How Was Land Held in Ancient China?

Finance is the key to good governance and a harmonious society. The ancient Chinese prescribed a sound economic system, which was first manifested in the state ownership of land resources. As the old saying goes, “All land under heaven falls within the domain of the Son of Heaven; all those on this land are his subjects.” (The Book of Songs)

The government controls the most land

In general, “kings have long arms.” The emperor always tended to control the land, the basic means of production, and distribute it to the citizens through the land system such as the Well-field System and the Equal-field System. For the peasants who cultivated the land, the state implemented a strict Household Registration System (hu ji zhi du), partly for ease of management and partly as a fundamental basis for the taxes and corvée systems such as the Tripartite Tax System. Thus a way the society organized based on the small-peasant economy was formulated. Generally speaking, society thrived whenever the burdens of the peasants did not impair their normal reproduction. Beyond this limit, a social crisis initiated by peasants against exploitation and oppression was bound to arise. So, the most fundamental social unrest stemmed from the unstoppable polarization of wealth and the increasing concentration of landholdings. Once the land was overly concentrated, it would inevitably cause sharp conflicts between the big landlords and the landless peasants. In severe cases, peasant wars would break out. Although the peasant wars were aimed at the landowners who occupied a large area of land, the outcome was the fall of the entire empire.

The Well-field land system in Ancient China

In essence, the Well-field System is a land-holding system of slave owners and nobles in the name of state ownership. This system emerged in the Xia and Shang periods, matured in the Western Zhou Dynasty, and gradually disintegrated during the Spring and Autumn Periods.

A large arable land was divided into many square fields with a certain area, which resembled the Chinese character “田(tian),” hence the name “well fields (井田jing tian).” These lands were planned first and then cultivated. For example, if one person farmed about 20 ha of land, one square field would cover an area of 20 ha and be calculated as “one field” (tian), which was the origin of the Chinese character (田tian) in the oracle bone inscription. And the prototype of the well (井jing) came from the arrangement of these lands then. Generally speaking, in ancient China, the land wasn’t planned with the present decimalism, but the nonary system. The nine square fields were placed together exactly in the shape of the character “井” and also calculated as “one community field” (jing). In a word, this is where the name of the Well-field System came from.

During the Zhou period, the Well-field System was not only used as the unit of salary for the feudal lords and officials but also as the unit of calculation to control and manage ordinary people. The King of Zhou was the highest ruler and the largest landowner. All land belonged to the King of Zhou in the name of the country. The land was an asset that the king distributed to the regional rulers, and the power of the emperor to enfeoff or deprive the land exactly reflected his supreme authority. It was the fundamental obligation of the beneficiaries to pay tribute to the supreme ruler. When the vassals got the land, they could distribute the fief to the grand masters (qing da fu), who could then endow it to the serviceman. The nobles at all levels had only the right to use the land without ownership, so they could not transfer or sell it but could inherit the land from generation to generation within the same surname family according to the lineage system.

From the ownership perspective, the Xia, Shang, and Zhou governments practiced public ownership of land and common labor, and the Well-field System, which evolved from the communal ownership of land in the primitive clan commune, was a typical manifestation. During this period, the Well-field System gradually took on the characteristics of the transition from public ownership to private one. For example, in the middle of the Western Zhou Dynasty, land transactions had already been conducted among the nobles, which meant that private ownership of land had emerged among them. Moreover, from top to bottom, the private ownership of land in cultivators was also sprouting. In the late Spring and Autumn periods, the Well-field System collapsed due to productivity improvement with the promotion of ironware and cattle plowing as its symbol, which enabled people to plant unexplored mountains and forests and build large water conservancy projects.

The collapse of the Well-field System was shown in the setting of the economic and production mechanisms. The ruler divided the well fields into three categories. Usually, the best ones were reserved for themselves, such as the flat land near rivers with abundant sunshine, called “public fields” or “big fields,” which slaves were forced to farm collectively. The well fields in the suburbs closer to the city were allocated to the people who lived in the city (guo ren) and were of the same clan as the ruler. They did not have to pay land taxes, only military taxes and military service. The commoners were only given barren lands that were far away from the city. They generally had to live in the wild and were even called “savages.”Every year, they have to work on the lord’s public land before farming their own for subsistence. The commoners, as field slaves, had no rights, only the obligation to till the land for and perform handyman duties to the lord.

