Retainers or clients (binke 賓客, congshishi 從事史, menke 門客, menshen 門生, moushi 謀士, sheren 舍人, shike 食客, yishike 衣食客) were clients and supporters of influential persons. Against board and lodging, retainers offered advice and skills to their patron. Some of these "housemen" were kinsmen of their patron.
The high tide of consultant retainers (moushi) was the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE), when wandering advisors provided the rulers of regional states (zhuhou 諸侯) or influential persons political strategies and plans. Particularly famous for the skills of his retainers was Lord Mengchang 孟嘗君 (died c. 280 BCE) of the regional state of Qi 齊 (11th cent. - 221 BCE). He won reputation and popular support, for instance, through the advice of Feng Xuan 馮諼.
Warring States period retainers were well known as adherents of certain philosophical schools, like Confucianism (rujia 儒家) or legalism (fajia 法家), or masters in diplomacy or the forging of coalitions. The most famous diplomatists (zonghengjia 縱橫家) were Zhang Yi 張儀 (d. 310 BCE) and Su Qin 蘇秦 (late 4th cent. BCE). Retainers were often entrusted with missions on behalf of their patrons, and thus took over important political functions. Lord Pingyuan 平原君 (d. 251 BCE) from the state of Zhao 趙, for example, was accompanied by twenty retainers during a mission to the kingdom of Chu 楚.
The number of retainers a patron fed run in the thousands. Lü Buwei 呂不韋 (d. 253 BCE), a rich merchant who engineered the dynastic succession of the state of Qin 秦, is said to have nourished three thousand retainers.
Mensheng was a term used for the disciples (dizi 弟子) of Confucian scholars during the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE). Acceptance as "disciple" of a Confucian master required expertise in the Confucian Classics. For this reason, government and private schools became more widespread in many parts of the empire. Yet the relationship between master and disciple (in modern terms, guanxi 關係) was often just an important prerequisite for eventually obtaining an office, which mainly happened via recommendation. Huan Rong 桓榮 (1st cent. CE), Chamberlain for Ceremonials (taichang 太常), nourished several hundred "disciples" or retainers. Among these, Ding Hong 丁鴻 (d. 94 CE) rose to the post of Chamberlain for the Palace Revenues (shaofu 少府). Ding had several thousand retainers himself. Lou Wang 樓望 (21-100 CE), Chamberlain for the National Treasury (da sinong 大司農) and Chamberlain for Ceremonials, even fed more than 9,000 persons.
In the later decades of the Eastern Han, distinguished families (menfa 門閥) won polical influence. They kept many retainers over several generations. The most famous of them were the Yang family from Hongnong 弘農楊氏 and the Yuan family from Runan 汝南袁氏. "Disciple" retainers often disbursed high sums to enter the service of a powerful family, and supported them in many fields of their activities, even in illegal ones, as the examples of the eunuch Wang Fu 王甫 shows who instructed his retainers to sell official posts for luxurious prices. It was common for retainers to behave to their patron like sons to a father, including a three-year period of mourning when the patron died. In the very late Eastern Han period, retainers were used to create private armies (buqu 部曲) against bandits and rebels like the Yellow Turbans (huangjin 黃巾).
During the Southern and Northern Dynasties period 南北朝 (300~600), the term mensheng was used in the sense of menke "retainer" (literally "house guest") and had totally lost the meaning of "scholarly disciple". The institution of private armies remained, as well as the custom to buy one's way into the household of a politically influential person.
Retainers of the Southern Dynasties 南朝 (420-589) served in the private armies, and were assembled in large numbers. Liu Huaizhen 劉懷珍 from the Southern Qi period 南齊 (479-502), for instance, kept a private guard (suwei 宿衛) of no less than 1,000 men, and famous politician and poet Xie Lingyun 謝靈運 (385-433) had an army of several hundred men. Among the more than 1,000 retainers of Xu Zhanzhi 徐湛之 (410-453), most hailed from rich, but necessarily influential families in the southeast. To bring an example of recommendation and promotion, the case of Xie An 謝安 (320-385) might serve well. When he was a cavalry commander under general Huan Wen 桓溫 (312-373), he was able to bring several dozen of his retainers into official posts.
With the introduction of the civil examination system, the word mensheng was used by graduates of the provincial and metropolitan examination referring to themselves when speaking with the chief examiner (zhukao guan 主考官). The word had lost any sense of dependency, but had regained the meaning of a person who was learning from another one. During the Song period 宋 (960-1279), graduates of the palace examination even called themselves "disciples of the Son of Heaven" (tianzi mensheng 天子門生). The practice of graduates to use the word mensheng was forbidden many times.
The word sheren 舍人 occurs in the ritual Classic Zhouli 周禮, where it is mentioned as an office caring for the grain supply of the imperial palace.
From the Han period on, the term sheren was used for minor officials in certain institutions. The Grand and Junior Mentor of the Heir Apparent (taizi taifu 太子太傅, taizu shaofu 太子少傅) as well as the Empress and Princesses were served by sheren. Yet the word was at that time still used for private "housemen" of higher officials. General Wei Qing 衛青 (d. 105 BCE) for instance, kept one hundred retainers.
During the Wei 曹魏 (220-265), Jin 晉 (265-420) and Southern and Northern dynasties periods, sheren were secretaries or drafters in the offices of princes, dukes and generals. Under the Liang dynasty 梁 (502-557), sheren secretaries in the office of dukes occupied rank 3 (see official rank), but under the Northern Wei 北魏 (386-534), just rank 7b.
During that period, the posts of drafters (zhongshu sheren 中書舍人) or receptionists (zhongshu tongshi sheren 中書通事舍人) in the Palace Secretariat (zhongshusheng 中書省) were created, as well as that of secretaries of the Heir Apparent (taizi sheren 太子舍人).
The land quota system (zhantian zhi 占田制) of the Jin dynasty allowed members of eminent families (shizu 世族) to keep private, untaxed retainers (yin yishike 蔭衣食客) with a number depending on the official rank (guanpin mendi 官品門第) of the family. Officials or families of rank 6 and higher were allowed tax exemption for three retainers, those of ranks 7 and 8, for two, and families of rank 9 for one retainer.
The secretaries of central government agencies, princes and princesses had official rank 2-4. Emperor Xuanzong 唐玄宗 (r. 712-755) of the Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907) abolished the posts of secretary of a princedom (wangfu sheren 王府舍人). In the eastern wing of the imperial palace, the Heir Apparent was served by four secretaries (zhong sheren 中舍人) of rank 6a belonging to the Right Secretariat of the Heir Apparent (you chunfang 右春坊). The staff of the imperial archive included secretaries for the imperial diary (qiju sheren 起居舍人). Many of these offices were just nominal during the 9th and 10th centuries, yet endowed with a salary (jiluguan 寄祿官). The terms zhongshu sheren and tongshi sheren were used until the end of the imperial period, for instance, for petty officials in the Grand Secretariat (neige 內閣).