Dianke 佃客, also called tianke 田客 or dike 地客, were peasants who did not own land, but worked for a landowner belonging to the class of eminent families (a kind of "gentry", menfa 門閥, haoqiang 豪強). The institution of client-farmers was flourishing between the Jin 晉 (265-420) and the early Tang 唐 (618-907) periods and was one subtype of clients (yinke 蔭客) which were, as retainers, servants, soldiers or peasants, dependents of a patron. Client-farmers constituted own households (dianhu 佃戶, zhuanghu 莊戶), which were not obliged to pay taxes or deliver corvée services (yaoyi 徭役) to the government, but exclusively served their patrons, often to an extent similar to that of slaves. For this reason, client-farmers were also called nuke 奴客 or tongke 僮客 "slave clients".
Client-farmers mainly originated from the class of free peasants who were looking for protection against war by moving to the vicinity of a fortified manor (wubao 塢堡) or who had lost their estates after a natural disaster, or simply desired to escape exploitation by warlords or tax collectors. Another group of client-farmers were treated like commodities and were presented by the government to eminent families. These were called cike 賜客, fuke 復客 or jike 給客.
During the Three Kingdoms period 三國 (220~280 CE), when the central goverment attempted to revive the economy by the creation of agrarian colonies (tuntian 屯田), colony-farmers (tuntianke 屯田客) played an important role. The central government entrusted a colony to a certain eminent family, together with a certain number of peasant households. These became, along with the soil, the property of the "gentry". Lü Meng 呂蒙 (178-220), for instance, was rewarded for his military efforts with colony land cultivated by 600 families, and Chen Biao 陳表 (204-237) was given 200 peasant families to care for his land.
In 280, an imperial edict determined land ownership quota (the so-called "land occupation edict" zhantianling 占田令, see land and tax quota system), depending on the official rank of taxed families. The edict also determined the number of client households (yinhu 蔭戶) an eminent family was allowed to keep. Families whose members owned the official ranks 1 or 2 were not allowed to dispose of more than 50 (rather, 15?) tax-exempted client-farmer households. Eminent families of rank 3 were allowed to give "shelter" to ten households, those of rank 4, to seven, families of rank 6, to three, of rank 7, to two, and eminent families of the ranks 8 and 9, to one client-farmer household. In fact, many gentry families disposed of much more client-farmers, even if these were illegal. Quite a few attempted to enlarge their property by forcing free peasants to become clients.
The Eastern Jin 東晉 (317-420) government considerably enlarged these legal quotas: forty households for the gentry of ranks 1 and 2, thirty-five for rank 3, thirty for rank 4, twenty-five for rank 5, twenty families for rank 6, fifteen farmer families for rank 7, ten for rank 8, and a quota of five peasant households for gentry families of rank 9. In north China, it was common to register "a hundred peasant households as one, or one thousand (actually tax-liable) adult males in one single household".
The Northern Wei dynasty 北魏 (386-534) introduced a new system for local governance, in which gentry families acted as local governors (zongzhu duhuo 宗主督護), literally "supervisors and protectors". In this way, the obligations of client-farmers came close to the duties of tax-paying and delivering services to the government.
With the introduction of the equal-field system (juntian zhi 均田制), peasants were virtually "liberated" from the dependency of the gentry and became, at least in theory, free peasants again, as registered households (bianhu 編戶) listed in household registers (huji 戶籍). This measure drastically increased government revenue, because huge numbers of taxpayers became available by the regular registration of peasant households. Quite naturally, peasants often tried to go back to a system in which they would not pay taxes, and illegally returned to the client-patron dependency – even if they had to deliver half of their harvest to the landowner.
Apart from the nobility or the gentry, Buddhist monasteries owned large tracts of land (manors, zhuangyuan 莊園) and enjoyed the services of client-farmers.
During the Tang period, the term dianke was still used on the manors of rich families. From the 8th century on, the numbers of client-farmers became ever larger, but the dependency from the landowners relaxed somewhat. Services to the landowner-patron were not any more seen as an obligation, and a large class of tenant farmers emerged. The most important phenomenon showing that the personal ties between patron and client had dissolved was the abolishing of laws regulating punishment of client-farmers who had shown disobedience toward their patron. This happened as late as during the Ming period 明 (1368-1644).