Local administration and defence by clan heads (zongzhu duhu 宗主督護) was a system in which the central government adopted private structures as a means of village administration. The system was in use during the Jin 晉 (265-420) and the early Northern Wei 北魏 (386-534) periods, a time in which the state structure was substantially curtailed and local magnates from among the distinguished families (haoqiang 豪強) were virtually independent. In order to defend their belongings and adjacent villages against raids by inimical powers, magnates created private armies (buqu 部曲). The breakdown of state structures allowed them to take care by themselves for all needs needed by the local community.
The centres of local self-administration were fortified manors (wubao 塢堡), in which peasants could take shelter in case of need. The owner of the manor, the "clan head" (zongzhu 宗主) was also owner of the land, and often also of infrastructure with granaries, mills, or workshops of any kind. Peasants were mostly client-farmers (dianke 佃客) or even serfs of the landowner. They paid rent to the landlord and delivered services.
Taxation from the side of the government was not regular, but based on actual need, just as requisitions for the supply of armies when a military campaign was carried out. This situation was common during the Sixteen States period 十六國 (300~430), and in the early decades of the Northern Wei. The latter took over the system because this kind of local autonomy saved the government efforts to build up administrative and military infrastructure. In places, where no clan heads were present, the central government appointed village heads (dangzhang 黨長).
With the stabilization of the Northern Wei state and attempts at centralization, the clan-head system became an impediment for regular taxation. Emperor Xiaowen 北魏孝文帝 (r. 471-499) therefore decided to abolish the system by the creation of regular districts and the introduction of a new system of household registers (huji 戶籍). The latter included a new structure of responsibility, in which neighbourhood, hamlet, and village heads (the three heads, sanzhang 三長) organized the registration and collected taxes. This new system was launched in 486, together with a new pattern of field distribution, the equal-field system (juntian zhi 均田制).