Sima Qian records the establishment of the mutual responsibility, or linked liability (lian zuo 連坐) system in the state of Qin, and describes the organization of the population into five-household groups, who were mutually responsible for the actions of the group members. Those who concealed group members’ crimes would be severely punished, while those who reported crimes would be handsomely rewarded. Archaeological discoveries of legal documents from the Qin and early Han have confirmed parts of Sima Qian’s description: that the population was organized into groups of five households and that they were held liable for each other’s crimes. However, they have also revealed that the linked liability system was far more complex than originally assumed, revealing that linked liability extended to govern relationships between family members, officials, travelers, and employers and their employees.
The operation of the linked liability system was closely connected to the registration of the population according to rank, age, place of residence, etc. The early Han legal statutes from Zhangjiashan indicate that it was the responsibility of each individual to ensure that she or he was correctly registered with the state, and, moreover, that individuals were responsible for enquiring into the registration of others with whom they wished to enter into any kind of relationship, be it financial or personal. This paper will demonstrate that population control was not exclusively the occupation of the state and its officials, but rather functioned through distributing responsibility for registration and checking to the individual.