Tenant farmers (diannong 佃農, dianhu 佃戶) are peasants who do not own the land they are cultivating but pay a rent to the landowner for the right to use it. Through the ages, tenant farmers made out a substantial part of the total peasant population in China.
Because tenant farmers were not obliged to pay taxes – a duty only pertaining to landowners – many newly founded dynasties developed strategies of land reform to redistribute cultivable fields in such a manner that a high number of peasants became owners of land. The most famous of such approaches were the royal-field method (wangtian 王田, see jingtian 井田) of the Zhou dynasty 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE), the land-quota system (zhantianfa 占田制) of the Jin period 晉 (265-420), the equal-field system (juntianfa 均田法) from the Northern Wei 北魏 (386-534) and the Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907) or the early Qing-period 清 (1644-1911) redesignation of land (gengmingtian 更名田). Apart from these forms of land redistribution, dynastic governments regularly encouraged peasants to open new land (zhao ken 招墾, kenhuang 墾荒).
As a common phenomenon, landowners over time expanded their landed property and “swallowed” more and more land, thus depriving the state of a source of monetary revenue and of labour needed for public projects (see yaoyi 徭役). The reason for peasants to sell their land was mostly indebtedness, for instance, after multiple crop failure or because of excessive taxation and demand for labour.
Chinese historians believe that the phenomenon of land tenancy appeared after the breakdown of the (putative) well-field system (jingtian) of the Western Zhou period 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE). The old precept of the Western Zhou period had declared that "all land under Heaven is the king's property" (pu tian zhi xia, mo fei wang tu 普天之下，莫非王土). Royal land could therefore not be sold and bought (tian li bu yu 田里不鬻 "fields and hamlets are not for commerce"). The flight of the Zhou dynasty to Luoyang 洛陽 in the east and the factual transfer of power into the hands of the regional rulers shattered a field ownership system according to which one eighth of royal fields served to nourish the court (as tax in kind), while the farmers lived from the rest.
The factual owners of land during the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE) were either the king, the sovereigns of the regional states, or members of the nobility, including ministers, grand masters, and servicemen. The commoners (shuren 庶人) cultivating the fields were serfs that "belonged" to the soil. Marxist historians therefore speak of a slaveholder society (nuli shehui 奴隸社會) with "slave farmers" (nongnu 農奴). Zhou-period farmers were thus not free, but "part of the landed property". This means that they might be transferred to another master if a tract of land changed ownership. If the number of cultivators was not sufficient, landowners might also acquire escaped slaves (nuli 奴隸) or landless peasants to work the fields.
Payment of a rent is first attested in a statement quoted by Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒 (179-104 BCE, in Hanshu 漢書, 24 Shihuo zhi 食貨志). He said that land was a marketable commodity purchasable by everyone (min de mai mai 民得買賣). Farmers of the late Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) might cultivate the fields of "distinguished families" (haomin 豪民), i.e. landowners, and pay a rent (shui 稅, a word later meaning "tax") of fifty per cent (jian shui shi wu 見稅什五) in kind (shiwu dizu 實物地租, chanpin dizu 產品地租) on the harvest. Payment in kind was mostly delivered as staple food (grain), but also as agricultural sideline products.
From that time on, private ownership of land was a common phenomenon. Owners of estates were called with various terms over the ages. During the Han 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) and Wei 曹魏 (220-265) periods, they were known as haoqiang dizhu 豪強地主 "land owners of eminent families", during the Sui 隋 (581-618) and Tang 隋 (581-618) periods as shizu dizu 世族地主 "landowners of families with hereditary status", during the Song period 宋 (960-1279) as shihu 勢戶 "mighty houses", and during the Ming 明 (1368-1644) and Qing periods as shenshi dizhu "landowners of the gentry".
During the Han period, the bulk of tenant farmers originated from two groups of persons, namely small-scale farmers who were forced for some reason to cede their land to "eminent families", and peasant refugees who had lost their land because of famine. Landowners were not just private persons, but local governments likewise rented out plots of land for cultivation by peasants, a custom called jia min gongtian 假民公田 "lend out public land to the people" and popular during the late Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE). The rent for state-owned land (guantian 官田) made out 40 to 50 per cent (si-wu cheng 四五成) of the harvest. It was called jiashui 假稅 "lease rent".
