The Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of History Department of History
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The “Free-floating Elements” in Early Imperial China — The Illicit Mobility of the Runaway Population and Bureaucratic Responses

Principal Investigator

TSE Wai Kit Wicky

Total Fund Awarded


Funding Source

RGC General Research Fund

Abstract of Project

This project aims at producing the first English book-length treatment of the historical phenomenon of the runaway population and its significance in early imperial China, roughly from the third century B.C. to the second century A.D. Among the various policies that the Qin and Han dynasties carried out to strengthen the unity of the empire, the household registration system was a crucial measure that underpinned the imperial governance and provided the essential data for the imperial state to calculate and collect taxes, and organize and mobilize able-bodied adults for armed services and other kinds of levies. In principle, through the household registration system the bureaucratic empire could exert direct control over its subjects and their physical mobility. Anyone who wanted to travel or move away from one’s registered residence must obtain official approval and do so with travel documents like a passport. The ideal would be for everybody to remain in the registered residence under the surveillance of the authorities. The empire did not always have its ways with its subjects, however. Beneath the façade of the unified empire, there were runaways like fugitives, absconders, vagabonds, hooligans, and outlaws who left their registered residence for work, evasion from tax, custody or arrest, and other reasons. While some of them moved around within the empire, others would even transgress the political borders and join the neighboring rival polities. The runaway population thus constituted the “free-floating elements”—a term that I adapt from the sociologist S. N. Eisenstadt’s concept of “free-floating resources” — since they broke away from the imperial control in pursuit of their own purposes or in service of other agencies. In this way, these free-floating elements jeopardized the political stability and social order of the Qin-Han empire, which responded by declaring statues and ordinances that sought to monitor, discourage, and control their movements. Building primarily upon the cases recorded in the recently excavated documents on wooden and bamboo slips, with supplementary materials from the received texts, this project aims to examine the activities of the runaway population and the legal sanctions that the imperial state instituted in response. This project thus spans over the fields of social, political, cultural, and legal histories of early imperial China. Its findings may also provide reference for comparative studies of state responses to runaway population and their illicit movement in a world historical context.

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