This article focuses on the shifts in the ways of seeing the history and historiography of the emergence of agrarian landscapes, manufacture of crafts, and trade and commerce in north India, during the mid-first millennium bce to the 13th century. Continued manifestation of settled agrarian localities, or janapadas, with its attendant concomitant processes, is visibly more noticeable from the middle of the first millennium ce onward, though their early beginnings can be traced back to the later Vedic times. The study of the janapadas or localities and regions, as distinguished from earlier regional studies, focusing on the trajectory of sociopolitical developments through time is a development dating to around the turn of the 21st century. It has much to do with the recognition of the fact that historical or cultural regions and modern state boundaries, which are the result of administrative decision-making, do not necessarily converge. Simultaneously, instead of engaging in macro-generalizations, historians have moved on to acknowledge that spaces in the past, as in the present, were differentiated, and there were uneven patterns of growth across regions and junctures. Consequently, since 1990 denser and richer narratives of the regions have been available. These constructions in terms of the patterns for early India have moved away from the earlier accounts of wider generalizations in time and space, colonization by Gangetic north India, and crisis. Alternatively, they look for change through continuities and try to problematize issues that were earlier subsumed under broader generalizations, and provide local and regional societies with the necessary agency. Rural settlements and rural society through the regions are receiving their due, and so are their networks of linkages with artisanal production, markets, merchants, and trade. The grades of peasants, markets, and merchants as well as their changing forms have attracted the notice of the historian. This in turn has compelled a shift in focus from being mostly absorbed with subcontinental history to situating it in its Asiatic and Indian Ocean background.
Commerce and the Agrarian Empires: Northern India
Bhairabi Prasad Sahu
Early Medieval Bengal
In the early medieval period (6th–12th centuries), diverse terrains of South Asia experienced the rise of regional political powers and the socioeconomic development that would later culminate in the formation of regions. Bengal was no exception and saw the plural strands of historical changes and developments, intertwined with each other. In terms of political process, the first phase of the strand consisted of the rise of subregional kingships after the collapse of Gupta rule in the mid-6th century and the growth of subordinate rulers under them in the subsequent centuries. It was followed by the emergence of regional kingships of the Pālas and the Candras traversing several subregions and the enhancement of their powers in relation to subordinate rulers in the period between the mid-8th century and the mid-12th century. The last phase was the integration of almost all the subregions under the Senas, with stronger control over subordinate rulers and rural society in the second half of the 12th century. In terms of social change, the emphasis was on the hierarchization of land relations from the cultivation of moderate plots by the family labor of peasant householders to the management of large landholdings with layers of overlapping land rights, of which the bottom consisted of actual cultivation by agrarian laborers. Social change also came about through the organization of hereditary occupational groups and the systematization of their mutual relations toward a jāti order. The growth of brahmins as a group—by establishing a clearer identity and imposing their authority in social reorganization—constituted another pillar of the historical process. Political and social processes conditioned, as well as were conditioned, by the economic processes of agrarian expansion and the commercialization of rural economy, which proceeded in the subregions of Bengal in different forms and paces.
Earth, Water, Air, and Fire: Toward an Ecological History of Premodern Inner Eurasia
John L. Brooke and Henry Misa
The histories of humanity and nature are deeply entangled across Inner Eurasia. Great expanses of steppe and mountain connected peoples at the far ends of the landmass and sustained unique civilizational zones of nomadic and settled societies. These are regions profoundly shaped by some of the most complex climatic regimes and by one of the most devastating disease vectors in the world. Viewed in the longue durée of the Holocene, the premodern prehistory and history of Inner Eurasia takes on new dimensions when reviewed in the context of the latest work being done in environmental, climate, and genetic science.
Environmental Approaches to Soviet Central Asia
The vast region known as “Soviet Central Asia” encompassed the territory of five Soviet republics, Kazakhstan, Kirgizia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. Because of the region’s environmental features, particularly its aridity, historically there had been a close linkage between people and the environment in this region. But the Soviet regime set out to radically reshape this relationship, focusing on the fields of agriculture and animal husbandry, large-scale water engineering, nuclear and biological weapons testing, and medicine and public health. By focusing on the environmental impact of these policies, scholars can see how Moscow’s efforts brought many benefits to the region. Cotton production boomed, and Moscow declared the eradication of malaria. But they also left horrific scars. Josef Stalin’s program of agricultural collectivization devastated Kazakhstan, resulting in the death of more than 1.5 million people. The Aral Sea, once one of the world’s largest bodies of water, began to shrink dramatically during the Soviet era, a development due in large part to Moscow’s efforts to divert the waters that fed the sea to cotton production.
