China’s High-Yield Agriculture: A Double-Edged Sword?

The climatic and natural conditions found within the northern and southern territories of pre-modern China were conducive to wheat and rice cultivation respectively. Soil qualities, regularity of precipitation, the existence of rivers providing ease of irrigation and the length of frost-free time periods gave these types of agriculture comparative advantages within each respective geo-climatic zone. Rice gives superior yields compared to wheat, on average 2.75 t/ha versus 1.95 t/ha, moreover a farmer growing rice in a wet field can expect a yield of 2 t/ha without applying any mineral fertiliser, relying on the nitrogen-fixing organisms occurring naturally in the paddy-fields[1].

Chinese Terraced Rice Paddies (“Dragon’s Backbone”)

The rice plant’s high yield to seed ratio was an important aspect for the early subsistence farmers, minimising the portion of the yield reserved for cultivating the next crop. Produce was intensified over time through the adoption of multi-cropping, fertilisation, development of drought-resistant strains of seed, innovation in farming tools and through sophisticated water control and irrigation techniques[2].

Thus the stable, high-yield nature of rice farming presented the proto-Chinese peoples with high opportunity costs of engaging in different types of agricultural production. The skills-oriented nature of rice farming, its labour intensiveness, the divisibility of capital inputs and the substantial demands it made in coordinating and controlling planting would limit economies of scale and centralisation[3]. This would discourage consolidation of farming units and enable the agricultural sector to retain its fragmentary ownership structure with the household small-holding as its main component.


Institutions would play a crucial role in facilitating and exacerbating high-yield farming in Chinese society, the primary element of these institutions were property rights. It is estimated that an average of 70% of the Chinese rural households were free-holding farmers[4]. The effects of such a societal configuration was that the point of gravitation in terms of political power lay with the peasant stratum.

A 'seedling-horse', yang ma, illustrated in the Nongzheng quanshu

This would engender a physiocratic state[5] responding to the requirements of the majority and actively facilitating and expanding the agrarian element of the empire through policy measures. The meritocratic constitution of this bureaucracy and its success in recruiting a majority of its constituent officials from the poorer levels of the peasant stratum has been a contributory factor in these policy decisions[6].

Property rights were central to the expansion and preservation of high-yield agriculture as it gave farmers incentives to increase the marginal productivity of their land and awarded stability to the family unit through equal inheritance among siblings. Deng[7] has identified three necessary conditions for the longevity of such a system: ‘(1) the replication mechanism of the ownership system within the Chinese basic economic unit – the family; (2) the accessibility of arable land through the territorial expansion of the Chinese empire; and (3) the intensive methods of land utilisation with the advancement of Chinese agronomy to produce more food from the same acreage.’ Land reforms were effectuated to distribute agricultural land among landless peasants and limit consolidation of larger estates[8].

Chinese Rice Cultivation

Another policy measure adopted by the state was price controls on grains aimed at mitigating the effects of market volatility and establishing a price floor sustaining the agricultural production cycle[9]. Authorities also facilitated the distribution of high yielding rice plant varieties as seen in the Song dynasty in AD 1012 when the emperor Zhenzong sent to Fujian province 30,000 bushels of Champa rice[10]. Enhancements in agricultural efficiency were also made through the commissioning master farmers educating the population in efficient agricultural techniques[11].

The Song dynasty also put in place financial incentives for making investments in agricultural land through low interest loans, lowered taxation rates and tax rebates on newly reclaimed land[12]. Communal cooperation structures were developed to mitigate the effects of volatile labour demand inherent in sowing and harvesting. These structures also facilitated the efficient use of water resources such as irrigation and sought to mitigate flooding. Thus the Chinese civilisation’s adoption of high-yield agriculture can be said to be a hybrid result of suitable natural conditions and the institutions developed over the course of time entrenching its fundamental position.

Long-Term Economic and Social Effects

The Chinese society’s adoption of high-yielding agriculture has had extensive and long lasting effects upon its configuration and given its civilisation a unique character. The primary results of this type of agriculture has been to engender autonomy and egalitarianism[13] among its populace through its fragmented ownership structure and facilitate the formation of a physiocratic state and values favouring the predominance of the agricultural sector before that of a merchant class.

The immediate effects most striking to an outside observer has been to sustain the comparatively large populations found in rice-growing societies, ensuring a substantial labour pool increasing the opportunity costs of investing in mechanical capital innovation. The non-feudal ownership structure and equal inheritance practice had the effect of ‘tying people to the land’ whereby a comparatively disproportionate amount of labour would be provided incentives for remaining in the agricultural sector and not seek a career elsewhere[14].

