China: Mulberries and Famine

Near the beginning of the Chinese “Classic of Historical Documents” (the Shujing), where the doings of early mythic rulers are being described, there is a brief passage that stands out among the others for its precision and clarity. The focus of this part of the text is on a minister named Yu who, around the year 2000 BC, was aiding the emperor Shun in his attempts to control the great floods that were ravaging the north China plain. Yu’s actions are described as follows:

The nine river branches were led into their proper channels, and the combined waters of the Yong and Ju were restricted to the area of delineated marsh at Leixia. The land with mulberry trees was made suitable for silkworms, so that the people came down from the higher ground and settled on the plain.

A few lines further on the following sentence also appears:

The tax revenues from this area were assessed at a suitable level, but thirteen years grace were granted before they were collected.

Yu, later known as “Yu the Great,” according to various records subsequently became the founding emperor of the Xia dynasty (circa 1900-1500 BC), but he remains a shadowy and doubtless largely imaginary personage. Nevertheless this particular section of one of China’s earliest historical works points to several of the major developments of China’s later economic and social history: the interdependence between social stability and the control of river systems—their channels, dikes, and spillway areas; the production of mulberry leaves and silkworm cocoons in the context of correct drainage conditions for the growth of healthy trees that can bear the highest quality leaf; and the granting of tax rebates of varying length in response to local conditions of flood or death.

Curiously enough, though there has been a sizable amount of Western scholarship on the imperial Chinese state, on Confucianism, and on the traditional bureaucracy, we have had no detailed study of either the traditional silk manufacturing process or the state-controlled relief system. It is thus intriguing to find both gaps filled within a single year by two careful studies that place our knowledge of China’s socio-economic history on a higher plane.

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China’s Silk Trade, by Lillian Li, who teaches Chinese history at Swarthmore, is meticulous in providing the background necessary to an understanding of the transformation of China’s silk industry in the modern era, and manages at the same time to help us interpret those fragmentary remarks about Yu the Great. She shows how, for successful silk production in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, proper drainage and fertilization of the trees were probably the most important factors, with temperature control during the time of cocoon spinning following close behind. Transplanted mulberry seedlings also, of course, needed several years to take sturdy root, and then a complex process of grafting usually followed, to assure the highest yields. Yu the Great’s thirteen-year tax rebate following the initial drainage work was therefore both humanitarian and economically sound.

Silk production in late imperial China was profitable, but it was also subject to sudden fluctuations of fortune—Li splendidly shows just how fragile the whole economic enterprise could be. Even if there was good drainage, the trees needed constant care, with scrubbing to remove insects, regular pruning, and cross-grafting, if high-quality yields of leaves were to be maintained. Silk cocoon disease was a constant danger, and could not be detected in advance when the eggs were being stored for the following year’s production. For one and a half months in the spring, as the silkworms went through their four moltings prior to cocoon spinning, the peasant households raising silk endured a nightmare period of intensive labor activity.

Li points out that the state was at least concerned enough about the process to make sure that in silk-producing areas schools were closed and tax collections remitted during this hectic period. But the risks remained high, and the bureaucracy’s claims that silk production meant easy money for the peasantry was, Li insists, a myth. Some families may have cleared 15 to 30 percent on their total investment, but for many who had to rent rights to the mulberries, purchase the leaves, or else buy sheets of silkworm eggs from local middlemen, profits must have been much lower.

Li is a good historian, and she constantly relates her silken theme to complex phases of local and international economic history. Thus we come to see how the highest yields of the late Ming and early Qing periods (approximately AD 1500-1750) were probably connected to intensive tree care made possible by independent holdings and a market that had a keen eye for quality. This was partly a consequence of the structure of the state weaving establishments that manufactured court robes, and demanded the highest possible quality of thread. With the decline of these establishments in the nineteenth century a key rationale for quality control was lost, and many cocoons were sold for weight rather than fineness.

Silk was also perhaps China’s first domestic product to be violently affected by fluctuations in world markets. British and Mexican demands for silk in the eighteenth century, for example, forced raw silk prices up sharply, and led to the influx of much silver bullion to China; the development of silk industries at Lyon and in Italy led to an early-nineteenth-century slump (Li might have pointed out that this coincided with China’s first big jump in opium purchases, exacerbating the crisis); the catastrophic silkworm disease of 1854 in Lyon brought a new and short-lived boom in China, which was to be cruelly cut short by the Taiping rebellion, when the rebels in the later 1850s and early 1860s occupied the major silk-producing areas of central China and countless mulberry trees were abandoned or cut down. In the late nineteenth century it was the Japanese who responded more effectively to the huge new demands for silk from the United States. Japanese quality control and uniformity were far more effective than the Chinese in this period, and Japanese machine filatures were able to provide the uniform thread that was essential for the new weaving machinery of the industrialized West.

