The so-called well-field system (jingtian zhi 井田制) was a field allotment and taxation method in ancient China. The name is derived from the appearance of the irrigation and drainage canals in the field, and the demarcations of its outer border, visualized in two characters, namely 井 (a character normally used for the word "well"), and 田 (the normal character for the word "field"). These characters already appear in oracle bone inscriptions from the Shang period 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE), where the character 田 has the shapes , , , , or . In this state of the ancient Chinese script, the characters 井 and 田 cannot clearly be told apart.
When the system came into use, is not known. During the Tang period 唐 (618-907) it was believed that the system was an invention of the Yellow Emperor 黃帝. The word "field" (tian) was also a measuring unit, as can be seen in bronze inscriptions reporting that the king presented his meritorious officials with certain amounts of "fields". Similarly, the word "well" (jing) was used to denote a unit of eight or nine smaller fields, each cultivated by one family. The system is first mentioned in the book Mengzi 孟子. The philosopher Meng Ke 孟軻 (372-289 BCE) said that a benevolent government (ren zheng 仁政) saw to it that fields were allotted to the peasantry in a just and fair manner. The size of a jing 井 (community field) or a "square li" (fangli 方里) was 900 mu 畝 (see weights and measures). The core part of the area, one ninth of the whole, was "public field" (gongtian 公田), meaning that its harvest served as field tax (tianfu 田賦) paid to the government. The rest was for private use (sitian 私田) by eight families. The public field was cultivated by all members of the community and was to be looked after first, before caring for the private parts of the community field.
The system is also mentioned in the history book Guoyu 國語 (ch. Luyu 魯語, as a quotation of Confucius) and the Classic Shijing 詩經 "Book of Songs" (ch. Datian 大田). The dimensions of the community field (jing) is more exactly defined in the Guliang Commentary (Guliangzhuan 穀梁傳) on the "Spring and Autumn Annals" Chunqiu 春秋, where it is said that the ideal side length of a community field was 300 paces (bu 步, i.e. one li 里).
Later authors, mainly from the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE), like Hanshi waizhuan 韓詩外傳, He Xiu's 何休 Chunqiu Gongyangzhuan jiegu 春秋公羊解詁, or ch. 24 Shihuozhi 食貨志 "Food and Commodities" in the history Hanshu 漢書, follow these descriptions, but provide more detailed information. One mu 畝 was a strip with the length of 100 bu and the width of 1 bu. The Hanshi waizhuan gives the following data: Eight families cultivated a community field (jing) of one "square li" (fangli) with a side length of 300 bu. One community field consisted of 900 mu. The book Simafa 司馬法 (quotation of in a commentary to the Zhouli 周禮 chapter Xiao situ 小司徒, not included in the received version of the Simafa) explains that 1 bu was 6 chi long. Three families were called one "roof" (wu 屋), and three "roofs" cultivated one community field (jing). Ten jing were called one "union" (tong 通). In case of war one tong (i.e. 90 families) contributed horses, cavalrymen (shi 士) and infantrymen (tu 徒 to the army). The higher unit called "completion" (cheng 成) and consisting of ten tong, was responsible for chariots.
The descriptions most oftenly quoted are found in the Confucian Classic Zhouli "Rites of the Zhou", completed during the late Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE), yet alleging to describe the administrative system of the early Western Zhou 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE). It is explained there that the Subdirector of the Multitudes (Xiao situ, following the translation of Édouard Biot) was responsible for the allotment of fields and pasture land. Nine (Mengzi said, eight) [groups] of cultivators (fu 夫, i.e. families) were given one community field (jing). Four of these constituted a "village" (yi 邑), four villages a "hill" (qiu 丘), four hills a cadastral section (dian 甸), and four dian one "district" xian 縣, and four xian a "county" (du 都). In the section of the Grand Officers of the Exterior Districts (Suiren 遂人) it is further specified that the field of one group of cultivators was irrigated and dewatered by a ditch (sui 遂), that of ten families by a canal (gou 溝), that of hundred by a mid-size canal (xu 洫), and that for thousand groups by one large canal (kuai 澮), fed by a river (chuan 川). These waters were accompanied by paths, ways and roads with the dimensional sequence jing 徑, zhen 畛, tu 涂, dao 道 and lu 路.
