Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Asian History. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 05 July 2022

The Yangzi River and the Environmental History of South Chinafree

The Yangzi River and the Environmental History of South Chinafree

  • Ian Matthew MillerIan Matthew MillerSt. John's University, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


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.


  • Agrarian/Rural
  • China
  • Environmental

The Yangzi River and the Environmental History of South China

South China’s environmental history is defined in part by the ongoing domestication of the diverse landscapes of the subtropics. Over the course of more than three millennia, people have gradually tamed many of its plants and animals and shaped the basic features of the region’s landscapes and waterscapes. But South China’s environmental history is also defined by the persistence of unruly natures that resisted human attempts at control, including wild plants and animals that persist at the fringes of human settlements, and the catastrophic floods that resulted from attempts to control the river system.

In terms of its topography, climate, and even culture, South China lies on a continuum between the North China Plain—the heartland of Chinese civilization—and Southeast Asia. Much of its history entailed transformations of the southern environment to better fit imperial notions of control, many imported from the north. But the region’s subtropical climate and highly varied topography forced changes in the institutional culture to allow for its diversity. South China also featured substantial continuities with places as far afield as Indonesia and Japan. Finally, from earliest history—and indeed prehistory—South China exhibited its own intrinsic developments, distinct yet interconnected with the regions to its north and its south.

Depending on the context, the very term “South China”—and its closest Chinese equivalent hua’nan—can actually refer to multiple “souths.” Huainan, the northernmost “south,” applies to the relatively flat terrain and warm temperate climate south of the Huai River, where wheat begins to transition to rice. Jiangnan, the middle “south,” includes the subtropical mountains and valleys south of the Jiang or Yangzi River; it often refers specifically to the Yangzi River’s lower courses, although relatively similar environments prevail in the middle Yangzi and along the southeast coast as well.1 Finally, Lingnan, the “far south,” refers to the tropical lands south of the Nanling Mountains, drained by the four major rivers that empty to the sea through the Pearl River Delta.2 While this article touches on all of these regions, its focus is on the environmental history of the middle and lower Yangzi River watershed (see figure 1).

Figure 1. Map of the Yangzi River basin with major tributaries.

Source: Data from GTOPO30, HYDRO1k, and Natural Earth (all public domain). Drawn by Keenan Pepper. Licensed as Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 4.0.

Emergence of Subtropical River Valleys, to 10 kya

The topography of South China emerged from the collision between the Indian and Asian tectonic plates that formed the Tibetan Plateau between twenty-two and fifteen million years ago, also creating the major river valleys draining into the South China Sea. By walling off Central Asia from the humidity of the Indian and South Pacific Oceans the Tibetan Plateau also forces the alternation of high-pressure and low-pressure systems that creates the seasonal monsoon that dominates the climate of South China.3

By two and a half million years ago the major plant species now seen in South China had also emerged, although most were distributed much further north until episodes of colder climate pushed them into refugia in the far south and subsequently to their present distribution. But unlike much of the northern hemisphere the region was never extensively glaciated.4 As a result, China and its neighbors preserved a number of archaic gymnosperms that were extirpated from the rest of the world, including ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica), and the characteristic timber tree of the Yangzi River valley, China fir (Cunninghamia lanceolata).

The peopling of the Yangzi River basin provided the final major force in its environmental history. There is evidence of Homo erectus in southern China by 1.66 million years ago, and of the use of fire and construction of stone dwellings in the Yangzi River basin in the Middle Pleistocene (780,000–120,000 years ago).5 Homo erectus subsequently interbred with one or more migrations of Homo sapiens across southern Asia in the last hundred thousand years, although the details of this second wave of Hominin migration are controversial.6

Early Domestications, c. 8000–2000 bce

While the basic forces shaping the environment were present far earlier, significant human impacts in South China became visible only in the last several thousand years. Pottery first appeared in the Yangzi basin about twenty thousand years ago.7 Thanks to its rich woodland and wetland resources the early human inhabitants of the region formed relatively dense settlements even before the domestication of plants and animals. By about 6000 bce sites in Jiangnan exhibited both pit and stilt buildings, dugout canoes, and an early spinning and weaving industry. In the middle Yangzi there is also evidence of growing sedentism around longhouses. The diet of these inhabitants was largely based on hunting, fishing, and gathering, heavily exploiting peach and plum trees (Prunus spp.), oaks (Quercus spp.), and other fruit and nut trees; marsh plants like water chestnuts (Trapa spp.) and water lilies (Euryale ferox); and fish and deer.8 The first evidence for pig domestication in the Yangzi valley is also around this time, although domesticated pigs were probably first used for feasting rather than everyday consumption.9

The real watershed toward the formation of larger and more stratified settlements was rice domestication. Between 4900 and 4600 bce the amount of rice in the diet increased markedly, although it was still less important than either acorns or water chestnuts.10 Domesticated pigs likewise found a place in the diet alongside wild pigs and other products of hunting.11 By 4000 bce, people had begun construction of paddies with small dugout fields, irrigation channels, and basins for water storage in Zhejiang and of much longer paddy fields in the middle Yangzi.12 After 4000 there is growing evidence of sophisticated crafts, including the black pottery characteristic of the Liangzhu culture, social stratification, and urbanization, including the construction of walls and ditches.13 At its height, the city of Liangzhu near Hangzhou had over thirty kilometers of canals, six kilometers of walls in and around the city, and a major complex of dams to its north.14 Similar development of agriculture and urbanization occurred in the Shijiahe culture of the middle Yangzi.15

