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Please write two 150 word summaries for the two texts that includes a) a summary of the reading and b) your comments on the reading for bot. If there is data within the article please write about the methodology. Also include the key idea in summary.2 Farm Labour Productivity in Jiangnan, 1620–1850
1. Introduction
How did people really live in late Imperial China? With one-third of the Eurasian population living in China at this
time, an answer to this question is important for gaining an understanding of life in this region in the pre-industrial
period. It has been generally thought that the standard of living in China declined from relative prosperity to severe
poverty by the end of the nineteenth century. In the last two decades, this traditional view has been challenged by a
small but growing number of scholars who claim that the standard of living was rising, not falling, in late Imperial
China. Since a long-term rise in the standard of living would be unthinkable in a society in which labour productivity
declined among the overwhelming majority of producers, these scholars must demonstrate that labour productivity did
rise during this period. In late Imperial China, agriculture continued to take up the bulk of the Chinese economy. The
majority of the Chinese people still earned their living from farming, although commerce and industry were growing at
the time. It is clear, therefore, that the standard of living could not increase if farm labour productivity declined. A
study of farm labour productivity, therefore, is crucial to assessing the new view that the standard of living improved in
late Imperial China.
Thye central theme of this chapter is that labour productivity on farms did improve in Jiangnan between 1620 and
1850. The region of Jiangnan, located in east China and consisting of eight late Imperial Chinese prefectures in the
Yangzi Delta, has been the most economically and culturally advanced area in China for centuries. The years
1620–1850 form the last period before China ‘opened’ to the industrial West in the mid-nineteenth century. In some
sense, this region is the best ‘window’ through which we can clearly see economic changes in China before the arrival
of the modern west. It is no wonder that the economic history of Jiangnan from 1620 to 1850 has attracted so much
attention from scholars in China, Japan, and the United States.
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The analysis in this chapter focuses on farm labour productivity in Jiangnan, and is based on two decades’ research on
the economic history of the region during the two centuries prior to 1850. The chapter begins with a critical analysis of
the principal arguments presented by those who hold to the conventional viewpoint.
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A discussion of the major changes in the peasant economy will follow, focusing on those changes that have been
crucial to growth in farm labour productivity. I will then describe the process through which farm labour productivity
changed in the region. In the last part of the chapter, I will deal briefly with the standard of living issue: did it really
improve in Jiangnan during the period under study or not?
2. Changes in the Factors of Production in Jiangnan Farming
One of the most commonly accepted notions in studies of Chinese history is that farm labour productivity declined in
the late Imperial period. Even for those who reject the stereotype clichés of a ‘stagnant and unchangeable China’, who
see economic changes in late Imperial China resembling those of early modern western Europe, the fundamental
picture has changed little. Jiangnan has drawn the most attention, partly because of its special position in Chinese
economic history. It is generally argued, whether explicitly or implicitly, that farm labour productivity in Jiangnan had
been declining from long before even the early seventeenth century.
If one examines the conventional story more closely, however, it becomes clear that it is based upon several frequently
made assertions. First, it is thought that Jiangnan witnessed a rapid population growth during the eighteenth and early
nineteenth centuries, even though it had been the most populated area of China well before the seventeenth century.
Second, because almost all arable land had been opened up as early as the late fourteenth century, land increased little,
if not at all, in Jiangnan during the following centuries. Consequently, the acreage per capita of cultivated land shrank
rapidly. Third, yields per mu of the major crops are believed to have reached a ceiling in the context of traditional
technology by the late sixteenth century or even earlier. Since no major technological breakthroughs appeared during
the following centuries, there was a centuries-long stagnation of yields per mu of major crops. When yields were
constant, increased labour inputs would make the returns on labour diminish at an accelerating rate. These arguments
lead to an unavoidable and indisputable conclusion; farm labour productivity would fall. It is on the basis of these
claims that some celebrated theories, such as Mark Elvin’s ‘high-level equilibrium trap’ and Philip Huang’s
‘involutionary growth’, have been put forth. Unfortunately, the evidence to support these claims is inadequate for pre1850 Jiangnan history. Therefore, any theory based on these arguments is quite likely to be discredited since they rest
on fragile ground.
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2.1. Labour supply
In the old story, the chief culprit behind the decrease in farm labour productivity is rapid population growth. But this
Malthusian explanation does not square with the reality of Jiangnan at all. There was no such ‘population explosion’ in
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during the period we are concerned with. According to my estimates, Jiangnan’s population increased from about 20
million in 1620 to 36 million in 1850: an increase of 80% over 230 years (Bozhong Li 1994b, 1998: 19–20). In other
words, the average growth rate of the Jiangnan population was only about 0.3% a year. By the standards of the ‘early
modern’ world, this rate is quite low. More surprisingly, and contrary to the prevailing view, this slow growth cannot be
attributed to such Malthusian ‘positive checks’ as wars, civil wars, natural disasters, or epidemic diseases, but to
effective birth control. This is what kept the rate of population growth below that of economic growth.
Accelerated urbanization also had an important influence on demographic change in Jiangnan. The region’s
urbanization rate increased from 15% to 20% between 1620 and 1850, which means that the population grew one
quarter less rapidly in rural areas than in urban areas. Even though the total population in Jiangnan increased by 80%,
the number of adults able to work, both male and female, increased by only 70% in rural areas during these two
centuries. Moreover, general descriptions by contemporary observers give an impression of a situation in which a
considerable proportion of the able rural adult population were not engaged in agricultural or industrial activities, and
that this proportion was increasing during the period. Without accurate statistics, I could only make a conservative
estimate of 10% as the proportion of non-working, able adults in that period (Bozhong Li 1998: 20–1, 2000a: ch. 9). If
these people were excluded, the increase in the total rural labour force would be smaller still.
Rural industrialization contributed greatly to the slow growth of the labour supply in Jiangnan agriculture. The rapid
development of rural industry, especially textiles, created a large and increasing number of jobs for the rural labour
force. More and more peasants, mainly female, were drawn from farming to rural industry. Their departure created a
shortage of labour in Jiangnan agriculture, not a surplus of labour as is commonly believed. From the sixteenth
century on, seasonal labour was increasingly used in farming since insufficient labour could be found from within the
family. When all of these changes are taken into consideration, we can see that during the period under study the farm
labour force grew much more slowly in Jiangnan than previously believed.
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2.2 Cultivated land
Buck has provided definitions for ‘crop area’ and ‘crop mu’ that are very helpful for the study of changes in cultivated
land in Jiangnan. ‘Crop area’ represents the land area devoted to crops, while ‘crop mu’ refers to the number of mu of
different crops raised in one year (Buck 1930: 18). Because multi-cropping is practised, one mu of ‘crop area’ may be
equivalent to two or even more ‘crop mu’. Total ‘crop area’ in Jiangnan did not change much during the period,
totalling roughly 45 million mu. But ‘crop mu’ increased remarkably, thanks to the spread of double-cropping. The
double-cropping index rose from about 140% to about 170% between the early
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seventeenth and the mid-nineteenth century. This represents an increase of 13.5 million mu of sown area,
corresponding to 30% of the total cultivated land of Jiangnan (Bozhong Li 1998: 33).
Another significant change to cultivated land in Jiangnan is the improvement of land quality. These improvements
were focused on the transformation of waterlogged land in eastern Jiangnan, the most important agricultural area in
the region. This land improvement is called ‘drying the land’ (Hamashima 1989). The process took centuries and was
completed in the mid-nineteenth century (Kitada 1988: 40–2; Bozhong Li 1998: 28–9). This improvement resulted in a
substantial increase in the productivity of land in Jiangnan. For example, in the mid-nineteenth century, one mu of
paddy could support a person in the core areas of Jiangnan, but the ratio for the whole country was 4 mu/person (Guo
Songyi 1994). In this sense, 1 mu of well improved land may equal several mu of less improved land in terms of
productivity. These improvements also facilitated regional specialization of agriculture. Different crops were planted in
the respective areas most suited for their cultivation. Consequently, three major crop areas appeared and expanded in
Jiangnan in this period; cotton in the east, mulberry in the south, and rice in the remaining areas. In the cotton and
mulberry areas, income per mu from these crops was obviously better than incomes from rice. An average year’s
cotton harvest is equivalent to a very good year’s rice harvest in cotton areas, while mulberry produced twice the net
income of rice in mulberry areas (Bozhong Li 1995).
