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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 354-355

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Book Review

Sugar and Society in China: Peasants, Technology, and the World Market

Sugar and Society in China: Peasants, Technology, and the World Market. By Sucheta Mazumdar. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. Pp. xx+657. $49.50.

The history of cane sugar in China followed a very different path from the one it traced in the New World. Though the production of sugar greatly increased to meet an expanding consumer market from the sixteenth century on, China did not develop large plantations or slave-based plantation economies as in the New World. During the Ming and Qing periods, sugarcane cultivation and sugar manufacture were always undertaken by smallholders; sugarcane continually had to compete with rice and other subsistence and commercial crops, and never was it turned into a monoculture. Sucheta Mazumdar's book sets out to explain how Chinese sugar manufacture, operating within the confines of the smallholder system, was able to expand and why it declined in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with relation to the global economy.

Mazumdar draws on a rich collection of primary and secondary sources to give an exceptionally detailed account of all aspects of sugar production in China, including consumption and demand in the domestic and world markets, manufacturing technology, the land system, and marketing structures, ending with a comparison of the divergent paths followed by the sugar industries in Guangdong and Taiwan. She demonstrates that changes in technology and cropping patterns raised the efficiency of production in the smallholder economy and enabled it to export large quantities of sugar before the late nineteenth century. The inability of South China to respond dynamically to the expanding demands of the world economy after this time she attributes to new social-property relations and peasant economic strategies. She singles out the new peasant property rights which emerged during the Qing as "the primary barrier between capital and production" (p. 406), and views the persistence of combining commercial agriculture with production for subsistence as another confining factor. She contrasts this situation, epitomized in the case of Guangdong, in which the peasants retained control over the immediate process of production, with Taiwan under Japanese colonial rule, where the sugar factory owner became the "real controller of the immediate [End Page 354] process of production" (p. 407) and smallholders were subordinate to the needs of industrial capital.

Readers of Technology and Culture will be interested in Mazumdar's new hypothesis concerning the invention of the two- and three-roller vertical sugar mill, which remained the main machine for crushing sugarcane in the New World and Asia from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth. Scholars still do not agree about exactly when, where, and how this roller mill first appeared. Mazumdar proposes that it was invented in the New World and subsequently transferred from the Americas to China (this is a revision of her 1984 doctoral dissertation, in which she gave India priority for the invention of the vertical two-roller mill). This adds another hypothesis to the ongoing debate concerning the origins of this mill; I have argued in favor of China, and Fran├žoise Sabban proposes China for the two-roller mill and the New World for the three-roller version.

Sugar and Society in China succeeds in putting the smallholder pattern of sugar production in South China within the global context, and demonstrates that it did not develop in isolation from the world market after the sixteenth century. I feel, however, that it fails to consider one important aspect of world sugar production, the role of government intervention. After the sixteenth century, governments of western countries protected sugar industries in their own colonies with tariffs, and in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries this protection extended to include setting up infrastructures to encourage industrial capital to invest in new technology and expand production. Even today, most sugar industries all over the world enjoy some form of governmental protection. As Mazumdar points out, the Japanese colonial government succeeded in transforming the smallholding system into a...


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