Ancient China Simplified
by Edward Harper Parker
Public Domain Books
Chapter XVI - Land and People
What sort of folk were the masses of China, upon whom the ruling classes depended, then as now, for their support? In the year 594 B.C. the model state of Lu for the first time imposed a tax of ten per cent, upon each Chinese “acre” of land, being about one-sixth of an English acre: as the tax was one-tenth, it matters not what size the acre was. Each cultivator under the old system had an allotment of 100 such acres for himself, his parents, his wife, and his children; and in the centre of this allotment were 10 acres of “public land,” the produce of which, being the result of his labour, went to the State; there was no further taxation. A “mile,” being about one-third of an English mile, and, therefore, in square measure one-ninth of an English square mile, consisted of 300 fathoms (taking the fathom roughly), and its superficies contained 900 “acres” of which 80 were public under the above arrangement, 820 remaining for the eight families owning this “well-field"–so called because the ideograph for a “well" represents nine squares: a four-sided square in the centre, four three-sided squares impinging on it; and four two-sided squares at the corners; i.e. 100 “acres” each, plus 2-1/2 “acres” each for “homestead and onions"; or 20 of these last in all. Nine cultivators in one “well,” multiplied by four, formed a township, and four townships formed a “cuirass” of 144 armed warriors; but this was under a modified system introduced four years later (590). It will be observed that the arithmetic seems confused, if not faulty; but that does not seriously affect the genuineness of the picture, and may be ignored as mere detail.
The ancient classification of people was into four groups. The scholar people employed themselves in studying tao and the sciences, from which we plainly see that the doctrine of tao, or “the way,” existed long before Lao-tsz, in Confucius’ time, superadded a mystic cosmogony upon it, and made of it a socialist or radical instead of an imperialist or conservative doctrine. The second class were the trading people, who dealt in “produce from the four quarters"; there is evidence that this meant chiefly cattle, grain, silk, horses, leather, and gems. The third class were the cultivators, and in those days tea and cotton, amongst other important products of to-day, were totally unknown. The fourth class consisted of handicraftsmen, who naturally made all things they could sell, or knew how to make.
Another classification of men is the following, which was given to the King of Ts’u by a sage adviser, presumably an importation from orthodox China. He divided people into ten classes, each inferior class owing obedience to its superior, and the highest of all owing obedience only to the gods or spirits. First, the Emperor; secondly, the “inner” dukes, or grandees of estates within the imperial domain: these grandees were dukes proper, not dukes by posthumous courtesy like the vassal princes after decease, and the Emperor used to send them on service, when required, to the vassal states; they were, in fact, like the “princes of the Church” or cardinals, who surround the Pope. Thirdly, “the marquesses,” that is the semi-independent vassal states, no matter whether duke, marquess, earl, viscount, or baron; this term seems also to include the reigning lords of very small states which did not possess even the rank of baron, and which were usually attached to a larger state as clients, under protectorate; in fact, the recognized stereotyped way of saying “the vassal rulers” was “the marquesses.” Then came what we should call the “middle classes," or bourgeoisie, followed by the artisans and cultivators: it will be noticed that the artisans are here given rank over the cultivators, which is not in accord with either very ancient or very modern practice; this, indeed, places cultivators before both traders and artisans. Lastly came the police, the carriers of burdens, the eunuchs, and the slaves. By “police” are meant the runners attached to public offices, whose work too often involves “squeezing” and terrorizing, torturing, flogging, etc. To the present day police, barbers, and slaves require three generations of purifying, or living down, before their descendants can enter for the public examinations; or, to use the official expression, their “three generations” must be “clear"; at least so it was until the old Confucian examination system was abolished as a test for official capacity a few years ago. Of eunuchs we shall have more to say shortly; but very little indeed is heard of private slaves, who probably then, as now, were indistinguishable from the ordinary people, and were treated kindly. The callous Greek and still more brutal Roman system, not to mention the infinitely more cowardly and shocking African slavery abuses of eighteenth- century Europe and nineteenth-century America, have never been known in China: no such thing as a slave revolt has ever been heard of there.
