While prominent environmental historians in the West have referred to China's mode of agriculture as a model of sustainable development, that is a dubious claim. Rather, as this history of south China will show, by the turn of the nineteenth century, biodiversity in Lingnan had declined significantly, and the region was "leaking" huge amounts of energy that could only be replenished with massive rice imports to feed the booming human population. Simply put, agriculture in late imperial south China was unsustainable without increasingly greater inputs, and the drive to keep the system in balance led to a substantial remaking of both the environment and the economy of south China over the centuries covered in this book.
By way of defining (and defending) my choice of the two large and inclusive concepts of "environment" and "economy" both in the title and for the focus of this book, let me begin by explaining how the book came to be. I wish I could say I had the plan worked out when I began the research for it some 10 years ago, but that is not the case. In fact, what I have ultimately written is the result of an intellectual journey that began with the problem of food supply: How did the Chinese economy supply food, usually in sufficient quantity, to sustain a growing population during the late imperial period, and what were the economic and social consequences of producing too little or too much food?
The problem of food supply struck me as a good one for exploring the relationships among population growth, commercialization of agriculture, and rural class relations, each of which has been identified by one historian or another as constituting the driving force of long-term historical change. Indeed, the National Endowment for the Humanities was sufficiently convinced by this initial problematic to support me with two grants, for which I am exceedingly grateful. While I am still interested in these broader issues of social and economic history – and most have been incorporated in this book – along the way other topics and problems thrust themselves into my consciousness, resulting in a reconceptualization of my analytic framework.
In particular, while reconstructing eighteenth-century rice prices from the grain lists preserved in large quantities in the archives in Beijing and Taibei, I