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Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850

Author(s):Bozhong, Li
Reviewer(s):Pomeranz, Kenneth

Published by EH.NET (July 2003)

Li Bozhong, Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998, and

Li Bozhong, Jiangnan de zaoqi gongyehua (Proto-Industrialization in the Yangzi Delta). Beijing: shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 2000.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Kenneth Pomeranz, Department of History, University of California at Irvine.

Like most other aspects of Chinese intellectual life, economic history suffered badly during the 1960s and 1970s. In the generation that began rebuilding the field thereafter, probably the single most productive scholar has been Li Bozhong, now of Qinghua University. Professor Li has also been noteworthy for his efforts throughout the last twenty years to encourage Chinese scholars to engage seriously with the very different paradigms favored by most of their colleagues in the West, Taiwan and Japan — and vice versa. Yet only a fraction of Li’s massive scholarly output is available to those who do not read Chinese. The following review attempts to hit many of the highlights of his work by considering two recent complementary volumes, only one of which is translated: Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850 and Jiangnan de zaoqi gongyehua (Proto-industrialization in Jiangnan). Together, they paint a fascinating, though incomplete, picture of the economy of the Yangzi Delta (or Jiangnan),1 which was the richest region in China, and among the richest regions in the world from roughly 1000 until the mid-nineteenth century, when the Opium Wars, Taiping Rebellion (1851-64 — probably the most destructive civil war in history, killing perhaps as many as 20,000,000 people), and the onset of rapid industrialization in Northwestern Europe fundamentally changed the social, political, and economic landscape.

In Agricultural Development, Li argues forcefully against two basic views of the Delta’s agriculture in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) periods: 1) the claims of some Chinese Marxist scholars that the Delta remained a subsistence-oriented “feudal” economy in which most peasants had very limited contact with the market until the nineteenth century; 2) the claim of some Western scholars that Malthusian pressures and very limited technological change produced a slow but steady trend of immiseration over the period from roughly 1250 (when the rate of technological progress seems to have slowed considerably) until at least the mid-nineteenth century, and perhaps until well into the twentieth century. (A variant of this latter view, sometimes called the “involutionary” position, claims that living standards remained basically unchanged over the long haul, while the amount of labor required to obtain this standard kept increasing, so that immiseration came in the form of more work for the same rather limited per capita output rather than in the form of a decline in per capita output.) Li argues instead that: a) positive technological change continued in Jiangnan agriculture throughout this period, particularly in the areas of fertilizer use and water control; b) local factor markets continued to become more efficient, facilitating the increasingly rational allocation of labor and capital; c) long distance trade in various products expanded dramatically, allowing the region to benefit by pursuing its comparative advantage in cotton and silk production, and importing rice, timber, soybeans, etc.; d) the gradual decline in farm size as population increased did not lead to under-employment.2 On the contrary, increased double-cropping and other measures meant that the labor year for peasant males stayed about the same, while output per labor day actually rose; meanwhile women increasingly exited agriculture (in which they had never been very productive anyway), and earned more per day by moving into rapidly-growing textile trades; e) deliberate fertility control became fairly widespread by the eighteenth century, considerably reducing any Malthusian pressures and; f) because of all these factors, both aggregate and per capita income increased slowly but steadily during this period. (Li does not attempt to calculate total factor productivity, but makes it clear that he thinks growth in output outstripped the rate of growth in inputs.) He sees these positive trends coming to an end — and even then, only a temporary end — with the coming of the Opium War (1839-42) and the Taiping Rebellion (1851-64), which he argues aborted the development of a national market, and led to the breakdown of law and order. (In a more recent paper, he has suggested a slightly earlier turning point, arguing that a prolonged period of exceptionally bad weather and flooding began about 1820, doing lasting ecological damage and contributing to the calamities of the mid-nineteenth century.)

The basic arguments of Proto-Industrialization are similar in spirit. Li’s most basic point — that handicraft production for the market by Delta households grew enormously between the mid-Ming and mid-Qing — is not much in doubt, but he adds a number of important further observations. First, he broadens the scope of inquiry beyond the relatively well-studied silk and cotton cloth industries, providing very useful discussions of food-processing, tool-making, bleaching and dyeing, residential construction, boat-building, and so on. While he does not have the level of detail on any one of these sectors that one would hope for, his work on most of these industries is a significant advance over anything we had before.