2.3 Farm technology
If we consider technological advance to be the first appearance of a new technology, then almost all of Jiangnan’s most
important advances did come before 1620. These advances led to the emergence, in the Ming period, of the ‘new
double-cropping system’ of double-cropping rice and winter crops (wheat, beans, and rapeseed). Mulberry and cotton
farming technology also developed early, though was limited to particular areas. Advances in cotton technology came
later because cotton was introduced later. Generally speaking, however, the major improvements in the region’s
agricultural technology were complete by the late Ming period.
But as a historical process, technological advance has a double character: first, techniques continue to improve after
their initial appearance; and second, the new techniques are applied widely after some time has passed, especially in the
pre-modern period. Only after the use of a new technique has become widespread, can it have a major influence on
economic change. If we view agricultural technological change in Jiangnan in this way, we find that although most of
the major technological improvements were completed before 1620, these technological advances did not spread and
come into common usage in the whole region until the Qing period. Moreover, although there were fewer new
techniques invented, Jiangnan still witnessed some important technological progress in the period under study.
Fertilizer technology is a particular case. The widespread use of bean cakes
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represents one of the most significant technological advances in Jiangnan agricultural history and can be called a
‘fertilizer revolution’. In addition, there were many other technological improvements which may not have been very
conspicuous, nor very expensive, but all of them very useful.
2.4 Capital investment
Agriculture benefited from both rural industrialization and commercialization because they led to the creation of new
and important sources for agricultural investment. First, vigorously developing rural industries absorbed a great deal of
the rural labour force, mostly female, away from farming. The returns from female labour were higher in spinning,
weaving, or silkworm raising than in farming. Second, rapidly growing rural commerce facilitated the expansion of
cash crops. The returns from planting cash crops were generally higher than that from planting grain, especially since
rice imports were increasing remarkably during the two centuries under study. Both rural industrialization and
commercialization increased peasants’ income substantially, making it possible for peasants to invest more in their
farms. Compared to their predecessors in the Ming period and earlier, Jiangnan peasants in the Qing period could
afford more fertilizers and other materials of production such as improved varieties of silk cocoon and mulberry
seedlings, charcoal for silkworm raising and silk reeling, and so on. They could also invest more in water control, in
land improvement, or in transforming paddies into mulberry groves. The development of rural banking and credit also
enabled peasants to get loans or other financial support more easily (Fang Xing 1994; Min-te Pan 1996; Bozhong Li
1999: 491), especially since the real interest rates of rural loans declined in most of the period under study (Fang Xing
1999: 2138–74). It is not surprising that there was a substantial increase in farm investment at this time (Bozhong Li
1984). In mid-nineteenth-century Jiangnan, a common peasant family working 10 mu of land usually owned a property
worth 184 thousand copper coins (140 taels of silver). Of that, 118 thousand coins were ‘productive goods’ (land,
seeds, farm instruments, fertilizer, fodder, etc.) and the rest were ‘consuming goods’ (food, housing, etc.) (Fang Xing
1999: 2125–9). That is, production expenses were much more than consumption expenses, an indication that farm
capital investment was greater than in the past.
The improvement of land, advances in farm technology, and increased agricultural investment together ushered in a
rise in yields per mu of major crops during the two centuries under study. Although increased yields of wheat and
mulberries were insubstantial, yields of other crops increased significantly. For example, cotton yields per mu increased
by one fifth, from about 80 to around 100 catties. However, this increase was dwarfed by what happened in rice.
Earlier studies conclude that there was no increase in rice yields during the period. However, my macro analysis of
demand and supply leads to quite a contrary conclusion that rice yields rose by nearly a half (47%), from 1.7 shi to 2.5
shi in the period. This is
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the greatest increase for any two-century period in pre-modern Jiangnan history (Bozhong Li 1998: 130–1, 1999:
3. Changes in the Jiangnan Peasant Economy
Generally speaking, changes in the production factors themselves do not necessarily affect labour productivity. They
do so only when they interact with each other and with a particular unit of production. Since the basic unit of
production is a single peasant family in pre-industrial Jiangnan, these changes will influence farm labour productivity
only through the peasant family economy. The changes discussed above suggest a new pattern of peasant economy,
which appeared at the turn of the seventeenth century and spread during the subsequent centuries. I call this pattern
‘the trinity pattern’, because three of the most important advances in the Jiangnan peasant economy are combined
within it. These advances include ‘one year double-cropping’, ‘one man works 10 mu’, and ‘man ploughs and woman
weaves’. More specifically, these expressions mean that a man works 10 mu of fields with double-cropping, while the
woman raises silkworms and reels silk, or spins and weaves cotton. I will now discuss each of these aspects in greater
3.1 One year double-cropping
The system of ‘one year double-cropping’ is the same as the ‘new double-cropping’ introduced earlier in the chapter.
This technique appeared in the mid-Ming period and spread during the following centuries. By the mid-nineteenth
century, it had become the dominant crop pattern in Jiangnan. From an agronomic viewpoint, the system is
undoubtedly superior to any alternate crop regimes. First, this new system is very well suited to the ecological
environment of Jiangnan, making it possible for the system to spread everywhere in the region. Second, an important
feature of the new system is that it entails rotating dry- and wet-field crop cultivation. Because the rotation of different
crops can reduce the depletion of soil nutrients and even raise the soil’s fertility, the new system improves land when it
is used. The resulting improvement of the land means that comparatively small quantities of fertilizer and labour were
needed to achieve a good yield. In addition, with a greater variety of second crops, the new system gave farmers more
freedom to choose the crop best suited to the various local conditions, therefore allowing them to maximize their
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Economically, the major advantage of this new system is that it reduced the number of non-working days in the slack
seasons, making farm work more continuous and more like industrial production. More importantly, under this regime
the amount of labour inputs did not necessarily increase at the same rate as the growth in output. This was because
winter crops (especially certain beans and rapeseed) need
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comparatively less labour and investment. In absolute terms though, the new system needed more fertilizer than the
single-cropping system, or double-cropping of rice and green manure plants. The spread of the new system caused a
remarkable increase in yield per mu of rice.
During the two centuries under study, fertilizer use increased greatly for major crops, while labour inputs changed
little. In fact, increasing labour input per mu of major crops ceased by the late sixteenth century. In this sense, Jiangnan
agriculture clearly became more capital intensive. This new crop regime, therefore, represents a new kind of
agricultural intensificationcapital intensification (mainly fertilizer), not labour intensification (Bozhong Li 1984, 1998:
ch. 5). Because labour inputs increased more slowly than output, Jiangnan agriculture could escape from a ‘high-level
equilibrium trap’ or ‘involutionary growth’.
The benefits of the ‘one year double-crops’ can only be maximized when a particular set of conditions are met. Of
these conditions, farm size is one of the most important.
3.2 One man works 10 mu
In the context of a particular technology, farm size plays a crucial role in determining farm labour productivity.
Inappropriate farm size, whether too big or too small, will aggravate the imbalance between labour requirements and
labour supply for the different farming tasks. Labour requirements are different from job to job, but labour supply
usually comes from within a family and is quite rigidly fixed. The gaps between supply and demand will increase under
a multi-cropping system because busy seasons become shorter. This imbalance reduces labour productivity because a
considerable amount of labour is wasted in some jobs, while production suffers from an insufficient labour supply for
other tasks. Only when each of the various skill groups within the labour pool is allocated in such a way as to meet
labour requirements efficiently, can farm labour productivity be maximized. This can only be achieved when farm size
is optimized so as to make the most efficient use of family labour.
Finding the optimal farm size is crucial to an increase in farm labour productivity, but ‘optimal’ does not necessarily
mean ‘large’ as is often thought. For a given circumstance (especially technological), an increase in labour productivity
is not necessarily associated with an expansion of farm size. Though farm size is related closely to the man–land ratio,
it is not only determined by that ratio. In many cases, other factors may be more determinative. The old cliché that a
falling man–land ratio results in the shrinking of farm size, and that the shrinking in turn drives farm labour
productivity down is simplistic and superficial. From this perspective, the man–land ratio is considered to be the only
relevant factor. All other factors are assumed to be non-existent. Yet, these factors do exist and play a significant role in
the formation of farm size. A simple calculation of the ratio of cultivated land to total population shows that Jiangnan’s
average farm size did shrink remarkably in
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the period under discussion: cultivated land (crop area) per capita dropped 45% between the early seventeenth and midnineteenth centuries. But that provides only a superficial picture. If the urban population and non-agricultural families
in the countryside are excluded, crop area worked by a peasant family still dropped, but only by 40%, from 15 to 9
mu. If we take into account double-cropping with an index of 140% in the early seventeenth century and 170% in the
mid-nineteenth century, we will find that farm size decreased by only 30%, from 21 to 15 mu. Moreover, if rural
women are excluded, there was no drop, but rather, a rise, in terms of crop mu per worker.
