Tigers, Rice, Silk, and Silt: Environment and Economy in Late Imperial South China

By Robert B. Marks | Go to book overview

2
"ALL DEEPLY FORESTED
AND WILD PLACES ARE
NOT MALARIOUS":
HUMAN SETTLEMENT AND ECOLOGICAL
CHANCE IN LINGNAN, 2–1400 CE

Late imperial Lingnan was dominated by Han Chinese, and it was the Chinese who mostly remade the natural environment into one that supported the settled agricultural practices and cultures commonly understood as Chinese: irrigated paddy fields from which two or more crops of rice could be harvested from the same plot of land with little or no fallow period. But if the Han Chinese predominated, they were not the only ethnic group to inhabit Lingnan: Yao, Miao, Li, and Zhuang are all peoples (now called "national minorities") who also lived in Lingnan. By the late imperial period, the Han Chinese had come to occupy the richest farmland in the river valleys and the Pearl River delta, while the non-Chinese held lands in the hills of northern and eastern Guangdong and in the western half of Guangxi. But while this ethnic mix and distribution of people in Lingnan is the one we have become most accustomed to thinking about, it was the result of a long and interesting historical process.

Tracing that process is the purpose of this chapter. What we will see is that for centuries before the late-thirteenth-century Mongol conquest, the pattern of settlement was reversed from the late imperial pattern, with Chinese inhabiting the northern hill regions around Guilin in Guangxi and in Nanxiong and Shaozhou in Guangdong. Even through the migrations of the Tang (618–907) and Song (960–1279) periods, the movement of Han Chinese down into the river valleys was inhibited both by swamps and by the fear (and reality) of tropical diseases, especially malaria. The efforts that removed these obstacles to Han Chinese settlement also created the most fertile farmland in Lingnan (the Pearl River delta), a process that was greatly accelerated when the Mongol invasion of the south in the 1270s made swamps and malaria less risky to the Han Chinese than staying in the path of the invading army. The establishment of settled Chinese agriculture in the river valleys of Lingnan and in the Pearl River delta by 1400 is thus the story of Han Chinese encounters with other ethnic groups defending their lands, with swamps and malaria, and with Mongol invaders.

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