Second, Li shows us that the growth of production in almost all of these sectors was accompanied by increasing levels of specialization, in two senses: a) in the sense that the tasks of production were increasingly sub-divided; and b) that consumers were increasingly purchasing these goods rather than making them for themselves, and so increasingly concentrating their work effort on production for the market rather than “Z-goods” for auto-consumption. (The latter point is less well documented than the former; while Li is able to show burgeoning urban markets, both in the Delta and beyond, for all sorts of ready-made goods, the evidence on rural consumption is sparser.) Along with this increased specialization, Li also assembles evidence that the average size of production units was growing in most of these sectors. In the case of spinning and weaving, where most production continued to be done in households, he makes a generally convincing case that an increasing share of output was controlled by merchants operating on a large scale, who controlled access to often distant markets, imposed increasingly exacting quality standards in order to maintain those markets, and thus had an increasing influence on the production process, even without using credit and the provision of raw materials to control direct producers the way that European “putting-out” merchants often did.

Third, Li’s surveys of specific industries other than textiles make a strong case showing slow but continuing technological development, expansion of markets, and an increasingly complex division of labor. In contrast to an older version of Chinese economic history (pioneered by Japanese scholars in the 1930s, but later widely accepted around the world), which saw an enormous spurt of technological change during the Song dynasty (960-1279), followed by stagnation or even regression thereafter, Li argues that the Song revolutions have been over-emphasized: not because they weren’t important, but because the diffusion and subsequent small improvements of many major inventions pioneered in that period took centuries, and it was those processes that gave Song-era breakthroughs much of their impact. This, too, is a revision of the conventional wisdom that is gaining adherents among both Chinese and Western scholars. While Li has not unearthed enough quantitative data to let us make reliable estimates of, for instance, labor productivity for most of these sectors, what little we can do with this data tends to suggest continued improvements in most sectors, and snapshots of productivity levels in particular sectors that would compare well with other advanced areas in the world until probably some time in the eighteenth century. What we do not see, however, is a shift over time among sectors toward more capital intensive and energy intensive pursuits — and this, as we shall see, is crucial to Li’s overall argument.

Fourth, Li argues that the combination of proto-industrialization and rising yields in agriculture (discussed above) propelled a significant improvement in per capita income and standard of living between 1550 and 1850, despite significant setbacks in the mid-seventeenth century ( a period of civil war, foreign invasion, and massive epidemics) and a decline in the average size of family farms. Here he not only disagrees with the still-regnant Chinese Marxist orthodoxy, which insists that China remained essentially a subsistence economy until the Opium War, but also with American partisans of “involution,” who maintain that the late imperial period was characterized by miniscule gains in income achieved at the expense of very large increases in labor inputs. By contrast, his position comes much closer to what is sometimes called the “California school” of social and economic historians, who argue that economic development in the Delta more or less kept pace with that in the most advanced parts of Europe until the onset of widespread factory industrialization. (Full disclosure statement: this reviewer is a charter member of the California school.) But in some ways, he goes even further than they do: while most of the “Californians” see economic expansion (or at least per capita economic growth) in the Delta slowing by the late eighteenth century, Li’s argument in these two books (though not always since then) suggests that the basic dynamics of growth continued unchanged until China’s mid-nineteenth-century catastrophes.

But while Li is content to rely on largely exogenous factors to explain the decline of the Delta after 1840, he does devote considerable attention to analyzing why the highly productive agriculture, commerce and handicrafts he describes did not spawn something more like classical English industrialization sometime before that date. He argues that institutional structure, surplus available for investment, and the educational level of the workforce were all quite adequate, and that there was widespread interest in productivity-enhancing technological change. Consequently, he looks beyond social, intellectual, and political factors, and finds his answers in geography and the supply of natural resources. In particular, he emphasizes a dearth of energy sources that he says gave Jiangnan production a marked bias away from anything energy-intensive, creating what he calls “a super light industrial” economy. Being very densely populated (and to a great extent reclaimed from marshes, rather than by clearing forest), the Delta had relatively few trees and not very many large work animals; it had no coal or peat, and, being at sea level, relatively little water power. Conditions were even unfavorable for the large-scale use of wind power, though some windmills were established. Thus, Jiangnan did what it was best at: sustaining a very productive agriculture (especially in rice: cotton yields do not seem to have been outstanding), mobilizing the large numbers of people it could feed to produce handicrafts, and taking advantage of its location at the mouth of a river system draining roughly a third of China, plus the coastline and the one thousand mile Grand Canal, to engage in very widespread trade. That it did not shift much labor into areas in which it had serious natural deficiencies, such as energy-intensive heavy industry, should not blind us to what it did achieve, or to the ways in which, Li argues, Jiangnan’s “proto-industrialization,” like its Western counterpart, laid the basis for the growth of modern industry in the region later on.