Over the next two thousand years rice domestication was associated with extensive changes in the environment, including the expansion of constructed paddies, water channels, and urban structures. There is also evidence of a decline in both upland forests and lowland wetlands.16 The Yangzi river civilizations fell, along with civilizations across Eurasia, to an abrupt climate event just before 2000 bce, when the monsoon appears to have weakened and the Yangzi River flooded, destroying the cities of Liangzhu and Shijiahe.17

Creating an Administrative Landscape, c. 2000 bce–200 ce

In the last two thousand years bce, South China followed its own trajectory toward greater administrative control over the environment, distinct but connected to the more familiar patterns of state formation in North China. Between 1500 and 1000 bce, the middle Yangzi featured a bronze culture, Wucheng, with speculative connections to the earlier Liangzhu culture, Southeast Asian bronze drum culture, and the Shang bronze age in North China.18 In Sichuan, the Sanxingdui culture produced hordes of bronze objects with completely different patterns than those of either North China or Wucheng, as well as cowries and ivory tusks that demonstrate connections to South and Southeast Asia.19 Like their predecessors these were based in intensive rice agriculture to support an urban core and elite and also speak to the further development of metallurgy and ceramics, which demanded still-greater extraction of raw materials and the dominance of a large and increasingly servile population.

In the 1st millennium ce regional states emerged featuring hybrids of Shang-Zhou and southern cultural models. These included Shu in the Sichuan basin, Chu in the Han and Huai River valleys, Wu in the lower Yangzi, and Yue in Zhejiang. Chu provides the most evidence of early state attempts to administer the environment. It conducted the first attested land surveys in China in 548 bce, with the intent of surveying the diverse biomes of its riverine territories, including agricultural land, forests, and wetlands.20 By the late 4th century, Chu showed nascent concepts of land ownership and a well-developed system of population registers.21 It also developed important trade routes with the far south, bringing gold, copper, iron, cinnabar, silk, pearls, salt, feathers, fish, tortoises, lacquer, tea, honey, and drug and dye materials into circulation further north.22 Bronze tallies demonstrate its taxation of key trade routes, as well as attempts to control the circulation of strategic goods.23 Chu is also credited with developing the lacquerware that became a characteristic part of later Han art.24

The contemporary states of Wu and Yue were also innovators in landscape transformation. Records in the Lost Book of Yue (Yue jueshu) describe extensive walled cities, roads, and waterworks in both states. Wu featured canals for irrigation and transport, especially around Lake Tai; polders to reclaim farmland; paddies to provide income to the king and his heir; and ponds for raising fish and water plants.25 Yue had a “charcoal canal” (tan du) to ship fuel to its industrial workshops, and a tomb to venerate the woodcutters (muke) who felled thousands of pines and cypresses to build a fleet of canoes.26

On its way to subduing its rivals, the northern state of Qin conquered Shu in 316, Chu in 224–223, and the “Hundred Yue” (bai yue) as far south as the Red River between 221 and 213. To further cement their access to southern territory and commodities, the Qin empire, and its longer-lived successor the Han, extensively surveyed and transformed the region. The Qin administrator of Shu oversaw the construction of extensive irrigation infrastructure in Sichuan in 256 bce.27 The Qin state oversaw the excavation of the Ling Canal (ling qu) between the Xiang River in Hunan and the Li River in Guangxi, and therefore connecting the Yangzi and Pearl River systems.28 Three exceptionally detailed Han maps depict the garrisons guarding the approaches to the far south in Hunan.29 Both the Qin and Han states supervised lacquer plantations.30 Under Emperor Wu of Han (r. 141–87 bce), the salt lakes of Sichuan and the salt marshes of Huainan, Jiangnan, and the far southeast also came under direct state control.31 The early Han state also directed the construction and maintenance of river dikes in the middle Yangzi.32 In the 2nd century ce, two large artificial lakes were constructed in the highlands near Lake Tai to improve irrigation.33 The Han also marked the first documented transplantation of rice seedlings, the development of a plow adapted for rice-paddies, and the construction of seawalls along the coast.34

But while the Qin and Han worked to integrate southern environments into the imperial economy the center of government oversight remained in the north, and much of the south was still largely administered as a frontier, with lower population density and most of the landscape in the hands of local people. Outside of the middle and lower Yangzi and portions of the southeast coast, non-Sinitic peoples dominated, including speakers of Austroasiatic, Tai-Kadai, Hmong-Mien, and Tibeto-Burman languages.35 By the year zero, some of these peoples practiced fixed-field, rice-based agriculture fairly similar to that seen along the Yangzi, but many groups modified the environment in other ways, especially through swidden (fire-farming) that cleared land with fire to cultivate with dryland crops for several years before allowing the forest to regrow.36

