The "single-whip method" (yitiaobian fa 一條鞭法) was a system of levying taxes that was introduced in the late Ming period 明 (1368-1644). It is occasionally called leibianfa 類編法 "combination of [tax] types", mingbianfa 明編法 "clarified (?) combined method" or zongfufa 總賦法 "summarized taxation method". The reform was a reaction on the increase of land accumulation by the gentry and the ensuing decline in tax revenue, because more and more peasants worked as non-taxable tenant farmers. As a result, the tax revenue had decreased over the years, bringing the state in dire straits of "not being able to cover the expenditure by the income" (ru bu fu chu 入不敷出).
Early suggestions for a better balance of field ownership were brought forward as early as 1430 by Zhou Chen 周忱 (1381-1453) and Kuang Zhong 況鍾 (1383-1442), and in 1539 by Ouyang Duo 歐陽鐸 (c. 1481-1544) and Wang Yi 王儀 (1482-1559). Early reforms, as the Zhengyi fa 征一法 "Levy at one blow" (1433), the application of "mouse-tail [i.e. smallholding peasants] registers" (shuwei ce 鼠尾冊, c. 1440), the "cucumber method" (yichuanling fa 一串鈴法, meaning "stringing up all types of taxes" [like cucumbers on a plant] before distributing the revenue again), the "ten bales of brocade method" (shiduanjin fa 十段錦法, c. 1460), the levy of the "equal-and-balanced money" (junpingyin 均平銀, c. 1480) or the Gangyin fa 綱銀法 "threading-up-all-payment method" (c. 1520), all attempted to simplify the tax system, but failed or were only applied locally. The word yitiaobian fa as a concept was first mentioned in 1531, when a new unified tax system was tested in the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang, but it met the fierce resistance of the gentry who did not want to forego the services delivered for free by their tenant farmers.
In 1578, when Zhang Juzheng 張居正 (1525-1582) was Senior Grand Secretary (neige shoufu 内閣首輔), he and Gui E 桂萼 (d. 1531) suggested to carry out a nationwide land survey to gain a better overview of all arable land. The survey brought to light land formerly not registered (yintian 隱田), and was therefore the base for a reform of the whole system which was begun in 1581. The reform started in the provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang, and was then step by step extended to the whole country, in order to establish a fair and objective system, which at the same time also benefited the governmental treasury. The last districts adapted this system only as late as the turn of the eighteenth century.
The single-whip method, called so because all different types of taxes were levied on one instance, did away with the separate corvée labour (yaoyi 徭役) and attached it as a surplus payment to the field tax (tianfu 田賦). The field tax itself was geared to the field size and followed the "three classes [of ownership] and nine rules [of soil quality]" (sandeng jiuzu 三等九則). The reform thus changed the object of taxation from individual people to their land (liang di ji ding 量地計丁 "calculating the poll tax on the basis of the field characteristis" or an mu zheng yin 按畝征銀 "levy taxes according to the field size"). The height of this payment differed from region to region. In some regions the relation between field and poll tax was 6 : 4, in others 4 : 6, 3 : 1 or 1 : 1. In some regions fix amounts of money were defined to be attached to the poll tax and each shi 石 "bushel" (see weights and measures) of harvested grain or each mu 畝 (an area measure) of land, while in others, the supplementary payment for the labour service was wholly attached to the field tax.
Yet in all cases, the state did not request any more payment in kind or in services. The latter were replaced by hired labourers that were then paid with the transformed tax payment for the former labour service. At the same time, the field tax was also commuted into monetary payment, likewise the so-called tribute grain (caoliang 漕糧, bailiang 白糧) destined for transport to the capital, grain and other produce for local use (cunliu 存留, tugong 土貢) and "miscellaneous taxes" (zashui 雜税). It was only in several districts of the breadbasket of China, the lower Yangtze region, where the field tax continued to be levied in kind, as source for the tribute grain. The organization of the levy was also taken out of the hands of the "grain masters" (liangzhang 糧長) and village heads (lizhang 里長, see lijia system 里甲) and directly carried out by the district government.
The reform did not only make the taxation process somewhat easier, but also impeded, at least to a certain extent, collusions between local officials and the gentry about tax liability, and cared for a fair and objective taxation. The height of the tax was fixed as a quota per prefecture and district, but was annually checked for consistency. The field ownership of individual households were checked every ten years. Persons with little land or not land at all paid considerably lower taxes after the reform. Finally, the transformation of taxes in kind (bense 本色) into tax payment in money (zhese 折色) supported the monetization of the economy.
In the early eighteenth century, the new system was replaced by a fusion of the poll tax with the field tax (see tanding rumu 攤丁入畝), which made government control over the tax revenue even more effective.