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

By Robert B. Marks | Go to book overview

10
"PEOPLE SAID THAT
EXTINCTION WAS NOT
POSSIBLE":
THE ECOLOGICAL CONSEQUENCES
OF LAND CLEARANCE

Opening the hills of Lingnan to cultivation by peasant families was made possible not simply by state policies favoring the development of "scattered plots," but also by New World foods that thrived in dry, hilly land and, where feasible, by irrigation techniques mastered over the centuries. Then, encouraged by the state and armed with new crops and tried-and-true irrigation technologies, settlers headed for the far corners of Lingnan. Peasant-farmers had long tilled the river valleys in northern and northeastern Guangdong, but the record of new dams and reservoirs in the second half of the eighteenth century (to be discussed later) chart additional penetration there,1 while in Guangxi an official stated in 1751 that in the western highlands under his jurisdiction (Sicheng, Zhen'an and Si'en prefectures along the Zuo River), "all the river valleys have received irrigation and all the hills planted with dry rice."2 And in 1752, Guangdong Governor Suchang noted that "the poor in the hills of eastern Guangdong all plant sweet potatoes and miscellaneous crops (za liang)."3


New World Crops

As Governor Suchang makes clear, by the middle of the eighteenth century New World food crops had become an important part of the peasant-farmer's basket of crops. In addition to sweet potatoes, peanuts, maize, and tobacco, all had been brought to China in the sixteenth century by the New World traders who sought silks and porcelains for the European market. And the record is clear that peasant-farmers quickly introduced these new crops into their rotation. In the early sixteenth century, peasant-farmers in the Jiangnan region were planting peanuts, and by the last quarter of that century, peasants

1 The history of waterworks will be taken up in more detail later in this chapter.

2 Memorial dated QL16.11.3, in QLCZZ 1: 836.

3 Memorial dated QL17.11.8, in QLCZZ 4: 251–53.

-309-

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