Whether the well field system existed or not has been debated by historians. According to the Spring and Autumn Annals, the so-called “well field” was a unit of irrigation in which eight families shared one well. The amount of water from one well could be used to irrigate the fields of one well. The land of a well, i.e., 100 mu in the middle compartment was “public land”, and the other 100 mu for each family, totaling nine compartments.
The Western Zhou period in China can be roughly understood as the current academic term for the stage of European history: feudal society. The Zuo Zhuan – 15 years of Duke Xuan, “The first tax mu.” This article shows that the first time the peasants were taxed on the farmland, but it also shows that the nobles must have had other sources of livelihood when they were not taxed on the farmland, which was actually the well field system. The well field system before the first taxation mu, that is, the private land was lent by the feudal lord to the tenant farmers, but the tenant farmers had to plant the “public land” for the feudal lord, in all fairness, this system was much more equal than the Roman slave system.
In the era of the Well Field System, the nobles, i.e., the feudal landlords at that time, sent agricultural instructors to help support the peasants, and the attitude of discipline could not be called the subordinate relationship between master and slave. In the Well Field System, the “private fields” were cultivated by each tenant farmer individually, while the “public fields” were cultivated by eight families together.
All in all, the change in the concept of land ownership came from the change in the taxation system. As Mencius said, “The Hou Xia clan paid tribute at fifty, the Yin at seventy, and the Zhou at one hundred mu, but they were all eleven.” The tribute, helper, and cheer mentioned here are the three ancient taxation methods. The tribute method was to take the average of several years’ harvests and collect a tenth of the amount. As the harvest varies from year to year, when the harvest is good, there is a surplus, but in a bad year, even the fertilizer fee is not enough, so the “tribute” method is not good. The help method was to collect taxes according to the good and bad years, which was beneficial to farmers. The method of “Che” was to collect one tenth of the tax forever, but to survey the fields every year. Later on, the two methods of “tribute” and “che” were used.
Later, Shang Yang abolished the Well Field System during the reign of Duke Xiao of Qin. The Records of the Grand Historian said, “The frontiers were opened for the fields and the taxes were leveled.” This record, until the Southern Song Dynasty Zhu Zi made the “open road and path” from then on 800 years has become a definitive theory. According to Zhu Zi’s explanation, when there were pavements, that is, when there was a well field system. The fields cultivated by the peasants still had to be returned to the feudal lord. However, after the abolition of the paths, the peasants only paid taxes regardless of the amount of land they cultivated, and the land became privately owned, so people’s livelihoods were stabilized. This proves that there was a well-till system, and traditionally Zhu Zi’s explanation is the most appropriate. This shows that the well field system did exist in ancient times. However, there are many reasons why Shang Yang abolished the well field system.
There are several apparent reasons. The first was that the peasants at that time plowed more and reported less, and dug fewer field banks. At that time, the feudal system had been changed to county system, so naturally the paths could be destroyed and turned into large farmland. Secondly, there were some areas with small land and dense population, such as Zheng. That is why Zi Chan broke the lattice line of well fields.
In addition to the surface reasons, there were also technical reasons. At that time, iron tools could be used to plow the fields. Mencius records the fact that “Xu Zi plowed with iron”. With the availability of iron tools, farmers had the ability and possibility to cultivate large areas of land. In the late Spring and Autumn period, there was already cattle plowing, and it was recorded in the “State Policy” that “Qin used cattle to plow fields, and water was used for food”. In the Warring States period, oxen plowing became even more prevalent. In addition, the Warring States period, water conservancy experts. For example, Wei Wen Hou had Ximen Bao, Wei Hui Wang had Bai Gui, Qin Xiao Wen Wang had Li Bing, Qin Shi Huang had Zheng Guo. Dujiangyan is still in use for thousands of years. The construction of irrigation projects was completed, and irrigation was more convenient than before, thus enabling the cultivation of a wider area of arable land.
In addition to the superficial and technical reasons, there were more far-reaching institutional reasons. That is, changes in the tax system made the well system unsustainable.
The well system was a system of public land. The remaining 800 mu of “private land” were allotted to eight households, with the harvest from the public land going to the feudal lord and the private land going to the farmer. It was not until the “taxation of the mu” that the tax was changed to a fixed rate depending on the actual harvest of the mu. This is what Mencius called the “Che Fa”. The well field system was completely destroyed. In the late Spring and Autumn Period, the emergence of the fixed-rate taxation system made the soil for the existence of the Well Field System gradually disappear.
In this sense, the well field system was a part of the whole political system accompanying the feudal system, and it was also consistent with the accompanying taxation system, the “help” method. When the “help” method changed to the “che” method, the corresponding land system also changed.
The ancient Chinese well field system is different from the Western manor, accompanied by a corresponding political system is different. Western manor system, a large piece of arable land by the peasant cooperative communal farming, peasants attached to the land, so it is serfdom, that is, slavery. The landowner is the nobleman. In China, the Well Field System divided the land into wells, and the peasants were not attached to the land; although the land was owned by the nobility, the peasants were not serfs, so the political systems in China and the West were naturally different. Therefore, strictly speaking, ancient China did not have a slave society in the strict sense, nor a primitive communist society, but had a short-lived feudal society. After Shang Yang abolished the Well Field System, the political system practiced in China was actually a centralized system based on the county system.