Much of Li’s argument here parallels the arguments of Western scholars in the so-called “California school,” including myself: thus it is not surprising that I find most of his argument convincing, and welcome the wealth of additional data he has brought to bear. His reconstructions of agricultural productivity and factor inputs, while certainly open to question, are generally the best we have: in particular, I think his claim that both male and female labor productivity rose significantly between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, despite a large increase in population, is at least well-enough based that the burden of proof should now rest on those who wish to argue for stagnation or decline. (The problems with these estimates are that a) the documentary base is fairly narrow, and b) because this was an agriculture with both very high inputs of labor, fertilizer, etc., and very high outputs per acre, relatively small percentage changes in assumptions about either yields or the costs of inputs can lead to uncomfortably large changes in estimates of net output.) The particular care that Li has lavished on changes in fertilizer use and their effects has important implications for environmental history as well as economic history. In terms of industry, his attempt to broaden discussion beyond textiles is particularly welcome, as is his general argument that we should look at what happened within the major sectors of this economy, rather than focusing on why the relative size of light and heavy industrial sectors did not shift. And his attention to environmental and resource problems is also quite helpful, though I think there is evidence that these problems began to constrict the Jiangnan economy somewhat sooner than Li allows, and that some of them were exacerbated by state policies (especially restrictive mining policies, and very limited government investment in transportation infrastructure beyond maintaining the massive Grand Canal) in ways that he does not address. His discussion of the conditions for technological change also seems to me a bit too hurried. While he has certainly made an important contribution by showing that such change had not stopped in Qing-era Jiangnan, there is still some reason to think that its pace had slowed, and no sign that it was speeding up the way it was in Europe. And while Li makes a good case for enough literacy, availability of various manuals, and so on to perpetuate continued diffusion of best practices, we need to know considerably more than we currently do about the rate at which new innovations were being introduced, and about such matters as patterns of association among artisans, the extent to which they were aware of elite science, and what was happening in that science, among other things. But this is only to say that no one scholar can do everything. The main problem, for the foreseeable future, will remain data: Li’s re-interpretations of Chinese economic history have generated new hypotheses considerably faster than we have been able to find material that will satisfy skeptics. But this simply means that we can thank Li, along with his other contributions, for keeping ourselves and our students employed for quite some time to come.

Notes: 1. Technically, these two expressions are not synonymous, but they are now used interchangeably in Chinese studies. “Jiangnan,” meaning “South of the (Yangzi) River,” in Chinese, refers to only part of the geographic Delta, omitting the generally less prosperous North Bank. Most Westerners now use “Yangzi Delta” to refer to Jiangnan, rather than to a more geographically accurate, inclusive region. Jiangnan is also somewhat vague, since it does not refer to a political jurisdiction with officially set boundaries. Professor Li uses a fairly broad definition of the area, though still not as broad as that used by, for instance, Wang Yeh-chien or myself; some other scholars, such as Philip Huang, have adopted a much narrower definition, including only the most densely populated prefectures near Suzhou. Li’s Jiangnan, with an area of roughly 43,000 square kilometers (16,000 square miles), had perhaps as many as 36,000,000 people by 1850.

2. Li favors a population figure of 20,000,000 for Jiangnan in 1620, and 36,000,000 in 1850, for a 0.3 percent per annum growth rate. These figures roughly match those of Cao Shuji’s recent work on Chinese population (Zhongguo renkou shi (History of Chinese Population), Shanghai: Fudan daxue chubanshe, 2000), and appear to be widely accepted among Chinese scholars. Many Western scholars, however, favor a lower figure for 1850, following G. William Skinner’s argument that mid-nineteenth century population totals for various parts of China were seriously inflated. (“Sichuan’s Population in the Nineteenth Century: Lessons from Disaggregated Data,” Late Imperial China, 8:1 (1987): 1-79.) Population growth appears to have been minimal in the region after about 1770.

Ken Pomeranz is author of numerous works including The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy, Princeton University Press, 2000 and The Making of a Hinterland: State, Society, and Economy in Inland North China, 1853-1937, University of California Press, 1993.

Subject(s):Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):Medieval