The "three-heads system" (sanzhang zhi 三長制) was an organisational structure to administer villages. It was used during the later decades of the Northern Wei dynasty 北魏 (386-534). It was introduced in 486 to replace the traditional system of clan heads (zongzhu 宗主) and military supervision (duhu 督護). The new system would diminish the political power of local governors and strengthen the central government. The new system was invented by Li Chong 李沖 (450-489).
The "three heads" were neighbourhood heads (linzhang 鄰長) controlling five households or a neighbourhood (lin 鄰), hamlet heads (lizhang 里長) supervising five neighbourhoods or 25 households, and village heads (dangzhang 黨長) overseeing five hamlets or 125 households.
The system was introduced together with a new taxation system, the equal-field tax (juntian zhi 均田制), and was an integral part of the latter. The three heads were responsible for the compilation of households registers, the collection of taxes in grain and in fabrics, and or recruit peasants for corvée (yaoyi 徭役). They were directly reporting to the heads of commanderies. As representants of the central government, the standing of the three heads was not a simple one because they had to get through fights with local magnates (haoqiang 豪強) to bring unregistered "client households" (yinhu 蔭戶), who exclusively served the landlord, to the normal household and tax registers.
A fierce debate therefore occurred at the Northern Wei court. Adversaries of the system like Zheng Xi 鄭羲, Director of the Palace Secretariat (zhongshu ling 中書令) and Gao You 高祐, Director of the Imperial Library (bishu ling 秘書令) argued that the system would not be feasible. In the end, Empress Dowager Feng 馮太后 (438/441 - 490), regent for Emperor Xiaowen 北魏孝文帝 r. 471-499), decided to implement the system because it would eventually bring higher revenues to the central government.
The position of the three heads was made more attractive by the privilege of tax exemption, including one to three male relatives.
The system was successful and therefore also adopted by the Northern Qi 北齊 (550-577), the Sui 隋 (581-618) and the Tang 唐 (618-907) dynasties. It can be seen as the precursor of the rural self-administration system (lijia 里甲) introduced empire-wide under the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644).