The Door-Tablet (門牌)

The following is an excerpt from A view of China for philological purposes, containing a sketch of Chinese chronology, geography, government, religion & customs (1817) written by the Scottish missionary Robert Morrison.

In the Chinese Government, there appears great regularity and system. Every district has its appropriate officer; every street its constable, and every ten houses a tything-man. They have all the requisite means of ascertaining the population with considerable accuracy.

Every family is required to have a board, always hanging up in the house, and ready for the inspection of authorised officers, on which the name of all persons, men, women, and children, in the house is inscribed. This board is called a 門牌 ménpái, 'door-tablet', because, where there are women and children within, the officers are expected to take the account from the board, at the door. Were all the inmates of a family faithfully inserted, the amount of the population would of course be ascertained with great accuracy. But it is said, this is not the case. Names are often omitted, and the officers pass it over, either from neglect, or from some consideration given them by the head of the family, who, according to his situation in the community, has various reasons to represent his family fewer than what it is. One reason said to operate sometimes is, that in urgent cases a conscription of every third male, able to bear arms, has been made by the government. That, however, was an ancient regulation, and is not applicable to the present Dynasty, which keeps up a constant standing army. Every Tartar is a soldier. Other say, that amongst the poor, who constitute the mass of the population in every country, the ménpái, or account of persons given in, is generally correct. To be the reverse, exposes them to information and to much trouble.

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