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

By Robert B. Marks | Go to book overview
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3
"AGRICULTURE IS
THE FOUNDATION":
ECONOMIC RECOVERY AND DEVELOPMENT
OF LINGNAN DURING THE MING
DYNASTY, 1368–1644

If the first two chapters skimmed the surface of more than a thousand years of Chinese history, in the remainder of the book the pace will slow down to allow a more detailed examination of the environmental and economic history of Lingnan during the four and a half centuries from 1400 to 1850, a period usually glossed by historians as "late imperial China." In this chapter we will see that in the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), Han Chinese aggressively occupied lands in Guangxi and in the southwestern littoral previously held by nonChinese, bringing those lands under not only Chinese suzerainty but Chinese plows as well. Moreover, commercial development especially was becoming one of the primary engines of ecological change: agricultural exports represented energy drains that had to be replaced by imports of energy from outside the ecosystem in particular, food for the human population. The commercialization that began to fuel economic growth from the middle of the sixteenth century on, though, was cut short by the disasters attending the mid-seventeenth-century Manchu wars of conquest, thereby also attenuating the anthropogenic processes of ecological change until more peaceful conditions returned in the late 1600s. Nonetheless, the Ming pattern of economic development began pointing toward greater deforestation, large-scale extinction of other species, significant reduction of biodiversity, and the creation of a single Lingnan agroecosystem. While the shattering of the biological old regime was to be a legacy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the factors that created that dynamic were all present in embryo by the end of the Ming.


Population and Land, 1400 1600

To provide a context for the developments during the Ming dynasty, I want to begin by summarizing the relation of the people of Lingnan to their environment in terms of population and cultivated land figures. As we saw in the pre

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