The system of sub-lease was also known during the Han period. Rich families rented out government-owned land and sub-leased it to farmers, demanding a higher rent than they paid themselves to the local government. Some state officials complained that this custom was an abuse of the term "lease rent" because the latter was a prerogative of the state. The usurper-reformer Wang Mang 王莽 (8-23 CE) criticized this custom, explaining that "private persons deceive [the farmers] by appropriating the [local government's] right of distributing land and collecting rents" (min qin ling, fen tian jie jia 民侵陵，分田劫假).
The most widespread system in early imperial China was the harvest quota-rent system (fenchengzu zhi 分成租制), with a rent of 1/15 part or even half of the harvest in practice (rent in kind, mainly grain). This contradicted the law on land rent which stipulated just 1/30 of the rent. Yet rent quota up to 50 per cent (wu cheng 五成) were common. Documents among the bamboo slips found in Juyan 居延 demonstrate that apart from the quota-rent system (fencheng zu 分成租), there was already the custom of fix annual rent (ding'e zu 定額租).
Debt slavery was very common in Han-period China, and government-owned fields or agricultural facilities were to a large part run by slaves (Wilbur 1944: 195).
In order to reconstruct the economy after long periods of war, the Cao-Wei dynasty introduced internal agro-colonies. The land of these belonged to the government and was cultivated by civilian tenant farmers (tuntian ke 屯田客).
From the late Eastern Han period 東漢 (25-220 CE) on, the economic, social and political power of "distinguished families" grew considerably, and the tenancy system became a common form of ownership. The social and legal status of tenant farmers was no more than that of serfs (tufu 徒附) which means that they did not just to hand over part of the harvest to the landowner (shu tai ban zhi fu 輸太半之賦, "more than half"), but also to deliver various services for the household of the landowner, like clearing land, irrigation work, construction of buildings, transport, guard and defence duties (see buqu 部曲), etc. During the Jin period and the period of division, the phenomenon of client-farmer (yinke 蔭客) was widespread. Tenant farmers and landowners had a patron-and-client relation from which both sides profited. As tenant farmers, they did not have to pay taxes to the government, while the distinguished families had the possibility to declare free farmers as "part of their wider household" and as dependents (sishu 私屬) in their household register. The Eastern Jin dynasty 東晉 (317-420) even legally defined in the tenancy system (jike zhi 給客制) how many client-farmers and tax-free kinsmen (yinqin 蔭親) a family of a certain rank (see nine ranks) was allowed to have. Rent payment in shares of the harvest (liang fen 量分) was the common form.
Between the Wei and the Tang periods, peasants were practically serfs on the domain of a landowning family. The were registered along with the landowners (ke jie zhu jiaji 客皆注家籍) because they were seen as client-farmers (dianke 佃客, tianke 田客, dianhu 佃戶) of the landowner-patron and practically belonged to his household as client households (yinhu 蔭戶). The patron provided protection and livelihood to the farmers, while the latter delivered work and various services. In a period of turmoil, many farmers sought the protection of landowners against bandits and also to evade tax payment. The phenomenon that "a hundred families lived in one household, and thousand men shared one register" (bai jia he hu, qian ding gong ji 百家合戶，千丁共籍) was widespread during the time.
The large estates of the Tang period are known as zhuangyuan 莊園. The fields on them were cultivated by estates farmers (zhuanghu 莊戶, jizhuanghu 寄莊戶, zhuangke 莊客). Apart from private estates, there were also various types of government-owned land, either in possession of the imperial family (huangzhuang 皇莊) or various local offices (guanzhuan 官莊). Some types of state-owned land served to provide salary in kind (zhitian 職田) or to cover, after being converted into money, administrative expenses (gongxietian 公廨田). A last type of state-owned land were agro-colonies (yingtian 營田, same as the earlier tuntian) which served to produce grain requested by government institutions. A third type of owner were Buddhist monasteries.
In the early Tang period, land-use contracts were already quite widespread, as can be seen from documents discovered in Dunhuang 敦煌 (contemporary name Xizhou 西州) and Turfan 吐魯番. There were also separate contracts on the lease of farming tools and oxen. With the breakdown of the equal-field system which had been created to distribute land and tax burdens fairly, more and more free peasants gave up their land and became tenant farmers (diannong) on the landed property of estates owners. The leasehold system (zudian zhi 租佃制) became a common form of farming. In the late Tang period, payment in money gained importance.