Under the new double-cropping system, a farmer will use his labour most efficiently when he works about 10 mu of
cultivated land (Bozhong Li 1986, 1998: 68–79). In fact, the pattern of ‘one man works 10 mu’ came to predominate in
Jiangnan, not only because it saves labour, but also because it involves many major advances. These include more
skilful management, greater use of fertilizer, rational land use, specialized or professional farming, and so on.
Moreover, in a farm of about 10 mu, a farmer can do almost all the farm work by himself and does not need to ask for
his wife’s help. This makes it possible for the female labour force to shift from farming to rural industry. With women
employed elsewhere, the numbers of people working on the family farm were greatly reduced. Consequently, farms
went from being a two-worker farm to a one-worker farm. The change had a great impact on farm labour
The pattern of ‘one man works 10 mu’ first appeared in the late sixteenth century and was widely adopted during the
following centuries. By the mid-nineteenth century, it had become the norm determining farm size in Jiangnan. Even
though Jiangnan lost half of its population during the Taiping Rebellion, and the man–land ratio improved significantly
after 1850, farm size did not change much. While there are many reasons why peasants did not expand their farms,
relatively high labour productivity from this ‘optimal’ size is unquestionably an important factor.
3.3 Man ploughs and woman weaves
The expression ‘man ploughs and woman weaves’ (nan geng nu zhi) represents a pre-industrial pattern of gender-based
division of labour within peasant families. Though the pattern is thought to have been universal in pre-modern
Chinese history, it should be noted that even in the late Ming period, the vast majority of rural women in Jiangnan still
worked with men in the field, while men also worked on spinning and weaving with women. It is in the period under
study that division of labour between the sexes became clear, reaching its highest point in the mid-Qing period
(Bozhong Li 1996b, 1996c). Consequently, there was a significant increase in the number of women who shifted from
farming activities to spinning and weaving. In Songjiang Prefecture (the centre of the cotton industry of Jiangnan)
during the mid-nineteenth century, 90% of the female rural labour force spun and wove for 60 hours a week. Such
was the case in other places in eastern Jiangnan, but to a
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lesser degree. In western Jiangnan, a similar phenomenon happened even earlier. Women in this region were drawn to
silkworm raising and silk spinning as early as the late sixteenth century and did not work in the fields (Bozhong Li
1996b, 1996c). Since the return to female labour was considerably higher in textile handicrafts and silkworm raising
than in farming, the incomes of peasant families increased substantially. Therefore, the development of this pattern of
‘man ploughs and woman weaves’, not only reduced the supply of labour in farming, but also led to an increase in
incomes, the source of agricultural investment.
On the basis of the three major advances of peasant economy discussed here—‘one year double-cropping’, ‘one man
works 10 mu’, and ‘man ploughs and woman weaves’—a new pattern of peasant economy, the ‘trinity pattern’, was
formed in Jiangnan. This combination of advances underpins the tremendous gains in efficiency in the peasant
economy of pre-modern Jiangnan. In the next section, I will examine whether this pattern did in fact increase farm
labour productivity.
4. Increased Farm Labour Productivity in Jiangnan
One of the problems with the previous studies has been their tendency to account for labour productivity using
modern standards. Though labour productivity can generally be defined as the amount of output or income produced
per unit of labour, the standards for calculating labour productivity will vary across different societies. Previously I
have pointed out that the methods used in calculating labour productivity in pre-modern Chinese agriculture differ in
four ways from those used in modern industrial societies. For the discussion in this chapter, farm labour productivity
will be calculated using the peasant family as the unit of labour and a year as the standard for time. Male and female
labour productivity will be discussed separately, since a division of labour between the sexes became much clearer
during this period.
The ‘trinity pattern’ is the optimal pattern in the Jiangnan peasant economy because under this pattern higher yields
per mu can be achieved with lower inputs. As I point out above, in the early seventeenth century, a farm ran, on
average, 15 mu of cultivated land with a multi-cropping index of 140%, the second crop being wheat. The yield per mu
was 1.7 shi for rice and 1 shi for wheat. If all the 15 mu of land were planted in rice, this farm would harvest 26 shi of
rice and 6 shi of wheat, together equivalent to 30 shi of rice. In contrast, in the mid-nineteenth century, the average
farm size was 9 mu with a multi-cropping index of 170%. Per mu yield was 2.5 shi of rice and 1 shi of wheat. Farm
output was 23 shi of rice and 6 shi of wheat, totalling 27 shi of rice, 10% below the early seventeenth-century figures.
However, if we calculate labour productivity according to the number of workers, output per worker would be 15 shi
of rice in the early seventeenth century and 27 shi of rice in the mid-nineteenth century respectively. That is, the figure
for the late Ming period is only 55% of the mid-Qing figure.
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If this macroanalysis is insufficient, a concrete example may be helpful. Western Songjiang will be used for this
purpose. This area is located in eastern Jiangnan and
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is a typical agricultural region, with rice as its staple product. But before the discussion begins, I will remind the reader:
the Songjiang case is very exceptional, since most peasant families never farmed as much land nor had as high yields in
late Ming Jiangnan.
In western Songjiang, a peasant family could plant 25 mu of rice and harvest 2.5 shi/mu, for a total of 62.5 shi of rice in
the late sixteenth century in which period one-year-one-crop pattern was dominant (He Liangjun 1959: 115). In
contrast, an early nineteenth-century peasant family planted 10 mu with rice at 3 shi/mu and wheat at 1 shi/mu, for a
combined total of 37 shi of rice (Jiang Gao 1963: 3b–10a). We can see that the mid-Qing’s total is only 60% of the late
Ming example. Moreover, production costs per mu of rice were equivalent to about 1 shi of rice in both cases. Costs for
wheat were about one-fourth of those of rice, or 0.25 shi of rice/mu, in the mid-Qing case. Subtracting production
costs, the late Ming family had a net income of 37.5 shi and the Qing family 24.5 shi, about 65% of the figure for the
earlier period. Thus, labour productivity for the mid-Qing would seem to be one-third lower than for the late Ming.
However, if we subject our example to further scrutiny, we come to quite a different conclusion.
First, in the term of output per worker, the late Ming farm is quite different from the mid-Qing farm. It has already
been shown that there is a great difference between the numbers of farm workers in the two cases. In the late Ming
case, farming was done by both the husband and wife, while in the mid-Qing period it was done just by the husband.
If we calculate productivity according to an individual worker, a late Ming worker produced 31 shi, but a mid-Qing
produced 37 shi, about 20% higher. After subtracting costs of production, the net output per worker is 18.8 shi in the
Ming case and 24.5 shi in the Qing case. That is, net output per worker is 30% higher in mid-Qing than in the late
Second, outputs per workday in the two cases quite clearly differ from each other. During the period under study,
labour inputs per mu did not change much. A mu of rice took ordinarily about fifteen workdays (including irrigation),
while a mu of wheat took three workdays. For the late Ming farm, 375 workdays were required to work its 25 mu of
paddy. On the mid-Qing farm, 10 mu of rice needed only 150 workdays, and 10 mu of wheat required about 30
workdays. The 10 mu of rice and wheat together required 180 workdays. Labour inputs were less than half of those of
the late Ming period, the total harvest being about 60% of the example from the earlier period. This implies that
production per workday is one quarter higher for the Qing case than for the Ming. More specifically, a Ming workday
produces 1.7 dou of rice and a Qing workday produces 2.1 dou. Subtracting costs of production, net daily production
in the Ming is 1 dou of rice and 1.4 dou in the Qing, or 40% higher. This example from western Songjiang shows that,
whether calculated on an annual or daily basis, farm labour productivity was increasing during the period under study.
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Finally, I will make a brief analysis of rural female labour productivity. As ‘another half of the men’, or ‘another half of
the sky’ as a modern Chinese proverb says, women’s labour has important influences on men’s farm productivity.
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a western Songjiang peasant family as an example, I will make a comparison of family labour productivity under
different patterns of peasant economy.
In the case of western Songjiang, as we have just seen, a late sixteenth-century peasant family had two workers—a man
and a woman—and cultivated 25 mu of rice, with a yield per mu of 2.5 shi. Labour requirements for 25 mu of rice were
about 375 days. All farm work was shared by the man and the woman, except land preparation, which customarily was
men’s work and accounted for 50 workdays. Each of them, therefore, worked for 163 days. After the field practice
was finished, rice needed to be husked, which was also commonly ‘man’s work’ and took the man 63 days. Altogether,
the man worked for 275 days a year and the woman worked for 163 days. Since 300 days are the maximum number of
workdays of a peasant for all kinds of productive work (farming and handicrafts), the man had only 25 days to work at
other jobs. As for the woman, her maximum workdays were only about 200 days a year (Bozhong Li 1996b, 1996c).
