Tang official system reshaped forms of housing

Rentals, public residences were primary types
By By Tian Zhiguang, Yang Guozhen / 11-05-2015 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The painting shows part of an official residence in the Tang Dynasty. 

There were many ways of providing housing for officials in ancient China, and they evolved over time. In the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the focus of this article, capital officials solved their housing problems predominantly through renting and government-provided residences. 

Pre-Tang housing
Prior to the Tang Dynasty, government officials had an establishment where they lived and worked as well. An office was installed in the front, while they resided in the rear together with their family members and servants. 


The establishment was owned by the central court or local governments. Once they left office or were transferred, they had to move out. The rule was gradually institutionalized in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) and developed into a system akin to the modern official residence system of Western countries.

The system aimed to maintain feudalistic rule. With office and residence integrated into one, the security and confidentiality of official work could be guaranteed.

In the Han Dynasty, the government not only furnished officials with residences but also allowed family members to live with them. Some officials, however, would reject this benefit to prove that they were not corrupt.

During the Wei and Jin dynasties (220-420), grand unification that started under the Qin Empire (221-206 BC) and was sustained by the Han regime was disrupted as China was torn by war and plunged into the tumult of regime change. Nonetheless, the system roughly remained unchanged and officials continued to live in rent-free  houses provided by the government.

In the Tang Dynasty, the central official system gradually took shape, and functions of centralized state governance became increasingly complicated. As the number of functional departments rose, so did the amount of government employees in the capital Chang’an, which is now Xi’an, Shaanxi Province.

According to Wen Xian Tong Kao, a general history of laws and regulations in ancient China, there were more than 2,000 employees in the Tang capital. The number of their dependents, including family members, functionaries and servants, was much larger.

Since the cost to the government of providing free housing put a heavy burden on the exchequer, significant changes were made to the official residence system, and officials were required to rent houses provided by the government.

The residential pattern gradually diversified, and residences were separated from offices. The tenants comprised mid-level and low-ranking functionaries, territorial officials and temporarily dispatched commissioners. The conditions of their residences might vary with their posts.

Bai Juyi, a renowned Tang poet who concurrently served in the government, is a good example. At first, Bai assumed a minor post of the ninth grade in the capital. According to his poetry depicting the residence he rented and lived in, his residence was ordinary. Years later, he was promoted to serve as a subordinate to the prince and ranked the fifth grade. In his poetry, then, he portrayed a vast courtyard and sunk fence in the estate he rented, which was much better than the previous one.

In the Tang Dynasty, the houses owned by the state, though not given to officials for free, were open for rental. In the capital, commissioners for estates and residences were even appointed to manage the property.

There are many reasons for why officials rented estates.

First, mid-level and low-ranking functionaries and local officials served a limited term, so it was not necessary to purchase a house in the capital. Moreover, living costs were normally higher in the capital than in other cities, and they earned low incomes, so it was more cost-effective to rent a house than buy one.

Second, the idea of reverting to one’s origin was deeply ingrained in traditional Chinese culture. Even if employees in the capital held high posts, they would choose to rent and then buy a home in their hometown for settling down in after retirement.

Last, the thriving commodity economy in the Tang capital led to a boom of rental businesses and provided a convenient solution for the housing needs of officials.

Public housing, beyond
In addition to renting, officials were also permitted to build estates themselves. In the Tang Dynasty, when the system of land equalization was advocated, officials would be allotted permanently owned land, rank-determined land or housing land when they took office.


According to the New Book of Tang: Biography of Guo Yuanzhen, for instance, during the reign of Empress Wu Zetian (684-704), Minister of War Guo Yuanzhen was promoted to the position of Chancellor. When he relocated, he built an official residence himself.

Besides, some officials also bought estates. According to the Old Book of Tang: Biography of Bai Juyi, during the first year of Emperor Muzong’s reign (821-824), Bai bought the estate owned by official Yang Ping in Luoyang, Henan Province. He was old then, so he purchased the house to settle down and enjoy the last years of his life.

Sometimes the emperor would reward excellent service by gifting a house, but only a few high-ranking officials had this opportunity. In fact, granting a homestead was historically an important way for ancient Chinese emperors to reward their subordinates, and the practice was not unique to the Tang Dynasty.

Estates were given to officials for various reasons. Some won the honor for their contributions, some were merely favored by the emperor, and some homesteads were allotted to pacify troublemakers and political rivals.

For example, during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong (712-755), Du Xian first served as protector-general of Anxi County in Gansu Province. He was later promoted to a much higher post for his meritorious military service in suppressing a rebellion and given a residence by the emperor.

When Empress Wu Zetian was on the throne, detective Di Renjie was head of the Secretariat. Thinking highly of him, the empress conferred a homestead on him to show her favor.

In the two cases, the estate itself and its ownership were both granted to the officials, so it could be inherited by their descendants. In other instances, officials were only given the right to live in the homes, which remained the property of government.

In this case, it was officials who applied to the court for housing, and the emperor gave approval after going through a few procedures.

For example, during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong, poet and Chancellor Zhang Jiuling requested that the emperor grant him a residence and finally got permission. He had the right to live in and use the home, but he did not own it.

Although officials in the Tang Dynasty resided in multiple ways, the patterns were markedly different from those in the Han and Wei, Jin dynasties. Nonetheless, the practice of publicly funded housing was not brought to an end, as in the case of territorial representatives sent to the capital every year and officials temporally summoned to the capital. The residences were like modern-day state-owned guesthouses.

All in all, in the Tang Dynasty, forms of housing for government officials were diversified, but renting and public housing were the most common ways. This was not only related to the development of the dynasty but also to the evolution of the official system. It had profound effects on the official housing system of the subsequent Song, Yuan and even Ming, Qing dynasties (960-1911).

Tian Zhiguang and Yang Guozhen are from the School of History and Culture at Henan University.