One particular aspect of the equal-field system was that the government had to prevent that peasants left their ground and wandered to other places in search for land (see refugee farmers). The Tang therefore regularly brought back peasant refugees to their homeland (a procedure called kuohu 括戶 "enlarge [the number of registered] households", i.e. bianhu 編戶) and registered them as so-called "guest households" (kehu 客戶, kejihu 客籍戶) or "settled households" (tuhu 土戶). In contrast to earlier years, the word kehu did not mean that these farmers were clients of a landowning patron, but just that they were "dwelling on the landed property of others" (wu chan er qiao yu 無產而僑寓), namely that of the "owner households" (zhuhu 主戶) or "tax-paying households" (shuihu 稅戶), in other words, it was the predecessor of the late imperial word dianhu 佃戶 "tenant household".
In the Tang period, tenant farmers made out a substantial part of the peasant population (Wu 1993: 80). Many farmers still relied on the landowners not just to have enough to plant and to eat, but also concerning the dwellings - hence the saying "seeds and food are lent, field and hut are leased" (dai qi zhong shi, lin qi tian lu 貸其種食，賃其田廬).
The fixed-rate rent system (ding'ezu zhi 定額租制) became more popular and dominated the leasehold conditions until the end of imperial times. It was first used for military agro-colonies (juntun 軍屯). The rent was fixed according to the average grain yield of a leased field, but was then fixed at about 50 per cent of the average yield. On the one hand, this method imposed larger rents on the shoulders of peasant, but on the other hand, the agricultural output had grown with the perfection of agricultural techniques. Moreover, the commercialization of produce had increased by the 10th century which allowed the peasants higher incomes by selling their output, not to speak of the sideline productions of traditional farming households which included, for instance, various types of fabric (according to the motto nan geng nü zhi 男耕女織 "the man plows, the woman weaves"), the production of various implements and tools, or of seeds. Farming households were more or less self-subsistent, possessed (apart from the land) own means of production like tools and buffaloes, and might earn some surplus to sell on the markets.
While farmers had more or less the status of serfs (tu 徒, buqu 部曲, dianpu 佃僕, zhuanghu 莊戶) in the first millennium, personal freedom grew from the Song period on. The relation between landlord and farmers transformed into a mercantile one, with the result that apart from the land lease contract, both sides had nothing to do with each other (jiao zu zhi wai, liang bu xiang wen 交租之外，兩不相問).
During the Song period, tenant households made out about one third of all registered households (Bao 1992). To this figure, a substantial number of small landowners must be counted who leased additional land from other landowners (tianzhu 田主). This means that tenant farming was the ownership form of about half of the peasantry during that age. Because the ownership of land was not any more tied directly to social status or chances for career, ancient terms like "distinguished families" came out of use. With the introduction of the examination system, a new class of landowners emerged, namely the gentry.
Tenant farmers also concluded contracts with local governments to use "official land" (guantian). Contracts included a detailed description of the fields, the names of the landlord and the tenant, as well as those of attestors, the rent and payment modalities, and the end of the contract period. In 1027, the Song court decreed that land tenancy required a written contract to be legally valid.
While services for landowners remained in used in backward regions, the ratio rent system in kind (shiwu fenchengzu zhi 實物分成租制) was more and more replaced by a rent system in which the annual payment consisted of a fix rent in kind as determined in the contract, regardless of the harvest yield (shiwu ding'ezu zhi 實物定額租制). The landowners had not any more the right to interfere into the process of evaluating the harvest which gave the farmers more economic freedom. Farmers were motivated to produce more than in a system in which they might attempt to hide part of the harvest or produce less not to be obliged to pay a higher rent. The fix-rent system had been introduced during the Tang period and was much widespread during the Song period, particularly in economically advanced regions like the lower Yangtze region. Contracts of official land were at that time usually following the fix-rent system. This was about half of the average harvest per year, according to the principle zhong fen qi li 中分其利 "take the half of the profit". If farmers lent out draught animals, the rent was higher. In addition to that, landowners levied many other fees for various reasons (like haomi 耗米 "surplus rice", humian 斛面 "fivepeck-rent", dianji 佃雞 "rent-chicken" or maizu 麥租 "wheat rent") or divided off land (hua dian 劃佃) to increase the number of leasehold contracts and thus the income by rent.
Monetary payment for the rent was already seen in Tang-period documents, for instance, as advance payments for long-term lease (? changtian 常田). It became more widespread during the Song period, first for government-owned fields, and then for land where mulberry or hemp was cultivated, and land cultivated by farmers living close to urban settlements.
