chapter  4
19 Pages

Agricultural productivity in early modern Jiangnan


In terms of agricultural productivity, farm yields per acre (FYA hereafter) and per household are the central criteria. As Marxist historians have emphasized the foundations of agricultural production, discussion of long-term changes in imper ial China’s farm yields has attracted much attention. Nonetheless, many of their estimates are poorly constructed empirically in that they lack comprehensive understanding of agricultural productivity in a preindustrial economy.1 In contrast, Dwight Perkins’s 1969 study demonstrated an analytical framework based on the interdependent relationship among population growth, changes in agricultural output, and technological innovations, and his research exactly pointed to the important role that population growth played in raising FYA over the long run. According to his research, expansion of aggregate acreage and the increase in FYA together sustained a ten-fold increase in population growth from 65 million in 1368 to 647 million in 1968 (Perkins 1969: 14-18). Per capita output in China, and therefore Chinese living standards, remained roughly stable over those six centuries.2 The Jiangnan economy provides an important case for comprehending changes in agricultural productivity in Chinese history. In comparison to the north, the Lower Yangzi region was far more backward before the year 750. Human habitation was sparse; rural communities remained largely self-sufficient. Only beginning in the mid-eighth century did both farming technology and the market economy advance significantly. As the Song economy began to boom toward the end of the eleventh century, the Lower Yangzi along with Sichuan and Henan became the three most advanced regions in China. The Mongol conquest and subsequent Ming fiscal policy precipitated a prolonged crisis in China. Most scholars have therefore depicted the fourteenth century as a “Dark Age” in Chinese history. The Lower Yangzi, especially Jiangnan, however, presents a more complicated picture. Its population, in fact, grew, albeit slowly, during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Li Bozhong (2003) has recently raised serious doubts about the Dark Ages image of the fourteenth century with his reconstruction of a series of estimates of farm yields in Jiangnan over the millennium. As Li focused his observations on Jiangnan, a small but core part of the Lower Yangzi, his revisionist argument reminds us of the huge variances in agricultural development even within the same macroregion.