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1493: the devastation of China

In 1593 Manila governor Gomes Perez Dasmariñas decided to try conquering the Maluku Islands. Lacking enough troops, he conscripted many Fujianese merchants as galley slaves. The locals protested, then caved in, for a promise that the conscripts would be treated well. That cashed out as chaining them to their benches, whipping them, and cutting off their elaborately braided hair. The flagship Chinese managed to mutiny, kill him and his crew, and row for Fujian. The Spanish concluded from this that Chinese were untrustworthy and dangerous. Various evictions, then massacres, ensued, in what would be a recurring cycle, but never enough to choke off the lure of wealth. Mann notes that trade can be about actual economic exchange and about projecting political power, and that here these conflicted. As a trading enterprise Manila should have as few vulnerable Europeans as possible and spend silver on silk; as an imperial outpost all civic functions would be in Spanish hands and silver should mostly go to Spain to fund wars in Europe. From the Ming point of view, all the silver meant a functioning money supply and economic booms, but also inflation and the threat of being dependent on an external supply, while the Fujianese outside Manila had a Chinese city outside imperial control.

I mentioned a backfire earlier. The Ming had specified taxes in weights of silver. As the American mines vomited forth silver, eventually even China was flooded, with the value of silver declining by 1640 to that in the rest of the world; inflation. Those taxes didn't go as far, and couldn't pay for defense, which was bad because the Manchus were attacking.

We can also note that the Chinese directed a large fraction of their productive base to obtaining silver mostly to be used as money, silver itself obtained at rather high cost in labor and lives. And silver isn't permanent; coins could wear away, or get buried in hoards. Lots of effort avoidable if one had a properly managed paper money supply...

Lovesick Grass

Locally made tobacco pipes in souther China have been unearthed dating to 1549. Columbus was in 1492, remember. Portuguese probably brought the tobacco; this is before Legazpi, and only a bit after Magellan. Smoking was a big hit among the Ming and Qing, and in Europe, with elaborate elite tools and rituals.

Jade Rice

China had 1/4 of the world's people and 1/12 of the arable land. Rice and wheat production was always tight, and China took to American crops in a big way. Sweet potatoes, maize, peanuts, chili peppers, pineapple, cashew, manioc/cassava. "Quoting Crosby, "While men who stormed Tenochtitlan with Cortes still lived..." peanuts, maize ("jade rice"), and sweet potato were becoming staples. Today it produces 3/4s of the global sweet potato harvest and is the second biggest maize producer. Sweet potatoes were particularly timely, providing food that would grow in the peak of the Little Ice Age, despite cold rains. Near Yuegan, 80% of locals were living on them.

The Qing started out particularly nasty. The Ming had retreated to Fujian and allied with the wokou. In response the Qing simply evacuated a 2500 mile stretch of coastline inland, killing anyone who remained. For 30 years the coast was empty, 50 miles deep. Of course, this froze trade, including the money supply. As mentioned, silver gets wasted, lost or buried; deflation set in. Meanwhile refugees poured into and that already had Hakka settlements, who were then displaced themselves into hills elsewhere. Saved by maize and sweet potatoes that could grow in bad land. Qing bureaucrats tended to avoid a proper census, in an ostrich effect, but one stickler found in Ganxian County 58,340 settled inhabitants, and 274,280 "shack people". More than a million people slashing and burning across Jianxi, one medium-sized province.

Sichuan (or Szechuan) was bigger than California and had "only" 9 million people. (Pretty good, for 1795.) 2300 square miles, half the size of LA County, were considered arable; this is a province next to Tibet. 20 years later American crops had increased farmland to 3700 square miles, and the population to 25 million. The Qing encouraged Han migration into the "empty" (non-Han) parts of China, and American crops let them do so, possibly doubling the population.

Public policy helped as well. The Qing enacted national smallpox inoculation, anti-famine granaries and campaigns against female infanticide. The Little Ice Age was ending, too.

Sweet potato spread elsewhere too; archaeologists speak of an "Ipomoean revolution" in New Guinea.

The Malthusian trap

Hong Liangji had Malthus's insight, of population growing faster than farmland and food production, five years before Malthus did, inspired by the transformation of southwest China. Malthus developed his thoughts more, though; Hong was busy criticizing corrupt officials. But Hong seems to have had an additional insight: "the continual need to increase yields, Hong presciently suggested, would lead to an ecological catastrophe, which would cause social dysfunction -- and with it massive human suffering."

Between the 1680s and 1780s, the price of rice in Suzhou more than quadrupled. Incomes did not keep up. Part inflation, part population boom, part granary purchases, part a fall in rice growing. Qing roads and canals were meant to aid the shipment of rice where needed; farmers discovered they could make ore money with sugarcane, peanuts, mulberry, and tobacco. Even though tobacco took 4-6 times as much fertilizer and twice as much labor. Tobacco needs rich land and drains it of vitality, remember... rice paddies turned to tobacco farms turned to wasteland. The sequence -- not really a cycle -- is still happening today in the hills of Fujian. Forest turns to cropland for maize and sweet potato, leading to erosion, until even the hills are wasteland. (Of course, more people also meant deforestation for fuel and building material.) Maize is planted more openly than other crops, leaving more soil exposed to rain and nutrient loss. Shack people renters had little incentive to even attempt permanent improvement of the land. Vegetation changes also meant sharper floods, rather than slow release of water, and disaster for the rice paddies below.

The Song saw major floods at a rate of 3 every 2 years. The Ming, with illegal Hakka migration into the hills, say 2 per year. Qing encouragement of mountain forest settling led ot 6 floods a year, targeting the agricultural centers. Between 1841 and 1911, 13 major floods a year -- "a Katrina every month, in the most populous parts of the realm."

Economic policy: rental income was tax free, farm income wasn't. The Qing started ordering the shack people out and banning maize in the hills, after figuring out the ecological problems, but landowners had no incentive to cooperate.

See the comment count unavailable DW comments at http://mindstalk.dreamwidth.org/300796.html#comments



( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 24th, 2011 10:42 am (UTC)
I've been looking at the story from a Dutch perspective, starting in about 1610, where island-based pro-Ming holdouts act as go-betweens, linking the Dutch to Fujien. This helps to explain a whole lot about the curiously incurious attitude of the central Chinese bureaucracy regarding stuff like the Portuguese and Dutch attacking Amoy.
Nov. 24th, 2011 05:01 pm (UTC)
Mann notes at some point that he's basically ignoring the Dutch and Portuguese in favor of the Spanish, partly for sheer simplicity and partly because they were entangled with the Spanish themselves (especially the joint monarchy period with Portugal.)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )


Damien Sullivan

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