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The equal-field system (Chinese: 均田制度; pinyin: Jūntián Zhìdù) or land-equalization system was a historical system of land ownership and distribution in China used from the Six Dynasties to Mid-Tang dynasty.
By the time of the Han dynasty, the well-field system of land distribution had fallen out of use in China, though reformers like Emperor Wang Mang tried to restore it. The Equal-field system was introduced into practice around 485 AD by Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei Dynasty, a non-Han kingdom in North China, during the Northern and Southern Dynasties period. The system was eventually adopted by other kingdoms and its use continued through the Sui and Tang dynasties.
The system worked on the basis that all land was owned by the government, which would then assign it to individual families. Every individual, including slaves, was entitled to a certain amount of land, the amount depending on their ability to supply labor. For example, able-bodied men received 40 mu of land (approx. 1.1 hectares or 2.7 acres), while women received less, and more land was granted per ox owned by the family. After death, the land would revert to the state to be reassigned, though provisions were allowed for inheritance of land that required long-term development, such as farms for mulberry trees (for silkworms).
The system was intended to foster the development of land and to ensure that no agricultural land lay neglected. This prevented aristocrats from developing large power bases by monopolizing the fields, and allowed the common people to partake of the land and ensure their livelihood. From these, the government was able to develop a tax base and to slow the accumulation of land by vast, untaxable estates. This was also used by the Tang dynasties to break the dynastic cycle. The dynastic cycle was the idea that all dynasties will come to an end and this was going to stop it by having the people receive the land from the government; this makes them feel like the government gave them something even though it never left.
The Fall Into Disuse
The system eventually began falling out of use after the An Lushan rebellion as the government began to lose centralized control over its territories. Though all land theoretically belonged to the government, the aristocratic families were able to legally acquire land, and were able to build up their holdings. Buddhist monasteries too, came to control vast estates of agricultural lands. Peasants often entered into the households of landlords and became tenant farmers or servants during times of natural disasters and conflict in order to ensure their own security. The gradual loss of taxable lands is a reason for the decline of the Tang dynasty. The pattern of landlords holding lands worked by tenant farmers would continue throughout the rest of Chinese history until the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949.
Adoption in Japan
The equal-field system was adopted by Japan during the Taika Period as a result of the Taika reforms made by Prince Shotoku Taishi (see Ritsuryo), though it is debatable to what degree it was actually implemented. Provinces close to the capital were more strictly regulated and taxed, prompting farmers to flee to outlying provinces. In Japan, too, the system fell out of use as land reverted to private ownership; decrees in 723 held that newly developed lands could be inherited for three generations while a later decree in 743 allowed for these developed lands to be held in perpetuity. By the year 800 AD the land redistribution scheme was practically abandoned as census and distribution became infrequent and irregular. Nonetheless, the system remained in existence, at least in theory, well after that.