Champa Rice

This ‘self-confinement effect’ led to a reduction of economic divergence and at a macro level was the basis of China’s path dependency[15]. A result of self-sufficiency and the practice of small-scale trade of surplus led to the underdevelopment of credit facilities, in turn limiting the scope for commercialisation. Fairbank[16] maintains: the creation of credit among the villages was retarded by the relative self-sufficiency of the peasant household and its dependence upon short-term purchases from sources close at hand’.

The political dominance of the peasant stratum also had implications for imperial expansion policy whereby conquest was primarily geared towards gaining new land territories contiguous to its agricultural zone. Its territorial expansion led to a socio-economic monoculture on the Chinese mainland precluding intra-regional political competition leading to little ‘opportunity for the promotion of new social institutions to take advantage of Chinese inventive genius’[17].

Water Lift

However the main effect of China’s agrarian preponderance has been to hinder the emergence of a substantial professional merchant class, a stratum of society that would facilitate large-scale markets and lead to a higher degree of labour specialisation and ultimately industrialisation. Deng[18] has pointed to a two-fold reason for this: As the Chinese government provided a political or ultra-economic check on the growth of the merchant class through trade legislation and state monopoly on key markets, the Chinese peasantry delivered an operational check at the grass-roots level on the growth of the merchant class with its own active involvement in market activities at all levels as producers and consumers’. This double-check was augmented by the predominant values of egalitarian China seeing trading as a zero-sum game, tolerating a rich state but not the emergence of rich individuals[19].

In essence the long term socio-economic effects of high-yield agriculture was the emergence of a relatively autonomous, egalitarian and self-sufficient population able to repel central government infringement through rebellions and saving the Chinese populace from feudal bonds and serfdom so widespread in contemporary Europe. Through its social majority and military strength the Chinese peasant strata consolidated its power in society by exerting political power through the formation of the physiocratic state.

This entrenched the position of the agrarian socio-economic system and would lead to a cycle of perpetuating dominance through land reforms and policies aimed at agricultural favouritism. With the formalisation of agricultural predominance and the self-confinement effect engendered through property rights and inheritance, came little scope for economic divergence. The result of which was the marginalisation of a professional merchant class capable of instigating the economic pre-requisites for industrialisation.

Thus the high-yield attributes of Chinese agriculture came to be a double-edged sword in that it on the one hand enabled large-scale self-sufficiency and autonomy for the Chinese populace it also came to have a disproportionately domineering position in Chinese socio-economic and political life, to the detriment of the pre-requisites necessary for modern commercialisation and industrialisation.

[1] Bray, F. (1986) The Rice Economies: Technology and Development in Asian Societies. University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles p.13&14

[2] Deng, G. (1999) The Premodern Chinese Economy: Structural Equilibrium and Capitalist Sterility. Routledge: New York p.38

[3] Bray, F. (1986) The Rice Economies p. 115

[4] Deng, G. (1999) The Premodern Chinese Economy p. 55

[5] A physiocratic state can be defined as an ‘agrarian bureaucratic state’ (Goldstone 1991: 41).

[6] Deng, G. (1999) The Premodern Chinese Economy p.83

[7] Deng, G. (1999) The Premodern Chinese Economy p.55

[8] Bray, F. (1986) The Rice Economies

[9] Deng, G. (1999) The Premodern Chinese Economy p. 88-89

[10] Bray, F. (1986) The Rice Economies p. 22

[11] Bray, F. (1986) The Rice Economies p. 204

[12] Bray, F. (1986) The Rice Economies p. 204

[13] This principle is crystallised in a Confucian maxim: ‘Our anxiety is not for poverty but for inequality in society’ (buhuanpin erhuanbujun) (Kong Q. c. 479 BC: ch. ‘Jishi’). Deng p. 69, & 71

[14] Deng, G. (1999) The Premodern Chinese Economy p.69, 70 & 71

[15] Deng, G. (1999) The Premodern Chinese Economy p. 71

[16] Deng, G. (1999) The Premodern Chinese Economy p.81 Fairbank (1965: 49)

[17] Deng, G. (1999) The Premodern Chinese Economy p. 108 (Merson 1989: 78).

[18] Deng, G. (1999) The Premodern Chinese Economy p.84

[19] Deng, G. (1999) The Premodern Chinese Economy p.96

Recommended Reading:

The Premodern Chinese Economy, Deng, G. (1999)

The Rice Economies, Bray, F. (1986)


About J.F. Gjersø

PhD in International History, LSE.
This entry was posted in Economic History, Imperial History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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