These canals were constructed by engineers (jiangren 匠人), as the chapter Kaogongji 考工記 reports. The canals inside the well-field arrangement were four chi 尺 wide and deep. The mid-size canals, serving an area of 10 square li (= 1 cheng 成) had a width and depth of 8 chi, and the large canals, serving one tong 同 or 100 square li, was 2 xun 尋 (16 chi) wide and 2 ren 仞 deep (Biot also translated ren as "sixteen feet"). Most interestingly, the description in the Zhouli does not speak of any "public field" (gongtian). The connection with water shows that it was not just the shape of the character 井 that gave the system its name (as believed by the Han period scholar Zheng Xuan 鄭玄, si jing zhi zi 似井之字 "[the structure] resembles the character 井 [well]"), but that channels were an indispensable part of the system, at least in theory. It can also be concluded that the part 井 in the word geng 耕 "to plough" (also written 畊) is not just used phonetically, but also with a semantical function.
It must be doubted that in practice such exact regulations could be adhered to. In fact the shapes of the fields and canals of course followed the local conditions, and the quality of fields had also be taken into consideration. The chapter of the Grand Director of the Multitudes (Da situ 大司徒) in the Zhouli explains that depending on the topological conditions, families were given 100, 200, or 300 mu 畮 (= 畝) of land. The difference in size is proved in ch. 39 Zhuyan 主言 of the semi-classic Da Dai Liji 大戴禮記, where the following data are given: 100 bu were one du 堵, 300 bu one li, and 1,000 bu (the length of) one jing 井. This would be more than three times the size of the community field as described in other sources. The chapter Suiren gives more details on the theoretical distribution: In regions with first-class soil (shangdi 上地) the lot of each family was one habitation (chan 廛), 100 mu of arable land, and 50 mu of land for free use (lai 萊), quite probably for crop rotation and fallow use. In regions with mid-class soil (zhongdi 中地), a family was given 100 mu of land for free use, and where low-class soil (xiadi 下地) prevailed, 200 mu of land for free use.
During the Shang period the size of the "public field" was 70 mu, and that of the area cultivated for private use accordingly 630 mu. The Xia dynasty 夏 (21th - 17th cent. BCE) had perhaps a system of 50 mu as public field. Zheng Xuan commented on the chapter Jiangren 匠人 that during the Zhou period, the "tribute system" (gongfa 貢法, meaning a kind of field tax in specie) was applied in the royal domain (jinei 畿內), where no distinction between "public" and "private" fields existed. In the regional states the corvée labour system (zhufa 助法, later called yaoyi 徭役) of the Shang dynasty was applied, according to which no tax was imposed on the public field. This mixed system of the Zhou was therefore called "pervading method" (chefa 徹法), as the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) scholar Mao Qiling 毛奇齡 (1623-1713) explained in his book Sishu shengyan 四書賸言. In the tribute system the "public field" was dissolved and distributed on nine families, instead of the former eight families that collectively cultivated the public field. This is why some literary sources speak about eight, others about nine families.
It can nonetheless be assumed that the cultivation of the central, public field and the construction of the irrigation system belonged to the duties fulfilled with the help of labour corvée, a kind of tax delivered in the shape of physical energy. The strict organization of society certainly reflects the authority of the government that had the right to commandeer the peastantry for official work and military service, and also enforced strict control over the households to ensure the land tax revenue. The population was accordingly arranged as five families per bi 比 (for mutual protection, bao 保), five bi per lü 閭 (for mutual guarding, shou 受), four lü per zu 族 (with common funeral activities, zang 葬), five zu per dang 黨 (for mutual support, jiu 救), five dang per zhou 州 (for mutual charity, zhou 賙), and five zhou per xiang 鄉 (for mutual hosting, bin 賓, ch. Da situ). This was the precursor of the lijia 里甲 and baojia 保甲 systems. A different arrangement, with the purpose of milita service, is described in the Zhouli chapter Xiao situ: Five men constituting one wu 伍, five wu one liang 兩, four liang one zu 卒, five zu one lü 旅, five lü one shi 師, and five shi one jun 軍. Yet another arrangement, described in the chapter Suiren, has to do with land allotment: Five families were a neighbourhood (lin 鄰), five neighbourhoods a hamlet (li 里), four hamlets a village (zan 酇), five villages a town (bi 鄙), five towns a district (xian 縣), and five districts a sui 遂 (defined as a unit 100 li away from the royal capital).
