Huangce 黃冊 "yellow registers" served during the Ming 明 (1368-1644) and Qing 清 (1644-1911) periods to provide basic data for taxation (fu 賦) and recruitment for corvée (yaoyi 徭役). They were therefore also called fuyi huangce 賦役黃冊 "yellow registers for taxation and labour recruitment". The terms huji huangce 戶籍黄册 "yellow household registers", hukou ce 戶口冊 "household registers" and min huangce 民黄册 "yellow registers of the (farming) population" were also in use.
The name is derived from the custom to cover some of the registers with yellow paper envelopes. These were the copies sent to the Ministry of Revenue (hubu 戶部). Three other copies remained in the province and were distributed to the provincial administration commissioner (buzhengsi 布政司), the prefecture (fu 府), and the district (xian 縣). They were covered with blue envelopes, and were therefore also known as "blue registers" (qingce 青冊). Another explanation of the term huangce says that "yellow" was the colour of new-born babies, and the word therefore use as a term for "people".
The term huangce was also used for certain documents of the imperial genealogy (yudie 玉牒). They were archived in the Imperial Genealogy Section (huangdangfang 黄檔房) of the Court of the Imperial Clan (zongrenfu 宗人府). In 1652, the Qing government ordered that all children born by the imperial family Gioro (Jueluo 覺羅) and in the imperial house (zongshi 宗室) were to be registered, along with the titles of nobility obtained, and the state offices the male members of the family had occupied. The registers were recorded by each individual Banner and then submitted to the Court of the Imperial Clan. Data of members of the Gioro family were recorded in red registers (hongce 紅冊), and that of the house, i.e. princes and princesses, in yellow registers.
Apart from the yellow registers, the authorities compiled white registers (baice 白冊) for the Ministry of Revenue. They recorded the real tax revenue collected from the villages, and the labour corvée delivered to the state – or compensation by payment of money.
The first set of yellow registers was compiled in 1370, but the outcome was not satisfying. The court therefore decided in 1381 to apply a new self-administration system in the villages, the lijia system 里甲. According to this system, 110 households were combined to one "village" (li 里) that was supervised by ten headmen (zhang 長, also translated as "tax captains") selected from among the richest households. The remaining hundred households were grouped in to ten tithings (jia 甲). The yellow registers were compiled with the help of the headmen, and structured with the help of the tithing system. The size and location of fields was clarified by maps drawn as so-called fish-scale registers (yulin ce 魚鱗冊). These two types of registers were to be revised once in each decade, in the so-called "arrangement year" (painian 排年). Normal years were called "running years" (dangnian 當年). The basis year 1381 was called dazao (zhi) nian 大造之年 "year of the great creation". The combination of the yellow registers with the fish-scale registers was the most exact record of field ownership until that date. With the help of them, it would be nearly impossible to hide land from taxation.
The tax captains thus took over the collection of taxes, the organization of labour groups, checked the correct data of each household (for cases of new grown-ups or deaths), and also arranged for the arrest of bandits.
The registers recorded the number of household members, the size of arable fields, ponds, orchards, barns etc. and animals, the type of household (farmers minhu 民戶, soldiers junhu 軍戶, salt producers zaohu 灶戶 or craftsmen jianghu 匠戶) and the tax class (shuize jibie 税則紀别). The data set of a single household was called qingce gongdan 清冊供單 "exact registers providing [data on each] unit", the data sets of a whole village were known as "charts" (tu 圖), and included maps and tabular listings. Households not liable for taxation, like those consisting of widows, orphans or lone people, were also registered, but in an appendix for "remaining households" (jiling hu 畸零戶). The type of household was important, as the tax duties and the duty to deliver labour service to the government changed from profession to profession. Accordingly, the authorities grouped the registers into such of craftsmen (jiangji ce 匠籍冊), salt producers (zaoji ce 灶籍冊), soldiers (junji ce 軍籍冊), etc.
Tax-paying households were divided into three classes, depending on the size and the income from the fields.
Yellow registers were not only used for taxation or large-scale local projects requiring a huge amount of labour force, as can be seen in the Hegong baoxiao ce 河工報銷冊 or Gongcheng tuce 工程圖冊, but also for statistical data for the state examinations (xianghuishi lu 鄉會試錄) or the recommendation of competent persons for appointment (timing lu 題名錄, see tribute students).
The "clear registers" included information about the names and age of each household member (dingkou 丁口), the origin of the family (jiguan 籍貫), the size of fields and "means of production" (orchards, ponds, draft animals), the type of household (peasant, craftsmen, merchant, salines, soldiers, etc.), and the revenue or yield. They were structured like a booking account, with four posts or "columns" (sizhu 四柱), namely old sum carried forward (jiuguan 舊管), new income (xinshou 新收), new expenses (kaichu 開除), and sum or remainders (shizai 實在).
From 1668 on a new type of registers came into use that was revised annually. These were called dingkou cengjian ce 丁口增減冊 "registers recording changes in household members" and replaced the yellow registers.
The yellow registers of the whole empire were during the Ming period stored in the Yellow Registers Archive (huangceku 黃冊庫) that was once located on the islets of Lake Houhu 後湖 (today Lake Xuanwu 玄武湖) in the first Ming capital Nanjing 南京, Jiangsu. Each round of compilation, 60,000 new registers were compiled throughout the empire, and were sent to the Ministry of Revenue, which collected the documents and had them archived in the Huangceku. Because both old and new registers were kept in the archive, it grew by 30 rooms every ten years. In the early Ming, there were two buildings with no more than nine rooms and 35 bookshelves. In 1602, the Archive was 667 rooms large (for 1.5 million registers) which were distributed over several islands of the Lake. It was strictly forbidden for non-authorized persons to approach the buildings, and they were protected by guards.
At the end of the Ming period, the archive included 1.78 million registers, and was thus the largest archive that had ever existed in premodern China.
In the early Ming, the Archive was administered by the Vice Minister of Revenue (hubu shilang 戶部侍郎), but when the capital was moved to Beijing, the Supervising Censor of Revenue in Nanjing (Nanjing huke jishizhong 南京戶科給事中) and a secretary of a bureau of the Ministry of Revenue (hubu qinglisi zhushi 戶部清吏司主事) became the heads of the institution. They were allowed to submit documents to the Emperor directly. The staff of the Archive – 200 to 300 persons large - included registrars and archivists, but also specialists for the preservation of the documents, as well as ferrymen and cooks. The archivists were from time to time supported by about 50 experts from the Directorate of Education (guozijian 國子監) who organized the exposure of the documents to sun and air (shailiang 曬晾) to prevent the decay of the paper.
The most intensive period was every ten years, when the new registers were compared with the old ones. This was the process of the "great investigation" (dacha 大查).
After 1644, the Archive was dissolved, and after a century or so of negligent administration and work, the documents were lost. A history of the Archive can be found in Zhao Weixian's 趙維賢 report Houhuzhi 後湖志 from the early 16th century.