Housing issues in ancient China

By Bi Nan (China Daily)

Now you might think that real estate is a modern economic activity, but you would be very wrong. People have been buying and selling houses since ancient times. While it’s true that there weren’t many of these transactions, but even then restrictive policies did exist to better manage the process. What’s more, different eras had different policies.

Let’s take a look at some of the regulations.


A scene of Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu’s former residence in Chengdu.  [Photo by Chen Huafeng/Asianewsphoto]
1. Ask relatives or neighbors for consent


During the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24), when Empress Lv was in power, the court ruled that if a person wanted to buy a new house, the new one had to be adjacent to the old house.

The government mandated that each family had to register itself and its real estate assets.

If a neighbor caught somebody cheating then the person breaking the law was sent to prison and all his estate confiscated, with half going to the neighbor.

The aim of the restriction was to help government run things smoothly.

It was during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) that a new housing policy replaced the previous regulation. The new policy stated that anybody wanting to sell their house first had to ask their relatives and neighbors if they want to buy it.


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A Qing Dynasty residence belonging to a former official in Shanxi province [Photo/IC]
The Song Dynasty (960-1297), meanwhile, specified the regulation and required house sellers to first ask relatives, and then neighbors. The Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), on the other hand, added that relatives and neighbors must sign their consent on a piece of paper. This regulation lasted until Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), although in some parts of the country it continued until the Republic of China’s Minguo Era (1912-1949).


The result of this policy was that many people were unable to sell their properties as sometimes relatives or neighbors would refuse to cooperate with them. The purpose of the regulation was to keep the clan intact as property was treated as a legacy left by ancestors and selling it cause fight within the groups. Another goal was to reduce migration and control the society.


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An old hoto showing the Nanjing Road in Shanghai during the Minguo era in 1910s or 1920s.  [Photo/IC]
2. Buying house on mortgage in Minguo Era’s Shanghai


During the Minguo Era, buying a house through a mortgage became popular in Shanghai. Chen Cunren, a renowned TCM doctor, wanted to buy a house that was in the market for 25,000 silver dollars, but he only had 15,000, so he went to a money lender. The lender paid the rest of the amount and Chen paid the debt and interest to the lender.

It was not only the money lenders who were offering funds to individuals but also banks. An article published in the newspaper Shun Pao on March 4, 1936, said the volume of real estate trading in Shanghai was much bigger than other cities as people in Shanghai could buy a house on mortgage with a down payment of 30% to 40% to Chinese or foreign financing institutions.


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A statue of Bai Juyi stands at Lushan mountain in Jiangxi province [Photo/IC]
3. Bai Juyi: It’s hard to buy a house in Chang’an.


Tang Dynasty’s great poet Bai Juyi (772-846) was 32 years old when, in 803, he became a senior editor in the royal court with a monthly salary of 16,000 wen (one wen equals 0.5 yuan), a huge sum at that time. He rented a house in the eastern part of Chang’an city and settled down. Two years later, he wanted to bring his mother and brother from hometown to the capital city but the house was too small for three people and he didn’t have money to buy one then. So he went to nearby city Weinan and bought a house in rural area of Weinan as the house was much cheaper there. During each vacation, Bai Juyi rode a horse to Weinan and met his family.

In 807, when Bai Juyi was promoted as Hanlin Academician in the court in Chang’an, his monthly salary was 25,000 wen, but he still lived in a rented house. When his wage increased to more than 300,000 yuan, he rented a large house in the urban area of Chang’an. It was only in 821, when he was 50 years old, that he bought his first house in Chang’an. Later he wrote this in his poem: “Hanging around in the capital city for nearly 20 years before I got my own real estate to settle down.”


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A statue of Su Dongpo in Hangzhou City. [Photo by Zhu Yinwei/Asianewsphoto]
4. Su Dongpo: Pay debt for his father, relief for the poor instead of buying a house


Song Dynasty great litterateur Su Dongpo’s father Su Xun took the imperial competitive examinations many times, but failed on each occasion. It was only when Su Xun was more than 50 years old that he, under the recommendation of noted politician and scholar Ou Yangxiu, took up a job as a junior-level civil servant with 7 guan (strings) of copper as month salary. However, he bought a beautiful house valued at 8,000 guan in the capital city Kaifeng after borrowing a large amount of money from Su Xun’s elder brother Su Huan. Seven years after buying the property, Su Xun died and the responsibility to repay the debt fell on Su Dongpo and his younger brother Su Zhe.

Su Dongpo and Su Zhe, smarter than their father, both passed the imperial exam and became officials in the Song Dynasty. Su Dongpo had an annual income of over 1,000 guan, a big sum at that time, but he was unable to buy his own house as he had to repay his father’s debt.

When he was an official in Hangzhou, his wet nurse, his nephew’s wife, his grandnephews all followed him there, so he had to raise the whole family and pay the debt at the same time. He didn’t have much spare cash for a house yet.

When Su Dongpo moved to Mizhou, he was earning more than 2,000 guan a year, but he seemed to have little interest in buying a house. He thought that the money should be spent on things much needed. One year, a plague spread across Mizhou, Su donated 50 liang (2,500 g) gold to build several charity houses there to cure patients for free.

During his later years, Su Dongpo’s career took a tumble and he was exiled and his salary reduced. In 1084, when he was nearly 50 years old, he bought his first and only house in Yixing, Jiangsu province, to settle his family. But, just like his father, he couldn’t afford the price and so he borrowed 7,000 guan from his brother Su Zhe.

(via http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/culture/2016-10/19/content_27102969.htm)


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