Feudalism and Well-field System

The Well-field System was a land management system implemented in China during the slave society period. It is said to have been in practice since the Xia and Shang dynasties but reached its full development during the Western Zhou period. The term “Well-field” refers to dividing cultivated land into square fields, each measuring a hundred paces on each side, called a “field.” The area of one field was one hundred mu, cultivated by one person, referred to as a “husbandman” or “fu.” Roads and channels crisscrossed between the square fields, creating a pattern resembling a “well,” hence the name Well-field System. The lords compelled commoners to collectively cultivate these well-fields, with nine fields forming a “well.” Among them, the surrounding eight fields were private fields, cultivated by eight households, and the central one was a public field, cultivated jointly by the eight households, with the entire yield belonging to the lord. This was the system of eight families around a well, collectively supporting the public field.

During the Western Zhou period, considering the king’s claim of ruling all under heaven, the ownership of well-fields belonged to the Zhou king, and the actual cultivators only had the right of use. The Zhou king distributed the land to vassals, who became landowners, and they had to pay tribute to the Zhou king annually. Moreover, these landowners could only enjoy the well-fields and, following the system of ancestral law, had to inherit according to the principles of primogeniture, prohibiting buying, selling, or transferring. The commoners working in the well-fields were considered attachments to the land owned by the lords, devoid of the freedom to change occupations and were bound to the land for life.

The upper-class landowners in the Western Zhou period converted the fertile lands, numbering in the hundreds or thousands of mu, into public fields for themselves. These lands were typically near rivers, facing the sun, easy to cultivate, and large in size, thus also called large fields. The lords appointed officials as field overseers. These overseers prepared for the spring plowing during winter, organizing laborers into pairs known as “couple,” with two people working together known as “couple plowing.” In the lord’s large public fields, there were often thousands of couples of laborers. When spring arrived, the busy farming season began. At the break of dawn, numerous commoners were driven to the lord’s public fields to work. The overseers assigned by the lord would sit at the village entrance, counting the number of laborers and monitoring their work. When the day’s plowing ended, they also had to undergo a tally by the overseer. At times, the landowners would personally supervise the laborers working in the fields. Upon harvest in the autumn, the yield from the public fields piled up, all going to the landowner. During the winter when farming activities ceased, commoners performed various tasks for the landowners, such as building houses, making ropes, spinning, weaving fabric, and producing clothing. To prevent them from slacking off, the landowners gathered them to work together for better supervision.

Landowners allocated lands near the city to ordinary laborers of the same clan. These individuals resided in the city, referred to as “state people” since they lived within the “state.” State people were not required to pay rent but had to fulfill military and tax obligations. Annually, they had to provide a small amount of rice and bundles of fodder for the military, and during wartime, they had to take up arms and provide their own necessary supplies for warfare. State people could serve in the military, receive education, primarily focusing on rituals and military training, and were known as “warriors” or “knights.” While seemingly not subjected to exploitation, their position was precarious due to frequent wars during this period. If a war was waged, they had to participate, and the spoils of war went entirely to the ruling class. After returning home following a war, they might find their fields abandoned due to lack of management, leading to starvation. Therefore, the status of state people was unstable. The lands farther from the city and less fertile were allocated by landowners to laborers living in the wild, known as “wild people.” The landowners considered them foolish and looked down upon them, calling them “mang.” These individuals had no rights and could only cultivate the land and perform miscellaneous tasks for the landowners. They had to initially cultivate the land of the landowner before gaining permission to work on their small piece of land.

In the mid-Western Zhou period, the phenomenon of land cultivators owning private fields emerged, and nobles began engaging in land transactions. Personal land ownership began to take shape, and the well-field system began to break down. In the later period of the Spring and Autumn period, the state of Lu implemented an initial land tax per acre, recognizing the landowner’s ownership of the land, leading to the gradual dissolution of the well-field system. With the use of iron tools and the widespread adoption of plowing with oxen, a new form of exploitation arose: the feudal landlords’ exploitation of peasants. During the Warring States period, Shang Yang implemented reforms in the state of Qin, abolishing the well-field system, allowing people to engage in buying and selling, and affirming individual land ownership, marking the complete collapse of the well-field system.

The Well-field System served as the economic system of the Zhou Dynasty. Based on this system, the Zhou Dynasty established a corresponding political system called the Feudal System. At the beginning of the Western Zhou Dynasty, rulers started to divide fiefs among vassals. The recipients were mainly relatives of the same surname, distinguished meritorious officials, and descendants of ancient kings. For example, the younger brother of King Cheng of Zhou, Shu Yu, was granted a fief in Jin, and Jiang Ziya was granted a fief in Qi. The descendants of the Shang king Weizi Qi were granted a fief in Song, and so on.

In the early Western Zhou period, Zhou Gongji Dan assisted King Cheng of Zhou for seven years, stabilizing Zhou’s rule and then restoring power to King Cheng. To further consolidate Zhou’s rule, Zhou Gong implemented a set of rituals and music to maintain a hierarchical system of lord and vassal, as well as superior and subordinate. These regulations ensured the absolute dominance of the Zhou king, with blood ties acting as a bond. The system stipulated that the eldest legitimate son had the right of primogeniture to inherit the throne. In ancient societies with polygamy, a man could have one principal wife and numerous concubines. The legitimate son, born of the principal wife, was considered the legitimate heir, while sons born of concubines were considered illegitimate. The legitimate son held a higher status, with the right to inherit the throne, while the illegitimate sons, being of lower status, could, at most, receive a small piece of land or become subordinates to the legitimate son. If the principal wife had multiple sons, the eldest had to be chosen. If the principal wife had no sons, the eldest son among those born of concubines would be selected for the throne, known as the principle of choosing the eldest.

This system was the kinship-based system within the royal family, referred to as the kinship system. On a national scale, it was the Feudal System.