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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5
"RICH HOUSEHOLDS COMPETE
TO BUILD SHIPS":
OVERSEAS TRADE AND
ECONOMIC RECOVERY

The restoration of peaceful conditions in Lingnan provided one condition for the revival of the economy. And while peace itself may have removed obstacles to economic recovery, it did not itself stimulate growth. Yet by the eighteenth century, we know not only that the economy of Lingnan had revived, but that most of China was about to experience one of the best economic climates ever. Moreover, the economic recovery was not gradual, but explosive. What the evidence points to is a sudden, substantial increase in foreign and domestic seaborne trade beginning in 1684 and continuing, albeit with some important changes, right through to the middle of the nineteenth century, driving economic growth and the commercialization of agriculture. In brief, Chinese overseas and foreign trade after 1684 stimulated demand for raw cotton and silk, thereby prompting some peasant-farmers to change their cropping patterns, growing nonfood commercial crops instead of rice, and in turn leading to the further commercialization of rice. By the end of the eighteenth century, the agricultural economy of Lingnan had become thoroughly commercialized, with even peasant-farmers in westernmost Guangxi affected by market demand centered on Guangzhou and the Pearl River delta.


Chinese Overseas Trade

When we think about China's foreign trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the image that mostly comes to mind is that of European and American clippers arriving in China's ports and then loading up with tea, silk, sugar, and porcelains bound for their home markets. While it is true that European and American trade became the largest part of China's foreign trade in the second half of the eighteenth century, the largest number of merchants to take to the seas when the Kangxi emperor reopened the coast to trade in 1684–85 were Chinese, plying both the domestic coastal routes and conducting over

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