The Estate Economy, c. 200 to 800

The fall of the Han ushered in an extended period when the Yangzi region was dominated less by the imperial government and more by the economies of noble and temple estates. From the 3rd through the 6th centuries a succession of six dynasties ruled South China from Jiankang (modern Nanjing).37 Initially, these courts tried to preserve the imperial land tax system of the late Han and established military-agricultural colonies (tuntian) throughout the lower and middle Yangzi.38 But by the 5th century the imperial establishment struggled to keep magnates from seizing possession of the “mountains and marshes” (shanze)—wild lands that were supposed to be left as open-access commons.39 Even at its height in the late 5th century, the Jiangkang empire probably registered only about half of all households in the lower Yangzi, and an even smaller proportion in the rest of South China.40 Instead of the land tax, the Jiankang courts derived most of their revenue from imposts on trade.41

With court control limited, southern elites and Buddhist and Daoist temples colonized and controlled important and substantial expanses of territory. They built mixed economies including irrigated rice paddies, dry farms, forested mountains, fishing grounds, fruit orchards, and tea plantations.42 Cultivated rice was the staple grain, supplemented with other wetland crops like water chestnuts and lotus roots. Fish, frogs, and turtles were widely consumed, caught from the rivers and lakes and raised in artificial ponds.43 Tea consumption was also increasingly widespread, and especially associated with Buddhist monks.44 The state sporadically promoted more intensive rice cultivation, but in the absence of coercion farmers generally preferred less labor-intensive methods, and landowners preferred to convert grain fields to more lucrative fruit, tea, vegetable, or fiber crops.45

Manufacturing and commerce also expanded prodigiously, especially in the lower Yangzi. The Shaoxing area had extensive porcelain kilns, bronze foundries, and a thriving paper industry. A dense network of canals connected Yangzhou, Suzhou, and Shaoxing with Jiankang.46 The layout of Jiankang itself speaks to extensive commercial development. In contrast to the northern states of the era, the Yangzi River capital had few walls or fixed wards, instead letting markets flourish throughout the city.47 The Jiankang regime also operated markets along the Huai River borders, where it traded gold, bows, bamboo, lacquer, and wax for horses and conducted extensive exchanges with countries around the South China Sea, trading textiles, lacquer, and metalwares for gems, coral, pearls, and tropical hardwoods and aromatics.48 There were also extensive trans-biome exchanges within the river valleys themselves, including woodcutters (muke)—presumably non-Sinitic peoples—who would trade highland timber for lowland manufactures.49

The prevailing estate economies of the southern dynasties largely continued as the region was integrated into the Sui and Tang empires between the 6th and 8th centuries. These northern dynasties probably never brought the south fully into the north’s “equalized field system” (juntian fa) that distributed equal amounts of land to farmers. There was simply no way for this to work in the rice-producing areas where land productivity varied widely, investments in irrigation and drainage were made on smaller scales, and field boundaries followed irregular landscape features. Instead the principal taxes on the south were a land tax (dishui) collected in grain and a household tax (hushui) collected in coin.50 The Tang also formalized and modified the principles of open access to wilds that prevailed under the Jiankang regimes.51

The far more important landscape change in the Sui-Tang was the construction of the Grand Canal linking together Hangzhou Bay, and the Yangzi, Huai, and Yellow Rivers. Sui construction between 581 and 618 built on many earlier projects but also involved extensive dredging of silted-up segments and a new path through much of Huainan. The newly interconnected watersheds exposed the Huai and (to a lesser degree) the Yangzi to the siltation that perennially plagued the Yellow River.52 Under the Tang, the Ling Canal was also improved, and a road was chiseled through Meiling Pass between Jiangxi and Guangdong, making it easier for northern settlers to access Lingnan. Both the coastal pearl fisheries and the cassia forests near Guilin saw at least short-term collapse under the novel pressures of northern immigrants.53 Nonetheless, widespread malaria continued to prevent more intensive development in much of the far south and southwest.54 Much of what is now Guangdong, Guangxi, and Guizhou featured scattered Tai-speaking polities called muang based in rice-growing river valleys.55 Both the mountains above the rice-growing plains and the marshy estuaries below them featured a penumbra of non-Sinitic swidden farmers, hunters, gatherers, and fishers who resisted integration into the Sui-Tang state but nonetheless modified the environment in less intensive ways.56

The outbreak of the An Lushan Rebellion (755–763) changed the Tang state’s attitude toward the southern environment. Even after the end of the rebellion much of the north was in the hands of military governors (jiedushi), who did not always submit taxes.57 Finance officials turned to policies that leaned heavily on the south. A revived salt commission monopolized the salt produced in the Huai River delta, eventually accounting for more than half of state revenue. Later, monopolies were also placed on alcohol, mine products, and distinctly southern goods like tea, lacquer, and large timber.58 A new twice-annual tax policy (liangshui fa) was introduced, along with surveys of how much land each household controlled, accounting for the varied terrain and extensive tenancy of the south.59 The monopolies and land surveys reflected a fundamental overhaul in how the court oversaw the landscape, taking increased advantage of the south’s diverse environments that produced a range of goods.