In the middle of the Western Zhou Dynasty, in order to extract surplus labor from the commoners, some nobles forced the commoners to reclaim wasteland land other than the well fields. The fields thus reclaimed were neither squared nor taxable, so they were called private fields. The nobility, of course, were eager to reclaim and farm more private lands, so they needed more labor input. However, the previous method of forced labor and heavy field taxes could not motivate the producers to work. Therefore, to recruit laborers and stimulate them, some noblemen implemented some preferable policies in response to the new situation. For example, the Tian Clan of Qi used a large bucket to lend grain to the people but a small bucket to collect taxes. The Han, Wei, and Zhao clans of Jin tried to win popular support by offering more cultivated land without increasing taxes. As a result, slaves fled from the feudal lords to the nobles. Possessing some means of production, the slaves could independently operate their lands and related sideline and pay field taxes to the landlords, thus giving rise to feudal relations of dependence. To conclude, the rise of feudal tenancy relations triggered the flight of slaves from the public field, which became a wasteland with no one to till it. So naturally, the government could not maintain the Well-field System anymore.

According to the spring and Autumn Annals, in the 15th year of Duke Xuan of Lu (594 BC), to increase revenue, the Tax on Land Area (chu shui mu) was introduced, stipulating that taxes would be collected according to the area of the field, regardless of the land properties. The Tax on Land Area policy was the first to recognize the private ownership of the wasteland reclaimed by farmers, marking the beginning of the legalization of land privatization. Subsequently, Chu, Zheng, Jin, Qin, and other states also carried out tax reforms and recognized private ownership of land. Soon, the Well-field System as the basic land system fell apart.

In ancient China, the Well-field System manifested the institutional pattern of public ownership, cooperative work, and communal living. From the Warring States Period to the Qing Dynasty, there were numerous advocates for its restoration or revision. People’s long-term enthusiastic pursuit of the Well-field System was rooted in the fact that the spontaneous development of small producers would inevitably be polarized. Nevertheless, the polarization process was accompanied by land annexation, which would eventually lead to sharp class clashes over land issues. In extreme cases, peasant revolts would break out, leading to dynastic changes. It was generally believed that the restoration of the Well-field System could curb land annexation and then solve the land issues. Although the landlord class was unwilling to do so, the Well-field System became an aspirational land system for later laborers.

The Equal-field land system in Ancient China

To solve the land problem, the Northern Wei Dynasty and the early Tang Dynasty implemented a land policy called the Equal-field System. According to this land system, the state allocated its land to peasants based on the number of household members. In addition, the land belonged to the state, with part of it going to the cultivator after a certain number of years of cultivation, and part of it returned to the government after the farmer’s death. However, the land of the landlord class did not fall within the scope of equal fields.

At that time, the decades-long warfare in northern China displaced people, causing sharply decreased households and large tracts of deserted land, thus compounding the land annexation by the riches. In addition, the population under the control of the central feudal government in the early years of Northern Wei was small, which seriously impaired tax collection. In 485, Emperor Xiaowen (467-499) of Northern Wei issued a decree on equalizing fields according to the number of household members, as suggested by the Han people Li Anshi. From then on, the Equal-field System began to be implemented.

According to this decree, each man over 15 years old was given 2.7 ha of ownerless wasteland, and each woman, half of the amount. Because of the fallow rotation, they were generally given double or thrice the amount of land. Additional lands were given to those who owned slaves and cattle. The slaves were granted the same amount of land as the ordinary peasants, and there was no limit to the number of them, but the land belonged to their owners. These fields were not allowed to be transferred and would be returned to the government when the cultivators died. The system was continued in the Northern Qi and the Sui and Tang dynasties.

The Equal-field System was generally the basis for the state to collect taxes. When people received land from the government, they were obliged to pay taxes, and the Tripartite Tax System in the Tang Dynasty was actually implemented based on this system. The Equal-field System was instrumental in restoring social prosperity to the Tang despite the political chaos and the badly damaged agriculture at the end of the Sui Dynasty. Moreover, it was also the basis of the military system then. For example, the Garrison Militia System (府兵制fu bing zhi) in the Sui and Tang dynasties was, in fact, a system in which peasants who received fields served as soldiers for the state during wartime. Besides, they need to provide their own food and weapons to reduce the country’s military expenses.

