How Much Were People’s Lives Worth in the Ming Dynasty?

How much was a human life worth in the Ming dynasty? I mean literally, how much money did a life cost? Although one might wonder whether such a question is even a valid one (how can we quantify the value of a human life?), my recent reading of some official correspondence has led me to believe that part of this question can be answered.

The Ming state regularly paid money to reward soldiers who killed or captured rebels in battles, encourage former rebels to surrender, and (less frequently, it seems) redeem captured Ming subjects whose lives were in danger. As it turns out, some extant sources record not only the amount of silver paid for such endeavors, but also the differing prices assigned to people of different gender and age. They do not reflect the economic value of an individual on the labor market, but they do, in a way, show how much the state was willing to pay for the lives (or deaths) of law-abiding subjects and/or dangerous rebels.

Below is a list of numbers that I have found through a very random reading (skimming) of the writings of Ming officials. Some of my following descriptions might turn out to be wrong after more thorough reading and further research, but I thought I would share my notes here, as I’d be interested to hear what others think. Obviously there will be regional and chronological variations, but so far I find the numbers to be surprisingly consistent. Some speculative and bold conclusions based on the sources that I have seen so far:

  • An adult male was worth about 1-5 taels?
  • Women were worth about half of men, and children were worth even less?
  • A horse might have been worth more than a man?

… Or am I getting something wrong? We’ll see when I find more materials in the future…


The Numbers

The head of a bandit/rebel: 1 tael, 1 3 taels, 2 5 taels 3

A bandit/rebel captured alive: 0.2-2 taels 4

  • Main bandit: 2 taels
  • Minor bandit: 1 tael
  • Woman: 0.5 tael
  • Male or female child: 0.2 tael

Money given to bandits/rebels who surrendered: 1-3 taels 5

  • Strong person (man?): 3 taels
  • Old or young person: 1 tael
  • Person who came with a strong horse: 10 taels
  • Person who came with a weak horse: 5 taels

Ransom for buying back captured Ming subjects: about 3 taels per person 6

  • The exact amount was to be determined after further discussion, but the memorializer suggested that men of ages 16-60 were to be worth twice as much as women, the old, and the weak.

The Sources

  1. 李化龍 (1554-1611) 平播全書 堵截事 (四庫存目叢書 15.2a): “我兵微有斬獲威勢。亦振全賞半賞。如議支給。一級賞銀一兩。”

  2. 盧象昇 (1600-1638) 盧象昇疏牘 鼓練鄉勇 (明末清初史料選刊 p. 64): “鄉兵殺賊。與官兵一體給賞。殺真賊首級一顆。賞銀三兩。斬獲小頭目一名。賞銀十五兩。斬獲大頭目一名。賞銀三十兩。”

  3. 李化龍 平播全書 縣購規則疏 (四庫存目叢書 2.10a-15b): “查例苗級一顆。賞銀五兩。今加倍。應賞銀十兩。”

  4. 李化龍 平播全書 俘獲賞格 (四庫存目叢書 10.21a-22b): “但生擒一名。解驗的實。首賊賞銀二兩。從賊一兩。婦女每口五錢。幼男女每口二錢。”

  5. 楊嗣昌 (1588-1641) 楊文弱先生集 上宰相書 (續修四庫全書 45.13a-16a): “收降亦自有法。朝廷但給萬金。付遼撫鎭。聽其自來。強壯賞銀三兩。老小賞銀一兩。拐馬來者。臕壯賞銀十兩。疲弱賞銀五兩。”

  6. 張岳 (1492-1552) 小山類稿 乞立存活被虜人口賞格疏 (四庫全書 5.1a-3a): “男女長幼相折補。每口用銀。大約三兩。則銀一千兩。可活三百餘口… 能送出被虜人口數多。男子十六嵗以上至六十嵗。一口准一功。老弱婦女。二口准一功。”

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