Leaseholders of government-owned fields in many cases obtained the right to pass on contractual rights to the next generation. The court also allowed them to sub-lease the fields, a process called chou jia jiao dian 酬價交佃 "pass on a lease by transfer money" or sui jia de dian 隨價得佃 "obtain a lease by paying money". Another development on state-owned fields was a kind of sublease in which three parties formed an economic entity, namely the landowner (tianzhu 田主, in this case the state), the business owner (yezhu yezhu 業主, the first tenant), and the cultivator (zhonghu 種戶, the sub-tenant). This type of constellation was called xingshihu bao dian 形勢戶包佃 "landowner-plus-tenant lease".
The legal status of landowners had improved during the Song period. Apart from the individual registration in household registers and the contractual rights, the Song government began to improve the respective regulations of the penal code. In 1062, a landowner beating and killing a tenant still could expect pardon, but a law form 1084 stipulated that manslaughter of a tenant farmer by a landlord might result in the latter's demotion by one rank. Various regulations concerning tenant farmers treated them always three to four ranks lower than "commoners", i.e. landowners.
With the foundation of the Ming dynasty, the right of use was separated from the question of ownership. Emperor Taizu 明太祖 (r. 1368-1398) decreed that from then on, a tenant farmer would only be obliged to treat a landowner as a senior, and not any more as his master (dianhu jian tianzhu, bu lun chixu, bing xing yi shao-zhang zhi li 佃戶見田主不論齒序，并行以少長之禮). If the tenant was a relative of the landowner, the rules for family relations prevailed over that of ownership (ruo zai qinshu, bu gou zhudian, zih xing xinshu li 若在親屬，不拘主佃，止行親屬禮). In this way, the Ming abolished the status of serf. Landlord and tenant were thus dealt with as two partners in a business contract, and apart from the contract, had to follow all usual social obligations.
The Qing even forbade landowners in 1681 to treat peasants like serfs. Violation of this rule (fei fen yi ren 非分役人 "if [a landowner] does not distinguish [a tenant] from a serf") was punished by 60 blows with the heavy bamboo. In 1727, the Yongzheng administration forbade the landowning gentry to lure tenant farmers into debt traps (bu fa shenjin si zhi bangun shanzhe dianhu 不法紳衿私置板棍擅責佃戶). In the late 19th century, there were only a few prefectures left where farmers were serfs, like Huizhou 徽州 in Anhui, Yong'an 永安 in Fujian, and some places in Jiangxi and Zhejiang.
Yet in practice, landowners used their high social position to enforce their will by administrative right, clan right, and by religious rights. In some regions, the traditional serf system of tenant farmers (dianpu zhi 佃僕制) even persisted, mainly in the southern provinces of China, and particularly in the region of Huizhou 徽州, Anhui. Designations for serfs during the Ming and Qing periods were shipu 世僕, zhuangnu 莊奴, zhuangpu 莊僕, huodian 火佃, ximin 細民, banyu 伴余 or bandang 伴儅. They generally lived in poorer conditions than regular tenant farmers and had to deliver a multitude of services to the landowners. Their status was, moreover, practically inheritable, which made it nearly impossible to leave this social position.
From the mid-Qing period on, this obligation of "special services" (fenwai zhi zheng 分外之征) was gradually replaced by payment of compensatory fees (called jiuzi 酒資 or xiaofei 小費) paid to landowners. In some cases, peasants could buy themselves free from serfdom. The Yongzheng Emperor 雍正帝 (r. 1722-1735) declared that if written contracts allowing serfdom did not exist, the landlords had no legal right to utilize the labour services of tenant farmers, nor could the latter receive welfare by their masters (bu shou zhujia huanyang 不受主家豢養). In 1809, several ten thousand tenant farmers in southern Anhui were officially liberated from serfdom. Similar liberations took place in 1825.
The nature of tenancy contracts changed during the early Qing period. The widespread quota-rent system (fenchengzu zhi) that was geared to the harvest yield was gradually replaced by the fixed-rate rent system (ding'ezu zhi) which corresponds to a modern leasehold system. The disadvantage of this system was that the tenant had to pay the rent even in years of crop failure. Apart from the payment rate, the payment of the rent in the shape of delivering grain was slowly replaced by payment in money. Quite surprising is that even in the 1930s, only 16 per cent of tenancy contracts in Jiangsu accounted the rent in money, and only 10 per cent in Zhejiang and Anhui (Bao 1992).
