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  • Treasure Nightsoil as if It Were Gold":Economic and Ecological Links Between Urban and Rural Areas in Late Imperial Jiangnan
  • Yong Xue, Assistant Professor of History

This article provides a new perspective to understand what I call "agrarian urbanization" by examining how peasants changed urban life in late imperial Jiangnan.1 The study of urbanization is not only a matter of tallying the increasing size and number of towns, but also gauging the growing impact of urban activities on the whole society. Furthermore, the urban-rural interaction is rarely one-sided, with the rural as the passive recipient of urban influence. Instead, activities in rural society can have formative influence upon urban development. To measure the extent of urbanization in a society, therefore, we should examine not only population sizes in towns and cities, but also the behavior of people outside the urban settlement. Unfortunately, most studies of urbanization neglect this part of the story.2

The reason for this neglect is not difficult to find. It lies in the character of urban legends about the largely unknown activities of the rural population. [End Page 41] Pre-modern agrarian society has long been characterized either as a settled society in contrast with the volatile nomadic world, or as a closed society in contrast with a dynamic urban hub. Farmers were believed to have adopted a static life style in their villages for generations, relying on merchants and peddlers to connect them to the outside world. G. William Skinner, who insightfully recognizes the integration between rural life and market systems, argues that the intervillage system was the chief tradition-creating and culture-bearing unit of rural China. But even Skinner fails to fully appreciate the mobility and openness of peasant society. According to his theoretical model, the landscape of rural China was a grid of many integrated cells, each with a market town as its nucleus. Though peasants were members of two communities—their village and the market town to which their village belonged—"it was artisans, merchants, and other full-time economic specialists, not peasants, who sustained the heartbeat of periodic marketing that kept the community alive."3

The nightsoil trade that I present here is a small but neglected case to challenge this model.4 In the nightsoil trade, it was peasants who traveled to the urban areas to create the business. Since most urbanites belonged to the non-agricultural population, they did not use the nightsoil that they produced and wanted to have it removed from their living environment for sanitary reasons. On the other hand, peasants, in the face of serious fertilizer deficit, had to go to cities and towns to collect nightsoil for the cultivation of their land. Thus an ecological cycle connected urban and rural as inseparable partners. This connection was especially strong in Jiangnan (see Map 1), the most prosperous region in early modern China, where rice agriculture was the foundation of the agrarian economy. As Fernand Braudel points out, "The real achievement of the rice-fields was not their continuous use of the same cultivable area, nor their water technology designed to safeguard the yield, but the two or sometimes three harvests they produced every year."5 To make this double-cropping miracle sustainable, peasants in Jiangnan had to rely on the intensive use of fertilizer, which maintained the fertility of the soil under the exhausting farming regime. As a result, urban nightsoil became an important source of fertilizer and attracted many peasants to cities and towns. [End Page 42]

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Map 1.

Administrative Map of Jiangnan during the Qing. From Bozhong Li, 1998, p. xviii.

Fertilizer Procurement and Farm Management

Nightsoil was a major traditional fertilizer. Though some Song sources record that peasants moved nightsoil from urban areas to the countryside in the Jiangnan region, there is no evidence to show that this was a widespread practice until the late Ming (the sixteenth and early seventeenth century) when an intensive nightsoil trade arose in the course of rapid urbanization.6

Searching for traditional fertilizers required frequent and lengthy travels. To assess these travels, I shall start with a text from a rural landlord in the late...


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