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

By Robert B. Marks | Go to book overview

CONCLUSION

The middle of the nineteenth century has long been seen as a turning point in Chinese history. The Opium War (1839–42) and the Taiping Rebellion (1850–65) are commonly taken to mark the beginning of China's modern history, a history in which the themes of economic development, state formation, and revolution (among others) in the context of a European-dominated capitalist world take center stage in the problematic through which historians interpret Chinese history. But 1850 (or thereabouts) also marks a significant change in terms of the story about Lingnan's environment and economy that I have told here.

By 1850, Lingnan had passed an important divide. As we saw in Chapter 9, the limits of cultivable land were reached by then, and yet the population continued to increase. A colder climate in the first half of the nineteenth century had decreased the already stretched food supplies of the region, and the pressure of people on the land had led to deforestation, the destruction of habitat and ecosystems, and the extinction of an unknown number of species. To be sure, some officials may have become aware of the fate of the wildlife of Lingnan, perhaps presaging an attempt by the state to take corrective action. But China's defeat by Britain in the Opium War began the slow process of switching the presuppositions of the role of the state, from Confucian statecraft concerns for the maintenance of the empire, to "selfstrengthening" and competing in the new world of aggressive nation-states,1 while the Taiping Rebellion focused elites' attention on reconstructing the social bases for their continued dominance of Chinese society. To these social, political, and intellectual crises that wracked China in the second half of the nineteenth century and helped to define what modern China was to become, I think we must now add an environmental crisis. Thus, to understand modern China, we need to understand not just the historical origins of the social and political crises, but also the history of the environment and the making of the environmental crisis.

1 See Pomeranz, The Making of a Hinterland.

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