Fruition of the Cultivated Landscape, c. 800–1600

In the 9th and 10th centuries, anti-Buddhist campaigns badly weakened the formerly powerful temples, the bloody Huang Chao rebellion decimated the upper ranks of the nobility, and the Tang imperial house fell.60 These developments freed cultivators from the strictures of the estates and enabled an expansion and intensification of irrigated rice agriculture; growth and regulation of industries exploiting forests, mines, ponds, and estuaries; development of polders, seawalls, canals, and irrigation to control and connect the river systems; and growth of cities and the trading networks that linked them to each other. These transitions continued for more than eight centuries, although this interval is often considered in two parts, with the recognizable Jiangnan landscape emerging in the “Tang-Song Transition” (c. 800–1150) and the further spread and elaboration of this landscape in the “Song-Yuan-Ming Transition” (c. 1150–1600).61

Throughout this extended period, the spread and intensification of rice agriculture was closely tied to the development of irrigation and drainage to expand available land. In the lower Yangzi and Hangzhou Bay the construction of polders, seawalls, dikes, and canals in the 10th and 11th centuries added at least thirty-five million acres of land to cultivation.62 A large weir across the Mulan River opened the coastal wetlands in southern Fujian to cultivation.63 Deeper plowing enabled by oxen, transplanting, intercropping rice and wheat, and more frequent weeding increased rice productivity to about five times that of wheat, albeit at the cost of a similar increase in labor intensity. Meanwhile, terracing and construction of irrigation ponds in the mountainous interior allowed the extension of rice cultivation to higher elevations.64 And an early ripening rice strain from Champa (now central Vietnam) shortened the growing season from 150–180 to sixty days, allowing multiple rice crops to be grown in a single year.65 These improvements were initially confined to a small fraction of the area under cultivation.66 Nonetheless, the spread and intensification of paddy rice agriculture enabled a tripling of the population of China, with the greatest growth in the south.67 These trends were coupled with an increasingly active market in land ownership, with smallholders, managerial landlords, and tenants replacing large estates as the focal points of agricultural development. More productive agriculture also enabled regional specializations in tea, salt, timber, paper, metals, and textiles, and a growing trade with Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia.68

The next major turning point in Jiagnan’s landscape transition started in the mid-12th century, when the loss of North China drove the Song court to Lin’an (Hangzhou). Like Jiankang, Lin’an was a relatively open city with extensive connections to the canal networks east of Lake Tai; like Jiankang, it promoted trading connections through both the river network and overseas.69 The Lin’an court also developed land oversight that better fit the complex southern landscape. In 1149, the court surveyed all of its remaining territories except along the frontiers. These surveys incorporated (and taxed) not only agricultural land but also the forests, ponds, and wetlands characteristic of Jiangnan. Further reforms consolidated these changes. By the 1390s, southern surveys followed four standard categories—paddy fields, dry fields, forests, and ponds (tian di shan tang).70 During the Yuan, and after the Ming moved the primary capital to Beijing in the north, Nanjing became the effective center of government for South China and maintained these distinctive land policies.71

Under a relatively stable land system with minimal state oversight, widespread recognition of contracts, and multiple strata of tenancy, rice agriculture continued to both spread and intensify between 1200 and 1600. New rice strains, fertilizers, and improvements in irrigation enabled still-more intensive grain cultivation, while a denser population promoted the widespread use of earlier-developed techniques like intercropping, terracing, and transplanting. Construction of river dikes and polders intensified around Lakes Poyang and Dongting.72 Farmers also cleared, terraced, and irrigated more land in the hills, spreading intensive rice agriculture from the river bottoms up their networks of tributaries.73

The combined forces of state oversight and commercial opportunity also enabled more intensive exploitation of forests and fisheries. Having felled much of its former tree cover, landowners planted fir and pine plantations across much of the upland south.74 The Ming registered thousands of boat peoples at “mooring stations” (hebo suo), bringing them and their marine activities under official surveillance.75 By the mid- to late 1500s, forests (shan) made up 20 to 40 percent of taxable acreage across much of Jiangnan, while fish ponds (tang) were as much as 18 percent of acreage in parts of Guangdong.76

Cultivated woodlands and wetlands inevitably came at the expense of their wild equivalents. Pigs thrived compared to other domesticated animals because they could be raised on small plots of land, rather than needing large pastures.77 Gradually the unruly demons and dragons that had populated the mountains and rivers of the lower and middle Yangzi in earlier centuries were domesticated in local cults.78 Tribute (gong) and miscellaneous levies (chai) to collect wild goods were largely discontinued by 1581. Those products that could be cultivated were increasingly sourced from plantations.79 Those that could not, including many drugs, were substituted with imports from further south and west.80

State projects also helped spread intensive agriculture, logging, and mining to new regions. Garrisons posted to guard the approaches to Yunnan, with its substantial mine resources, constructed agricultural colonies (tuntian) across the southwest. Paddy lands were further expanded by private farmers and merchants from the east and by native officials (tusi), the hereditary rulers of southwestern lands with few Chinese subjects, many who also saw the benefits of intensive agriculture. Between 1413 and 1600 the Ming eliminated three of the four largest native domains in present-day Guizhou, incorporating their lands into the mainline administration (a process known as gaitu guiliu).81 To obtain giant timbers to build the Beijing palaces the Ming court conducted large-scale logging projects in the upper Yangzi, including in the native domains.82 Collectively, these changes transformed the southwestern fringes of the Yangzi River basin, removing large swathes of old-growth woodland and many of the institutional barriers to further exploitation.

