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。”


Reference Works on Literary Collections from Tang to Qing

This is a list of reference works on Chinese literary collections (wenji) that I collected over the past few years, when I was tentatively thinking about writing my dissertation on the publication process of wenji. Although I no longer work on this topic currently, I do hope to come back to it some time in the future. Meanwhile, I hope this list will be of use to others who make use of wenji sources regularly. A PDF file of the same list can be downloaded here.

Some points to note:

  • This bibliography lists reference works on Chinese literary collections (wenji 文集). The focus is on individual anthologies (bieji 別集) that collect the writings of single authors; excluded from the list are works on general anthologies (zongji 總集) that collect writings by multiple individuals.

  • The works collected in here fall into one of the following categories: a) explanations on typical genres found in literary collections; b) bibliographies of extant editions; c) abstracts to known literary collections; and d) indexes to major literary collections, either by the title of each piece or by the topic of its content.

  • In compiling the list, I have been aided by Endymion Wilkinson’s Chinese History, A Manual (2000 edition, Section 30: “Literary Anthologies and Collected Works”).

  • I have tried to be comprehensive, but the list is stronger for the Yuan and Ming dynasties, and particularly weak on the Tang dynasty. I would very much appreciate suggestions on other relevant works.

Part One: Notes on Genres and Literary Forms

  • Edwards, E. D. “A Classified Guide to the Thirteen Classes of Chinese Prose.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 12, no. 3/4 (1948): 770–88.

  • Hartwell, Robert M. “A Guide to Documentary Sources of Middle Period Chinese History: Documentary Forms Contained in the Collected Papers (wen-chi) of Twenty-One T’ang and Sung Writers.” Bulletin of Sung-Yuan Studies 18 (1986): 133–82.

Part Two: Bibliographies, Annotations, and Indexes


  • Wan Man 萬曼. Tang ji xulu 唐集叙錄. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1980.

  • Chen Bohai 陳伯海 and Zhu Yi’an 朱易安. Tang shi shulu 唐詩書錄. Jinan: Qi Lu shushe, 1988.


  • Saeki Tomi 佐伯富. Sōdai bunshū sakuin 宋代文集索引. Kyoto: Kyoto daigaku tōyōshi kenyūkai, 1970.

  • Yoshida Tora 吉田寅 and Tanada Naohiko 棚田直彦. Nihon genson Sōjin bunshū mokuroku 日本現存宋人文集目錄. Tokyo: Kyūko shoin, 1972.

  • Sichuan daxue guji zhengli yanjiusuo 四川大學古籍整理研究所. Xiancun Song ren bieji banben mulu 現存宋人別集版本目錄. Chengdu: Bashu shushe, 1989.

  • Zhu Shangshu 祝尚書. Song ren bieji xulu 宋人別集叙錄. 2 vols. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1999.

  • Wang Lan 王岚. Song ren wenji bianke liuchuan congkao 宋人文集编刻流传丛考. Nanjing: Jiangsu guji chubanshe, 2003.


  • Yamane Yukio 山根幸夫 and Ogawa Takashi 小川尚. Nihon genson Genjin bunshū mokuroku 日本現存元人文集目錄. Tokyo: Kyūko shoin, 1970.

  • Lu Junling 陸峻嶺. Yuan ren wenji pianmu fenlei suoyin 元人文集篇目分類索引. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1979.

  • Zhou Qingshu 周清澍. Yuan ren wenji banben mulu 元人文集版本目录. Nanjing: Nanjing daxue, 1983.

  • Huang Rensheng 黄仁生. Riben xiancang xijian Yuan Ming wenji kaozheng yu tiyao 日本现藏稀见元明文集考证与提要. Changsha: Yuelu shushe, 2004.


  • Wolfgang Franke. An Introduction to the Sources of Ming History. Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1968.
    (Provides abstracts to select individual collections that contain significant numbers of memorials.)

  • Yamane Yukio 山根幸夫. Zōtei Nihon genson Minjin bunshū mokuroku 増訂日本現存明人文集目錄. Tokyo: Tōkyo joshi daigaku Tōyōshi Kenkyūshitsu and Kyūko shoin, 1978.

  • Cui Jianying 崔建英. Ming bieji banben zhi 明別集版本志. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2006.

  • Hanxue yanjiu zhongxin 漢學研究中心. Ming ren wenji lianhe mulu ji pianmu suoyin 明人文集聯合目錄及篇目索引.
    (List of extant editions in Taiwan and full-text search of table of contents.)


  • Zhang Shunhui 張舜徽. Qing ren wenji bielu 清人文集別錄. 2 vols. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1969.

  • Nishimura Genshō 西村元照. Nihon genson Shinjin bunshū mokuroku 日本現存清人文集目錄. Kyoto: Tōyōshi kenkyūkai, 1972.

  • Ke Yuchun 柯愈春. Qing ren shiwenji zongmu tiyao 清人詩文集總目提要. Beijing: Beijing guji chubanshe, 2002.

  • Wang Zhongmin 王重民 and Yang Dianxun 楊殿珣. Qing dai wenji pianmu fenlei suoyin 清代文集篇目分類索引. Beijing: Beijing tushuguan, 2003.


  • Wang Minxin 王民信. Zhongguo lidai shiwen bieji lianhe shumu 中國歷代詩文别集聯合書目. 14 vols. Taipei: Lianhe bao wenhua jijinhui guoxue wenxianguan, 1981.
    (Bibliography of extent editions in major Taiwan libraries.)

  • Luan Guiming 欒貴明. Siku jiben bieji shiyi 四庫輯本别集拾遺. 2 vols. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1983.
(Corrects omissions in titles that were originally reconstructed from Yongle dadian 永樂大典.)

  • Zhonghua wenhua fuxing yundong tuixing weiyuanhui 中華文化復興運動推行委員會. Siku quanshu wenji pianmu fenlei suoyin 四庫全書文集篇目分類索引. Taipei: Shangwu shuju, 1989.

  • Chŏn In-ch’o 全寅初. Hanguo suo cang Zhongguo hanji zongmu 韓國所藏中國漢籍總目. 6 vols. Seoul: Xuegu fang, 2005.
    (Look for Vol. 5, Literatures section – jibu 集部.)

趣文共賞 How to Shame a Friend into Lending You a Book

Note: This post is part of a series where I reproduce random sources that I find interesting, with minimal annotation and commentary. Punctuation and translation (if given) are done by me unless otherwise stated. Corrections and comments are greatly appreciated.

This is a letter by the mid-Ming literatus and official Gu Qing 顧清 (1460-1528) asking an unnamed friend to lend Gu some books from his collection. I have read other letters that either request or decline book-lending, but this is my first time to see one that takes the form of such a carefully-structured literary composition. As you can see, Gu starts with a long discussion on the “lendability” of books before finally making the actual request. His cunning praise of the friend at the end makes me wonder how any recipient of such a letter could have declined his request. Now the question to me is, did Gu Qing write the letter in this way really to persuade his friend into lending him the books, or is this more of a literary exercise, where Gu is showing off his writing skills?

Source: Gu Qing 顧清, Dongjiang jiacang ji 東江家藏集, Siku quanshu edition, 25.3a-4b.