- Fighting Famine in North China: State, Market, and Environmental Decline, 1690s-1990s
There is a compelling reason for Li to choose North China as the focus of her book. Unlike South China both geographically and climatically, North China is much more vulnerable to possible flood and drought. This plain, being vast and fertile enough to support a large population under normal weather conditions, frequently faces the resultant built-up enormous population pressure. The survival of this large population depends, to a great extent, on the balance of often precarious climate changes. When too much rain during the summer triggers flooding of the Yellow River, or too little rain during the growing season results in lasting drought, harvest failure often follows. How to provide a stable and sufficient supply of food to the local population to prevent possible social riots was, and still is, a challenge to the government at all levels, and particularly to the emperors in traditional China and to the top leaders in contemporary China. To a great extent, feeding the people was "the most important sign of imperial legitimacy and claim to the Mandate of Heaven" (p. 342). This is still true in contemporary China.
Li's work deserves the serious attention of those who are interested in understanding how emperors, leaders, and civil societies in China, especially in North China, have dealt with natural catastrophes and famines in the last three hundred years. Using historical data and materials, especially grain price data, from the archives of the Qing dynasty and other sources and applying a quantitative method to the case of Hebei (North Zhili) province, the book provides a comprehensive examination on factors that might have contributed to food shortage or famine during the long period from the 1690s to the 1990s. The factors discussed in this book include changes in local climate and environment, population size and growth, land utilization and farming modes, government policies and behavior toward water conservancy, famine relief, markets, and official grain storage methods that were based on fundamentally different ideologies and political institutions during different regimes.
However, the book's significance is far beyond the scope of famine research per se. Li does not shy from the recent debate over when and how China, perceived by many seventeenth-century European scholars as a land of prosperity and progress, became a land of famine and poverty. The conventional view is that China first lost its lead in technology as early as the sixteenth century. It then lost its edge in economic development, gradually and mainly as a result of its own internal problems. The debate was triggered by a challenge to this conventional view from the so-called California school. For example, this school dismisses the [End Page 233] view that the famine-caused mortality had risen significantly as early as the beginning of the nineteenth century (pp. 9-10), before the first Opium War when the Western powers started to have opportunities to exert major influence on China's internal affairs for the first time. The California school also claims that the divergence between Europe and China emerged much later than many scholars had thought. This reinterpretation of China's premodern and modern history makes the studies of China more interesting and exciting. The publication of Li's book should be welcomed for its depth and width, its good timing, and its implications for this continuing debate.
The book has convincingly established or confirmed at least the following points. First, "famines in particular, and hunger and poverty in general, have been fundamentally important in the history of China—particularly during the last two centuries" (p. 9). Thus, this work rejects the idea that famines were only "random disturbances" (p. 9) during this period. On the contrary, poverty and famines increasingly assaulted China at least since the beginning of the nineteenth century, several decades before China was defeated in the first Opium War and was forced by Western powers to open its...