As intensely cultivated landscapes spread to much of South China, markets were increasingly integrated, allowing the further development of local specializations. Jiangnan, formerly the rice-bowl of the empire, became grain-deficient. Instead, it became a major center of cash cropping to supply textile and wine production.83 Cotton, which spread from Southeast Asia during the Song and Yuan, accounted for as much as 70 percent of acreage in some parts of Jiangnan by the late Ming.84 Other regions specialized in porcelain (Jingdezhen), papermaking (Guangxin), tong oil (western Jiangxi and Hunan), indigo (central Jiangxi), citrus fruits (southern Fujian and Guangdong), and dozens of other products. Merchant groups, Huizhou natives foremost among them, plied the rivers to bring grain, timber, charcoal, and other raw materials to the cities, and salt and finished products to the interior.85 Hakkas or “guest people” (kejia) emerged from the Wuyi Mountains to become the first significant itinerant labor force, working mines and forests and cash cropping across South China.86 By 1600 almost the entire region was a tapestry of different, increasingly specialized, and increasingly interconnected anthropogenic environments.

The taming of the southern environment came with a cost. As the Yangzi River was confined to an increasingly narrow channel by dikes and polders, the seasonal floods that had long filled the Dongting, Jiang-Han, and Poyang basins became increasingly disastrous. The removal of tree cover and diking of lakeshores left the landscape without the soils and wetlands that had previously absorbed and released water during the monsoon season; now a year of unusual precipitation could lead to massive flooding, especially in the middle Yangzi.87 Meanwhile, the Huai River became more closely linked to the disaster regime of the silt-laden Yellow River. Between 1128 and 1198, the Yellow River shifted its course far to the south, exiting to the sea through the mouth of the Huai. In the mid-Ming, engineers reinforced this tendency with dikes. Close connections with the Grand Canal, which crossed multiple watersheds, further confounded efforts to keep the courses free of silt. Between 1400 and 1900, the Huai had 350 major floods, depositing layers of silt and sand up to eight feet deep and leading to salinization that led farmers to abandon much of this formerly prosperous region.88 The flow of Yellow River silt through the Huai mouth left deposits as far away as Hangzhou Bay.89

New Crops, New Conflicts, c. 1600–1800

With the increasingly direct integration of South China into global networks after 1600, the intensive cultivation of previous centuries reached an even higher pitch. Transoceanic contacts brought new crops like sweet potatoes, maize, chilis, and tobacco; they also opened new markets to Chinese products and brought an influx of silver, allowing a further swelling of commercial activity. These new forces led to several waves of growth. They also exposed instabilities in the intensively cultivated landscape, especially as the Jiangnan style of farms, forests, and fish ponds approached their physical and climatic limits to the south and west.

In some ways, the 17th and 18th centuries continued earlier trends toward intensified cultivation. Jiangnan’s grain land was increasingly converted to grow more commercially valuable crops, while rice farms reached the height of sophistication, with intensive irrigation, weeding, transplanting, and fertilizing with beancake from the northeast.90 Farmers continued to construct dikes and polders along the shores of Lakes Dongting and Poyang, in the Jiang-Han plain, and throughout the south, further expanding acreage at the expense of seasonal wetlands.91 To meet the needs of growing settlements and shipping fleets, logging pushed further west, and landowners expanded timber plantations into Hunan, Sichuan, and Guizhou.92 The growing importance of exports furthered agricultural intensification. Tea farms spread across northern Fujian to produce for foreign markets.93

The introduction of New World crops enabled further changes in the agricultural regime. Sweet potatoes were first widely cultivated in Fujian, where coastal clearance policies of the mid-1600s led to a massive population movement into the mountains.94 More intensive upland cultivation also enabled the conversion of up to half of farmland in Guangdong and Fujian to commercial crops like sugarcane and peanuts.95 Easy-to-grow chili peppers became the spice of choice for the rural poor, substituting for imported black pepper, Sichuan pepper, and even salt.96 Tobacco cultivation also spread, encouraged by a growing base of consumers.97 The cash-cropping, peripatetic Hakka diaspora was a major vector for the transmission of these crops across the south.

