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Environment and Economy in Song China  

Ruth Mostern

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.