Field tax (tianfu 田賦) was in ancient China usually levied on the size of a field, but the quality of soil was also taken into consideration, or alternatively, the harvest. The oldest record for field tax refers to the year 594 BCE, when in the regional state of Lu 魯 for the first time a field tax was collected (chu shui mu 初稅畝). Another record in the Confucian Classic Chunqiu-Zuozhuan 春秋左傳 "Spring and Autumn Annals" for the year 483 BCE (Aigong 哀公 12: Jisun yu yi tian fu 季孫欲以田賦, [Regent] Jisun [i.e Ji Kangzi 季康子] wanted to levy a tax on the land) makes first use of the word tianfu. Yet it seems that the field tax was at that time not yet established as a regular way of collecting revenue.
Western Zhou-period 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE) documents use the expressions gong 貢 "tribute", zhu 助 "support", and che 徹 "pervasion", which might have corresponded to something like a field tax. A regular field tax was perhaps introduced under the counsellorship of Shang Yang 商鞅 (390-338 BCE) in the state of Qin 秦 in 350 BCE. Qin- 秦 (221-206 BCE) and Han- 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) period sources usually use the term tianzu 田租 to refer to a field tax (in late imperial China the word would mean a rent to be paid by a tenant farmer to the landlord).
In the Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE), the field tax amounted to one fifteenth of the harvest, but it was reduced to one thirtieth during the reign of Emperor Jing 漢景帝 (r. 157-141 BCE). During the Wei period 曹魏 (220-265), one mu 畝 of land (see weights and measures) was taxed at 4 sheng 升, and amount that was doubled during the Western Jin period 西晉 (265-316). The land tax during the Southern Dynasties period 南朝 (420-589) was heavy and differed over places and time. The Northern Wei dynasty 北魏 (386-534) introduced a new mode of taxation, the equal-field system (juntianzhi 均田制), in which taxes were levied per adult male household member (ding 丁).
The Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907) applied the tripartite tax system (zuyongdiao 租庸調) which consisted of a household tax and a land tax. Apart from such payments in kind, peasants had to deliver labour to the local government. A new taxation system introduced in the late 8th century, the twice-taxation system (liangshuifa 兩稅法), merged the field tax with the household tax, and both were payable in kind or in money, but usually, the land tax was paid in kind, and the household tax in money. They were collected twice a year, along with supplementary fees. The combination of payment in kind and in money resulted in the use of the term qian-liang 錢糧 ("money and grain", in late imperial China meaning "funds", i.e. money).
The Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279) levied the field tax according to size of the land, and abolished the difference between private land (mintian 民田), paying shui 稅 or dishui 地稅 taxes, and government-owned land (guantian 官田), paying zu 租 or tianzu 田租 taxes ("rent", because farmers were cultivating government land).
The Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368) fell back on a combination between taxing land and male household members, and preferred payment in kind, the so-called tax grain (shuiliang 稅糧).
From 1376 on, the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644) accepted silver or paper money as payment for taxes. The tax rate for government-owned land (guantian) was 5.3 sheng 升 of grain (or the corresponding monetary value) per mu of land, that for private land (mintian) 3.3 sheng, that of high-rent land (zhongzutian 重租田) 8.53 sheng, and that of fields fallen back to the state (moguantian 沒官田) 12 sheng. Yet documentary figures show tax rates of up to 4-5 dou 斗 (40-50 sheng) or even more than 1 shi 石 per mu (Zhou, Chen, and Qi 1998), particularly in the prosperous lower Yangtze region.
With the single-whip method (yitiaobian fa 一條鞭法) introduced during the late Ming period, the obligatory service for the government, corvée, was integrated into the field tax. The Qing dynasty 清 (1644-1911) went a step further in merging various fees (like the transport-loss surcharge haoxian 耗羨) with the land tax and went over to a full payment in money. This process was called tanding rumu 攤丁入地 or di-ding heyi 地丁合一, and "tax" was from then on known as diding 地丁 ("land and head"), and the sums collected (be it silver or copper cash) were known as diding qianliang 地丁錢糧 "land-and-head money" (the word liang 糧 just being a residual word of former times). The term tianfu was thus more or less identical with the word fushui 賦稅 "tax", at least for normal farmer households. In accounting books, the words diding 丁銀 "poll tax" and tianfu "field tax" remained in use.
