China – Four Thousand Years of Taxing the Land...

Read about China's contribution to the European Enlightenment HERE

"The best method of public revenue is when you do not appropriate what people rightly regard as their private property"
– Dr Peter Bowman

Lecture notes:
IU Conference, School of Economic Science, July 2013, London
Presented by Dr Peter Bowman

BIO: Dr Peter Bowman read chemistry at Oriel College Oxford and continued his studies there to obtain a D. Phil., researching into chemical carcinogens. After receiving a PGCE at the Institute of Education, London he spent over twenty years teaching science in London schools and colleges and preparing students for university entrance before joining the UPCSE team as Lecturer in Chemistry. He is now also the UPC Science Coordinator.
About: the International Union for Land Value Taxation (IU), established in 1926: The purpose of the IU is to promote sustainable prosperity for all via public finance policy reform.

In March 2013 I took the high speed train from Beijing to Shanghai for the first time. It is a five hour journey with a steady speed of three hundred kilometres per hour. I was eager to get out of the city and see what the Chinese countryside was like. The scene was fascinating. For the whole journey almost all the land I saw was in use, much of it under cultivation and most of that in rectangular patches silver . The cultivation lay right against the built up areas which were considerable. In fact there was nothing I would have called countryside. Later that month I took another train journey, this time from London Paddington to Devon. I was struck by the contrast. Travelling west through the England once you are out of London there seem to be great expanses of green, very pretty but not very much appearing to be happening. The relationship of the Chinese people with the land was noticeably different to that of the English and I suspected that went back a long way.

A short while later I stumbled across a published copy of the doctoral thesis of Han Liang Huang, published in 1918 which traced back the story of Chinese land tenure from the beginning of its history. At first glance it looked like it would provide a useful source of information to help understand the Chinese relationship with the land but his underlying thesis was also arresting. Essentially it was this: over its long history the principle source of government revenue has come directly from the land. What follows here is to quite a large extent a summary of Han Liang’s findings. By coincidence the same thesis was also referred to by Alanna Harzog in her recent presentation to the World Bank’s Land and Poverty Conference on “Socializing land rent, untaxing production”.

China is single most extensive and enduring civilization in the world. Its language, in spoken and written form, has been largely unchanged for some four thousand years. Its early history fades into mythology. Back in 2967 BC Huang-Ti (diHuang)brought the feudal provinces under his control, made them acknowledge him as emperor and received tributes which were in the form of levies derived from the land.
China-dynastic-timelineThe Xia dynasty was founded in 2150 BC, by Yu the Great. There had been a great flood and Yu was the administrator responsible for bringing the water under control. After the inundation, arable land was in short supply. At that time the tradition was that the land belonged to the people at large (not to individuals, nor feudal chiefs not even the emperor). Individuals were allotted a plot of land, fifty mows (probably about ten acres) the traditional measure of area at the age of twenty and then gave it back when they reached sixty. There was a tribute system called Kung fa. For the central province of Zhi Zhou one tenth of the produce of the land was given to the emperor. In the other eight provinces the same fraction went to the feudal lord.

YU the GreatXia Dynasty 2100 – 1600 BCE 
Land distributed following the great flood

Lesson 1: 
The land belongs to the people at large

Yu the Great

By the Shang dynasty 1783 BC a system of land taxation known as tsing tien(nine squares) has been established but its origins may be longer ago. The previous system of tribute had become based on fixed amounts related to average yields of produce. This did not work well in practice, particularly in years when the harvest was poor. In the tsing tien system families were formed into groups of eight. The land was arranged in squares of three by three plots. Each family was assigned a plot. The central plot was farmed collectively and the product of this part constituted the levy that went to the government as “aid”. In addition the buildings were on the central plot so overall one tenth of the produce went as tribute. The system was very fair and effective.

