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

By Robert B. Marks | Go to book overview

9
"POPULATION INCREASES DAILY,
BUT THE LAND DOES NOT":
LAND CLEARANCE IN THE
EIGHTEENTH CENTURY

If the commercialization of agriculture was one force driving changes in land use patterns in Lingnan, the other powerful force was population growth. Sometime around 1700 or in the few decades thereafter, Lingnan entered a new era in terms of the number of people living in the region, the amount of land under cultivation, and the relationship between the two. At two previous times – around 1200 during the Southern Song, and around 1600 in the Ming – population and cultivated land areas had reached about the same levels as they did in 1700 (Figure 9.1). But whereas the Song and Ming peaks were followed by substantial population losses and land abandoned because of war, the early-eighteenth-century totals of both population and cultivated land soon were surpassed in the mid-Qing population boom now so familiar to historians.

Because the population and cultivated land areas in the Song and Ming had been about equal to those of 1700, the recovery from the mid-seventeenthcentury crisis at first plowed old ground, to pick what seems to be an apt metaphor. Those struggling to bring land back into production in the early Qing chose the best, most easily reclaimable land, and that no doubt in large part was the same land that had caught the eyes of Song and Ming settlers too. To be sure, in Guangxi there was and had been more "virgin" land than in Guangdong, and I will examine some of those differences in this chapter, but by and large those living after 1700, regardless of where in Lingnan they lived, encountered difficulties finding land suitable for cultivation. Settlers pushed into the hills, burning off the forests and damming the rivers, while in the Pearl River delta embankments to create new shatan soon obstructed the natural flow of the river. During the course of the eighteenth century, the cumulative efforts of people to plant food in areas previously untouched resulted in another massive remaking of the environment.

The Chinese, of course, called this remaking "land reclamation" (kaiken), and to them, it was good. The state supported and encouraged land reclama

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