Since she had already worked in the fields for 163 days, she had only 37 days to do other productive work. Here we
assume that the peasant and his wife devoted all their non-farming workdays to cotton spinning and weaving, to a total
of 62 days. In pre-eighteenth-century Jiangnan, it usually took about seven days to produce one bolt of cotton cloth.
Therefore, the man and woman could produce about 9 bolts of cotton cloth within 62 workdays, which could only
meet the annual cloth consumption of the family itself. The total output from 25 mu of rice was 62.5 shi of rice. If both
the rent of 31.3 shi and production costs (excluding ‘wages’) of 12.5 shi are taken away, the net income (including
‘wages’) was 18.7 shi. The net income (including ‘wages’) from a bolt of cloth is worth, on average, 1.5 dou of rice in the
early and mid-Qing. Using this ratio as the standard, 9 bolts were worth 1.4 shi. Together, their total net income was 20
In contrast, during the mid-Qing, the family worked only 10 mu with a total output of 37 shi. Since labour requirements
were 18 workdays a mu, the total labour inputs were 180 days. Adding in 37 days for husking and branning, the total
becomes 217 workdays, all of which were worked by men only. This would leave the typical farmer 83 days to do other
work (assuming cotton handicrafts). Since the wife was not required to work in the fields, she could devote all her 200
workdays to cotton spinning and weaving. Altogether, the farmer and his wife could work 283 days in cotton
handicrafts. With one bolt of cotton cloth taking six days to make during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, 283
workdays would result in 47 bolts of cloth. Accordingly, the income from this quantity of cloth was equivalent to 7.1 shi
of rice. After subtracting rents of 15 shi and production costs (excluding ‘wages’) of 6.3 shi, they could receive a net
income (including ‘wages’) of 15.7 shi from the output of the 10 mu. Together, the total net income was 23 shi.
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The difference in total incomes between the two families is 15%. Moreover, we should note that a high per mu yield of
2.5 shi of rice on a big family farm of 25 mu is very seldom seen in sources relating to Ming–Qing Jiangnan. In
contrast, in the mid-Qing there is plenty of evidence referring to per mu yields of 3 shi of rice with 1 shi of wheat (which
can be converted to 0.7 shi of rice) on a small family farm
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of 10 mu or less. Therefore, for most areas in Jiangnan, the difference in labour productivity between farms in the late
Ming and those in the mid-Qing will be even greater than those seen in Songjiang. If we use a lower yield figure for the
late Ming Songjiang family farm, say 2 shi, the net farm income of the family would fall to 12.5 shi. Together with
income from cotton handicrafts, the total would be 14 shi, 40% lower than that of the Songjiang family during the midQing. All of the results in the preceding analysis indicate that farm productivity did increase in Jiangnan during the
period concerned. In this sense, the region did experience real economic growth.
5. Rise in the Standard of Living of Jiangnan Peasants
Since labour productivity and the standard of living are inseparably linked, the rise in farm labour productivity in
Jiangnan implies an increase in the peasants’ standard of living. Earlier studies, like those examining labour
productivity, have claimed that the standard of living of Jiangnan peasants continued to drop to a ‘minimum
subsistence level’ throughout the period under study. However, as I argued in relation to the previous studies of
labour productivity, this conventional wisdom is undocumented and does not withstand further scrutiny. The concern
here then is to determine whether the standard of living of peasants in Jiangnan did improve during the relevant two
First, wage changes for farm workers indicate that standards of living improved among Jiangnan peasants. There was a
steady increase in the wages of farm workers. It is no wonder that complaints could be heard repeatedly from
employers about farm labour becoming more and more expensive during the two centuries. The increase is related to
the ‘Chinese price revolution’ which was the result of a large-scale and continuous influx of silver. However, the
movement of prices was generally favourable to Jiangnan peasants during most of the period. Consequently, as Wei
Jinyu has documented, real wages in farming rose sharply in cash, and moderately in kind, between the early
seventeenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries. The increase in the real wage meant that it took four or five farm
workers to support an adult in the late Ming, but by the mid-Qing only one or two hired labourers were needed to
maintain the same standard of living (Wei Jinyu 1983).
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E. A. Wrigley has developed a method to gauge the development of labour productivity in agriculture (Wrigley 1987)
which I think is very helpful. From this perspective, Wei’s results suggest that the number of mouths fed by every one
hundred people working on the land would increase remarkably. It can be concluded, therefore, that farm labour
productivity did increase in Jiangnan during the two centuries under study. In addition, this period also saw a decline of
real rental rates (Fang Xing 1992), though no evidence suggests that the tax burden became heavier in this period. On
the contrary, it seems to have become lighter. There is little doubt, therefore, that real incomes of peasants did
improve considerably in Jiangnan at this time.
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Second, the quality of the peasants’ diet also improved in Jiangnan during the period. Fang Xing suggested that
ordinary Jiangnan peasants ate more fish, meat, and tofu, drank more tea and wine, and consumed more sugar than
ever before (Fang Xing 1996, 1999: 2175–92). Farm labourers were clearly better fed in the mid-nineteenth century
than in the seventeenth century, whether in terms of the quantity or quality of meat, fish, and wine, all of which they
consumed in substantial quantities (James Lee and Wang Feng 1999: 29–31).
Third, the improved standard of living can also be seen in the increase in consumption, not only of ‘ordinary goods’
like cotton cloth, but also of ‘luxury goods’ such as silk, wine, tobacco, and opium. Bao Shichen, an early nineteenthcentury Jiangnan scholar, provides us with a description of the consumption of wine, tobacco, and opium in Suzhou
Prefecture. This description indicates that the consumption of these items increased remarkably in the early nineteenth
century (Bao Shichen 2001: 56–9). According to John Barrow, a contemporary western observer in China at the turn
of the nineteenth century, most of the people in northern Zhejiang (a part of Jiangnan) wore silk (Barrow 1806: 572).
But such accounts are rare in the literature before the late eighteenth century.
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The Jiangnan peasants’ choice of food also supports the argument that living standards rose in the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries. During these two centuries, an increasing number of Jiangnan peasants lived on rice that was
imported from the middle and upper Yangzi. Rather than planting sweet potatoes in their fields and then consuming
them as food, they preferred to purchase the expensive rice from far away. Sweet potatoes were much cheaper than
rice, but there was a major social barrier to its consumption: eating them was usually considered to be a symbol of
abysmal poverty. This barrier could have been overcome if the standard of living in Jiangnan really fell, as was the case
in Fujian during the same period. The increasing consumption of imported rice, rather than sweet potatoes, is thus
inconsistent with any thesis that the standard of living had plummeted following a long decline of more than two
Fourth, the pattern of migration during the period under study also suggests improved living conditions in Jiangnan.
In the Qing times, there were large-scale migrations from highly populated east China to rich and less populated
regions like northeast China, Taiwan, and southeast Asia. However, there is little evidence to suggest that such
emigration took place from Jiangnan, even though it had been the most crowded region in China and enjoyed a central
position in the development of water transportation. On the contrary, Jiangnan witnessed continuous in-migration.
Most immigrants rushed into prosperous cities and towns located in east Jiangnan to work in industry. It is perhaps
surprising that the majority of these immigrant workers did not come from neighbouring villages, but from peripheral
areas of Jiangnan, or even from outside Jiangnan. Why did the local rural labour force not prefer to work outside their
villages? One main reason seems to be economic: they could have a better income when they worked in the villages.
Finally, I will examine the standard of living in Jiangnan in the mid-nineteenth century from a broader perspective. As
Jacque Gernet, Ping-ti Ho, and others have
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suggested, the Chinese peasant lived quite well in late Imperial times when compared with their counterparts in the
major countries of early modern western Europe or in Tokugawa Japan. Being residents of the most prosperous area
of China at that time, peasants in Jiangnan enjoyed the highest standard of living of their counterparts in the rest of the
country. These peasants were well fed and clothed whether by late Imperial Chinese standards or by early modern
European standards. It would be wrong to argue that they must have lived at ‘minimum subsistence level’.
