Chinese Rural Society in Transition: A Case Study of the Lake Tai Area, 1368-1800

Chinese Rural Society in Transition: A Case Study of the Lake Tai Area, 1368-1800

Chinese Rural Society in Transition: A Case Study of the Lake Tai Area, 1368-1800

Chinese Rural Society in Transition: A Case Study of the Lake Tai Area, 1368-1800

Excerpt

Rural changes and urban growth were two of the most fundamental socioeconomic trends discernible in the Lake Tai region during the Ming-Qing period (1368–1800). We witness the disappearance of agricultural bondservants, the revival of old towns and the growth of new ones, the development of rural industry, the adoption of new modes of farming, the rise of absentee landlordism, changes in the composition of the social elites, the emergence of new tenurial relationships, and a rapid population growth from 1650 to 1850. In the face of these changes, the hierarchically organized rural society and basically self-sufficient peasant economy of the fourteenth century slowly disintegrated and transformed into a relatively egalitarian rural community and a market-oriented economy.

Various studies on the Chinese rural economy of the Ming-Qing period have attempted to explain these changes. In his classic study, Agricultural Development in China, 1368–1968, Dwight Perkins sees population pressure as the major dynamic force behind the increased agricultural output in this period. He argues that an expanded population led to migration and, consequently, to an increase in the total acreage of cultivated land, an intensification of agricultural production, and the dissemination of New World food crops. Perkins’ study has greatly contributed to understanding Ming-Qing economic history. However, given China’s immensity and its socioeconomic and topographical diversity and complexity, the conclusions of a general history are apt to overlook important regional differences. My conviction is that the understanding of a general history should be built up by a complex appreciation of local variety.

In “Food Supply and Population Growth in Southwest China, 1250–1850,” James Lee challenges Perkins’ overall estimates and argues that in southwest China from 1700 to 1850, the population in-

Dwight Perkins, Agricultural Development in China, 1368–1968, pp. 184–189.

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