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China, a History


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Bee Cha
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« Reply #90 on: October 07, 2007, 06:40:30 am »

Rise of landholding class

To secure funding for his triumphant campaigns against the Xiongnu, Emperor Wu relinquished land control to merchants and the rich, and in effect legalized the privatization of lands. Land taxes were based on the sizes of fields instead of on income. The harvest could not always pay the taxes completely as incomes from selling harvest were often market-driven and a stable amount could not be guaranteed, especially not after harvest-reducing natural disasters. Merchants and prominent families then lured peasants to sell their lands since land accumulation guaranteed living standards of theirs and their descendants' in the agricultural society of China. Lands were hence accumulating into a new class of landholding families. The Han government in turn imposed more taxes on the remaining independent servants in order to make up the tax losses, therefore encouraging more peasants to come under the landholding elite or the landlords. This could be seen through such examples as the written evidence in the Yan Tie Lun (Discourses on Salt and Iron), written about 80 BC, where the Lord Grand Secretary is quoted in this passage in his support of nationalizing the salt and iron industries:

Formerly the overbearing and powerful great families, obtaining control of the profits of the mountains and lakes, mined iron ore and smelted it with great bellows, and evaporated brine for salt. A single family would assemble a multitude, sometimes as many as a thousand men or more, for the most part wandering unattached plebeians (fang liu ren min) who had traveled far from their own villages, abandoning the tombs (of their ancestors). Thus attaching themselves to the great families, they came together in the midst of mountain fastnesses or desolate marshes, bringing about thereby the fruition of business based on selfish intrigue (for profit) and intended to aggrandise the power of particular firms and factions.

Ideally the peasants pay the landlords certain periodic (usually annual) amount of income, who in turn provide protection against crimes and other hazards. In fact an increasing number of peasant population in the prosperous Han society and limited amount of lands provided the elite to elevate their standards for any new subordinate peasants. The inadequate education and often complete illiteracy of peasants forced them into a living of providing physical services, which were mostly farming in an agricultural society. The peasants, without other professions for their better living, compromised to the lowered standard and sold their harvest to pay their landlords. In fact they often had to delay the payment or borrow money from their landlords in the aftermath of natural disasters that reduced harvests. To make the situation worse, some Han rulers double-taxed the peasants. Eventually the living conditions of the peasants worsened as they solely depended on the harvest of the land they once owned.

The landholding elite and landlords, for their part, provided inaccurate information of subordinate peasants and lands to avoid paying taxes; to this very end corruption and incompetence of the Confucian scholar gentry on economics would play a vital part. Han court officials who attempted to strip lands out of the landlords faced such enormous resistance that their policies would never be put in to place. In fact only a member of the landholding families, for instance Wang Mang, was able to put his reforming ideals into effect despite failures of his "turning the clock back" policies.


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