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3.9: Surveillance and Law

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    Sixth. Taxation and labor duties formed one major nexus of interaction between state and society; earned social rank another; and Qin further built on earlier practices in the states to create new arrangements for state control over population and crime. The warring states had developed written laws (some have been excavated, written on strips of bamboo), legal processes, concern with accurate records of population, etc. Each county magistrate in most states had to submit an annual report, carved on a wooden block, that included field measurements; numbers of people of each age, generation, and occupation; granary holdings; and the details of security arrangements. These reports were not used only to control the working population, but also to monitor the weather and harvest. The Qin Statutes on Agriculture decreed:

    Whenever the rain is beneficial and affects the grain in ear, a report in writing is to be made concerning the favored crop and the grain in ear, as well as the acreage of cultivated fields and areas without crops. Whenever it rains when the crop is already fully grown, the quantity of rain and acreage affected should still be reported in writing. Likewise, in cases of drought and violent wind or rain, floods, or hordes of grasshoppers or other creatures that damage the crops, the acreage concerned is always to be reported in writing. Nearby commanderies: have lightfooted runners deliver the letter! Distant commanderies: have the courier service deliver it! – by the end of the eighth month.12

    Reporting also closely monitored officials. The state structure included supervisors and inspectors, and standards of salary (in kind, not in cash), promotion, and demotion. In theory, Qin officials had to report in detail every single thing they did. Excavated (preserved) primary sources show that four separate signatures were required for grain coming in to a granary.

    The Zhou king’s control had stopped with the feudal lords, but the Qin central government aimed to control each individual citizen, making everyone adhere to the same code of law. Even before Shang Yang, Qin had put people into mutual responsibility groups, called “groups of five.” They were responsible for watching one another, and reporting crimes in the group. This was a war on crime – as Sima Qian explains of Shang Yang’s reforms:

    Anyone who failed to report criminal activity would be chopped in two at the waist, while those who reported it would receive the same reward as that for obtaining the head of an enemy. Anyone who actively hid a criminal would be treated the same as one who surrendered to the enemy.

    (Do you remember the reward for a head and the punishment for surrender?) People had to request official permission to move or change their occupation. Merchants, because they moved around and did not produce, were highly suspect, and Qin registered merchants and deported them from towns to serve as soldiers on the frontiers.

    Was Qin really able to control people this closely? Not in every case – there was a lot of variation in practice, as always. But the level of control was impressive. For instance, travelers were required to show identification at a number of points along the roads, and actual travel permits for Qin citizens have now been excavated, including one for a five-year-old. Excavated tax accounts show that local headmen tracked exactly whether each group of 2-5 households had paid taxes and done their labor service, along with how much of the tax in hay they had paid in cash instead of in kind. Population registers were so widespread and effective that they entered the realm of religion: gods tracked the deeds of the living and the souls of the dead.

    Qin punishments were harsh. They included death by boiling in a cauldron, and bodily mutilations such as cutting off the nose, branding the head, tattooing the face, and removing ribs. One could be flogged for littering in the streets of the capital. A person’s relatives were held guilty alongside him, as were his “group of five” if they had not reported his crime. Another punishment was penal servitude, which provided a lot of labor for the state; one register from the year 213, after the conquest contains a list of 4,376 bondservants in one place, male and female. Such state violence was brutal, indeed.

    But besides harshness, there is another side to Qin law that underlines the revolutionary nature of the reforms. First, the laws were the same for everyone (except the royal family), former aristocrat and commoner alike. Second, the legal process aimed at fairness and impartiality. That is confirmed by laws and regulations written on bamboo strips have recently been excavated from Qin graves.13 Third, Qin law valued human life. Unfilial behavior was a capital crime, but so was maiming or killing a child. That makes sense: parents and children were both state assets. Likewise, Qin edicts express values like ‘caring for the people’ and protecting them from too much state exploitation, and values like ‘sincerity’ and ‘benevolence’ appear in officials’ seal-names. Even the Legalist Qin needed the idea of virtue to hold the system together. We will see that no regime can last long without both organization and ideology.

    When the Duke Xian of Qin, Shang Yang’s patron, died in 338, the nobles’ bitter hatred for Shang Yang erupted. They accused him of making trouble for the state and he fled. He sought shelter for the night in a tiny backwoods inn. The innkeeper did not recognize him, but turned him away: the new laws set up by Lord Shang, he said, forbade admitting a man without a travel permit… Shang Yang raised troops from his own estate to oppose the central armies he had worked so hard to build up, but he was defeated. His corpse was tied to four chariots and torn apart as the horses were driven in opposite directions, and his entire family was killed.

    This page titled 3.9: Surveillance and Law is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Sarah Schneewind (eScholarship) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform.

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