The 17th and 18th centuries also saw large and sustained population growth, from less than two hundred million in the mid-1600s to around four hundred million in the mid-1800s.98 Through the early 19th century, well-integrated markets and a highly effective granary system helped keep this population growth from causing sustained food instability.99 Nonetheless, farmers from the overpopulated east migrated westward in large numbers, primarily along latitudinal lines: from Jiangxi to Hunan, Hubei, and Sichuan; from Guangdong to Guangxi.100 Wherever they went, migrants expanded and intensified existing logging, mining, and agricultural projects and brought more land under cultivation. In the 1720s and 30s, the administrative normalization (gaitu guiliu) of the last significant naive domains in the southwest removed many—but not all—of the remaining institutional barriers to colonization.101

From one perspective the 17th and 18th centuries brought the intensely cultivated South Chinese landscape to the apex of its premodern productivity. From another perspective this period brought an enormous decline of ecological diversity and resilience. By 1600 South China was already blanketed with landscapes focused on supplying human needs and that depended on significant human inputs. By 1800 intensive cultivation had spread to environments poorly suited for agriculture and infringed on common lands and ecological buffers, including the fengshui forests around graves, temples, and critical watersheds.102 Tigers, elephants, and other large animals retreated from human-dominated landscapes.103 Meanwhile, rivers confined by dikes and ponders exposed their former floodplains to increasingly catastrophic flood risks.

150 Years of Crisis, c. 1800–1950

As intensive cultivation reached its environmental limits, squatters and subsistence crops competed for space with native landlords, or with the last major stands of old-growth woodland.104 Unlike earlier logging, which often gave way to tree planting, 19th-century cutting led to progressive deforestation. Lingnan’s forest cover declined from an estimated 40 percent in 1700 to 24 percent in 1853, and less than 10 percent in 1937.105 Deforestation in Sichuan was probably even more extreme. With the provisional exception of Fujian, most other regions of the south saw similar if somewhat smaller declines.106 Upland clearance also led to greatly increased runoff and sedimentation of river valleys. Catastrophic flooding and sedimentation, a longstanding pattern in North China, was increasingly common in Jiangnan.107 Hill clearance and diking made Hunan and Hubei especially flood-prone, with some prefectures flooding in more than half of the years between 1736 and 1911.108 Other migrants left the overfished Yangzi to trawl the waters offshore, causing a major decline in fish stocks by the late 19th century.109

In addition to precipitating ecological damage, the flood of migrants exacerbated the longstanding conflicts between locals and outsiders. In the 1850s and 1860s multiple regional uprisings, all with roots in local land and resource conflicts, merged into a conflagration of violence best characterized as a multifront civil war.110 Historians have long studied the environmental roots of these conflicts in population pressure and land degradation; it is equally important to understand their catastrophic consequences. These wars, centered on the Taiping conflict in the Yangzi, killed tens of millions of people and left the cities of Jiangnan devastated, fields uncultivated, and wild animals ranging across the countryside.111 Fighters and refugees further depleted the forests already under intense pressure, destroyed flood-control infrastructure, and otherwise caused the collapse of the highly interlinked patterns of cultivation developed over previous centuries.

The 19th century also saw major conflicts with foreign powers, including the two Opium Wars (1839–1842, 1860–1862), the Sino-French War (1884–1885), the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), and the international suppression of the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901). Losses in these wars led the Qing to cede territory, open treaty ports, and recognize large “spheres of influence.” Within these territories foreign powers developed rail lines, ports, and mines to facilitate the extraction of goods from China. While small in area, these concessions raised conflicts between foreign and domestic interests, foreign and domestic technologies, and especially over how to pay for projects like river conservancy in Wuhan and dredging of the Huangpu River in Shanghai.112

The warfare-induced degradation of the 19th century continued into the 20th. After 1911, regional armies took over large portions of South China, bringing widespread neglect and occasional malice, as in 1921, when the militarist Wu Peifu destroyed a major Yangzi River dike to drown a rival army.113 Later, Communist base areas at Jinggangshan and the Jiangxi Soviet encouraged anti-landlord violence and experimented with land reforms.114 Even in the 1930s, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nanjing government exerted relatively centralized control, it did little to stem degradation. In Fujian, ill-conceived oversight and excessive taxation destabilized the highly productive forestry system along the Min River.115 Off the Yangzi Delta, competition with more sophisticated Japanese trawlers led to further declines in the fishery.116 In 1931, the Yangzi region saw its most catastrophic flood in decades.117 1937 brought renewed warfare, this time with Japan. As the Nationalist government fled up the Yangzi, the Japanese military bombed and then occupied the cities and rail lines, and refugees and rival armies once again scoured the land for resources, causing further degradation of an already depleted countryside.118 The chronic and destructive warfare only ended with the Communist victory in 1949.

Red Politics, Green Policies, c .1950 to Present

The Communists inherited a countryside ravaged by more than a century of war. Nonetheless, their leaders also deserve a share of blame for the further degradation caused in the following decades. In the first thirty years of the People’s Republic the most rapid changes in South China’s environments accompanied mass political campaigns that sought to expand and intensify agriculture and forestry production. Until the 1970s, South China had essentially no mechanized agriculture and only one fertilizer plant.119 Without a way to enrich the highly depleted soils or increase labor efficiency, the only alternative was to expend greater human effort or expand the amount of land under cultivation. During the Great Leap Forward, the emphasis was on the former, resulting in ridiculous extremes like the campaign against sparrows, and ultimately leading to a famine that killed thirty million people.120 During the Cultural Revolution emphasis was on the latter, and the thankless endeavor of cultivating marginal areas was only worsened by sending thousands of urban youths into unfamiliar parts of the countryside.121