Shang Dynasty 1600 – 1045 BCE

Lesson 2:
The best method of public revenue is when you do not appropriate what people rightly regard as their private property

Tsing tien

The next dynasty was the Zhou (1122 – 249BC). This was a high point of Chinese civilization and corresponds to Ancient Greek Civilisation in Europe. It was the time when much of the legal code, political organization and social structure was established. It was the era of China’s greatest philosophers – Confucius and Lao Tzu. The system of land tenure and tribute were still based on the tsing tien although the concept of “aid” now transformed into one of “universal obligation”

Download (pdf) The Analytics of Confucius (Kong Fu Zi) (551 – 479 BC)
teacher, editor, politician, and philosopher of the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history.
Wikipedia notes on the Analytics

Confucius Zhou Dynasty 1045 – 246 BCE

– Land allocated for use
– Severe penalties for not using allocated land
– Amount of land allocated depends on fertility
– Public revenue
– first gift (kung), then  aid (tsu) now replaced by universal obligation(cheh) 
– requirement to provide produce and military equipment
– Progressive taxation of feudal chiefs

Lesson 3:
The basis of allocation of land should be use.

Mencius was a Chinese philosopher who advocated for land tax around 300 BCE. “In past times, when King Wen ruled at the city of Qí, he took only one part in nine as a tax on those who tilled the land [a land tax], and those who served his government inherited their stipends. At the border, goods in trade were inspected but no fees were levied [no import duties restricting free trade], [and] no restrictions were placed on the use of fish traps installed by dams and weirs [no taxes on capital goods].” The Book of Mengzi, 1B.5, MENCIUS: An Online Teaching Translation, Robert Eno, 2016 (pdf)

A number of refinements were introduced.

Firstly it was recognized that land varies in it fertility so that when allocating land three different degrees of fertility were recognized. There was land that could be cultivated annually, bi annually or only once every three years. The area of land allocated was varied accordingly rather than just having one uniform area. Secondly severe penalties were imposed for the non-use of allocated land. Thirdly, in addition to the annual levy there was also the additional requirement to provide military recruits and/or military equipment. Finally a progressive system was established of the tribute that feudal lords had to pass on to the emperor. The must powerful lords dukes, had to pass on one half of their tribute whereas lesser earls passed on one third and barons, the third tier only passed on one quarter.

The latter part of the Zhou dynasty was a period of “warring states” in which there was consolidation of the various feudal states. This required increased military expenditure and hence increased taxation. The Qin province eventually rose to domination. This province was to the west. It was extensive but thinly populated. The neighbouring province of Jin was small and highly populated. To encourage migration Duke Shiao of Qin and his minister Shang Yin offered free land. The system of tsing tien was abandoned and private property was established. To continue to provide government revenue the basis of taxation shifted from the land to the people. In 221 BC the Qin ruler Qin Shi Huang became established as emperor of all China. He effectively changed the previous loose federation into a centralized empire. There was significant state expenditure. The building of the Great Wall was begun. There was other building of palaces andQin’s preparation for the afterlife was very lavish and extensive. It included the assembly of the army of terracotta warriors near the capital Q’ian. The level of taxation was high. Many tenant farmers sold up their land in order to pay and rich merchants began to become landlords. “The rich own thousands of mow whilst poor have not enough land for an awl to stand on.”

Back to top

Qin Dynasty 221-206 BC

The Qin dynasty was short-lived. The oppressive conditions imposed on the people including high taxes lead to rebellion and in 207BC the new Han dynasty was established. The earlier privatization of land had led to the establishment of a powerful landed aristocracy who resisted the imposition of taxes on the land. The economic philosophers of the time argued in their favour: the two sources of production are labour and land and in order that all lands capable of production might be cultivated and all hands engaged in agriculture taxes on land should be abolished. Thus at that time taxes on land were light, typically only about one thirtieth of the produce whereas the rents paid by tenants were high, amounting to around half the product. Attempts were made to re-distribute the land but these were unsuccessful due to the powerful influence of the landowners who had gained position in government.

Han Dynasty 206 BC – 220 AD

– Private ownership of land

“The rich own thousands of mow whilst the poor have not even enough land for an awl to stand on.”

– Powerful landowners influence government

“The two sources of production are labour and land and in order that all land capable of producing crops might be cultivated and all hands engaged in agriculture taxes on land should be abolished.”

  • Low taxes on land
  • Tenants paying high rent
  • Poll tax
  • Part of tax paid in cash

Lesson 4:
There will not be an effective land tax when there
 is unrestrained private ownership of land.