There were nine different tax levels, grouped in three tax brackets (sandeng jiuze 三等九則, see keze 科則). The tax per mu of land ranged from 0.02 tael/liang to 0.3 tael and was per legem payable in silver, but tax collectors often also accepted copper cash. The conversion rate between cash and silver rose in the early 19th century for various reasons (sinking quality of cash, but sources often blame the outflow of silver because of opium smuggling for the worsening of the exchange rate). Another problem in the taxation during the mid-19th century were the Taiping rebellion 太平 which occupied China's breadbasket in the southeast, and the silting of the Grand Canal which made the transport of tribute grain (caoyun 漕運) to Beijing very difficult. These problems led to intensified monetization of tax payment. The tribute grain (caoliang 漕糧), which originally served to supply the capital troops and members of the bureaucracy in Beijing with grain, was converted into monetary payment (caozhe 漕折, liangzhe 糧折).
During that time, the national revenue from the field tax amounted to 32-33 million tael p.a., which corresponded to between 66 and 75 per cent of the total state revenue. Later on, the creation of new taxes like the customs (guanshui 關稅), the likin tax (lijin 厘金) or the raised salt tax (yuanshui 鹽稅) lowered this share to about one third about 1900, and to 15 to 20 per cent during the first decade of the Republican period (Liu 1995). About 1890, the field tax revenue amounted to c. 23 million tael, supplementary fees (haoxian) to about 3 million, the commuted tribute grain to about 4 million, new taxes to c. 1.5 million, and rent of government-owned land (zuxi 租息) to 0.7 million, making a total of 32 million tael (Peng 1988). Yet figures including local governments and all kinds of supplementary fees make out a land tax of 70 million tael at the very end of the Qing (Peng 1988).
The Republican government (1911-1949) tried to further regularize the payment of taxes and abolished special forms of taxes for households participating in the tribute grain transport or which cultivated reed (luke 蘆課 "reed tax"), tea or other products. Even if not owning fields in the proper sense, the tax peasant households had to pay was called tianfu. The Beiyang Government 北洋政府 in Beijing levied quite a number of extraordinary fees, even if it was regulated in the Draft Act on National and Local Taxes (Guojia difang shuifa cao'an 國家地方稅法草案) from 1913 that the central government should obtain the regular field tax and the local governments extra fees (fushui 附稅). Supplementary taxes were not to surpass 30 per cent of the field tax. Yet the Beiyang Government soon usurped also these supplementary revenues in order to make the provincial government financially dependent from the centre. The result was that the provincial governments levied an additional field tax on their own.
After 1928, the Guomindang 國民黨 government decided in the "Act on the Standardization of Revenue and Expenditure of the [Central] and the Local Government" (Guo-di shouzhi biaozhun an 國地收支標準案) that the field tax was retained by the local governments, while the central government depended on various other forms of taxes. A further regulation from 1931 on the estimate of revenue and expenditure, the Banli yusuan shouzhi biaozhun an 辦理預算收支標準案, allowed also the districts (counties) to levy supplementary fees together with the field tax (tianfu fujia 田賦附加). In some places, the government even collected taxes for many years in advance (yuzheng 預征), in Sichuan, for instance, for as much as thirty years.
During the Anti-Japanese War, inflation haunted China, and the government went over to tax payment in kind (tianfu zhengshi 田賦征實). In 1941, the conversion rate was 1 Silver Dollar (Yuan 元) original tax against 2 dou of rice or 1.5 dou of wheat, in 1942, it was 1 Yuan against 4 dou of rice and 2.8 dou of wheat. In 1943, even cotton fields were taxed at a conversion rate of 1 Yuan against 5 jin 斤 of raw cotton (pimian 皮棉). In the same year, the government began to purchase grain for the army, yet "tax purchase" (zhenggou 征購) meant that the tax in kind was directly earmarked for the military, and the "price" of the requisitioned grain was thus substantially lower than on the free market. Peasants were furthermore not given money or only very small amounts, but were fobbed off with food ration cards (liangshiku quan 糧食庫券). In 1942, the province of Sichuan saw the introduction of the "tax lending" method (zhengjie 征借) by which the government did not even pay out any means of redemption to the peasants. This requisition method was extended to the whole country in 1944, along with a raise of the field tax by 100 per cent. It was the common method of taxation on the countryside until 1949.