The People of Imperial China
EARLY IMPERIAL CHINA: THE HAN (206 BC-AD 220)
The majority of China's population consisted of small households (4-6 people) actively engaged in working the land. Their produce provided the revenue that supported the state (and the cities). Although they considered themselves independent, individual households had to rely on and help one another, especially during times of natural disaster. The household's stability was often threatened by nature or the state. Famine, excessive taxation, and conscription to serve in military campaigns and labor corps caused households to break up and their members to flee. These people were then forced to wander the land as beggars or thieves or seek refuge with the great landowners. In return for labor, powerful landlords offered a degree of independence from the civil government. The peasant laborers were given seed, tools, plots of land to work, and the use of draft animals. Existing mostly at a near-starvation level, the peasants spent every daylight hour working the fields, milling grain, or carrying water from wells or irrigation channels.
In the cities, wealthy families lived a life of luxury and extravagance in multi-storied houses, richly decorated and furnished. They dressed in silks and furs, dined on a wide variety of foods and delicacies, and traveled in gleaming horse- drawn carriages. They entertained themselves with music, animal performances, and foreign girls. Government offices maintained large numbers of slaves, of both sexes, who lived relatively idle and lavish lives when compared to ordinary Chinese. The large servant and labor classes toiled for mere survival and lived in slums and hovels or on the streets.
LIFE IN IMPERIAL CHINA DURING THE 12TH AND 13TH CENTURIES
Aside from the government, the extended family ruled in the Chinese upper classes. Several generations lived together in a hierarchy based on age and generation. Absolute respect and obedience to the family's moral and legal code were demanded. Chinese society was a vast network of family-to-family relationships. Marriages and business dealings had to be approved. All decisions were based on the good of the family as a whole. Individuality was completely stifled. Since the ancestral family line could only be perpetuated by sons (daughters became members of their husband's families), a high value was placed on the birth of boys. Daughters did have value, though. Through marriage, they could unite families, business partners, and even nations.
During the 13th century, the provisional capital, Hangchow, was the economic center of China. Its 2,000,000-plus population was the largest urban concentration in the world at that time. (The largest European city of the time had a population of 50,000.) There was great disparity between the lifestyles of the upper, wealthy classes and the lower, working classes. The wealthy lived in large, opulent homes, while the working classes lived tenement-style or worse. All occupations, from wealthy traders and merchants to beggars and even thieves, had their own guilds. The more fortunate of the working classes lived in eight- to ten-story buildings that faced narrow cobblestone alleys. A store or craftsman's shop usually occupied the first floor, while an entire family would occupy each of the upper floors. Rent was paid to landlords or the state. While the rich had cesspools, the poor used "buckets" that were collected every morning and used for fertilizer in the fields. Rice, pork, and salted fish were the main foods of the lower classes. Servants to the wealthy were among the more fortunate of the laborers. They were dressed in fine clothes and ate well. Other members of the lower classes lived hand-to-mouth as heavy laborers, peddlers, vendors, street entertainers, prostitutes, or criminals. Many of the poorest lived on boats on the canals or crowded six to seven to a room. Beggars lived on the streets.
Canals were the main routes for communication and the transport of goods. Rich men rode horses in elaborate tack, and ladies rode in canopied chairs carried by porters. Goods were carried through the alleys by donkeys and mules or on the backs of porters. There were fine shops, taverns, tea houses, restaurants, and places of entertainment for the rich. The streets were noisy and alive with entertainment in the form of jugglers, marionette shows, shadow-plays, storytellers, and acrobats. Fire was a constant threat to the city's buildings, constructed mostly of wood and bamboo. One fire could burn 10,000 to 13,000 buildings, and there were often several of these per year. The government built guard stations with watchtowers every 500 yards to help prevent disasters. The people built temples dedicated to the gods of the river and made offerings to the dragon-king for protection.
Life in the agricultural countryside can be divided into three categories based on geographical areas. Fishing, hunting, forestry, and tea growing were the main industries in the mountains. Bamboo plantations, fishing, and salt extraction existed along the coast, and rice growing was the main activity on the plains. While most of the rural population was made up of tenant farmers and agricultural laborers, there were also small proprietors, managers, and superintendents. The poorest, living at near-starvation levels, worked in the state-run mines and salt marshes. In a good year, tenant farmers and laborers barely met their basic needs. In a bad year, debt and famine were widespread. During times of stress, small farmers were forced to sell their land and sometimes their children. Losing everything, many peasant farmers resorted to suicide or banditry.
Farm laborers were hired for the season (February-October). Their wage was eight bushels of grain per month and free clothing. If they missed a day, three and one-third bushels were subtracted from their wages. Men and women worked dawn to dusk without stopping. In the rice fields, drums were beaten to provide a work rhythm and to prevent chattering. During the winter, men were kept busy winnowing and women weaving. Children were employed to care for the animals, collect firewood, and fetch water. Some villages did have schools during the winter that taught basic writing and sums. The peasants' only recreation or break from work were the annual festivals.
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