Environmental Change and Chinese Empire
David A. Bello
Agriculture—especially grain cultivation—informed the primary environmental ground of imperial China (221 to 1912 ce) and was ideally intended to produce human habitat from state-supervised environmental change. The consequent political and socioeconomic development of the empire and its constituent dynasties was conditioned within larger global ecological contexts that can be abbreviated as two major climate shifts, the Medieval Warm Period (MWP, c. 1000–1300 ce) and the Little Ice Age (LIA, c. 1400–1900 ce). Before 1000 ce, China likely experienced a number of less prolonged alternations of cold and warm climate, such as the Sui-Tang Warm Period (650–700 ce). Chinese empire’s adaptations in response were rooted in agriculture, augmented by agro-pastoral and pastoral measures mainly concentrated along and above north China’s steppe ecotone. Critical inputs for the sustainability of environmental relations were maintained throughout the imperial period and came from domestic and foreign sources—most critically including the fertile eroded silt of the north China Loess Plateau, the water resources of the Yellow and Yangzi river basins, a high-yield crop suite of both dryland and wet rice varieties, south China fast-growth tree species, and New World silver and highland crops. Ongoing development and exploitation of these resources across the succession of seven major—and over a dozen more localized—dynasties over two millennia allowed China’s population to expand at globally unprecedented rates, numbering from tens of millions around the year 0 ce to hundreds of millions during the 18th century. In the process, biodiversity—especially that of wild growth forest habitats—was steadily reduced from north to south, successively. The empire’s main resource base and population centers correspondingly relocated south of the Yangzi around the watershed Song (960–1279 ce) period, with the Grand Canal tapping both of China’s major rivers to deliver southern abundance as far north as Beijing by the Yuan (1279–1368 ce). Inner and Southeast Asian peripheries came under comparable agro-commercial developmental pressure only during the Ming–Qing period (1368–1912 ce). With the onset of the 19th century, however, destabilizing environmental pressures emerged across the empire, many of them paradoxically driven by once-effective adaptations.
Environment and Economy in Song China
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.
Environment, Demographics, and Economy in Qing China
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.
Famine in Imperial and Modern China
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.
Indonesia’s Colonial Sugar Industry
Colonial Indonesia’s sugar industry, developed under Dutch and Sino-Indonesian auspices over a period of almost three centuries, beginning c. 1650, evolved into one which exhibited a unique configuration in which an industrialized sugar complex became embedded within much larger “peasant” economy of the farming of rice and “second” crops. It was on this agrarian and largely self-financed basis that Indonesia’s colonial sugar industry, located exclusively in the island of Java, became one of the leading sectors of the international sugar economy of the late colonial era, eventually even rivaling Cuba—the nonpareil of such producers—as an exporter to world markets. During the interwar Depression of the 1930s and subsequent decade of war and revolution, it lost much (and eventually all) of its international standing—yet managed to survive into Indonesia’s postcolonial era, albeit in an attenuated form. There were four main phases to the industry’s colonial-era history. The first, foundational phase, which saw the establishment of modern industrialized manufacture extended from the 1830s through to the 1880s. The second phase, from the 1880s to 1930, was the period of sugar’s peak expansion. The third phase, beginning in 1931 and ending in 1942, was one of retrenchment and (partial) recovery prior to the spread of the Second World War into Southeast Asia. The fourth phase, 1945–1958, was one of postwar reconstruction.
Land and Water in Tsarist and Early Soviet Central Asia
Precipitation and elevation shape land and water usage in Central Asia, distinguishing the southern irrigated oases from the steppes, deserts, and prairies, where instead nomadic pastoralism (sometimes rain-fed agriculture) is economically rational. The former was included in Russian Turkestan, the latter in the Steppe provinces. The colonial state recognized land usage rights of the nomads; while not formally admitting land property among the settled population, it allowed them to enjoy it within Islamic law. Nomads paid a capitation; at first tilled land continued to be taxed as a share of the real harvest. Land-assessment works from the 1890s, though, imposed a tax based on the estimated harvest value, initially on irrigated land and then, with some differences, on rain-fed land. Irrigation was paid for eminently through corvées. The increase in the share of land under cotton did not derive from state coercion but from factor endowments and absolute and relative prices. Subsidies, in the form of import duties and, above all, a growing tax break contributed to this. Despite political claims, new irrigation had a limited impact under the tsars. While the “cotton boom” altered the landscape and local economy of the oases, in the Steppe and Semirechie (now south-eastern Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) the natives lost land to settler peasants from European Russia. The latter received land that statisticians and surveyors had deemed excess for the nomads and former nomads. Conflicts around land, water, and forests coalesced in the 1916 uprising, which in turn initiated a cycle of violent retaliation between Russians and natives that would last until the early 1920s. With the establishment of Soviet power, a first land reform “decolonized” former resettlement areas; in 1925 and 1927 another land reform aimed at reducing landlessness in southern Central Asia, while restoring pre-war output levels and cotton procurement mechanisms.