As was the case for farm labour productivity, the conventional wisdom that the standard of living declined in late
Imperial China is principally based on an old and misleading Malthusian conception. Neither does the conventional
wisdom on the standard of living square with what we know from Jiangnan history. Therefore, a new perspective is
called for, even in the relatively well-trodden field of the pre-industrial Jiangnan rural economy.
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For recent evidence of this decline, see Maddison (1998: ch. I, II). Using his PPP method, Maddison estimated that
in China the GDP per capita was US $450 (in 1990 US$) in 960, rose to US $600 in 1280, stagnated during the
following centuries until 1820, then declined to US $537 in 1952. In contrast, in Europe (excluding Turkey and exUSSR) the GDP per capita was US $400 in 960, increased to US $500 in 1280, and US $870 in 1700, jumped to
US $1,129 in 1820 and US $4,374 in 1952 (Maddison 1998: 25, 40).
See Wang Jiafan (1988), Bozhong Li (1996a), Fang Xing (1996, 1999: 2175–92), and especially James Lee and
Wang Feng (1999: 29–31).
The prefectures include Jiangning (Yingtian), Zhenjiang, Suzhou (including the department of Taicang), Songjiang,
Jiaxing, Huzhou and Hangzhou, see Bozhong Li (1990).
From the nation-wide discussions of the ‘Sprouts of Chinese Capitalism’ in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1980s and of the
‘Long Persistence of Feudalism’ in the early 1980s, it is apparent that the majority of mainland Chinese scholars
have tended to agree that farm labour productivity declined in late Imperial China. Outside the mainland, some
scholars have suggested that farm labour productivity remained constant in late Imperial China on the whole, or
even rose a bit in some areas within ‘developing’ and ‘undeveloped’ parts of China (Perkins 1969: 18–19; Wang
Yejian and Huang Guoshu 1989). But nobody has so far explicitly claimed that such was the case in ‘developed’
parts of China, which was the homeland of the majority of the Chinese people.
For example, Mark Elvin’s theory of ‘high-level equilibrium trap’, which is apparently based on the experience of
Ming–Qing Jiangnan, is roughly identical with the view that farm labour productivity declined in late Imperial
China (Elvin 1973: ch. 16). Chen Hengli made it clear that in Huzhou and Jiaxing of central Jiangnan, the level of
farm labour productivity achieved in the late seventeenth century is obviously higher than in the 1930s and 1950s
(Chen Hengli 1961: ch. 2). Philip Huang also pointed out that farm labour productivity declined over time during
the period of 1350–1979 (Huang 1990: ch. 1). On the other hand, although Perkins argued that per capita output,
or farm labour productivity, remained constant in China on the whole between 1368 and the 1950s, he attributed it
to both the expansion of cultivated land and the increase in yields per unit of
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cultivated land. In the case of Jiangnan, however, according to Perkins as well as most scholars of Ming–Qing
Jiangnan history, no new land was available and yields increased little during the period, while population grew
considerably and most of that growing population still depended on farming for their livelihood. One would have
to infer that farm labour productivity must have been falling.
A mu is 0.0667 hectares.
For demographic changes in major parts of the world—China, India, Europe, Japan, and so on—in ‘early modern
times’, see Maddison (1998: 20) and Frank (1998: 167–9). From their updated works, we can see that the Jiangnan
population grew even more slowly than Europe during the period between 1700 and 1820 (Maddison) or between
1650 and 1850 (Frank). The annual growth rate of Jiangnan population is also much lower than that of the Chinese
national rate which is estimated 0.6% a year between 1650 and 1850, and far less than the 3% or more in many
developing countries since World War II (Perkins 1969: 24).
A wide range of methods to control population growth was employed, including infanticide, delayed marriage,
lower proportion of ever married, abortion, contraception, sterilization, and the like. See Bozhong Li (1994b,
It is the shortage that was a principal barrier to double-cropping of rice (two crops of rice within a year) and some
farming methods of rice such as the pit cultivation (quzhong fa). All of these cropping methods are more labourintensive than double-cropping of rice and winter crops. In addition, from the late Ming period on, more and more
Jiangnan peasants had to hire labour to help them in farming in peak seasons, because their wives had to
concentrate on silk or cotton handicraft. See Bozhong Li (1999: 488–90).
The increase in short-term hired labour after the mid-Ming period is one of the main research topics within the
‘sprouts of capitalism’ literature of mainland Chinese historians. A representative discussion can be found in Li
Wenzhi (1983: especially part 3).
Though double-cropping of rice and wheat appeared much earlier (I dated its first appearance back to the Tang
times, see Bozhong Li 1982), great differences can be found between pre-Ming and Ming double-cropping. That is
why Kitada has referred to them as the old and the new double-cropping (Kitada 1988: ch. 2, 3). For further
discussions, see Bozhong Li (1994a, 1998: 50–1).
Mark Elvin has argued that when studying technological progress one must distinguish between invention (the
earliest appearance), innovation (the application of invention to production), and dissemination (the spread of an
innovation), see Bozhong Li (1994a). These distinctions are important for evaluating Qing Jiangnan agricultural
Perkins called the discovery of the fertilizer potential of bean cakes a significant exception to the more general
picture of a stagnant technology in late Imperial China (Perkins 1969: 71). As has already been pointed out above,
however, for economic growth, the widespread use of a new technique may be even more important than the
discovery of it. It is during the early and mid-Qing that the use of bean cakes became widespread in Jiangnan,
because of a sharply expanding import of beans and bean cakes (Bozhong Li 1998: ch. 6). Therefore, considering
the importance of it in the agricultural history of Jiangnan, it is not an exaggeration to call the widespread use of
bean cakes a ‘fertilizer revolution’.
A catty is equal to around 0.5 kg.
The method I use is as follows: first, I seek the total rice output of Jiangnan by subtracting import from total
consumption, then find the yield per mu by dividing the output by acreage under rice cultivation, and finally
examine the result against yield records available from different sources.
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A shi is 100 litres.
In contrast, the old double-cropping can be applied only in limited places, mainly in ‘high fields’ in western
Jiangnan, but not in ‘low fields’ in eastern Jiangnan which is much more important agriculturally, see Bozhong Li
(1994a, 1998: 50–1). As for double-cropping of rice, it has never spread widely. In the mid-Qing, in spite of
encouragement from local officials such as Governor Lin Zexu and free instruction from local gentry-agriculturists
like Pan Zenyi, few Jiangnan peasants responded. In the 1960s and 1970s, to increase grain production from each
piece of land, great efforts were made to advocate double-cropping rice by the state. But it caused a series of
problems. Thus after 1978 double-cropping rice was given up and there was a return to a rotation regime of rice
and winter crops.
In an agronomic analysis of modern Zhejiang cropping systems, Fang Zaihui has pointed out that double-cropping
of rice with wheat, barley, rapeseed, and broad beans is the best cropping regime for most of Zhejiang. Because the
soil can be turned over and sun dried after the rice is harvested and will not be waterlogged when these winter
crops are planted after rice, they are especially good for the soil of paddy fields. In contrast, alternative cropping
regimes (single-cropping or double-cropping rice or combining rice with green manure crops) reduce the physical
and chemical degradation of soil that results from long-term waterlogging of the paddy fields. If waterlogged for a
long period of time, the structure and properties of the soil are degraded (Fang Zaihui et al. 1984: 40, 161–7,
309–10). For this reason, as early as in the late seventeenth century, Zhang Luxiang said that planting wheat on rice
fields could dry and loosen the soil, ‘benefiting future planting of rice’ (Zhang Luxiang 1983: 106).
It is, of course, much less than double-cropping of rice. But as is pointed out above, double-cropping of rice has
not spread in Jiangnan.
In contrast, as Guo Songyi has also pointed out, double-cropping of rice alone was not as worthwhile as doublecropping of rice and wheat (Guo Songyi 1994). But either labour input or capital input is much more in doublecropping of rice than in double-cropping of rice and wheat. As for the double-cropping of rice and beans or
rapeseed, the inputs are even less.
Taking rice cultivation as an example, labour supply may be too much for some jobs (weeding in rice cultivation
for instance), while it may be highly inefficient for other works (land preparation and seedling transplanting, for
instance). See Bozhong Li (1986, 1998: 68–75).
