An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

miaotian 廟田, jitian 祭田, fields of monasteries, temples and shrines

Mar 27, 2021 © Ulrich Theobald

"Sacrificial fields" (jitian 祭田) or sacrificial land (jidi 祭地) was land whose income was particularly dedicated for the expenses of sacrifices, for example, ancestral altars or clan shrines. These might be in private ownership or public ownership, like Confucius shrines. Sacrificial land might be a donation by the imperial house, a prince, or a local gentry family.

Quite similar, but much larger, were temple or monastic fields (miaotian 廟田, si-guan tian 寺觀田, seng-dao tian 僧道田, sengtian 僧田, sitian 寺田) which belonged to temples (miao 廟) dedicated to Confucius, local heroes or other deified persons and gods, Buddhist monasteries (si 寺) or Daoist temples and clauses (an 庵, guan 觀). In contrast to sacrificial or shrine fields, temple fields were ceded by the local or the central government or purchased by believers. With the revenue from other sources, temples and monasteries were sometimes able to purchase further tracts of land.

Emperor Xiaowen 北魏文成帝 (r. 452-465) of the Northern Wei dynasty 北魏 (386-534), for instance, presented no less than 100 qing 頃 (see weights and measures) of land to Dazhongxing Monastery 大中興寺 in Chang'an 長安 (today’s Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi). Emperor Wu 梁武帝 (r. 502-549) of the Liang dynasty 梁 (502-557) donated 80 qing of land to Da'aijing Monastery 大愛敬寺 in Jiankang 建康 (Nanjing 南京, Jiangsu), and Empress Wu Zetian 唐武則 (regent 684-690, ruler 690-704) spent much money to equip monasteries in Chang'an and Luoyang 洛陽 with fields. Chengtian Temple 承天宮 in Xiajiang 峽江縣, Jiangxi, had received land by Emperor Zhenzong 宋真宗 (r. 997-1022) of the Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279), but had extended its land to more than 10,000 mu 畝 at around 1330. In the empire of Northern Qi 北齊 (550-577), there was saying that "all fertile land belonged to the clergy". During the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368), Zhengfa Monastery 正法院 in Chengdu 成都, Sichuan, owned 4,700 mu of land. The property of Buddhist monasteries did also include important facilities like water mills. Yet not all religious institutions were large. There were also little private monasteries of "clergy households" (sengqi hu 僧祇戶), "pure adherents" (baitu 白徒) or "women dedicated to self-cultivation" (yangnü 養女).

The income of the fields served not just to cover the cost of religious ceremonies but also to feed monks, nuns and practitioners, and also for the administration expense. Temples were mostly managed by members of the local gentry in the function of "heading affairs" (shoushi 首事), while monasteries were administered by the clergy of the respective religion.

Shrine or temple fields were in most cases rented out to tenant farmers, but Buddhist monasteries also knew labour by monks and nuns. In all cases, the land was liberated from tax payments. For this reason, many persons declared themselves monks, donating landed property to monasteries. When they died, the land became property of the clerical institution. The equal-field system (juntianzhi 均田制) of taxation introduced by the Tang period 唐 (618-907) aimed at integrating Buddhist monasteries into the taxation registers, but to no avail.

The economic importance of monastic or temple fields decreased after the Yuan period.

He Ziquan 何茲全 (1988). "Miaotian 廟田", Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, part Jingjixue 經濟學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu), Vol 2, 658.
Yang Shouchuan 楊壽川 (1998). "Miaotian 廟田", in Tang Jiahong 唐嘉弘, ed. Zhongguo gudai dianzhang zhidu da cidian 中國古代典章制度大辭典 (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe), 522.