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Rice, Technology, and History: The Case of China

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Wet-rice farming systems have a logic of technical and economic evolution that is distinctively different from the more familiar Western pattern of agricultural development. The well-documented history of rice farming in China provides an opportunity for students to reassess some commonly held ideas about technical efficiency and sustainable growth.

From 1000 to 1800 CE China was the world’s most populous state and its most powerful and productive economy. Rice farming was the mainstay of this empire. Rice could be grown successfully in only about half of the territory, in the southern provinces where rainfall was abundant. There it was the staple food for all social classes, landlords and peasants, officials and artisans alike. The more arid climate in the north was not suited to rice; northern farmers grew dry-land grains like wheat, millet, and sorghum for local consumption. But the yields of these grains were relatively low, whereas southern rice farming produced sufficient surpluses to sustain government and commerce throughout China. Vast quantities of rice were brought north to provision the capital city— home to the political elite, the imperial court, and all the state ministries—and to feed the huge armies stationed along the northern frontier. People said that the north was like a lazy brother living off the generosity of his hard-working and productive southern sibling. Thousands of official barges carried rice from Jiangnan to the capital region along the Grand Canal, and more rice still was transported north in private ships along the coast (fig. 1). Rice also fed the growth of manufactures and commerce around the country: ever-increasing numbers of urban and rural households were able to engage in manufactures or in specialized commercial farming thanks to the steadily expanding rice trade. By 1500 China had become a “society of mass consumption,” according to some scholars, and its exports, ranging from iron cooking wares and sturdy cotton cloth to gorgeous silks and delicate porcelains, brought fully three-quarters of the world’s silver supply into China between 1500 and 1800.1


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1. See Brook 1998 on late imperial prosperity, Wong 1997, Frank 1998, and Pomeranz 2000 on China’s prominence in the early modern world economy. For some stunning illustrations of China’s silks and porcelains and their production, see Ledderose 2000. Some historians argue that overpopulation and internal political decay were the main reasons for China’s nineteenth-century decline; others believe that attacks by Western nations were the precipitating factors.