That is one of the major reasons why double-cropping of rice cannot spread in Jiangnan. Perkins has suggested
that in China, even into the 1950s, there was no labour surplus, but a shortage of labour during agricultural peak
seasons (Perkins 1969: 59–60). The shortage was the major barrier of the spread of double-cropping of rice,
because the labour requirements of double-cropping of rice are much heavier than in double-cropping of rice and
wheat and the requirements are highly uneven for different seasons. For Jiangnan, Kenneth Walker has suggested
that in the present-day province of Jiangsu where most of Jiangnan is located, the labour supply has been estimated
to have been on average less than half that necessary for ideal double-cropping rice conditions (Walker 1968: Table
To raise labour productivity in a farm, at least four methods can be adopted: (1) the acreage of cultivated land
increases, but the number of the workers does not; (2) the number of the workers decreases, but the acreage of the
farmland does not; (3) both the number of the workers and the acreage of farmland do not change, but the
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is more intensively cultivated; and (4) both the number of the workers and the acreage of farmland are unchanged,
but land is multi-cropped (Bray 1986: 2–3). It is clear that only the first method is related with the expansion of
farm size.
Since the late Ming, total crop area in Jiangnan has not changed much; it has been roughly 45 million mu, while
Jiangnan had about 3 million agricultural families in 1620 and 5 million in 1850, see Bozhong Li (1998: 19–23,
26–7, 2000b: ch. 9).
It is no wonder Zhang Luxiang, a late-seventeenth-century Jiangnan scholar and agriculturist, said that ‘a good
peasant farmed no more than ten mu’ (Zhang Luxiang 1983: 148). Almost two centuries later, Tao Xi, a Jiangnan
scholar and high-ranking official, noticed that a man cultivating 10 mu was still the norm; if a family had more than
10 mu, it needed to hire labour (Tao Xi 1927: 6a, 17a–b).
In mainland Chinese scholarship, ‘man ploughs and woman weaves’ has been seen as the normal division of labour
for thousands of years. It has also been considered a major characteristic of the economic structure of Chinese
‘feudal’ society (Bai Gang 1984: ch. 3.4, 3.5, 3.12–3.15, and 4.8). But as I argued in my 1996 article, in Jiangnan, the
pattern did not prevail until the seventeenth century and it became predominant just in the eighteenth century.
Xu Xinwu (1992: 215), cf. Bozhong Li (2000b: ch. 8).
Philip Huang has argued that labour productivity was lower in non-grain cash cropping than in grain production.
(Huang 1990: 78–84) We should note that this viewpoint relies mainly on studies of the cotton industry in Jiangnan
during the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth century. As we know, however, economic
conditions in China worsened in the nineteenth century. In the case of Jiangnan, the cotton handicraft industry
suffered not only from the general economic contraction, but also from exposure to competition from cotton
textile producers in the industrialized West. Therefore, conclusions drawn from this later period are not helpful to
the discussion here.
For the definition see Perkins (1986: 87) and Crafts (1989).
The differences are: (1) modern industrial labour productivity is calculated on the basis of a day or hour, but
traditional agricultural labour productivity is calculated mainly according to the year; (2) modern industrial labour
productivity is per worker, but traditional agricultural labour usually takes the family as the unit; (3) modern
industrial labour is basically of one kind, while peasant labour has more types; (4) modern labour’s results are
usually expressed in money, but in traditional agricultural societies we must use real goods in many cases, because a
commercial economy is not sufficiently developed. In general, the four points apply to Jiangnan agriculture in the
period under discussion, see Bozhong Li (1998: 134–5, 1999: 492–3).
The wheat is converted into 4.2 shi of rice according to the common rate of conversion in Ming–Qing Jiangnan
which is 1:0.7, see Bozhong Li (1998: 208).
On production costs of rice and wheat, see Bozhong Li (1998: 139–40, 1999: 502).
Rice cultivation in Ming–Qing Jiangnan, from preparing the soil through harvesting, required about 10 workdays/
mu. If we add the labour for pumping water and collecting and transporting fertilizer the total is 15 workdays/mu
(Bozhong Li 1984, 1998: 139, 1999: 504).
According to the calculations on labour expenses in Pumao nongzi each mu of wheat, barley, or rye required 3
workdays (Jiang Gao 1963: 9b).
One dou is 10 litres.
It takes 2 workdays to prepare 1 mu of rice (Jiang Gao 1963: 11a). In a single-cropping regime, a peasant can
prepare 25 mu during the period of land preparation. Preparing the land is very hard; normally it is only a man’s
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A family plants 25 mu; each mu produced 2.5 shi for 62.5 shi. Men do the job of husking the rice at the rate of 1 shi/
day (Jiang Gao 1963: 11a). When speaking of wheat, because it is not clear how much labour it takes to bran, I
have to use the rate for rice.
In rural societies, peasants do not work every day. This maximum number of workdays of a Jiangnan peasant
within a year is derived from modern field investigations, see Xu Xinwu (1992: 469) and Bozhong Li (1999: 504).
This number does not contradict the calculation of wages of a long-term farm hand on the basis of 360 days a
year, because he still had to eat and be clothed even if he did not have work to do in the slack seasons.
A bolt of cloth was 3.63 square yards.
As pointed out earlier, the maximum number of workdays per year is 300 days.
In fact, the example given by He Liangjun is the only record I have ever seen.
For example, Zhang Haishan (1992) says, ‘Now [1804] the land is limited and the people are many in Suzhou and
Songjiang. A man cannot work 10 mu’. Paddy productivity in this period reached 3 shi/mu in both Suzhou and
Songjiang (Bao Shichen 2001: 58; Jiang Gao 1963: 3b). For more evidence, see Bozhong Li (1996a, 1999).
According to Gu Yanwu, a mid-seventeenth-century Jiangnan scholar. See Bozhong Li (1998: 126–7).
On the output in western Songjiang, see Li Bozhong (1998: 139–40, 1999: 506–8).
If we consider labour productivity the key factor in deciding whether growth is ‘extensive’ or ‘intensive’, then this
would be a case of intensive growth. For a more detailed discussion, see Feuerwerker (1992).
It is a common opinion that peasants’ living standards declined over time in late Imperial China. Most mainland
Chinese historians of the older generation believe that the ‘feudal exploitation’ (rents, taxes, usury, and the like)
became so severe that most peasant families could not have survived if they had relied only on farming. Even
when they found new sources of income from sericulture and textile handicrafts, it is thought that they still lived at
a minimum level of living (Chen Zhenhan 1955; Fu Zhufu and Gu Shutang 1956; Xu Xinwu 1981: 40–4, 105–6;
Bai Gang 1984: 221; Fu Yiling 1991: 91, 95; Wang Tingyuan 1993). In the west, some scholars see ‘population
pressure’ as the chief culprit behind the pauperization of peasants. They argue that the pressure created a growing
surplus of labour and drove peasants’ living standards to a ‘minimum subsistence’ level, for example, Quan
Hansheng (1958) and Philip Huang (1990: ch. 5). This view has been accepted since the 1980s by many mainland
Chinese historians such as Hong Huanchun (1988: 91–2). Most of their attention, Chinese and western, has
concentrated on Jiangnan.
During this period, silk and cotton cloth, Jiangnan’s major exports, and rice, Jiangnan’s major import and most
important food, all rose in price. But generally, before the early nineteenth century, Jiangnan peasants benefited
from the price markup (Bozhong Li 1998: ch. 6).
After the Qing dynasty was established, the tax burdens of the late Ming were equalized to a large degree so that
the burdens for most peasants were reduced, at least in per capita terms.
The fact that Jiangnan peasants were unwilling to work in cities and towns cannot be attributed to their
conservatism or their ‘home-attaching’ complex. As residents of the most commercialized area of China, they were
unwilling to miss any chance to make money. Qi Yanhuai, an early nineteenth-century scholar and official,
figuratively said: ‘Shanghai people see the inland travel to Nanjing or Qingjiang as long-distance trips, but they
travel by boat between Shanghai and Guandong four or five times a year and never
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mind the distance’ (Qi Yanhuai 1826). In fact, Nanjing or Qingjiang are hundreds of miles from Shanghai, but
Guandong (southern Manchuria) is thousands of miles away. The only reason why they preferred to risk the sea
voyage is that they could make more money from the flourishing sea trade that existed between Shanghai and
Guandong in the mid-Qing period.
Jacque Gernet has confidently asserted that ‘the Chinese peasant of the Yongzheng (1723–35) and of the first half
of Qianlong (1736–65) era was in general better nourished and more comfortable than his French counterpart in
the reign of Louis XV’ (cited by R. Bin Wong 1998: 25). Ping-ti Ho has also suggested that the peasants of
eighteenth-century China lived better than their counterparts of eighteenth-century France, of early nineteenthcentury Prussia, or of Tokugawa Japan (Ping-ti Ho 1959: 194). Even in the mid-nineteenth century, which is
usually seen as a period of emerging general social crisis, Robert Fortune, a careful first-hand observer, wrote that
the diet of tea-picking labourers in East China was clearly better than that of harvest labourers in Scotland, his
motherland: ‘A Chinaman would starve upon such food (that Scotch labourers had)’ (Fortune 1847/1987: 12).
