Dr. Heiner Mikosch - Seminar Presentation

Prof. Guanglin Liu

Date and Time: March 28th 2016, 10:00 - 11:30 am

Room: A 101 in the Economics Building (Museum)


Agriculture formed the main sector of Chinese preindustrial economy and remained largely distant from commercialization. Although in the previous chapters I have explored long-term changes in the market economy, it is still doubtful whether the cycle of market development and changes in living standards I have described were applicable to the agricultural sector and thus had any impact on the livelihoods of the majority of the population.

Since the expansion of the Song economy in the eleventh century, as my research has shown, was chiefly driven by both rapid population growth and wide market development, this question should be discussed at two different levels. First, one should make certain whether such rapid growth in the Chinese population caused a decline in living standards. Second, if the living standard was maintained at a rather higher level during population growth, what would account for this increase in per capita income?

In this paper, I rely on quantitative evidence to demonstrate two main types of agricultural changes in China from 1000 to 1500. The first change was a gradual shift toward intensive farming from 1000 onward, which not only made it possible for great expansion in the Song population but also laid the foundation for improving living standards. The second change refers to the retreat to extensive agriculture in the three centuries after the Mongol conquest, which caused a prolonged period of relatively low living standards among the majority of Chinese farmers until 1550. Agricultural productivity can be directly measured by the comparison of a couple of key criteria: the ratio between seeds and harvested outputs, the return and capital investments, the increase in per capita farm outputs and in per labor unit farm outputs. Given scanty information devoted to agriculture, unfortunately none of these assessments can be achieved here. The introduction of intensive farming increased agricultural outputs at both the national and per capita level. The increasing food demand from population growth was largely met by both increases in the acreage of cultivated land and improvements in farm yields per acre. Commercialization in agriculture achieved an unprecedented level of success toward the end of the eleventh century. A large amount of grain output was provided for urban consumption via the market. The rising trend in grain prices encouraged farmers to improve agricultural productivity by widely exploiting new farming methods and increasing labor and capital inputs. From the mid-thirteenth century, agricultural advancement ceased along with severe depopulation and de-urbanization that occurred in many areas of China. In addition to the damage caused by military conflicts, strong evidence indicates that forced migration, the military farm system and a self-sufficient mode that the early Ming court promoted all contributed to the wholesale retreat to extensive farming in the north. All these contributed to a prolonged period of relatively low living standards among the majority of Chinese farmers until 1580.

About the speaker

Guanglin Liu is an Associate Professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He received his PhD in History from Harvard University in 2005. His main research area are the Political Economy of Late Imperial China, Pre-modern Chinese Economic History, Chinese Military History, Neo-Confucianism and the Market Economy in Historical Perspective.