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

By Robert B. Marks | Go to book overview

7
"THERE IS ONLY A CERTAIN
AMOUNT OF GRAIN
PRODUCED":
GRANARIES AND THE ROLE OF THE
STATE IN THE FOOD SUPPLY SYSTEM

Peoples and societies nearly everywhere in the world stored grain against the vagaries of weather, markets, invasion, and war, to mention the most obvious causes of food shortages, dearth, famine, and subsistence crises. In China, with its long imperial history, state-managed and state-sponsored granaries supplemented private arrangements by peasant-producers, landowners, and rice shop merchants to store grain from one year to the next. In the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), the success of this combination of state and private efforts, given adequate surpluses from harvests, or at least some bumper years every now and again, meant adequate food supplies even after bad harvests, food prices within ranges tolerable for most or all social classes, and social order, while failure or periodic breakdown of this effort spelled disaster.

State intervention into the management of the food supply system thus was to be one way – albeit an important one – that Chinese society responded to the variation in harvests caused by pestilence or climatic changes. But doing so through the state-managed granary system required such commitment, expertise, and energy on the part of state bureaucrats that they came to look for more efficient ways to ensure the subsistence of the human population of south China by moving rice from grain-surplus to grain-deificit regions via the market rather than by storing it in each and every county. Thus, by the last quarter of the eighteenth century, markets and merchants rather than state granaries and bureaucrats were to be positioned to exert greater influence on land use and cropping patterns in Lingnan. Nonetheless, the state granary system is an important chapter in the story of how the people of south China responded to the challenges their environment placed before them.


The Granary System

State-managed "ever-normal" granaries in China existed from Han times (202 BCE–220 CE), although the idea dates from the Spring and Autumn period (ca. seventh century BCE). In the Northern Song (960–1126), the purpose of the

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