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Fighting Famine in North China: State, Market, and Environmental Decline, 1690s-1990s

Author(s):Li, Lillian M.
Reviewer(s):Will, Pierre-Étienne W
, Pierre-Ét

Published by EH.NET (May 2008)

Lillian M. Li, Fighting Famine in North China: State, Market, and Environmental Decline, 1690s-1990s. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007. xix + 520 pp. $75 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-8047-5304-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Pierre-?tienne Will, Coll?ge de France, Paris.

In this long-awaited book Lillian Li offers us a masterful account of three centuries of environmental and socio-economic history in one of the core regions of China ? the Hai River drainage that more or less corresponds to present-day Hebei, the capital province since the Mongol period. Li’s achievement is especially noteworthy when we consider the multiplicity of variables she addresses with equal thoroughness and clarity and combines into a convincing narrative of ever-mounting problems and tensions: the climate and natural environment, models and techniques of agricultural production, hydraulic engineering, market organization and price movement, dynastic and bureaucratic institutions, political and military history, and more.

As its title indicates, famine and the attempts at fighting it are central to the book. Not that North China always was a “land of famine” (a phrase coined by Western philanthropists in the 1920s and the title of a famous book at the time); but avoiding famine and promoting agricultural production in a context of high rainfall variability and environmental instability were traditional tasks of the Chinese state, tasks at which the Manchu rulers of China proved particularly adept during the heyday of the Qing dynasty in the eighteenth century. Indeed, one of Li’s dominant themes ? not entirely new, to be sure, but treated here with especial sensitivity and attention to all conceivable factors ? is the dangers of success. Following a pattern that is found elsewhere in Chinese history, efficient river control and disaster relief during the middle decades of the eighteenth century encouraged population growth and land reclamation. This in turn led to a higher impact of natural disasters from the early nineteenth century on, at a time when the political and financial means of the state were rapidly diminishing, and eventually to the mega-famines of the late Qing and early Republican eras. The mega-famine of the 1959-61 Great Leap Forward is a special case, as it was caused not by environmental overload, government powerlessness or military disturbances, but by mad social engineering.

Such, then, is the narrative that Li unfolds in chapter after chapter, making important methodological points along the way. She starts with an historical account of the natural environment, stressing in particular that “what is important about the climate of the past or present is not that it directly causes particular social, economic, or social results, but rather the way in which politics, economy, and society have adapted to the weather and other environmental challenges” (p. 37). Much of the book is a development of that notion. Chapter 2 on river conservancy ? a particularly onerous task in Hebei ? is subtitled “Emperors as Engineers,” pointing less at the Qing rulers’ engineering interventions (only the Kangxi emperor [r. 1662-1722] claimed competence in that profession) than at their political and bureaucratic impact. Li proposes the intriguing notion of a “reign cycle” in floods, with exceptional disasters at the start of a new reign resulting from the gradual accumulation of negligence during the preceding period and triggering a fresh effort at bureaucratic mobilization and infrastructure building. This pattern well describes the situation through the beginning of the nineteenth century, and in some way it re-emerged under the “reign” of the powerful Zhili governor general, Li Hongzhang, during the last three decades of the same century. Still, if strong political leadership was vital, it was not enough to prevent such long-term environmental problems as increased silting and reckless land reclamation that was detrimental to drainage; and more and more it gave way to fragmented bureaucratic responsibilities that made any concerted action impossible: in Lillian Li’s phrase, “the rivers themselves became bureaucratized.”

The next chapter discusses the relation among population, land resources and agricultural techniques ? already a hot topic, incidentally, in the early eighteenth century, when the Kangxi emperor and his successor expressed much concern about population growth on a limited land base. Li offers the best educated estimates of Hebei population one can hope for given the present state of knowledge, as well as careful descriptions of crops, yields, techniques, cropping patterns, and so forth. The general picture ? here as in most chapters ? is one of overall downward trend after the eighteenth-century successes, even though Li refuses to speak of a “Malthusian tale”: coarse grains get more land at the expense of higher value-added crops like wheat and cotton, yields tend to diminish, no technological breakthroughs are in sight, the silting of rivers makes transportation more difficult and costly, available land per capita decreases, and so on.

Chapter 4 on prices is of strategic importance to the narrative as Li uses the massive price data produced by the Qing system of economic monitoring as well as that of its Republican inheritors as a backdrop to the ensuing chapters on disasters and famine relief. She tackles brilliantly the considerable methodological problems entailed by the data: several sorts of grain were monitored, the quality of the surveys was uneven, the pricing system resorted to different currencies with a volatile exchange rate (official figures were in silver weight but ordinary people used copper cash), statistics used the traditional lunar calendar, and finally, in order to make real sense the curves created by connecting the dots representing the data ? which have many gaps ? need to be subjected to various statistical procedures. As the administration monitored not only grain prices but also the weather, one major ambition of the book is to explore every possible correlation between the two. In the long term the secular rise of prices in imperial times appears surprisingly moderate despite steady demographic growth and increased pressure on natural resources. As far as the annual cycle is considered, the system seems to have been made more stable by its very complexity (“multicropping with different seasonalities,” p. 122); but massive state intervention in the form of organizing imports (the crucial role of Manchurian surpluses is stressed again and again), maintaining food reserves, and providing relief definitely was the major stabilizing factor. After all the region under scrutiny was the metropolitan province of a vast empire, therefore subject to special care on the part of the dynasty.

