Who Were the Peasants in Ancient China?

Peasants in ancient China were mostly farmers and merchants. Farmers were respected for the food they supplied to the nation, but merchants were considered especially lowly and were prohibited from wearing silk or riding in carriages. Farmers paid taxes on their crops and spent a month every year working for the government in the military or on construction projects.

Farmers typically lived in small villages and owned small farms. Wealthier farmers owned oxen and plows, but most farmers had to work by hand.

Under Mongol rule, the Chinese peasants enjoyed privileges that were previously denied to them, receiving tax remissions and support for rural cooperatives. The Mongols believed that a strong peasant economy was beneficial in the long run, as it would generate tax revenues. They standardized and fixed taxes, allowing peasants to predict their taxes accurately. In the cooperatives, village leaders were responsible for guiding and maintaining basic standards of living, whether they opened the granaries during times of famine or helped plant trees.

In theory, peasants had historically unprecedented access to social mobility. To become a government official, all men had to do was pass a series of exams that were open to everyone. However, it was difficult for peasants to receive the education they needed, and only the wealthy were able to afford schools.