Lillian Li contends, however—and convincingly—that the Chinese silk industry succumbed in the nineteenth century not so much because of technological failings as because of a lack of intelligent central direction and authority. Neither the court nor the provincial officials were able to insist on the dissemination of technical knowledge or to prevent the spread of fatal egg-disease infestations. Robert Hart, the inspector-general of Chinese maritime customs for most of the later nineteenth century, decried the Qing dynasty’s failure to make use of the Pasteur treatment for silkworm eggs after it became widely known in the 1890s. Also Chinese speculation in the silk business became increasingly hysterical, leading to ever sharper practices, and to a final phase when frantic buying of cocoons for either domestic or larger steam filatures was condensed into a frenetic two- to seven-day period, during which as much as $75 million of silver would be pumped into the countryside.

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Such a fundamental historical concern for the problems of financial manipulation, patterns of local organization, and the details of the everyday life of the rural poor, all set within a wider structure of national financial decision-making, can also be found in Pierre-Etienne Will’s Bureaucratie et famine en Chine au 18e siècle, a remarkable book that will certainly have a profound influence on the field of China studies. Will’s study undertakes a tight examination of two years (1743-1744) of the famine relief process in the province of Zhill (known today as Hebei) in north China, but so ingenious and long-range are his arguments, and so interesting and fresh are the Chinese sources he draws upon, that his book constitutes a major contribution to our understanding of the workings of the premodern Chinese state. And if we combine this new work of Will’s with his remarkable essay on the long “cycle” of flood control and irrigation practice as it can be observed in Hubei province,* then we find that he and Lillian Li between them have completed a thorough gloss on those anciently recorded actions of Yu the Great.

Pierre-Etienne Will starts with the premise that we cannot understand China’s history if we accept the traditional Chinese distinction between natural and “man-made” floods and droughts. He is concerned with the overlays between the two, with the intricate interrelations of peasant productivity, abuse of land, and the blockage or dislocation of basic riverine patterns. Bureaucracy’s “response” to a famine situation can likewise not be seen in any easy terms: it is a business involving speed of communications, seniority of the official doing the reporting, percentages of the population living in desperate poverty, patterns of regular and seasonal movements in relation to refugees’ flight, and the levels of social instability in areas adjacent to the famine center. Decisions of the local rich families could also be crucial, as they chose either to protect their own interests by giving away food or to barricade themselves behind the walls of their mansions; pawnshop owners faced similar decisions in deciding whether to foreclose on a peasant’s land or to return his agricultural implements, bartered in desperation.

Will links the success of the Qing dynasty in handling eighteenth-century famine relief to the speed of information made possible by the new “palace memorial” system that had developed in the 1690s, and to the rulers’ willingness to accept the evaluations of the men on the spot. (How to define if there “really” was a famine had always been an agonizing problem, as Will shows, and one in which insistence on cumbersome bureaucratic procedures had often, and would again, condemn thousands of the poor to an unnecessary death.) Interviews with the destitute, location of granary stockpiles, preparation of transport, identification of distribution points, decisions on “soup kitchen” menus and average needed daily food intake, definition of acceptable distances that starving people might logically be expected to walk to collect their emergency rations—all these are the stuff of Will’s absorbing analysis.


One could, and perhaps someone will one day, write a history of the world based on the varying conceptions of how much people are believed to need in order to live. In a valuable section of Bureaucratie et famine Will discusses the sliding scale of aid given to the poor in eighteenth-century China, which dropped from gifts for periods of up to four months to the utterly destitute down to loans for one month to those at a median poverty level. The state in the 1740s considered half a sheng (which Will calculates at 420 grams of white rice or 1400 calories) to be an adequate allowance for one adult per day. It gave half that amount for children between the ages of two and fifteen, and nothing for infants. I was intrigued by these figures because I had recently come across a discussion in a text from the Kangxi reign (specifically, from 1671) in which a censorial official stated matter-of-factly that the basic famine relief allowance was one sheng per day, twice the size of the 1740 figure. Had some officials, in the intervening seventy years, decided “rationally” that the poor could live on half as much? If so when, and on what grounds?

At the center of Will’s book is a broad conclusion, strongly recalling some of Lillian Li’s findings on the silk industry, that the period from the 1720s to the 1780s was the most efficient in stockpiling and distributing relief grain supplies. The Qing government seemed to find few difficulties in, for example, feeding two million people over an eight-month period in some badly hit areas. But by the 1760s private merchants were beginning to play a larger part as the state dropped back, and private granaries moved into the short-term loan business.

Internal grain exports from surplus-producing to deficit areas were inevitably the subject of excited debate among throne, bureaucrats, and merchants, as were the problems of tax rebates, the financing of reforestation and dike repair projects, the relocation of able-bodied refugees, and the institution of work programs for the hardest-hit poverty victims instead of a system of either gifts or loans. But by the end of the eighteenth century less than 30 percent of the government granaries had any grain in stock, and the state seemed to prefer buying grain for cash on the spot market or else making simple cash grants to the victims.


