In this painting from the Qing dynasty, men and children transplant new stalks. These farming families would have been governed locally by the Baojia system. Pictures on Tilling and Weaving; from a set of forty-six, ink and color on silk; after Qiao Ping-chen (c. 1650–1726).

The baojia, a subbureaucratic system of hierarchically organized households, was created in the eleventh century to relieve local authorities of law enforcement and administrative functions. The system’s efficiency peaked in the Ming and Qing dynasties and was revised in the Republican era (1912–1949) by the Nationalist Party (Guomindang) to suppress Communism and train people in democratic local self-government.

During the New Policies (xinzheng) era (1069–1076) of the Northern Song dynasty (960–1126), one of China’s greatest reform periods, statesman Wang Anshi (1021–1086) is credited with creating the baojia ??, a system that organized the people into a hierarchy in which ten households (hu) formed a bao, fifty bao formed a large bao (da bao), and ten large bao formed a du bao; at each level a headman was selected from the constituent members of the bao. Throughout its history the structure and nomenclature of the baojia would be slightly altered, but the basic form was that ten households formed a jia, and ten jia formed a bao. The baojia became one of the most important touchstones in discussions by Chinese officials on cost-effective local government during late imperial and Republic of China (1912–1949).

At times the baojia became a catchall for local government functions such as mutual surveillance, collective responsibility, policing, bandit suppression, tax collection, census taking, militia organization, and even democratic local self-government. Historical evidence suggests that although the baojia served these various subbureaucratic functions successfully at times, its implementation was often spotty or overlooked by county magistrates who were overburdened by the complex bureaucracy of local government.

Antecedents of the Baojia

Prior to the introduction of the baojia, China had a long and rich history of hierarchically organized subbureaucratic systems serving a variety of functions and structuring the state-society relationship. China’s earliest recorded local organizational system, best described by the philosopher Mencius (372–289 BCE), is commonly referred to as the well-field (jingtian) system and purportedly existed in the early Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BCE). In this system land was the property of the state, which allowed peasants to farm eight plots surrounding a ninth in exchange for the peasants communally farming the ninth plot and remitting the profits to the state. A more extensive local subbureaucratic system—and the first hierarchical one—is found in the Rites of Zhou (Zhouli). It describes a system, demographic rather than territorial like the well-field system, functioning as a mechanism for conscription, taxation, and corvee extraction (collecting unpaid labor due from a feudal vassal to his lord), as well as for local mediation, the supervision of schools, and the promotion of agricultural production. The last of the famous ancient subbureaucratic systems is described in the Guanzi (seventh century BCE). The major innovation of the Guanzi system was the concept of collective responsibility for community policing. That is, all members of the community were responsible for the conduct of each individual member.

After the unification of China by the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE) each succeeding dynasty until the Northern Song built upon the preceding dynasty’s subbureaucratic system with structural or functional alterations responding to changing historical conditions. Not until the early years of the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) was another major innovation introduced: the establishment of the “equal field” (juntian) system of land division, along with new tax and labor systems. The Tang system is notable for, among other things, being the first to require all households in China to register with the government—a key component of the later baojia system.

Baojia in the Ming and Qing Dynasties

After its development during the Northern and Southern Song (1127–1279) dynasties the baojia reached its mature form during the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing dynasties (1644–1912). During these two dynasties the baojia became, both in government writings and the minds of local magistrates, entangled with other subbureaucratic systems. These systems functioned below the official bureaucracy and organized families into hierarchical groupings designed to serve state purposes. Through the baojia the government co-opted family heads as representatives of the state. Through these family heads the baojia became responsible for keeping the peace through mutual surveillance, the pursuit and apprehension of criminals, and the settlement of local disputes. It also assumed the duties of village patrolling and self-defense and occasionally functioned as a military force, both offensive and defensive. It also served as an organization for tax collection, labor conscription, and census taking, which made it the most important system for government extraction of resources from the local levels of society. In addition to providing needed raw resources, whether physical or material, the baojia served many functions that the financially strapped Ming and Qing governments could not perform with remunerated officials—usually only one county magistrate, the lowest member of the official bureaucracy, was assigned to govern anywhere from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of people. Throughout these two dynasties the baojia became a key fixture in discussions on statecraft as the relatively small official bureaucracy struggled to govern a massive population with its limited resources. The baojia provided a popular answer as it forced the people to govern themselves and be responsible for their neighbors.

Baojia in Republican China

The victory of the Republican revolutionaries in 1912 brought an apparent end to the imperial baojia system as the new constitutional government was restructured to reflect modern world practices. In the 1920s and 1930s, however, the Nationalist Party (Guomindang ???) reverted to the baojia as a resource for Communist repression in the Bandit Extermination Campaigns (1930–1934) and as a vehicle for training the people in democratic local self-government in accordance with the plans of Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925) for a democratic China. Like statecraft thinkers before them, members of the Nationalist Party saw the baojia as a fairly inexpensive solution to fundamental problems of local governance. In the end, however, the reintroduction of the baojia failed to either suppress the Chinese Communist Party or foster local democratic government.

The baojia was finally abolished in 1951 as the new Communist government in Beijing banned its existence as a remnant of a “feudal” society; however, still struggling with the problem of governing the people in local areas without the massive expenditure required, the Communists turned to the “work unit” (danwei) to serve many of the functions handled by the imperial baojia system.

Further Reading

Ch’u T’ung-tsu. (1962). Local government in China under the Ch’ing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Dutton, M. R. (1992). Policing and punishment in China: From patriarchy to “the People.” New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hsiao Kung-chuan. (1960). Rural China: Imperial control in the nineteenth century. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Huang Liuhong. (1984). A complete book concerning happiness and benevolence: Fu-Hui Ch’uan Shu, a manual for local magistrates in seventeenth century China. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Kuhn, P. A. (1975). Local self-government under the republic: Problems of control, autonomy, and mobilization. In F. Wakeman Jr. & C. Grant (Eds.), Conflict and control in late imperial China (pp. 257–298). Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Lee, R. Xiaoqiu. (1949). The Pao-Chia system. Papers on China (3).193–224.

Liu, James. T. C. (1959). Reform in Sung China: Wang An-shih (1021–1086) and his New Policies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McKnight, B. E. (1992). Law and order in Sung China. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Mencius. (1970). The works of Mencius (J. Legge, Trans.). New York: Dover Publications.

Rickett, W. A. (1985). Guanzi: Political, economic, and philosophical essays from early China, a study and translation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wen Juntian. (1992). Zhongguo baojia zhidu [China’s baojia system]. Taipei, Taiwan: Shangwu yinshuguan. (Original work published 1935)

Source: Harris, Lane J.. (2009). Baojia. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 158–160. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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