With the unlikely ascent of Deng Xiaoping, China moved away from the mass campaigns of the Mao era. With the One-Child Policy, Deng sought to extricate China from the intractable hunger of a large and rapidly growing population. Meanwhile the construction of fertilizer plants in the 1970s and 80s finally relieved China from the “nitrogen trap” of limited soil fertility.122 South China’s protein supply underwent a similar industrialization, especially after 2000. Since Reform and Opening, policies were aimed at promoting intensified pig production in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).123 Aquaculture likewise moved from small-scale operations to massive industries dependent on artificial reproduction and large-scale inputs of fishmeal from ocean catch.124

The campaigns of the Mao and Deng eras were also associated with “three great cuttings” (san da fa).125 In the early 1950s most of the remaining natural growth forests of the southwest were nationalized, while the community and privately owned forests of the rest of South China were collectivized. This consolidation made it easier to exploit the forests during the campaigns that followed, including excessive cutting for timber in the southwest, and for fuel in the southern interior.126 With Reform and Opening, forests devolved back to household ownership, but market incentives continued to promote excessive logging.127 Despite numerous laws and restructurings, forest bureaus cut to great excess and still went into debt due to the low price they obtained for timber.128 The story is not entirely gloomy; starting in the 1960s, official policy began to recognize the need to protect animals designated as “precious and rare” (zhengui xiyou), including the panda, and the PRC has established dozens of nature reserves.129 Nonetheless, the trend was toward continued depletion.

A major turning point came in 1998, when catastrophic flooding struck across South China leaving millions of people homeless and millions of hectares of farmland inundated.130 The state declared an immediate moratorium on logging in the upper Yangzi, followed by two campaigns promoting a more comprehensive response. The National Forest Protection Plan (NFPP) banned logging on thirty million hectares of natural forest on the upper reaches of the Yangzi, Yellow, and Songhua Rivers. The Sloping Land Conversion Program (SLCP) returned 14.67 million hectares of mountainous land to forests and grasslands.131 China also reduced tariffs on foreign timber and became the world’s largest net importer of industrial lumber.132 Collectively, these efforts have given South China a net gain in forest acreage, but much of the afforestation remains of questionable quality.

The early 21st century has also brought both new ambitions and new concerns. Mass transit, electrification, and other infrastructures that saw little development before 1950, and that stalled during the mass campaigns, have expanded enormously in the first decades of the 21st century.133 The successes in bringing power, transport, and hygiene to hundreds of millions of people should not be underestimated. But as in other industrializing nations, these advances came at the cost of substantial air and water pollution and ecological degradation, especially given China’s reliance on coal.134

Many of newer projects were intended to solve both old and new environmental problems. The Three Gorges Dam, completed in 2012, boasts the capacity to produce tens of thousands of megawatts of clean power, improve shipping to the upper Yangzi, and reduce the impact of catastrophic floods but also inundated huge swathes of land and displaced thousands of people.135 The South-North Water Transfer Project promises to move twenty-five billion cubic meters of water from the Yangzi to the water-poor north.136 In some ways these projects echo the ambitions and pitfalls of earlier dikes, dams, and canals; in other ways, they are clearly products of modern engineering and aim to solve contemporary problems, including shortages of electric power and water. Nonetheless, the general trajectories of earlier developments are still visible in the changing environments of South China.

Discussion of the Literature

The South in the Environmental History of China

The environmental history of China arguably has its origins in the Ming and Qing tradition of statecraft scholarship (jingshi). Several key topics, including water control (shuili) and borderlands (bianjie) found their way into the English-language history through works like Karl August Wittfogel’s Hydraulic Despotism and Owen Lattimore’s Inner Asian Frontiers of China.137 The first comprehensive works on China’s environmental history largely built on these themes of hydraulic infrastructure, colonization, and warfare, seen in Mark Elvin and Tsui-Jung Liu’s edited volume The Sediments of Time; Elvin’s The Retreat of the Elephants; and to a lesser degree in Robert B. Marks’s more recent survey of the field, China: Its Environment and History (called China: An Environmental History in the second edition).138 Marks’s survey remains the best source on secondary scholarship published in English through 2017. More recently, however, the master narratives of some of these works have been critiqued as inaccurate on both theoretical and evidentiary bases.139 Just as significantly, the biases of both the water control literature (focused largely on the Yellow River and the Grand Canal) and the borderland literature (focused largely on Inner Asia and the Great Wall frontier) have obscured substantial differences between northern and southern environments and historical trajectories.

