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

By Robert B. Marks | Go to book overview

6
"IT NEVER USED TO SNOW":
CLIMATIC CHANGE AND
AGRICULTURAL PRODUCTIVITY

"The climate has changed," China's Kangxi emperor declared near the end of his 61-year reign in 1717:

I remember that before 1671, there was already new wheat "from the winter
wheat crop" by the 8th day of the fourth month. When I was touring in
Jiangnan, by the 18th day of the third month new wheat was available to eat.
Now, even by the middle of the fourth month, wheat has not been har-
vested … I have also heard that in Fujian, where it never used to snow, since
the beginning of our dynasty it has.1

To the Kangxi emperor, the climate not only seemed to have turned colder during his lifetime, but the cooler climate had noticeably delayed the wheat harvest.2 Indeed, the colder regime had begun much earlier, as we saw in Chapter 4, with the cold snaps in the early 1610s. Moreover, about the time that the Kangxi emperor commented upon the colder temperatures, the climate was about to change again, this time toward a warmer, wetter regime.

In this chapter I explore the relationship between climatic fluctuation and harvest yields that the Kangxi emperor observed, focusing mostly on the eighteenth century because of the availability of data and sources. In the first part of the chapter, I reconstruct the climate history of Lingnan from 1650 to 1850, examine in a general way the mechanisms by which climatic factors affected agriculture, and chart, using reports from Qing officials, annual fluctuations in harvest yields. Next, after presenting case studies that illustrate the ways in which flooding, cold snaps, and drought affected harvest yields and rice prices,

1Da Qing sheng zu (Kangxi) shi lu, juan 272: 9–10, reprinted in Qing shi lu Guangxi ziliao ji lu (Nanning:
Guangxi renmin chuban she, 1988), vol. 1: 208.

2 The emperor's observations, moreover, were not merely impressionistic musings. At least since
1693, the Kangxi emperor had been collecting weather reports from Jiangnan; he thus had some
knowledge upon which to base his conclusion. And although he was incorrect about it never
having snowed in Fujian, he was an astute observer of the connection between changes in the
climate and the quality of the harvests. See Xie Tianzuo, "Qihou, shoucheng, liangjia, minqing
– du 'Li Xu zouzhe,' " Zhongguo shehui jingji shi yanjiu, no. 4 (1984): 17–20.

-195-

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