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Bai, G. (1984) Zhongguo fengjian shehui changqi yanxu wenti lunzhan de youlai yu fazhan. Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexue
Bao, S. (2001/1851) Qimin sishu. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju.
Barrow, Sir J. (1806) Travels in China. London: T. Cadell and W. Davies in the Strand.
Bray, F. (1986) The Rice Economics: Technology and Development in Asian Societies. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Buck, J. L. (1930) Chinese Farm Economy. Nanjing: The University of Nanking and the China Council of the Institute of
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Chen, H. (1961) Bunongshu yanjiu. Beijing: Nongye chubanshe.
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Review: Development or Involution in Eighteenth-Century Britain and China? A Review of
Kenneth Pomeranz’s “The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern
World Economy”
Reviewed Work(s): The Greater Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern
World Economy by Kenneth Pomeranz
Review by: Philip C. C. Huang
Source: The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 61, No. 2 (May, 2002), pp. 501-538
Published by: Association for Asian Studies
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Development or Involution in
Eighteenth-Century Britain
and China?
A Review of Kenneth Pomeranz’s
The Great Divergence: China, Europe,
and the Making of the Modern
World Economy
KENNETH POMERANZ ARGUES THAT “the great divergence” betwe
and involution in Europe and China did not occur until after 1800. Until
and China were comparable in population history, agriculture, handicra
income, and consumption. Europe before 1800, in other words, was much less
developed than the last two decades of scholarship have led us to believe, while China
before 1800 was much less involuted. To make his case, Pomeranz spotlights England,
the most advanced part of Europe, and the Yangzi delta area, the most advanced part
of China. They diverged only after 1800, mainly because of the lucky availability of
coal resources for England, and also of other raw materials from the New World.
This is a surprising idea, going radically against received wisdom, but the
argument has considerable appeal. It appears to be based on a very sound question:
to ask not only the Eurocentric query of why China did not develop as Europe did,
but also why Europe did not go down the path of intensification-involution as China
did. It has, for many, the neat appeal of de-centering Europe, not only of its
Enlightenment modernity, but also of what might be called its Enlightenment
economy. For China specialists, it has the added appeal of placing premodern China
in a position of equivalence with Europe. There is something that might even appeal
Philip Huang ( is professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles.
My thanks to the following individuals who gave me important suggestions and comments
during the writing of this article: Perry Anderson, Stevan Harrell, Chris Isett, Li Fangchun,
Mark Selden, Matthew Sommer, Zhang Jiayan, the three referees for this journal (William
Rowe and two anonymous reviewers), and, especially, Kathryn Bernhardt, Robert Brenner,
Joseph Esherick, and Xia Mingfang.
The Journal of Asian Studies 61, no. 2 (May 2002):501-5 38.
(? 2002 by the Association for Asian Studies, Inc.
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to the nationalistic sentiments of some Chinese scholars: European success and Chinese
failure in modern development can after all be attributed to some degree to European
expansion (imperialism?) rather than some intrinsic European propensity. And the
argument as to the hows and whys of European development has the apparent
methodological strength of dealing in contingencies, rather than the unilinear
inevitability suggested by the modernization construct.
But an argument such as this cannot be accepted simply because we like it for
ideological or emotional reasons. We need to ask: has the evidence been generated to
make the argument at least plausible? The evidential base of the book, however, is
not easy to assess. It is not built on original research, but rather relies on past secondary
scholarship. Systematic assessment is made doubly difficult because the book ranges
far and wide, treating not only China but also India and Japan and even Southeast
Asia, and calling on studies not only of Britain, or northwest Europe alone, but also
of France, Germany, and even eastern Europe. And it covers a wide range of topics.
On the face of it, the evidence presented seems very admirable. It crosses the
boundaries of two hitherto largely distinct bodies of scholarship. To the China
specialist, the book shows intimidating acquaintance with European research. The
China scholar who thinks Pomeranz is wrong about China faces the problem of having
to address the European literature he relies on. And the Europeanist who thinks
Pomeranz is wrong about Europe might forgive the weaknesses of evidence on the
European side because, after all, the book is not by a Europeanist but by a China
scholar who seems in full command of all the difficult language and materials of that
still rather insular field. The danger of all this is that the book will not be assessed
rigorously by either Europeanists or China scholars. Instead of trying to discuss
everything covered in the book, this article will focus on its core empirical arguments
about England and the Yangzi delta.’ That is the base upon which the book stands
or falls.
The English Agricultural Revolution
Pomeranz argues that agriculture in England and the Yangzi delta in 1800 was
roughly comparable, neither one more developed or more involuted than the other.
His main empirical bases concern capital use in agriculture and population dynamics.
We will deal with both of those in due course. First we must review briefly the
scholarship and evidence on the eighteenth-century English agricultural revolution,
about which Pomeranz says nothing at all.
As E. Anthony Wrigley has shown, while the total population of England grew
210 percent from 1600 to 1800 (from 4.11 million to 8.66 million), the percentage
of population engaged in agriculture actually shrank by about one-half, from 70
percent of the total to 36.25 percent. By 1800, in other words, just over one-third of
the population was able to supply the rest with food. Since relatively little food was
imported,2 this means that “output per head in agriculture” expanded at least by three
quarters between 1700 and 1800 (1985, 688, 700-1, 723).
‘As Eric Jones (1981), Robert Allen (1994), and Anthony Wrigley (1985) all make clear,
there are only scant data for eighteenth-century Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Most observations about Britain are anchored on data mainly for England. I follow their lead here in referring
to Britain and/or England without attempting overly precise differentiation.
2Amounting to just 10 percent of the total food consumed, in Eric Jones’s estimate (1981,
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Robert Allen comes to essentially the same conclusions on the basis of more direct
evidence. Relying on both estate surveys and contemporary observations such as those
of Arthur Young, who traveled throughout England in the 1760s and reported on
the details of several hundred farms, Allen concludes that while the size of the
agricultural labor force changed little between 1700 and 1800, agricultural output,
of both grain and livestock, more than doubled (1994, 102, 107). This eighteenthcentury “agricultural revolution” was accomplished without increasing labor input
per unit of land.3 In fact, Allen suggests that labor input per unit of land probably
decreased by about 5 percent due to greater animal use and economies of scale (1994,
104, 107).
Wrigley pointedly distinguishes between an increase in total output and in output
per unit of labor time: “I have in mind changes which substantially increase labor
productivity whether measured by the hour or by the year . . .” (1985, 728 n. 38).
What Wrigley speaks to here is what I termed in my work development (involving
increased labor productivity), to distinguish it from involution (involving diminishing
marginal returns per unit of labor) and intensification (added labor input per unit of
land) in the Yangzi delta (1990, 11). Wrigley concludes by posing the question of
how English agriculture, “in a land long since fully settled,” managed to circumvent
“Ricardo’s law of declining marginal returns to additional unit inputs of labor and
capital” (1985, 726).
Eric Jones’s, Robert Allen’s, and Mark Overton’s narratives of eighteenth-century
English agriculture suggest a possible answer to that question, as well as a sharp
contrast with the Yangzi delta. Before enclosure, cropping and animal husbandry were
separate, one done on individual land and the other on common land. The spread of
enclosed fields in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries allowed cultivators to
combine systematically grain cultivation with animal husbandry within their own
fields. In the classic Norfolk rotation system of wheat-turnip-barley-clover (which
became the norm in English agriculture by the time of Arthur Young’s reports of the
1760s), food grains (wheat, barley) were alternated with animal-feed crops (turnips,
clover) (Allen 1992, 111; Overton 1996, 3). The system served the purpose, first of
all, of increasing livestock production. In Robert Allen’s estimate, there was an
increase of 73 percent (other than farm horses) between 1700 and 1800 (1994, 109,
113-14). In Eric Jones’s estimate, there was an increase in both draft animals and
other livestock between 1760 and 1800, of 69 percent in farm horses and 35 percent
in other livestock (1981, 73). Such increases meant also enhanced productivity of farm
labor, from the increased use of animal manure and animal power, as well as from the
enhancement of soil fertility through the nitrogen-fixing properties of the forage
crops.4 (Overton [1996, 1181 provides a quantitative representation of the total effects
of the Norfolk system.) Fields under the Norfolk rotation, finally, could also be
alternated with pasture in “convertible husbandry,” to restore or enhance soil fertility
(Overton 1996, 116-17). There were of course other causes for enhanced labor
productivity as well, including improved seeds, new livestock breeds, improved
methods of animal slaughter, economies of scale, and the like. But the change that a
comparison with the Yangzi delta highlights is what might be termed capitalization
per unit of farm labor, in the sense of increased use of animal power and fertilizer.
