Roots and Branches
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Roots and Branches

Non-Agrarian Land in Official Cadasters, 1148–1392

I previously posted a bit on tracing land use changes using government cadasters. I argued for both the expansion of private claims to forests, and changes that turned forests into fields. That post drew from early 17th-century tax records from Huizhou, which happens to have very well-documented state records of forests going back a very long time.

For a long time, I’ve been trying to figure out just how far back Chinese states surveyed forests and other non-agrarian lands. This summer (and into the fall) I’ve finally made something of a breakthrough.

The story in very simple terms, and then a bit of evidence:

  1. Between1142 and 1149 (and principally in 1148–49), under the initiative of an official named Li Chunnian 李椿年, the Southern Song resurveyed most of its empire to try to recover the tax base and redistribute the burden among landowners. Thanks to the excellent work of Wang Deyi 王德毅, these surveys have been well-known for quite a while.
  2. A little-known effect of Li’s surveys: they explicitly including mountains and wetlands and any other lands with public benefits (li yu zhongong 利於眾共). They became the first surveys in Chinese history to report the boundaries of non-agrarian land in official registers (mingli jiezhi zhu ji 明立界至注籍).
  3. In the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the effects of these surveys can be seen, in the form of non-agrarian land reported in tax records. The categories used for these landholdings varied substantially by jurisdiction. Over the course of 150 years, the records largely fell into disorder, especially outside of Jiangnan.
  4. In 1315, on the initiative of financial officials, jurisdictions within Jiangzhe and Jianghuai Circuits were to revise their land surveys into a uniform set of six categories: paddy (tian 田); dry land (di 地); mountains (shan 山); pools (dang 蕩); ponds (tangchi 塘池); and miscellaneous property (zachan 雜產). These reforms can be seen in play between 1315 and the early 1340s
  5. When Ming official issued orders to survey landholdings, they issued four standard categories: paddy (tian 田); dry land (di 地); mountains (shan 山); and ponds (tang 塘).
  6. These four categories persisted throughout the Ming and Qing.

Aside from points 1, 5, and 6, which are well-known among people who care about this sort of thing, I believe these are novel discoveries. More importantly, they cast new light on the early Ming surveys: they were essentially the outgrowth of a regional reform from the early 1300s. When the Ming took over Nanjing as its capital, officials appear to have used the local standards for land surveys as the basis for the empire-wide standards.

Here is the basic evidence:

Note that I have separated categories with a semi-colon (and 、 in the Chinese) when separate in the original. Where categories are separated with a comma this is my intervention. Where the evidence occurs in sources of substantially later date, I have underlined the publication date. See end of article for sources.

There is a problem with the Ming, however. Only two sources from the Hongwu period (1368–98) use the four standard categories, both involving gifts of land to noble or military estates. The earliest source to use the standard categories dates from 1455, although it asserts that these categories were used in 1391. In fact, many other sources give land survey data for 1391 using these four categories:

See notes above.

The problem is that, with the exception of the two estates and a single 1455 memorial, all the sources using these categories are all from the 15th century, reporting 1391 land surveys in retrospect. By the time these sources were written they may have been working from early editions of the Statutes of the Great Ming (Da Ming huidian), which was first submitted to the throne in 1497 and officially issued in 1509. While I have not had access to the earlier editions to check them, in the 1597 edition the Ming Statutes formalized these four categories as standard. By this time, there was also a substantial overhaul of the tax and land survey system underway, especially in Jiangxi Province, the source of most of my data.

So was the standard set of land survey categories issued empire-wide in or around 1391? Several jurisdictions were able to report landholding figures parsed into these four categories. While Huizhou (and possibly Raozhou) had been part of the area where revised categories were first issued in 1315, Yuanzhou was not. This suggests that the later sources correctly interpreted the earlier figures as the result of a clear, empire-wide policy issued by 1391.

The implications of this are significant. If the 1149 surveys were the first to include non-agrarian land, the 1315–1343 surveys created standardized categories, including shan 山 (literally “mountain”), the term used for registered forests. Under the Hongwu Emperor, these regional standards were extended to the Ming empire as a whole, creating a empire-wide term for “forest” in the eyes of the state.

As I will continue to explore in later posts, these standards did not actually reach the entire empire, nor did they have much effect on governance outside of Jiangnan. Nonetheless, this was an important chapter in Chinese forest history that has, until now, been overlooked.


Chunxi Xin’an zhi 3; Chunxi Sanshan zhi 10–14; Jiading Chicheng zhi 10; Jianyan yilai fannian yaolu 185.20; Hongzhi Fuzhou fuzhi; Jiading Yanzhou xuzhi 2.15; Kaiqing siming zhi 1.17b-18a; Hongzhi Huizhou fuzhi 3.318; Jiajing Huizhou fuzhi 7.616; Zhishun Zhenjiang zhi 5.286–7; Zhizheng Siming xuzhi 4; Zhizheng Jinling xinzhi 7; Ming Taizu shilu 134; Da Ming huidian 20; Zhengde Raozhou fuzhi; Zhengde Jiangchang fuzhi; Jiajing Jiujiang fuzhi; Jiajing Nan’an fuzhi; Jiajing Guangxin fuzhi; Ming Taizu shilu 230; Ming Yingzong shilu 254



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Ian Matthew Miller

Ian Matthew Miller

Professor @StJohnsU, historian of #China, early modern enthusiast, #dh dabbler.