The period following the Han Dynasty 221 – 618 AD was a period of civil war with short-lived dynasties and destruction of wealth and reduction of the population including the landlords. Order was restored with the establishment of the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907). There was a re-distribution on a basis of equal shares for all. In return annual rents were charged which were a combination of produce, personal service and commodities such as silk. However, everyone was taxed the same regardless of the actual situation on the basis that the land had been distributed equally. The system ran down there was a loss of revenue, avoidance of tax by the rich and a market in land sprang up. In 780 Yang Yan Chancellor of Emperor Dezong took steps to put things on a more just footing by enacting tax reforms. The central idea was a single tax on land relating to the amount of land held and its fertility. The system was know as liangshui the summer and Autumn levy since there were two times and type of payment. The summer payment was in produce or commodities and the Autumn payment on copper coin. These reforms established a system that was followed for the next thousand years.

Tang Dynasty 618 – 907 AD

– Order restored
– Distribution of land re-established

Lesson 5:
It is possible to move back from unrestrained private ownership to government allocation of land

780 Yang Yen tax reforms
liangshi  – Summer and Autumn levy

“People were not taxed according to their age – but according to their wealth or the amount of land possessed”

lesson 6:
a tax on land is better than a tax on people

Song Dynasty 960 – 1277AD

Sources of public revenue:

– Rent from public land
– Farm rents
– Urban rents
– Poll tax
– Other taxes

Kublai Kahn

Ming Dynasty 1368 – 1644 AD

Initially an effective system but declined as tax roll became obsolete and additional levies raised

Qing Dynasty (Manchus) 1644 – 1911 AD

The Final Settlement 1713 (see notes below)

Emperor Kang Xi (1654 -1722), reigned from 1661 to 1722

– Number of taxable heads and land tax to be fixed and immutable for all time
– Poll tax and land tax amalgamated into single land tax
– Complexity of additional charges appeared later

Lesson 7:
An effective land tax needs regular updating of land values

Lesson 8:
An effective land tax needs effective administration

Lesson 9:
that administration has to be paid for
Magistrate’s yamen

Back to top


Lesson 1: The land belongs to the people at large

Lesson 2: The best method of public revenue is when you do not appropriate what people rightly regard as their private property

Lesson 3: The basis of allocation land should be use

Lesson 4: There will not be an effective land tax when there is unrestrained private ownership of land

Lesson 5: It is possible to move back from unrestrained private ownership to government allocation of land

Lesson 6: A tax on land is better than a tax on people

Lesson 7: An effective land tax needs regular updating of land values

Lesson 8: An effective land tax needs effective administration

Lesson 9: That administration has to be paid for


The state of the earth bears witness to the way it has been used, even 100 years later!

More IU Conference notes (pdf)
Lecture notes also published here

United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea:
Declarations made upon signature, ratification, accession or succession or anytime thereafter


Upon ratification (7 June 1996)

In accordance with the decision of the Standing Committee of the Eighth National People's Congress of the People's Republic of China at its nineteenth session, the President of the People's Republic of China has hereby ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 and at the same time made the following statement:

1. In accordance with the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the People's Republic of China shall enjoy sovereign rights and jurisdiction over an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles and the continental shelf.

2. The People's Republic of China will effect, through consultations, the delimitation of the boundary of the maritime jurisdiction with the States with coasts opposite or adjacent to China respectively on the basis of international law and in accordance with the principle of equitability.

3. The People's Republic of China reaffirms its sovereignty over all its archipelagos and islands as listed in article 2 of the Law of the People's Republic of China on the territorial sea and the contiguous zone, which was promulgated on 25 February 1992.

4. The People's Republic of China reaffirms that the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea concerning innocent passage through the territorial sea shall not prejudice the right of a coastal State to request, in accordance with its laws and regulations, a foreign State to obtain advance approval from or give prior notification to the coastal State for the passage of its warships through the territorial sea of the coastal State.

Declaration made after ratification (25 August 2006)
Declaration under article 298

The Final Settlement 1713: Unification of China

Introduction (source)

The unification of China by the king of the Qin state is one of the most important events in China's history. The Qin dynasty was a comparatively short-lived dynasty but it implemented landmark reforms and established a model for China that would be used for centuries to come.

