Real Estate

The ease of being a landlord in the Song Dynasty

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Room for rent.

Housing prices - how high will they rise? Will they ever come down? Will rents ever catch up?

The housing market is a hot topic of conversation in Chinese media these days even outside the business section of the newspaper. Three of the four short anecdotal essays in this week's China Newsweek touch on housing prices; here's a piece that looks back at some famous landlords of history:

More envious of a landlord than an immortal

by Li Kaizhou / CN

If you're discussing the greatest landlords of all time, then you have to include Mr. Zheng Jianzhong of the later years of the Five Dynasties. The incredibly rich Mr. Zheng owned several thousand homes in Anlu County, Hebei, alone; the majority of the county's tens of thousands of inhabitants were his tenants. At the end of every month, people would gather outside the gate of Zheng Manor, bringing their rent money. That scene was awash in the clatter of strings of cash and the clamor of people's voices. Two thirds of the county's police force would be sent over to preserve order and to insure that the tenants would find no opportunity to start a fight with Mr. Zheng.

As described, the tenants were simply too numerous. If that group of men got impatient, they wouldn't have to resort to violence; each of them could simply spit on the ground, and Mr. Zheng would be soaked. If they each took a piss, Zheng Manor would have to look into flood-prevention measures. So Mr. Zheng did not dare to raise rent prices too high. While other areas were rising, his rents did not move, and if there were natural disasters that had some tenants in dire straits, he'd even knock off a bit of their rent. So although the Zheng family owned lots of houses, the rent they accumulated was not as astounding as you'd imagine. According to Spring and Autumn of the Ten States, it was just "tens of thousands" every year. The currency was a mess at the time; transactions in iron coins often took the form of piles and stacks, so the real value of "tens of thousands" was not necessarily all that great.

However, as a landlord in possession of so much real estate, even if income wasn't too high and there was a need to economize and save up for rainy days, day-to-day expenditure was no worry at all. Besides, landlords at that time just waited for their tenants to approach them; there was no need to put up ads all over. Usually, they'd just make a few rounds of inspection and collect the rent at the end of the month - it was leisurely and risk-free. So long as government policy did not change and there was no revolution that attempted to equalize the rich and the poor, this free and easy lifestyle could be sustained indefinitely. I looked up the Zheng family register and discovered that Zheng Jianzhong's son Zheng Shu and grandson Zheng Yifu were both state officials, and they took to officialdom like fish to water. But they did not get rid of their identities as landlords; they not only continued to rent out houses in Anlu County, but they constructed tenements in Kaifeng, Henan, as well, renting them out to scholars who came from far off to take exams. Of course, all this happened at the start of the Northern Song.

It is said that in the first year of Emperor Renzong of the Song, there was a landlord in Nanjing (today's Shangqiu, Henan) named Li. His name is unknown to history, but as he was second-born, we'll call him Li Xiao'er for the time being. Li Xiao'er owned just two houses. He lived in the first himself and rented out the second. However, because housing prices were skyrocketing at the time and rental prices were following them upward, the monthly rent he collected on that one property was enough for him to live on, and Li Xiao'er was quite content. Now one day, a strange man arrived at the Li house, calling himself the reincarnation of the Immortal Lu Dongbing who had come to the mortal realm to make someone immortal. Because Xiao'er was so pure and upright, he had come specifically to take him. Xiao'er didn't believe him, so the visitor immediately demonstrated his ability to turn stone into gold. Then he said, if Xiao'er was willing, he would pass on that skill to him, so that in the future he would no longer have to go to work - he could take it easy in indescribable comfort. Xiao'er still refused. The visitor was amazed, and asked him why he was so stubborn. Xiao'er said sweetly, "You don't think I've got it easy now?"

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