Geng and Yao in the Qin and Han Dynasties

Social Sciences in China (Chinese Edition)

No. 2, 2022


Geng and Yao in the Qin and Han Dynasties



Wang Yanhui


During the Qin and Han dynasties, corvée labor in the broad sense included gengzu yaoyi (“更卒徭役), waiyao (外徭) and shuyao (戍徭), and in the narrow sense chiefly referred to gengzu yaoyi and waiyao. Gengzu yaoyi refers to the corvée labor performed by adult males in their own county; it fell under statutory obligations or was approved by the ruler. In Dong Zhongshu’s view, waiyao meant “a year of corvée labor,” levied by the court or ordered by the commandery. With waiyao, adult males would leave their home county to undertake tasks such as transporting grain by water. It was levied more than once a year and the length of time served was determined by the nature and duration of the corvée labor. The cumulative total of corvée was one month in the year and one year in a lifetime for each adult male. At the end of the year, the number of days by which the statutory service exceeded or fell short of the mandatory duration had to be recorded with the words “carried over to the following year” in the new service record. The ruogan geng (若干更) in the Zhangjiashan bamboo-slip version of the Han Statutes on Scribes meant the “duty” of service; it should not be confused with the geng (更)of yaoyi. Because of the special nature of their jobs, diviners, musicians and priests at sacrificial rites had to undergo strict training and examination by the state once they reached the legal age, and had to practice their art in the commandery or the capital city every year. Nanjun Zu Geng Bu (南郡卒更簿), the wooden slips excavated from the Jingzhou Jinan Songbai No. 47 Han dynasty tomb in present-day Hubei Province, is a copy of the Nanjun annual assessment figures for corvée labor in the counties, marches, and marquisates. The document reflects the reality of the corvée labor system in the Qin and Han dynasties; that is, the state controlled the overall amount of corvée in the localities, while counties, marches, and marquisates made their own arrangements in terms of the frequency of corvée labor and the number of adult males employed on each task according to their needs and their general approach.