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Journal of World History 11.2 (2000) 379-383

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Book Review

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

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

Tigers, Rice, Silk, and Silt: Environment and Economy in Late Imperial South China. By ROBERT MARKS. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Pp. xx + 383. $64.95 (cloth).

Sugar and Society in China: Peasants, Technology and the World Market. By SUCHETA MAZUMDAR. Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 1998. Pp. xx + 657. $49.50 (cloth).

Historians of China have long recognized the economic vitality of Late Imperial China. This knowledge has become increasingly incorporated into studies of world economies, challenging earlier assertions of European "uniqueness" that were based more on ignorance of the rest of the world than on comparative research. These two insightful and well-documented works by Robert Marks and Sucheta Mazumdar [End Page 379] focus on the Pearl River Delta area around Canton in south China, a particularly important node in early modern world history. They not only confirm the high levels of commercialization in Late Imperial south China, but also place it within the context of an extensive Sino-Pacific economy, and a temporal context of over two thousand years.

Both authors are ultimately concerned (Mazumdar more explicitly than Marks) with the perennial question of why Western Europe industrialized and China did not, yet each draws from distinct sources to create different perspectives on the society and economy of south China. Tigers, Rice, Silk, and Silt attempts to figure nature into Chinese history by correlating environmental changes with economic shifts, political history, and population movements. Sugar and Society in China focuses on the production and marketing of sugar, using this as a window to understanding the domestic and international trade of China, the appropriation and development of technology, and the importance of social property relations. The state plays an important role in both works, but while Marks focuses on its activities regarding market regulation and famine relief, Mazumdar looks at the influence of its cultural, property, and taxation policies. The two perspectives are largely complementary, suggesting contradictions only in their characterizations of domestic markets. Marks takes a bird's eye view that depicts regional foodstuff markets in terms of extensive penetration and stability by the eighteenth century, whereas Mazumdar focuses on village and family practices that resulted in a "limited" market economy. These differences appear most explicitly in Marks's insistence that Pearl River Delta peasants had largely turned to the market for their subsistence needs (pp. 183-84), and Mazumdar's claim that peasants tried to maintain their own subsistence production while engaging selectively in market production (pp. 292-94). Neither claim has good land-use data to back it up.

Both books are also about much more than the market economy. Tigers, Rice, Silk, and Silt weaves together a vast variety of data on environmental trends, including long-term climate shifts, deforestation, land reclamation, and the disappearance of elephants and tigers. It is presented with the help of many useful maps, charts, and tables. Marks is particularly successful in showing the reclamation and settlement of the Pearl River Delta near Canton after the fourteenth century, and the expansion of a regional rice market as the Delta area turned to the production of cash crops and manufactured goods for export to other parts of China and Southeast Asia. He compares the stability of these markets favorably to contemporaneous European grain markets and argues that even officials in charge of the state famine relief system preferred to maintain cash reserves for recourse to the market rather [End Page 380] than rely on the less efficient practice of grain storage--despite contrary pressure from the emperor. Problems associated with population growth and environmental depletion were also alleviated for a time with the help of the market. Taken together, irrigation projects, efficient markets, and the state granary system had, by the eighteenth...