The period between the 9th and the 13th centuries in China, a largely temperate climate span that followed an interval of punishing droughts, was a time of pivotal economic and environmental transformation. The Song dynasty, chronologically divided into the Northern Song (960–1127) and the Southern Song (1127–1276) periods, dominated the era, but numerous other regimes and societies prospered in eastern Asia as well. Over the course of these centuries, China’s recorded population rose from sixty to one hundred million people, and perhaps 20 percent of them lived in cities. Technological innovation transformed numerous landscapes and areas of human activity, and market relations came to play a significant role in the exchange of land, labor, and goods. When deforestation caused a crisis in timber availability, some Song metalworkers shifted from charcoal to coal to power forges for iron and steel. The amount of land under agricultural cultivation expanded dramatically. In the Yangtze delta, the economic core of south China, farmers drained wetlands and constructed terraces and polders to support paddies on which they grew new strains of fast-ripening rice. Elsewhere, they turned grasslands and forests into fields, with consequences for herders and foragers, nonhuman animals, and soil stability. To the north, on the Yellow River watershed, deforestation and grasslands degradation caused major erosion that initiated an era of inundation and avulsion that transformed floodplain landscapes and modes of subsistence downstream. New maritime technologies ensured that the environmental consequences of the Song economic revolution extended beyond the borders of the realm and into distant Pacific and Indian Ocean worlds as well. Nevertheless, many Song landscapes lay outside human exploitation, and many Song practices allowed for sustainable relationships between people and the ecosystems that they inhabited.
David A. Bello
The Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), China’s last, ruled an ethnic diversity of peoples throughout both Inner Asia and China proper. In the process, networks of environmental relationships were formed across Mongolian steppes, Tibetan and Southeast Asian highlands, Manchurian forests, and alluvial plains in the empire’s core, China proper. The dynasty’s main environmental efforts were devoted to the lowland agrarian concentration of water and grain. Yet the empire’s sheer extent also required management of agro-pastoral, pastoral, foraging, and swiddening relations—pursued under conditions of global cooling in the Northern Hemisphere, known as the Little Ice Age. Mineral inputs from foreign and domestic sources, as well as New World crops, were critical not only for the dynasty’s material development, but also entailed debilitating costs—most particularly deforestation and soil erosion. As it adapted to dynamic demographic and ecological conditions, the dynasty developed many structures for the maintenance and resiliency of its environmental relations, which included existential interactions with select animals and plants, to produce the world’s largest population of its time. The Qing achievement can be evaluated differently according to timescales and wide-ranging criteria that transcend crude Malthusian parameters. However, its political and demographic accomplishments must be qualified from an environmental perspective in light of the mid-19th-century breakdown of many of its environmental networks that directly contributed to its demise and that of the 2,000-year-old imperial system.
Famines have played an important role in China’s history. Because the Confucian classics interpreted natural disasters as warnings from Heaven, in ancient and imperial China feeding the people in times of crisis was viewed as an essential part of retaining the mandate to rule. Formative famine-relief measures were codified in China’s first imperial dynasty, the Qin (221–206 bce). The importance assigned to famine relief increased in the late imperial era, when a diverse array of local elites worked in tandem with officials to manage and fund relief operations. The Qing state (1644–1912) devoted an extraordinary amount of resources to famine relief, particularly during its 18th-century heyday. Beginning in the 19th century, however, the beleaguered late-Qing state increasingly lost the capacity to prevent droughts and floods from resulting in major famines. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, China’s nascent modern press drew national and international attention to frequent famines, leading to the burgeoning of foreign and nonstate relief activities in what came to be called the “land of famine.” After the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912, famines continued to be a test of state legitimacy. But Chinese modernizers largely rejected Confucian interpretations of famine in favor of the claim that modern science and technology would provide the best defense against disasters. By the 1940s, both the Chinese Nationalists and their Communist rivals called on people to sacrifice for the nation even during famine times. The Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949 promising that under Communist rule “not one person would starve to death,” but within a decade it presided over the most lethal famine in Chinese and world history. The horrors of the Great Leap Famine of 1958–1962 forced Chinese Communist Party leaders to make changes that ultimately paved the way for the rural reforms of the 1980s.
Ian Matthew Miller
Over the last seven thousand years, humans have gradually domesticated the environment of South China. Transitioning from a reliance on wild environments, humans tamed plants and animals and transformed the landscapes and waterscapes to better fit their needs. Rice paddies, orchards, and artificial ponds and forests replaced naturally seeded woodlands and seasonal wetlands. Even the Yangzi River, and many of the other rivers, lakes, and seashores, were transformed by polders, dikes, and seawalls to better support human activities, especially rice agriculture. In the last thousand years, farmers intensified their control of the cultivated landscape through terracing, irrigation, flood prevention, and new crop rotations. They planted commercial crops like cotton, fruits, oilseeds, tea, and sugar cane in growing concentrations. Migrants and merchants spread logging, mining, and intensive agriculture to thinly settled parts of the south and west. Since the 17th century, New World crops like sweet potatoes, chilis, maize, and tobacco enabled a further intensification of land use, especially in the mountains. Since the early 1800s, land clearance and river diking reached extremes and precipitated catastrophic flooding, social unrest, and a century of warfare. Since 1950, the People’s Republic has overseen three further waves of degradation accompanying the mass campaigns of the Mao era and the market reforms under Deng Xiaoping. Following catastrophic flooding in 1998, the government has increasingly worked to reverse these trends. Nonetheless, South China remains one of the most intensively cultivated environments in the world and continues to feel the effects of new attempts to tame and expropriate the forces of nature.