In the year 548 the kingdom of Ts’u ordered a cadastral survey, and also a general stock-taking of arms, chariots, and horses. Records were made of the extent and value of the land in each parish, the extent of the mountains and forests, and the resources they might furnish. Observation was also made of lakes and marshes suitable for sport, and it was forbidden to fill these in. Note was taken of such hills and mounds as might be available for tombs–a detail which shows that modern graves in China differ little if at all from the ancient ones; in fact in Canton “my hill,” or “mountain,” is synonymous with “my cemetery.” In order to fix the taxes at a just figure, stock was taken of the salt- flats, the unproductive lands, and the tracts liable to periodical inundation. Areas rescued from the waters were protected by dykes, and subdivided for allotment by sloping banks, but without introducing the rigid nine-square system. Good lands, however, were divided according to the method introduced by the Chou dynasty; that is to say, six feet formed a “fathom,” 100 fathoms an “acre,” 100 “acres” the allotment of one family; these English terms are, of course, only approximately correct. Nine families still formed a hamlet or “well,” and they cultivated together 1000 “acres,” the central hundred going to pay the imposts. Taxes, direct and indirect, were fixed with exactitude, and also the number of war-chariots that each parish had to furnish; the number of horses; their value, age, and colour; the number of armoured troopers and foot soldiers, with a return of their cuirasses and shields. Regarding this colour classification, of the horses, it may be mentioned that the Tartars, in the second century B.C., were in the habit of equipping whole regiments of cavalry on mounts of the same colour, and it is, therefore, possible that this practice may have been imitated in South China; but Ts’u never once herself engaged in warfare with the Tartars; at all events with Tartars other than Tartars brought into Chinese settlements.
Long before this, the philosopher-statesman Kwan-tsz of Ts’i had so developed the agriculture, fisheries, trade, and salt gabelle, and had governed the country in such a way that his State, hitherto of minor importance, soon took the lead amongst the Chinese powers for wealth and for military influence. His classification of the people was into scholars, artisans, traders, and agriculturalists. He is generally credited with having introduced the “Babylonian woman” into the Ts’i metropolis, in order that traders, having sold their goods there, might leave as much as possible of their money behind in the houses of pleasure. There are many accounts of the luxury of this populous city, where “every woman possessed one long and one short needle,” and where a premium levied upon currency, fish, and salt was applied to the relief of the poor and (!) to the rewarding of virtue. Kwan-tsz also maintained a standing army, or perhaps a militia force, of 30,000 men; but he was careful so to husband his strength that Ts’i should not have the external appearance of dominating; his aim was that she should rather hold her power in reserve, and only use it indirectly: as we have seen, his master was, in consequence of Kwan-tsz’s able administration, raised to the high position of the first of the Five Protectors.
From this it will be plain that there was considerable commercial activity in China even before the time of Confucius: there was quite a string of fairs or market towns extending from the imperial reserve eastwards along the Yellow River to Choh-thou (still so called, south of Peking), which was then the most northernly of them: apparently each considerable state possessed one of these fairs. The headwaters of the River Hwai system were served by the great mart (now called Yii Chou) belonging to the state of Cheng. As with our own histories, Chinese annals consist chiefly of the record of what kings and grandees did, and mention of the people is only occasional; and, even then, only in connection with the policy of their leaders.
As soon as the second of the Protectors, the Marquess of Tsin, was seated on his ancestral throne (637), his first act was to reduce the tolls and make the roads safer; to facilitate trade, and to encourage agriculture. Also to “make friends of the eleven great families” (already mentioned twice in preceding pages), whose development, however, in time led to the collapse of this princely power, and to its division between three of the “great families." A century after this, a minister of the Ts’u state praised very highly the efficiency of the Tsin administration. “The common people are devoted to agriculture; the merchants, artisans, and menials are all dutiful.” For the conveyance of grain between the Ts’in and the Tsin capitals, both carts and boats were requisitioned, from which we must assume that there were practicable roads of some sort for two-wheeled vehicles. In the year 546, when some important reserves were made by Tsin at the Peace Conference, an express messenger was sent from Sung to the Ts’u capital to take the king’s pleasure: this means an overland journey from the sources of the Hwai to the modern treaty port of Sha-shr above Hankow.
It may be added that, five centuries before Kwan-tsz existed, the founder of the Ts’i state, as a vassal to the new Chou dynasty, had already distinguished himself by encouraging trade, manufactures, fisheries, and the salt production; so that Kwan-tsz was an improver rather than an inventor.
Thus we see that, from very early times, China was by no means a sleepy country of ignorant husbandmen, but was a place full of multifarious activities; and that her local rulers, at least from the time when the patriarchal power of the Emperors decayed in 771, were often men of considerable sagacity, quite alive to the necessity of developing their resources and encouraging their people: this helps us to understand their restlessness under the yoke of “ritual.”