Nomads and the State in Soviet Kazakhstan
After the military conquest of the Kazakh Steppe in 1920, Russian and Kazakh Bolsheviks implemented policies of hard decolonization (1921–1922): tens of thousands of Slavic settlers were expropriated and land was distributed to nomads. During the period of 1923–1927, soft decolonization prevailed: Kazakhstan was created as an ethnonational administrative region and agricultural immigration was prohibited. Kazakhs were given priority in access to land and water and they were included in the state and party administrations. No sedentarization plans were drafted. With the Soviet economic policy turn of 1928, Kazakhstan became the object of plans for expansion of grain cultivation (to this end, peasant colonization from Russia was made legal again) and of industrialization. Moscow lunched an offensive in order both to subjugate and to incorporate Kazakh society: Kazakh pastoral elites and former Tsarist administrators were expropriated and deported; and young Kazakh men were drafted into the Red Army for the first time. In 1929, plans for the total sedentarization of Kazakh nomadic pastoralists were suddenly proclaimed, then rapidly became of secondary concern as they were merged with the total collectivization drive. Policies toward nomadic pastoralists were dependent and auxiliary to grain production policies from 1928 to early 1930. Then, from late 1930 to 1932, Kazakh livestock was requisitioned in order to feed Moscow, Leningrad, and the army, as the Soviet peasants had slaughtered their animals during collectivization. Procurements turned an ongoing starvation crisis into a calamitous famine that killed one-third of the Kazakhs. When no livestock were left, procurements were discontinued in Kazakhstan. Private ownership of animals and pastoral nomadic ways were explicitly allowed again. Kazakh mobile pastoralism had been transformed: pastoral routes were shortened; pastoralists were a smaller share of the population; and their work was organized within state and collective farms. The famine turned the Kazakhs into a minority in Kazakhstan and forced them into Soviet state institutions.
The term Rajput kingship designates the sociocultural ideals and practices that inform sovereignty among the erstwhile kingdoms of northern India. Originating from the mixture of South Asian peasant societies and Central Asian invaders in the second half of the 1st millennium ce, the Rajputs (literally, “sons of kings”) propagated a composite image of sovereignty that conjoined the autochthonous beliefs of agro-pastoralists with Brahmanical (Sanskritic) mores. By the early modern era, Rajput kingship came to be embodied in the image of the heroic warrior-king. This ideal manifested in martial valor, attachment to territory, fidelity to kin and allies, and was epitomized through the notion of self-sacrifice. Having played an integral part in the administration of the Mughal Empire, Rajput rulers adopted additional tastes and customs from the Persian cosmopolis. The consolidation of Rajput kingship in the modern era saw the assimilation of local rulers into the framework of the British Indian Empire as autonomous subjects, becoming the emblematic icons of Indian kingship familiar today.
Religion and Environment in Bhutan
Religion and the environment have been entangled for millennia in Bhutan. When Buddhism was introduced from Tibet in the 7th and 8th centuries, it incorporated existing animistic and shamanistic understandings of the landscape, developing a unique spiritual ecology built on long coevolution with the landscape. The notable disseminators of Buddhism in Bhutan—Songsten Gampo, Guru Rinpoche, Terton Pema Linga, the Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, and others—sanctified specific sites on the landscape with their Buddhist teachings. The cultural forms introduced by the Shabdrung in the 17th century have been nurtured into the 21st century, providing a strong sense of cultural identity and historical continuity. Building on cultural and religious traditions, Bhutan’s leaders shaped a contemporary nation fed by a wellspring of ancient wisdom, connecting environmental policy and practice to Buddhist roots, in the context of rapid modernization and change. The guiding development model Gross National Happiness emphasizes the interdependence of economy, ecology, culture, and governance. Forest and conservation policies draw on Buddhist values for their relevance, as do waste and reuse practices. Bhutan’s 2008 constitution codifies the obligations of all Bhutanese to maintain culture, ecology, and religion. A long cultural and religious history interwoven with the landscape has created a uniquely Bhutanese Buddhist form of traditional ecological knowledge that contributes to ongoing cultural continuity and ecological resilience.
Soviet Collectivization in Central Asia
In Soviet Central Asia, efforts at the mass collectivization of agriculture began in early 1930, and by 1935, more than 80 percent of all farming and herding households joined collective farms (kolkhoz) or state farms (sovkhoz). The Communist Party’s main purpose was to control peasant lives and labor. Collectivization was supposed to lead to increased agricultural production due to modernized methods and intensification. The USSR’s Central Asian republics were given unachievable plans to raise their output of cotton, wheat, and meat, while wealthier herders and peasants were threatened with arrest and exile if they resisted collectivization. Collectivization was devastating for Kazakh nomadic herders, whose livestock numbers plummeted, and who endured a three-year long famine that killed more than one-fourth of the Kazakh population. Investments went into expanding irrigation canals and irrigable fields, forcing an ever-increasing number of kolkhoz members to expend most of their labor on cotton cultivation.
The Yangzi River and the Environmental History of South China
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.