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Agricultural Development in China, 1368-1968

January 29, 2010

Dwight Perkins. Agricultural Development in China, 1368-1968. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1969.

Zhou Guanghui (2003)

In this book Perkins undertakes to examine the long trends of Chinese agricultural development over the period from the founding of the Ming dynasty to 1968. Using a wide range of materials, most of which were official data on population and cultivated acreage, Perkins demonstrates that, in spite of technological stagnation, Chinese agriculture was able to support a population that increased from 65-80 million in 1400 to 583 million in 1953.

To reach his conclusion, Perkins quite impressively adopts a quantitative approach according to which this increase in agricultural output can be calculated. He first assumes a reasonable range for per capita grain output, then multiplies it by a population estimate in order to derive the total grain production. He divides this total grain production by estimations of cultivated land and thus derives the grain yield per land unit. By selecting quite reliable estimates of population and cultivated acreage from different periods, Perkins obtains a series of statistical data on grain yield and is able to measure change over time. On the basis of his study, Perkins concludes that grain yields roughly rose 46 percent between 1400 and 1770 and another 17 percent between 1770 and 1850. From the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, grain yields continued to rise and farm output kept up with population growth. By the 1950s Chinese grain yields were equal to those in Japan during the 1880s.

Perkins also tries to account for the rise in grain yields. With a deep conviction that Chinese agricultural technology changed very little after the fourteenth century, he argues that the increase in average yields was attained mainly through labor and capital input. His analysis of changes in cropping patterns, hydraulic construction projects, and the increasing use of organic and chemical fertilizers shows that Chinese agriculture, while closely tied to production growth, took on more and more labor-intensive characteristics in order to raise grain output.

Moreover, Perkins examines land distribution, the land tenure system, the rural marketing system, and other social relations. The institutional context for Chinese agriculture “although not ideal, did not greatly impede rising productivity” (11), he argues. Perkins further argues that the land tenure system did not dampen farmers’ incentives and adversely influence agriculture. He points out that a highly developed commercial network in China, ranging from small market towns to long-distance trade, helped to increase agricultural growth. Encouraging farmers to specialize and raise cash crops, market towns presumably stimulated the productivity of both land and the labor devoted to its cultivation.

Upon its 1969 publication, this book received critical responses from many scholars. In his review, Duane Ball drew attention to the issue of absentee landlords and argued that with the rise of absenteeism after 1800, the organizational inputs to water control that landlords had previously provided were reduced, thus likely decreasing agricultural productivity (Journal of Economic History, vol. 30, 1970: 911). For Ramon Myers, Perkins’ theory of agricultural growth without substantive technological changes required yet additional research and validation (Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 29, 1970: 901). Still, as a painstakingly careful statistical study, this book presents reliable benchmarks to measure the course of change in pre-modern Chinese agriculture and represents an extremely high standard for quantitative studies within the field of Chinese economic history.

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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