The states of China before unification

As we have discovered in previous chapters, ancient China was made up of a number of states that were independent of each other. These states were in the north of modern-day China. The Shang and the Zhou were two particularly powerful states that had some control over the other states. The Zhou began to weaken in around 500 BC and the states fell into a period of war and chaos as each state tried to assert its power over the others. During this time, the states were also invaded by nomadic tribes to the north of China that had become aware of the disharmony among the Chinese states.

Seven states emerged as key players in the fight for power. They were the Han, the Chao, the Wei, the Ch'u, the Yen, the Ch'i and the Qin. The two main competitors were the Ch'i and the Qin. It was the state of the Qin that was to emerge as the most powerful of the warring states and it was the king of the Qin who would ultimately unite the states and become ruler over all of them.

The Qin state

The Qin state was a comparatively small state in the west, near the Wei River. Between 328 and 308 BC, the Qin assumed control of the north and northwest states. The Qin began to rule from their territory and gradually brought the other states under their control. By 256 BC the Zhou had lost the last of their power and were no longer influential.

The Qin adopted the then recent philosophy of Legalism which was in favour of a centrally governed state.

A unified China

Historians date the start of the Qin dynasty to 256 BC but unification did not take place until 221 BC. The Qin had been the most powerful state in China from 256 BC, since the fall of the Zhou, but in 246 BC power was handed to a 13-year-old boy named Ying Zheng.

Being only a teenager, Zheng was counselled by a number of advisers. Among them was Li Su, one of the founders of Legalism. In 232 BC, Zheng's advisers counselled him to unite the states. Many of the states were very weak and could not stand up to the Qin military. By 221 BC he had conquered the northern states. Zheng then proclaimed himself Shi Huangdi, meaning First Emperor. Once in this position of power and aided by his advisers, Shi Huangdi put in place a system of rule and government that would be emulated by all future Chinese dynasties. The system of government placed the emperor and his officials at the centre, with various other levels branching out to administer the government in the newly-created provinces.

The Qin implemented a number of reforms. They improved agriculture, built better roads, introduced a single currency and consolidated the existing systems of law and writing. Strict laws were put in place, particularly within the government, and any corrupt officials were sentenced to death. The shift was made from the feudal landholder system to a bureaucratic system, within which was a strict hierarchy. Land was confiscated from the feudal nobles and shared among the peasants.

Before uniting the states, the Qin state had already adopted the beliefs of legalism. Legalists believed that humans were essentially base and selfish and that they needed to be strictly controlled and disciplined. These were the principles on which the Qin ran their kingdom and went on to rule a unified China.

Shi Huangdi was considered a cruel and brutal ruler. In uniting the states, he abolished local customs and aimed to minimise the differences between languages so that a central system could be put in place which could be understood by everyone.

Anything that the Qin thought would help to centralise and unite the states was implemented, such as standard weights and measures and a standard currency. In 213 BC, advised by a legalist, the First Emperor ordered the burning of all private libraries and all books that included teachings that were not in line with the Qin government, particularly Confucianist ideals. This action was an attempt to extinguish any opposition to the centralised government and to destroy anything that might allow people to form their own ideas and might lead to potential rebellion. Many scholars who tried to protect their books were executed. The burning of the books was a tragic loss for Chinese culture as the majority of early records, teachings and philosophies were destroyed.

Once these reforms were in place, the Qin looked to take control of territory further south. Qin Shi Huangdi was strong but had many enemies. Nomadic tribes to the north had long been a threat to China. It is also thought that the thousands of ruling families who had been overthrown when the Qin came to power also opposed Shi Huangdi's rule. They were also angry as he had confiscated much of the land belonging to them and redistributed it among the nobles.

End of the Qin

Shi Huangdi died in 210 BC and his son assumed the throne of the Qin dynasty. A large rebellion broke out after the death of Shi Huangdi. Many people were unhappy with the oppressive rule of the Qin and the legalist government. The prince of the Han defeated the Qin troops in battle and overthrew Shi Huangdi's son to establish the Han dynasty.

Shi Huangdi's Qin dynasty fell only four years after his death. Although it was a short-lived dynasty, it is a hugely significant period in China's history. The Qin dynasty also left a lasting legacy with its name. Pronounced 'chin', it is from Qin that the modern-day country of China takes its name.

Back to top

Go To:
Confucius of Europe
– Short History of Economics
Top of Page