This theme is developed in the next few chapters, on “Provisioning Peking,” considerably qualifying the textbook image of a northern capital fed with southern “rice” transferred through the Grand Canal (Chapter 5); on the granary system, seen as both “solution and problem” and the object of much debate in official circles (Chapter 6); on markets and prices, with the interesting notion that the apparently strong integration of markets across the province in the eighteenth century was a “false integration,” state maintenance of the waterways and intervention on the market largely explaining the parallel behavior of prices (Chapter 7); and on famine relief during the high Qing (Chapter 8) and in the nineteenth century (Chapter 9). Even though Li draws generously on existing research (notably the work on storage policies and famine relief by R. Bin Wong, Helen Dunstan, and the undersigned), there is an abundance of new materials and, especially, original interpretations. Chapters 7 and 8 in particular provide a sense of texture and impact, and of change, by progressing painstakingly from one major disaster to the next and analyzing in great detail the way each unfolded, the impact on prices, the nature of official intervention, and the aftermath. To this reviewer the lesser-known part of the story ? the nineteenth-century devolution from the “classical” model of famine relief ? is of particular interest, with the reservation perhaps that there is too much adherence to the imperial discourse on corruption and abuses during the Daoguang reign (1821-50).

The last famines of the Qing (beginning with the great North China famine of 1876-79) make the transition to the modern era. Unlike similar earlier events they were considered as “national” events by the philanthropic sphere newly emerging around Shanghai, whose action was crucial even though, as Li shows, the state was far from being as absent as is often claimed. And they were “international” famines publicized overseas through diplomatic communication and missionary propaganda. Together with international (mainly missionary) organizations, Chinese philanthropies, which have been the object of recent research in China not mentioned here, continued to play a major role in the early Republican era. (The crucial impact of the Buddhist revival at the time might have been more clearly brought out.) This is when Hebei and North China become the “land of famine” (Chapter 10). The major disasters, described here with the same thoroughness as the earlier famines, were compounded by a series of military conflicts culminating with the Japanese invasion. They reveal several important shifts that were in large part due to the foreign presence in China. While the discourse on famine acquires nationalistic overtones and focuses on the need to eradicate its socio-economic causes, rather than restoring the existing balance between land and resources as in imperial times, the conditions for the management of relief change drastically with the advent of the railway and the development of Tianjin as a major port and industrial city. It is also during the early Republican decades that the ever-growing hydraulic problems of the Hai River basin start being addressed systematically and with the help of modern engineering, although the major work required had to wait until after 1949 to get accomplished.

The impact of such infrastructural change is analyzed with much subtlety in the important Chapter 11 on “Rural Crisis and Economic Change, 1900-1949.” To negotiate her way between the conflicting interpretations, then as now, of economic conditions in Republican China and their causes, Li takes us on a tour of selected districts, availing herself of the many well-informed local gazetteers published in the 1930s and showing that, indeed, the landscape was highly contrasted. Many places enjoyed new opportunities in terms of handicrafts (predominantly cotton goods), new commercial crops, employment outside the region, and so forth, and there was an improvement in living standards (further favored by a steady rise in prices through 1931) despite environmental change and general poverty. While admitting that this cannot be described as a fundamental economic “break-through” (p. 340), Li takes exception to such notions as “economic involution” (Philip Huang) or “high-level equilibrium trap” (Mark Elvin), which have been widely influential in the field of Chinese economic history: there was a process of development at work, but this was cut short by political and military turmoil.

The last chapter, “Food and Famine under Communist Rule,” which is perhaps less new, takes us to quite a different world. But disasters were still there, and at least one major famine, actually the worst in the whole of Chinese history ? the Great Leap famine. Li goes so far as to use the term “holocaust” (p. 359, following Jasper Becker’s Hungry Ghosts), probably not the best one in this case; but indisputably this mostly man-made event would deserve the appellation “incredible famine” (qihuang) much more than the 1876-79 famine for which it was coined. The period after 1980, called “post-revolutionary” by many and marked by the “unleashing” of the market (p. 371) and a quantity of scientific inputs in the improvement of agricultural production ? though the Chinese “green revolution” had already started in the 1960s ? leaves us with ambiguous perspectives: while it is true that “at the end of the [twentieth] century, prosperity for many people in China has allowed them to leave hunger behind” (p. 375), rapid urbanization and mounting problems with water availability and desertification, not to speak of price instabilities, remind us that this is not yet the end of history. Certainly Li’s monumental work is a must-read for present-day planners and decision-makers.

Pierre-?tienne Will is the author of Bureaucracy and Famine in Eighteenth-Century China, Stanford University Press, 1990 (original French edition 1980) and co-author with R. Bin Wong of Nourish the People: The State Civilian Granary System in China, 1650-1850, University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, 1991. He is currently researching famine and the role of philanthropy in Northwestern China during the 1920s and 1930s.

Subject(s):Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII