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

By Robert B. Marks | Go to book overview

8
"TRADE IN RICE IS BRISK":
MARKET INTEGRATION AND
THE ENVIRONMENT

The state-managed granary system may have been a conscious, institutional response to problems of food supply caused by deficient (or bumper) harvests, but it did not constitute the most important mechanism for moving rice from food-surplus to food-deficit areas. Markets for the sale and purchase of rice dealt with much larger amounts of grain, moved it more frequently and regularly, and did so more efficiently than the granary system. To be sure, handling the food supply of Lingnan was not an either-or case, for as I discussed in the preceding chapter, granaries and markets did function together.

This chapter will examine the markets for, and the prices of, rice. Although this chapter will be more statistical than others in the book, the issues of grain prices and markets are important for understanding both the processes of environmental change in Lingnan and the conditions that sustained significant population growth during the eighteenth century. As an integrated market for rice began to link all regions of Lingnan into a unified market, the West River basin in Guangxi came to specialize in rice for export to Guangzhou and the Pearl River delta, just as peasant-farmers there had begun to specialize in sugar or silk. One consequence of this development was to decrease the number of ecosystems in Lingnan, simplifying the environment and decreasing ecological diversity. Another consequence, though, was to ensure steady supplies of rice at prices that did not increase too rapidly or fluctuate too wildly – despite the adverse effects of climatic shocks – thereby undergirding both further economic expansion and the growth of the population.


Market Integration and Ecological Diversity

As we saw in Chapter 5, to meet market demand for sugar and silk in the eighteenth century, an increasing number of peasant-farmers in and around the Pearl River delta abandoned rice for cash crops, relying on the market rather than their farm to secure their food. Where did the rice come from? How much grain circulated in the market? How dependent were the people of Guangdong – both urban and rural – upon the market to supply their food needs for

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