The practice of so-called "harmonized purchase" (hemai 和買, heshi 和市) constituted a regular, often enforced, purchase of staple commodities and food (then called hedi 和糴 "harmonized purchase of grain") by the government from the populace or merchants. During the Song period 宋 (960-1279), the practice resembled regular taxes.
Even if Kong Yingda 孔穎達 (574-648) held that hemai was custom as early as the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE), it became only widespread during the Tang period 唐 (618-907) as an enforced method of supplying government institutions with necessities. The first instance when the state bought large amounts of food and other wares was in 487, under the rule of Emperor Wu 南齊武帝 (r. 482-493) of the Southern Qi 南齊 (479-502).
The government purchased silks, livestock, tiles, timber, fodder, fuel, preserved greens, and even slaves. From the 750s on, the demand for military supplies increased, and the hemai system transformed into a method of contributions that were uniformly applied without considering the wealth of individual households. Less wealthy families were thus forced to buy the requested commodities on the market at high prices in order to deliver the demanded volume of goods. In practice, the "harmonized purchase" resembled a household tax in kind.
During the Song period, the mostly requested goods were silks or other textiles, the largest share of which was used to equip the army. The collection stations were therefore mainly set up in regions were silk or hemp was produced. A group of advisors like Ma Yuanfang 馬元方, Wang Xu 王旭 and Li Shiheng 李士衡 introduced purchase in advance (yumai 預買, heyumai 和預買), which became the common method of "harmonized purchase". Yet purchase in advance was only possible if the government handed out capital (
The amount of silks delivered to the government amounted to 1.9 million bolts in the 1030s, and rose to 3 million a decade later (Liang & Wu 1992). During the reign of Emperor Renzong 宋仁宗 (r. 1022-1063), 70 per cent of the credit was commuted into salt, but under the domination of Cai Jing 蔡京 (1047-1126), the government ceased to grant credits altogether. The "harmonized purchase" was thus officially transformed into a fix household tax. At least, the tax was in many regions oriented towards the basic land tax, which took acreage and income into consideration. In Sichuan, for example, class-three households had to pay the "harmonized purchase" tax, while households of classes 4 and 5 were freed from payment. In order to prevent the collection of the contributions, members of the gentry divided their large households into smaller units which were then not liable for payment. Yet this was not feasible for smaller households, with the consequence that rich households did not pay the contribution, while poorer ones had to carry the financial burden.
In Wuzhou 婺州 (today's Jinhua 金華, Zhejiang), only households with an income of at least 30 strings of cash (guan 貫) annually were liable for payment. In the military prefecture of Nankang 南康軍 (Xingzi 星子, Jiangxi), one bolt of silk was due for 430 wen 文 of taxes. In many regions, the "harmonized" contribution surpassed even the regular summer tax.
After 1129, the government even refused to accept silk bolts, and ordered to deliver the requested contribution in money (zheboqian 折帛錢), a commutation called hemai zhe boqian 和買折帛錢 "harmonized purchase transformed into silk money". In 1131, the substitute price of one bolt of silk was 2,000 cash, and 7 years later as much as 8,000 (Tang 1988). In 1165, it was 7,000, which was twice the market price (Huang 1992). In some regions, local governments collected both the substitute price and the commodity.
The Jin dynasty 金 (1115-1234) in the north imitated the system and requested contributions of weapons and silver (to be used as currency). The Jurchen princes had rights of their own to request "harmonized purchase" commodities. The Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368) added to military equipment also necessities used by the imperial palace and administrative bureaus. In fact the system had fully transformed into a mode of contribution for which the government did seldom pay.
During the Ming 明 (1368-1644) and Qing 清 (1644-1911) periods, the system was applied in irregular intervals with the name caiban 采辦 "organised collection" or caimai 采買 "collection purchase". This procedure was mainly applied to merchants which had to deliver certain commodities to the state at negotiated prices.