Yaoyi 徭役", in Shi Quanchang 石泉長 (ed.), Zhonghua baike yaolan 中華百科要覽 (Shenyang: Liaoning renmin chubanshe), 82.