The Field System, and the Tax and Corvée System in Ancient China

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A government tax demand note from the Wanli (萬曆) reign of the Ming dynasty (明朝). (Photo credit: Cultural Communication/Fotoe)

Taxes have been the main source of government revenue since ancient times. In the tax and corvée system of ancient China, Fu (賦, later called Hufu, 戶賦) was imposed on fields or households in the form of textiles, currency, or horses to meet the military expenditure. Taxes in ancient China mainly referred to agricultural tax, while corvée referred to mandatory military service and forced labour. For example, during the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period, grains were collected as tax from fields. Fu was imposed based first on fields and then on households in the form of currency or textiles. Corvée referred to the recruitment of unpaid labour. The people at that time called the taxes they paid Wangfu (王賦, wang being the royal) and Nahuangliang (納皇糧, meaning grains for the emperor), and the military service they undertook Wangyi (王役, meaning labour service for the royal) and Yinghuangchai (應皇差, meaning labour for the emperor).


Who were chargeable to taxes? Eligible adults on the official household registration were the main objects of taxation from the Qin (秦朝) and Han (漢朝) dynasties to the early Tang (唐朝) dynasty. During the Qin and Han dynasties, the agricultural tax system was called Zufuzhi (租賦制), among which the field rent (tax) was imposed on fields in the form of grains while Fu was on the population in the form of currency. In the Han dynasty, for example, Kouqian (口錢, a kind of poll tax) was imposed on population aged between 7 to 14, with 23 wen (an ancient currency unit) per person annually. Suanfu (算賦, another kind of poll tax) of 120 wen per person was imposed on population aged between 15 and 56 annually. Tax demand notes were carved on bamboo or wood slips by officials from the Pre-Qin period to the Eastern Jin (東晉) dynasty. They were later developed into hand-written paper demand notes, the preparation of which was demanding. From the Pre-Qin period to the Tang dynasty, the record of the official tax department was regarded as the only proof for tax payment when no receipts issued to the people. This provided an opening for venal officials to take bribes and impose additional taxes on the people. It was not until the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period when the tax payment receipts known as Shuitie (稅帖) were issued to the taxpayers.

The inscription on the E Jun (鄂君) Qi Bronze Tallies in the State of Chu (楚地) during the Warring States Period (Permit of Tariff Exemption issued by the King of Chu to E Jun), a collection of the National Museum of China. (Photo credit: Nie Ming/ Fotoe)

Agriculture was the economic foundation of China when agricultural tax played a vital role in the country’s ancient tax system. From the Pre-Qin period to the Han dynasty, agricultural tax was imposed on one-tenth of the yield per mu (畝), which was considered as the most reasonable agricultural tax rate. However, the tax rate and its forms varied in different ancient dynasties. For example, Liu Bang (劉邦), Emperor Gaozu (高祖) of Han, reduced the field rent tax to only one-fifteenth of the yield per mu, while Emperor Jing (景帝) of Han further reduced it to one-thirtieth of the yield per mu. Another collecting method of agricultural tax was to stipulate a fixed tax rate per mu, known as Mu'ezhi (畝額制). For example, from the State of Qin in the late Warring States Period to the Western Han dynasty, it was stipulated in Tianly (《田律》, The Field Law) that tax shall be calculated with 100 mu as the unit with a set quota of straw and forage to be paid.


During the reign of Emperor Zhang (章帝) in the Eastern Han period, the tax was divided into three tiers according to the quality of the land. In the ninth year of Emperor Xian (獻帝) of Han’s reign (BC 204), Cao Cao (曹操) promulgated the Zudiaozhi (租調制), a tax system which stipulated that the people shall pay 4 litres of millet per mu regardless of the land capacity. In the early Tang dynasty, the Zuyongdiao (租庸調) tax system was changed, and the tax was instead imposed by apportioning the poll tax to the fields as stipulated in Fuyiling (《賦役令》, The Order of Taxes and Corvée), with a national fixed tax rate. Later, the Tang Government enacted Liangshuifa (兩稅法, the twice tax system), and cancelled Mu'ezhi, stipulating that each province shall pay the tax at an equal rate. During the Five Dynasties and Ten States Period, some southern local regimes began to implement the three-tier differential tax system according to land capacity under the twice tax system. In the Song dynasty (宋朝), a fixed tax rate was instituted according to different soil qualities, while in the Ming dynasty (明朝), the field tax was charged according to the land quality, with a differential fixed tax rate, which later became the blueprint for the formulation of tax laws during the early Qing dynasty (清朝).


Each dynasty formulated its own field systems and policies to allow farmers to have enough farmland and thus be able to pay taxes. In the Sui (隋朝) and Tang dynasties, the governments issued the Diling (《地令》, The Land Order) or Tianling (《田令》, The Field Order), best known as the equal-field system. Its original intention was to ensure that every male adult had 100 mu of arable land. Unfortunately, things did not go as the governments had planned, as the law also guaranteed private land ownership to landlords. However, the governments had no right to redistribute these private lands, so it did not have enough land to distribute to male adults. In the Song dynasty, land trade was made legal and managed by appointed personnel in each county.


Each dynasty also had its own system for recruiting labour force. The civilians were allowed to pay money to wavie the recruitment. During the Tang dynasty, male adults were forced to engage in mandatory and unpaid service for 20 days annually. Craftsmen with special skills were subject to close monitoring. They were enrolled in a special craftsman registration to ensure that there was enough manpower for the palace utensils production and the imperial construction works. This system was kept until the Qing dynasty.

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