The difference between the Sui-Tang’s land system and the previous ones was mainly in the scope of the recipients. The Northern Dynasties covered a vast territory with a sparse population, so even slaves and farm cattle could be allotted fields to increase production. However, in the Sui Dynasty, slaves were restricted from receiving land, while the farm cattle were no longer given land. In the first year of Daye (605), the Sui government exempted women and slaves from field tax and household tax, but for them, no land was given at all. During the Tang Dynasty, neither servants nor farm cattle were allowed to receive land because the population was so large that the government fields were insufficient for distribution. Although the state possessed less land, the scope of land trading expanded. The bureaucrats were free to sell the allotted land and the inheritable land, and ordinary people were also allowed to sell their inheritable land in the case of relocating to other places.

The system did not forcefully expropriate landowners’ private land but distributed government land, especially newly expropriated land, to the people, showing its respect for the private ownership of land by the landlords. The Equal-field System established a land system with quotas for delivery and acceptance, which harmonized the internal contradictions of the ruling class, eased the resistance of the ruled, and combined labor with the land. These measures facilitated the restoration and development of agricultural production and ensured the source of government revenue and labor corvée. Meanwhile, by means of giving land to servants and farm cattle (before Sui) or rewarding inheritable fields according to official rank (after Sui), it safeguarded the interests of the noblemen, bureaucrats, and landowners. The most crucial factor for its implementation was that the imperial court held a large amount of land. During the Northern Dynasties, after the long-term war, the population migrated or decreased in large numbers, resulting in large tracts of abandoned fields, so the court could have sufficient land to endow to the people. However, as the economy developed, there was less and less deserted land and more and more population, so the fields that could be granted by the court gradually decreased. As a result, it was difficult to continue the Equal-field System at the end of Empress Wu Zetian’s reign.

From the perspective of the system itself, although the Equal-field System in the Tang Dynasty was much more complete than that of the Sui Dynasty, its implementation in Tang was unsatisfactory. The fundamental reason was that the total amount of fields available for distribution was insufficient, and the lands allocated to farmers did not meet the quota that they should enjoy from the beginning, so the lands returned to the government were limited. As the population increased and the land was legalized for private ownership by the nobles, bureaucrats, and landowners, who also occupied a large tract of public fields, the government had less and less land at its disposal.

Although the Equal-field System restricted land trading and excessive land annexation, it was often undermined soon after its implementation. The peasants always suffered from deficient land, poverty, and heavy taxation, so once there were natural and man-made disasters, they often went bankrupt, sold their land, and fled. Moreover, landlords were getting more and more flagrantly merging land. As a result, the system was destroyed right after its appearance in all the dynasties before the Sui Dynasty.

It was only in the early years of the Tang Dynasty when the warfare subsided, the population declined, and the large tracts of land were desolate, barren, or ravaged that the system was reintroduced. However, history soon repeated itself. After Emperor Gaozong’s reign, the Equalfield System was gradually destroyed again. In the first year of Emperor Dezong (742-805) ’s reign (780), suggested by Prime Minster Yang Yan(727-781), the Two-taxation System (两税法liang shui fa) was promulgated, reducing the types of taxes to the land tax and the household tax without considering the land allotment and resumption, which actually announced the end of the Equal-field System.

Historians fully recognized the positive significance of the Equalfield System. Mr. Qian Mu commented, “The intention of this system was not to ask for an absolute equalization of land, but only to set a maximum for the rich and a minimum for the poor.”

First of all, the system reduced the burden of the peasants and promoted social production. It enabled numerous landless peasants to obtain ownerless wasteland, based on which they could live and work in peace and happiness and were no longer displaced, thus considerably raising their enthusiasm for production. Moreover, as vast wastelands were reclaimed, grain output and social wealth kept increasing, which played a significant role in the recovery and development of social productivity.

Secondly, it consolidated the autocratic centralization system, for it was actually the feudal system of state ownership of land. However, without violating the interests of the feudal landlords, it freed the peasants from the control of the powerful clans and directly included them in the imperial Household Registration System, multiplying the number of small farmers under government control, ensuring the resource of state taxation and corvée, and thus fundamentally consolidating the rule of state power.

Thirdly, the Equal-field System significantly promoted the integration of various ethnic groups. In particular, during the Northern Wei Dynasty, those inwardly migrating ethnic groups changed their nomadic lifestyle to a farming lifestyle. Thanks to this system, they had sustained and stable production and life, and the climax of ethnic integration came.

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