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The Chinese Peasant Economy

January 29, 2010

Ramon H. Myers. The Chinese Peasant Economy: Agricultural Development in Hopei and Shantung, 1890-1949. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Zhou Guanghui (2000)

In this book Myers uses a vast store of materials collected by Japanese scholars in Hebei village surveys from 1939 to 1943 to reconstruct village change as well as to examine the agricultural development of North China in the period from 1890 to 1949. On the basis of four village studies, Myers argues that the past scholarship, in particular the distribution thoery that asserts the misery of rural economy rooted in socio-economic condition, must be rejected. Instead, he introduces a new model asserting that the peasant economy of North China performed “remarkably well,” and that technological innovation, not reforms in the agrarian system, should be adopted to transform traditional agriculture into a modern one.

In this new model, the peasant is first of all, a rational economic animal. Myers examines the use and allocation of labor, capital, and land by peasant households, the basic economic and social units in North China. He argues that peasants, far from being conservative, backward and irrational in their economic behavior, were in fact enterprising and optimizing users of resources within the constraints of traditional agriculture. “Households were very responsive to farm price changes and attempted to put their land to the best economic use – they rationally considered various income alternatives to farming and how much labor to allocate between different tasks to maximize household income.” (p. 126) He further examines the socio-economic context in which peasants carried out their economic activities, including markets, the tenure system, the credit system, local administration and taxes. While these conditions, especially the socioeconomic class relationships, were often considered by Marxist scholars to be the roots of agrarian crisis in China at that time, in the eyes of Myers, they hardly constitute the obstacle to agricultural development.

Actually Myers believes that the agrarian system functioned quite effectively. It supported a population expansion, provided labor for the expansion of the urban economy, and exported food and industrial crops to the cities. “It was a major triumph for this peasant economy to provide additional labor to the cities, increase the supply of the industrial staples and food.” (p. 213) Using Buck’s village data collected between 1929 and 1931, Myers points out that the peasant living standard basically did not decline except during times of prolonged poor harvests and wars.

The key problem, according to Myers, was the absence of technological progress in agriculture. Myers studies the relationship between household investment and the size of farms and finds that beyond a certain size of farm, households invested a smaller percentage of farm income in variable capital. The reason, he speculates, is that peasants had limited knowledge of managing large farms efficiently. Without technological changes, peasants were compelled to use age-old techniques and limit the amount of farming inputs. “Backward farming practices made it impossible for peasants to increase production at a rate of two or three times that of population growth” (p. 294) Consequently, in Myers’ view, the way to transform traditional Chinese agriculture is to leave the small family farm structure intact and to provide modern technology for peasants.

Myers challenges the picture of rural China expressed in writings of the 1950 and 1960s. Perhaps to some scholars, Meyers’ argument is quite disturbing. Recent scholarship has responded to those parts of his model that deal with peasant rationality, economic motivation, market and commercialization, and the influence of imperialism. Yet, as one of the first village studies from a historical perspective, Myers’ work was in many ways a path-breaking one and contributed much to our understanding of conditions and changes in rural China.

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