In this reassertion of private market forces and private charity, and in the partial abdication of government from its responsibilities, Will sees an almost cyclical return to sixteenth-century practices. This conclusion fits well with his own conclusions in his essay on hydraulics that a similar pattern had affected irrigation works and agriculture in flood-prone areas. The private market could bring prosperity, indeed, but it also led to aggrandizement by the gentry, and to an exacerbation of dangerous long-term trends—i.e., as swelling populations “colonized” the areas of crucial flood run-off land, or fed off cultivated lake beds, vegetation that protected dikes and wildlife alike was stripped. Once again, we can be sure that Yu the Great would have recognized the phenomenon.

Near the end of his study, Pierre-Etienne Will reflects for a moment on the costs of exploring a topic in such detail that one loses the sense of “la longue durée.” His anxiety is valid, and draws our attention to a perennial problem in all history-writing, not just that concerned with China. Both Li and Will have made important contributions just because they have concentrated their formidable scholarly and analytic skills on precise matters in which bureaucratic, economic, and technological factors interacted; yet what possibility is there of creating a major long-range history that could truly incorporate such findings while maintaining a long perspective?

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The new volume China by Keith Buchanan, C.P. FitzGerald and Colin Ronan seems at first sight to promise an answer, one that is endorsed by no less an expert than Joseph Needham in the foreword. This book, to judge from its table of contents, promises to draw creatively from the structural ideas of Fernand Braudel and to erect a threefold division in which equal weight will be given to geography, to human cultural and political history, and to the development of science and technology. Our hopes are further raised by the fact that each of the three authors is a widely admired professional, and it is certainly true that each of their sections has fine moments. Buchanan evokes the interconnections between physical landscape, indigenous populations, and internal migrations. FitzGerald brings together the new finds in Chinese archaeology with the history of social institutions from the Zhou to the later Han (approximately 900 BC to AD 200). Ronan draws on his labors in condensing Needham’s vast work on Chinese science and blocks out the main fields in which Chinese science can be evaluated in connection with its traditional philosophical manifestations. The illustrations, too, are often very fine: one should single out those that accompany FitzGerald’s early chapters, and the use of early woodblocks from local gazetteers to illuminate the geological formations that Buchanan discusses.

But the book fails, ultimately, for lack of a single presiding intelligence who could make the hard decision to integrate all the detailed arguments. The three authors seem to have abandoned their stimulating essays to an Italian “packaging” team at the firm of Mondadori in Milan, with the result that their essays (especially Buchanan’s but also FitzGerald’s and Ronan’s to some extent), are accompanied by seemingly endless technicolor images showing beaming Chinese going about their homespun tasks, and by totally inapposite sentimental Chinese wash and line drawings that do not illuminate but merely trivialize (or even contradict) the text. Similarly the lengthy photo captions, which form a substantial part of the book and were written in Italian by the packaging staff for the original Italian edition, often run counter to the message of the text, or else introduce inaccurate or irrelevant information. In addition, the picture credits are time-consuming to track down, and sometimes simply wrong; while the bibliography is full of the oddest mistakes which show that no one conversant with Chinese history checked them out.

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So while we await the next writer or group of writers courageous enough to attempt a synthesis, we had better stick to those writers of proven intelligence who have full control over their own material and bibliographies. Since Cambridge University Press has had the happy thought of publishing a translation of the fine French scholar Jacques Gernet’s 1972 Le Monde chinois, one might well start there, even though it is a dense work, and though the translation lapses into Franglish at distressingly regular intervals. Gernet travels from the neolithic age to the Cultural Revolution of 1966, and along the way his restless and eclectic gaze takes in a wondrous array of detail: armaments, printing techniques, the life styles of ethnic minorities, trade patterns, urban developments, Buddhist and Islamic influences, philosophic schools, messianic movements, styles of poetry.

Those who find Gernet overwhelming in asserting his own interpretation of complex matters—this is not a book in which the Chinese speak in their own words, though his summaries are skillful and precise—should supplement him with a book of documents of a new kind, Chinese Civilization and Society: A Sourcebook, edited by Patricia Ebrey. “Sourcebook” doubtless conjures up daunting visions of pedantry to many readers, but Ebrey’s is marvelously original and dispels all negative stereotypes of the genre. Here we find, translated in toto, land deeds and economic debates, household registration forms and monastic rules, views on women’s place and the regulation of public and private charities, almanacs, guides to village defense, rebels’ confessions and accounts of Red Guard “struggle sessions.” This is a sketch of the Chinese longue durée in the liveliest and most digestible form. We may not yet have our Chinese “histoire totale,” but we are edging in the right direction.

  1. Pierre-Etienne Will, "Un cycle hydraulique en Chine: la province du Hubei du XVIe au XIXe siècles," Bulletin de l'école française d'extrême-orient, 68 (1980), pp. 261-287.