An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

zutian 族田, clan or family fields

Apr 2, 2021 © Ulrich Theobald

Clan or gentry land (zutian 族田, jitian 祭田 "sacrificial land", yitian 義田 "charity land", citian 祠田 "shrine land" or gongtangtian 公堂田 "fields of the common hall") belonged not to individual families, but to family clusters or "clans" of the local gentry.

The income of these fields were used for special purposes, like sacrifices (jitian 祭田), the management of ancestral shrines (citian 祠田), fields for the Spring and Autumn sacrifices (chengchangtian 烝嘗田) or charitable purposes (yitian 義田). Clan fields were managed and administered by special organisations called yizhuang 義莊 "charity houses". These were also responsible for collecting the rent payable by tenant farmers cultivating the clan land.

The first attested charity house was founded by Fan Zhongyan 范仲淹 (989-1052) in 1049 close to Suzhou 蘇州 (today in Jiangsu). Charity houses were founded by the Zhang 張 family of Jintan 金壇, Jiangsu, the Chen 陳 family in Dongyang 東陽, Zhejiang, the Xiang 向 family in Linjiang 臨江, the Liu 劉 family in Qianshan 鉛山, the Guo 郭 family in Xingan 新淦 – all in Jiangxi, the Lin 林 family in Fujing 福清, Fujian, and the Chen 陳 family in Putian 莆田, also Fujian.

During the Ming period 明 (1368-1644), this type of clan institution became widespread in all parts of China. A survey of 1764 showed that there were 8,093 family shrines in China, of which 6,739 were equipped with fields. In the late 19th century, about half of all fields in some communities in Guangdong consisted of shrine fields. The number was considerably high in Anhui and Jiangsu after the Taiping rebellion 太平, when the prices of landed property were low. In Wuxian 吳縣, Jiangsu, 140 charity establishments owned more than 500 mu 畝 each (see weights and measures). In the whole province of Jiangsu, charity houses owned landed property of a size of 3-400,000 mu.

This property was even protected by law. The law codes of the Ming and Qing 清 (1644-1911) dynasties stipulated punishment for the selling of charity land – particularly such earmarked for tombs (fenshan 墳山, yishan 義山) – with lifelong penal military service (chongjun 充軍). Around 1450, the prefectural government in Jiangsu carried out a land consolidation project which brought back illegally sold clan land to the original family cluster.

The clan land usually stood under the supervision of the oldest family member or the wealthiest household. The land was cultivated either by tenant farmers that were members of the clan, or by non-related persons. The rent was somewhat lower than in normal tenancy contracts. This income was used to support the less fortunate of the clan members, and helped to finance marriages, funerals, disaster relief, nourishing the elderly (yanglao 養老) and the ailing ones, widows and orphans, or to pay tuition fees.

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