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  • Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850
  • Hugh R. Clark (bio)
Li Bozhong. Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850. With forewords by Wu Chengming and Shiba Yoshinobu. Translation by R. Bin Wong. St. Martin's Studies on the Chinese Economy. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998. xix, 251 pp. Hardcover $69.95, ISBN 0-312-17529-9.

Bozhong Li's Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850 is an important contribution to the economic history of late imperial China. In the context of a highly quantified assessment of agricultural performance in the Jiangnan region through the late Ming dynasty and into the apical decades of the Qing, Li seeks to redefine the agricultural economy of the late imperial era on its own terms, thereby divorcing it from the Eurocentric bias of the "'Smith-Marx' growth model" that privileges mechanical development (pp. 164-166). He seeks instead to develop a model of "'skill-oriented' technological development" that dispenses with dramatic mechanical change and focuses on increasing both productivity and yield through improved skill and capital investment.

Li believes that because of inherent methodological flaws previous research has chronically misrepresented China's economic past:

Previous research … has usually viewed late imperial Chinese economic history through European lenses. … First, many scholars … , regarding the Western European experience as the inevitable model of Chinese historical development, have laboured hard to discover elements of early modern Western capitalist development in late imperial China. … Behind [this work] … lies the implicit assumption that but for … blockages China would have generated a Western-style development culminating in an industrial revolution and modern capitalist society. Other scholars … have used modern economic development as a standard for evaluating China's late imperial economy. … [T]his analysis regularly concludes that late imperial Chinese economic change shared little in common with modern economic development, and so judges this pre-modern economy deficient in every respect. … Both of these analyses are Eurocentric.

(p. 2)

In contrast, he asserts, "The goal of this book is to throw off the limitations of these old viewpoints and explore the development conditions and characteristics of early and mid-Qing economic change in Jiangnan before the arrival of the West. … [W]e study Jiangnan, and China, not to look for the confirmation of Western models and to see departures from them as backwardness and weakness," but rather to demonstrate an alternative, non-Western model of economic growth (p. 2).

Li acknowledges that Jiangnan, or specifically the Lake Tai basin region of the Yangzi River delta that has long been both the cultural and economic center of the empire, presents an atypical model of China's economic past: "My own focus on Jiangnan does not mean that I believe it can serve as a model for other parts of China" (p. 3). He counters this acknowledged shortcoming, however, by asserting that "its history of economic development has arguably highlighted major features of pre-modern Chinese economic change with particular vividness" (p. 4).

Li divides his main text into three sections. Part 1, "Changes in Key Factors of Production," examines the underlying structures of agriculture in late imperial Jiangnan. In the first of two chapters, Li looks at factors such as population growth; the availability of land; land utilization, including such late imperial innovations as improvements in irrigation and the spread of double-cropping; and changes in climate. His second chapter focuses on the techniques of agriculture, including crop selection, methods of land preparation, the production and use of commercial and noncommercial fertilizer, and cropping systems. He concludes, "we can see that in early and mid-Qing Jiangnan, despite changes that took place in factors of production, the fact remains that the man-land ratio became more unfavorable and there were no technological [by which Li means "mechanical"] breakthroughs. … There were two significant advances obtained in early and mid-Qing agriculture: more rational use of existing resources and more intensive farming" (p. 55). [End Page 465]

Part 2, "Changes in Agricultural Production," follows up on the two "significant advances." First, in a chapter titled "The Rationalization of Agricultural Resource Use," Li returns to the issue of resource utilization. Using the quantitative methodology on which his argument rests, he examines the...


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