3Allen in his 1992 book, of course, argued that there were two agricultural revolutions:
the yeoman revolution of the seventeenth century, as well as the landlords’ revolution of the
4Turnips acted also as a “cleaning crop” by smothering the weeds (Overton 1996, 3).
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Bw ~ ~~~~~~~~~~~ > g,I
Q, AJ~yf , ,NS, K S,
7 (/j a Cho ngshu ‘ Ch ongN
Changshu n/ asa~~~-
iiangyin O Taiangh”‘ i” 9 > ‘:z
x’ S UL- Z 0 U ~
I Taihu~’- 1L Ch~~h< TaicangA Cuasa *I ..(Wuj_ang ^ E aoshan _ N s-I ~ Wuxian NS ~ JDia> ~ ,&-h 0nXia
a stern Se
Map 1. The Yangzi Delta in 1980. From Huang, 1990.
?) 1990 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University, used by
permission of the publishers, Stanford University Press.
Agriculture in the Yangzi Delta
The central part of the Yangzi delta, roughly one-half of the total area (maps 1
and 2), had in 1816 a population of 12 million and a cultivated acreage of 15 million
mu (six mu= one acre), or just 2.5 million acres, this in contrast to England, with a
total population of 8.66 million in 1800 and agricultural land of 35.6 million acres
(including not only arable but also pasture, meadow, and common land, which were
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A Village
0 County Seat
(/< - _Yellow Sea .r,/ ~ / AChnsh STAICANG XiaodingiangAOWUl '7Nantojng CHANGZHOU Yai )| AO Changshu / AI C A C / SUZHOU oTaicang 0Jiading Sunjiaxiang au 4/mii~~~ ~ AOVVuxian Aj'D,ngjiau '{WK (,4r3> zt,4Wujian SONGJIANG
aix9/ ango n . oAHuayangqiao


=, -2 9 J 1820 Shoreline Shown
Map 2. The Yangzi Delta in 1820. From Huang, 1990.
?) 1990 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University, used by
permission of the publishers, Stanford University Press.
relatively insignificant in the Yangzi delta).5 In contrast to the English agricultural
regime of mixing cropping with animal husbandry, the Yangzi delta’s was virtually
5These figures include Songjiang and Suzhou prefectures, Taicang department, and Wuxi
and Jiangyin counties, but not Tongzhou department to the north, Jiaxing and Huzhou prefectures to the south, and the rest of Changzhou prefecture. This central half was the focus of
my 1990 book. The data given here are from Huang (1990, appendix table B.1, 341-42). The
English population figure is from Wrigley (1985, 700). The agricultural land figure is for
England and Wales and is from Allen (1994, 104).
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a crops-only economy, with correspondingly less capitalization per unit of labor. And,
in further contrast to the growing capitalization of eighteenth-century English
agriculture, the Yangzi delta was moving in the opposite direction of ever greater
labor intensification. The result, not surprisingly, was diminishing marginal returns
to labor or what I call involution. We examine below each of these tendencies in turn.
The Crops-only Economy
While the English system alternated arable with pasture and, within the arable,
animal-feed crops with human-consumed grains, the Yangzi delta fields were almost
entirely under human-consumed crops. The typical Yangzi delta field was placed
under spring wet rice followed by winter wheat (Li 1998, 39-40, 50, cf. 6, 15).
Where food grains were not grown, the fields were usually under cotton or mulberries.
There was only limited growing of ziyunying (honghuacao) (just 0.9 percent of the
cropped area in the delta in the 1930s, for which we have exact data), or astragalus
sinensis, as a winter crop, mainly as fertilizer for the fields, with only limited use as
animal feed.6 The main farm animal was the scavenging hog rather than the grazing
horse, sheep, or cow as in England.
One of the basic facts that agrarian historians know is that at a given level of
technology a unit of land under crops can support more people than one under
livestock (to support people through meat, milk, cheese). John Lossing Buck in his
mammoth study of China’s farm economy suggested a ratio of six or seven to one
(1937a, 12). What this means is that, absent major technological changes, high
population density on a given amount of land will eventually drive out animal
husbandry in favor of a crops-only economy. While English (and European)
agricultural output generally consisted of roughly equal parts of crops and livestock,
agriculture in the Yangzi delta at least since the seventeenth century consisted
preponderantly of human-consumed crops (Chen and Wang 1983, passim; Jiang
118341 1963, passim). In 1952, for which we have precise quantitative data, livesto
(including fisheries) accounted for just 11.8 percent of total agricultural output in
China (Zhongguo tong/i nianjian 1983, 150).
The basic difference in agricultural structure between the eighteenth-century
English crops-cum-animal husbandry and China’s largely crops-only economy
accounts, of course, also for the basic difference in diet between the two peoples. In
one, the typical food consisted of nearly equal proportions of grain (bread) and cheese/
butter/milk/meat (Drummond and Wilbraham, 1958 [19391, 206-10). In the other,
it consisted rather of a preponderant proportion of grain (rice, wheat flour, corn, millet,
sorghum), conceptualized in modern Chinese as the staple food (zhushi) accompanied
by much smaller proportions of dishes (cai) or supplementary foods (fushi), that
comprised for peasants just vegetables and on rare occasions also meat (mainly pork,
and sometimes poultry and eggs).
The contrast extends beyond diet to clothing practices. The logic about feeding
a population on animal products applies also to clothing: it took much more land to
supply wool, for example, for a given number of people than it did cotton. And it
took much more labor to place a field under cotton than to have it under sheep for
wool. While the English of the eighteenth century relied mainly on wool for coldweather clothing, Chinese peasants of the eighteenth century relied almost exclusively
6Jiang (U18341 1963, 7a-b); Chen and Wang (1983, 15); the 0.9 percent figure is from
Buck (1937b, 178). Note that ziyunying was used more than alfalfa.
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on cotton-padded cotton clothing for cold weather (although the upper classes did
use a lot of silk). That too tells about the differential proportions of animal husbandry
in the two agricultural systems.
It should be obvious that, other things being equal, mixed farming made for a
more capital-intensive agricultural regime, i.e., more use of animal manure and animal
power (and also of soil fertility-enhancing forage crops per unit of labor). In a cropsonly economy, continued population pressure without technological change drove out
animal husbandry to allow for maximizing output per unit of land but inevitably
through less use of capital per unit of labor and hence also of lower productivity per
unit of labor.
Field investigations by Japanese Mantetsu (South Manchurian Railway Company)
researchers in the 1930s have left us precise data that illustrate graphically the logic
here. On the North China plain in the 1930s, the wage of a male agricultural worker
was actually pegged at the same price as a donkey and only one-half that of a horse
or mule, which was generally capable of providing twice the power of a donkey. Thus,
a man hiring out with a donkey was paid as much as two men. The equation was
based on the fact that it cost as much during work periods to feed a donkey as a man
and twice as much to feed a mule or horse as a man. Under those conditions, animal
use in farming came to be kept down to the barest minimum, employed only for
those parts of the production cycle that could not be done by humans alone, mainly
plowing of the land. Raising livestock (other than the scavenging pig) for food was
thus largely ruled out. With that came less use of animal fertilizer (outside of pig
manure) that, in turn, meant inevitably lower labor productivity (Huang 1985, chap.
8, esp. 148).
Eric Jones, in his study of English agriculture, emphasized the importance of its
mixed farming regime. Pomeranz discusses Jones’s work and his analysis but dismisses
any difference in capital use between English (European) and Chinese ag…
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  • Money-back and Privacy guarantees
  • Unlimited Amendments upon request
  • Satisfaction guarantee

How it Works

  • Click on the “Place Order” tab at the top menu or “Order Now” icon at the bottom and a new page will appear with an order form to be filled.
  • Fill in your paper’s requirements in the "PAPER DETAILS" section.
  • Fill in your paper’s academic level, deadline, and the required number of pages from the drop-down menus.
  • Click “CREATE ACCOUNT & SIGN IN” to enter your registration details and get an account with us for record-keeping and then, click on “PROCEED TO CHECKOUT” at the bottom of the page.
  • From there, the payment sections will show, follow the guided payment process and your order will be available for our writing team to work on it.