The Western Han period scholar Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒 (179-104 BCE) explained that the system was first abolished (chu jingtian 除井田) in the state of Qin 秦 in 350 BCE and replaced by "opening the road-and-path system" (kai qianmo 開阡陌). From then on it was allowed to sell and purchase land, and private ownership of land became common. This was not a bad situation at all because the state revenue and its grip on labour force was by no means diminished: Shang Yang 商鞅 (see Shangjunshu 商君書), a politician of Qin, ensured his lord a twentyfold amount of tax revenue compared with earlier times. He changed the dimension of the mu from an area of 100 (square) bu to 240 (square) bu. The earliest evidence for a regular taxation of land (chu shui mu 初稅畝 "for the first time land was taxed") occurred in the year 594 BCE in the state of Lu 魯. This taxation was apparently a deviation of the old well-field system, ironically just in that regional state where the "royal regulations" were supposedly preserved in its most ideal shape. The state of Jin 晉 had a peculiar type of field system called yuantian 爰田.
The Classic Liji 禮記 "Record of Rites" (ch. Wangzhi 王制) explained that it was not allowed to sell fields (tian li bu yu 田里不鬻). Yet the inscriptions on Western Zhou bronze vessels found in 1975 show that at that time already, the purchase of fields (with money, peng 朋) was common, in spite of the assertion that "all land belonged to the king". Other inscriptions report the exchange of fields or the exchange of fields against chariots, silk or woodland. Private ownership and an early form of the marketization of estate is thus proved. A statement in the Gongyang Commentary Gongyangzhuan 公羊傳 shows that already in the early sixth century the "public field" was often not cultivated any more but left fallow.
Numerous scholars since have discussed the exact use and administration of the well-field system. Liao Zhongkai 廖仲凱 (1877-1925) was convinced that the well-field system was really applied in the royal domain, while Hu Shi 胡適 (1891-1962) saw it as a utopian model by the early Confucians. The historian Guo Moruo 郭沫若 (1892-1982), standing more to the political left, held that the well-field system, together with the slave population sustaining it, reflected a mode of appanage that secured the income of the nobility, and not necessarily just that of the royal household. Fan Wenlan 范文瀾 (1893-1969) went in a similar direction, but without applying the theory of slavery. While none of these scholars believed that the system was really working in the way as the sources describe it, more research on the "prehistory" of the system interpreted it as a communal organization of villages, probably in connection with the local self-administration carried out by the most powerful families.
Very interesting is the fact that the description of how Yu the Great 大禹 tamed the floods of the rivers and inspected the fields of the nine provinces might be a projection of the field arrangement to "imperial size". The terms gou 溝 and xu 洫 are used in the chapter Yugong 禹貢 in the Classic Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents". Another explanation of the term gongtian 公田 would be "ducal field", meaning that it was the land with which the king of Zhou presented the dukes of the regional states, as a source of their revenue, while the "private fields" (sitian) were such not belonging to these official holdings and were cultivated by field slaves (yeren 野人).
The idea of the well-field system inspired all writers and politicians through history, and it was often suggested to revive this ideal system, even in late imperial times. Gu Yanwu 顧炎武 (1613-1682) reports in his Tianxia junguo libing shu 天下郡國利病書 that during the Ming period the well-field system was practiced in the prefecture of Fengyang 鳳陽. Other attempts are mentioned in the statecraft encyclopaedia Qingchao wenxian tongkao 清朝文獻通考. In 1724 the districts of Xincheng 新城 and Gu'an 固安 in the province of Zhili 直隸 (today Hebei) attempted a realization of the well-field system on land owned by Bannermen (see Banner fields), an experiment that was abolished in 1736.