Yet two novel systems of tenancy contracts emerged, namely the tenancy security system (yazuzhi 押租制), and the "right of eternal use" (yongdian quan 永佃權). In the security system, the tenant farmers paid in the beginning of the contract period a certain security (xinqian 信錢, yajiao 押腳, jijiao 基腳, dianjin 墊金, dingshou 頂首) to the landowner to stand good for years when not being able to pay the rent. The system had its origin in the province of Fujian during the Wanli reign-period 萬歷 (1573～1620) and was found in nearly all provinces around 1800. Generally spoken, the height of the security was adapted to the height of the annual rent, but in many places widely surpassed the latter. It was normally accounted and paid in money, not in kind. The tenant could not expect to be given interest on the principsal when the latter was paid back at the end of the contract period. This fact, and because the security itself was somehow extorted from the tenant, and because some landowners refused to pay it pack at the end of the tenancy period, the security was usually called "spoiled pawn" (lanya 爛押). The system was still widespread during the Republican period.
The "right of eternal (i.e. long-term) use" (local terms tianmian 田面, tianpi 田皮, tianjiao 田腳, shuimiao 水苗 or shuizu 水租) guaranteed a tenant farmer that in case the landowner sold the land the tenancy contract would endure until the end of the contract period, regardless of who was the new owner of the soil. While the ownership of "land ground" (tiandi quan 田底權) might change, the farmer had contractual rights of use of the "land surface" (tianmian quan 田面權), and might even sublease the land. The right had its origin in the Song period, but became widespread only in the 16th century, and was quite common in southern provinces during the Qing period. In the 1930s, 44 per cent of tenant farmers in Anhui, 40 per cent in Jiangsu, and 30 per cent in Zhejiang, were protected by the "right of eternal use" (Bao 1992). Even if the “right of eternal use” did not reduce the rent and various other means of exploitation, this form of contract made the personal lives and economic planning much easier for the farmers.
As a special rule, it was allowed that the sons and younger brothers of tenant farmers participate in the so-called local apprentice examinations (tongzi shi 童子試), the first level of the state examinations. When the government proclaimed a tax waiver, 70 per cent were accounted on the landowner's duties, and 30 per cent on that of the tenant farmer (Jiang 1995).
The imperial governments then and when interfered into the contract relation between landlords and tenant farmers. The Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368) once ordered to reduce the rent. The same did the Qing dynasty several times. On the other hand, the central government was interested in the support of the landowners as a group of intermediaries between the district magistrates – the lowest stratum of administration – and the populace. A Southern Song-period 南宋 (1127-1279) document gives evidence of lawsuits of landowners against tenant farmers owing their rents (qian zu 欠租). In 1727, the Qing court issued a set of disciplinary regulations (chufen tiaowen 處分條文) to punish tenants in arrears legally. In the second half of the 19th century, so-called "rent stations" (zuzhan 租棧) were founded, some of them run by the government, and some private and organized by landowners. They operated as "agricultural houses" (tianye gonghui 田業公會) and supported landowners in the collection of rents or took over the duty as a proxy institution on behalf of the landlords. The Houses were paid from the collected rent. They survived into the Republican period, mainly in the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang.
In the eyes of Communists, the landowners constituted a "reactionary" class exploiting tenant farmers (boxue nongmin 剝削農民) with various methods, and to various extent. The abolition of the class of landowners by force or re-education was one of the first political actions of the Communist Party after the foundation of the People's Republic in 1949. The land reform programme or "land reform movement" (tudi gaige yundong 土地改革運動) included the re-distribution of cultivable land also to the former landowners, making them part of production cooperatives (shengchan hezuoshe 生产合作社), and later also of people's communes (renmin gongshe 人民公社).
The Communists discerned between various types of landowners, namely big landlords (da dizhu 大地主), middle and lesser landlords (zhongxiao dizhu 中小地主), bankrupt landlords (pochan dizhu 破產地主), eminent landlords (haoshen dizhu 豪紳地主), warlord-landlords (junfa dizhu 軍閥地主), landlords of local family clusters (zongzu dizhu 宗族地主), evil landlords (eba dizhu 惡霸地主, exploitative or cruel), "normal" or small-scale landlords (yiban dizhu 一般地主, shumin dizhu 庶民地主), entrepreneurial landlords (jingying dizhu 經營地主, shanggu dizhu 商賈地主), absentee landlords (buzai dizhu 不在地主) or sublease landlords (er dizhu 二地主, tianmian dizhu 田面地主). While landowners living on the rent were in the possession of more than 50 per cent of cultivable fields in "old (i.e. pre-1949) China", they constituted but 4-5 per cent of the rural population (Zhou et al. 1998). Entrepreneurial landlords did not live primarily on the rent of their land, but to a substantial part from other business, like providing credit (fangzhai 放債), hiring labourers (gugong 雇工) for various tasks, or ran workshops, pawnshops, taverns, or merchant business.