Local and Regional Environmental Histories

The northern bias of some of these comprehensive works has been corrected by a second line of environmental historiography that focuses on the dynamics of local environments and societies in the south. Starting in the 1970s and 80s, English-language scholarship began to focus on local histories, building in part on the Ming-Qing genre of local gazetteers (difangzhi).140 While this research paid varying degrees of attention to environmental themes, works like Peter Perdue’s Exhausting the Earth, on environmental change in Ming-Qing Hunan, became classics in the burgeoning of the field of environmental history. By the 1990s and early 2000s many local histories paid more explicit attention to environmental topics. Notable examples include Robert B. Marks’s Tigers, Rice, Silk and Silt, on environmental change in Qing-dynasty Lingnan; R. Keith Schoppa’s Song Full of Tears, a longue durée study of the environment and society of Xiang Lake; and David Pietz’s Engineering the State, on the Huai River in the Nationalist period.141 The 2010s has seen a second wave of environmentally oriented local and regional histories. Many take up the particularities of water control infrastructure in South China, including Jiayan Zhang’s Coping with Calamity, on the Jiang-Han plain in Hubei; and Chris Cortney’s The Nature of Disaster, on the 1931 Yangzi River flood.142 Others address topics specific to the region, including Micah S. Muscolino’s Fishing Wars and Environmental Change, on the Yangzi Delta fisheries; and Ian M. Miller’s Fir and Empire, on forestry in South China.143

Modern Environmental History

Scholarship on China’s more recent environmental history initially developed out of other fields, especially the social and environmental sciences. The particular focus of many of these works was on establishing the roots of contemporary environmental issues like pollution, deforestation, and shortages of water, energy, and fertilizers.144 Since Judith Shapiro’s Mao’s War against Nature, there has been increased attention paid to developments in the Maoist period, although many of these works retain a national rather than regional or local lens. However, a number of books have taken on more local or thematic topics, including Chris Coggins’s The Tiger and the Pangolin and E. Elana Songster’s Panda Nation, on the development of environmental protection; and Corey Byrnes’s Fixing Landscape, a “techno-poetic history” of the Three Gorges.145

Environmental Topics in Other Subfields

Other subfields of history have touched on environmental topics to varying degrees. One area with substantial overlap is the history of agriculture. This literature has historically been most interested in assessing the productivity of Chinese agriculture, and related economic history questions on historical standards of living, demographic change, and population pressure.146 Implicit in this inquiry are the related questions of why China failed to produce its own industrial revolution, and how this formerly wealthy region became immiserated in the 19th and 20th centuries. Since Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence and several other comparative works published in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the field has moved toward more explicit comparison between China and Europe, and sometimes Japan.147 The “divergence debate,” as it is often known, has stimulated a great deal of scholarship in economic history.148 However, relatively few scholars have taken up Pomeranz’s framing of the comparison in explicitly environmental terms. Also useful, if now somewhat out of date, is Francesca Bray’s The Rice Economies, which largely rejects the comparison with Europe and instead considers the long-term development of paddy agriculture in South China in comparison with other rice-growing regions in East and Southeast Asia.149

A second closely related subfield is the history of science, technology, and medicine. For several decades in the mid-20th century the history of Chinese science was dominated by the “great titration,” the question posed by Joseph Needham as to when European science surpassed Chinese science.150 Needham’s inquiry, with numerous collaborators, generated his seminal series on Science and Civilisation in China, including numerous volumes of interest to environmental historians. Many of these remain important reference works, although history of science has since largely moved beyond the Needham question to consider Chinese scholars “on their own terms.”151 More recent works have given careful consideration to the epistemologies in works of pharmacy and technology.152 As yet, only a few pay attention to environmental context, most notably He Bian’s Know Your Remedies.153

There are several other literatures that are worth consideration by environmental historians. A growing body of scholarship treats the independent states of early South China, including the Liangzhu and Sanxingdui cultures; Shu, Chu, Wu, and Yue; and the Jiankang empire.154 These touch to varying degrees on environmental questions but are important for constructing a distinct historical trajectory for these regions. There are also large and growing bodies of archeology and paleoecology concerned with South China. In the early 21st century these fields have begun to move beyond their historical focus on rice domestication to consider other environmental changes. Finally, policy researchers and scholars working in government, economics, ecology, and other disciplines have taken up environmental issues in South China.

Primary Sources

    Early China

    Before the 10th century ce, textual sources available for environmental history are limited and scholars must rely heavily on archeological finds and paleoecology. These include studies of crop domestication, landscape transformation, and ceramics and metallurgy. Excavated texts, including legal documents and maps, are especially important for reconstructing the Warring States (475–221 bce) and Qin-Han (221 bce–220 ce) periods. In the early 21st century, new discoveries have transformed the understanding of South China’s prehistory and early history across all of these subfields. In the pre-Qin period, philosophical texts and the Chunqiu Annals are the main written sources available. From the Qin-Han through the 8th century, written sources include the official histories, which often have special treatises (zhi) on environment-related topics including water control and geography, and a handful of collections by elite writers.

    Middle and Late Imperial China

    Starting around the 8th century there are new genres of source available for environmental history, including a far greater number of policy documents collected in volumes including the Tongdian (Tang), Song huiyao jigao (Song), Wenxian tongkao (Yuan), several editions of the Jingshi wenbian (Ming and Qing), and the Ming huidian and Qing huidian shili. Changes in law are collected by statute in several compilations, including the Tang lü shuyi, Yuan dianzhang, new precedent collections (xinli) from the mid-Ming, and several editions of the Da Qing lüli. These sources are generally organized by administrative specialization, making it relatively easy to find information on environmental issues, especially water control, border defense, military supply, and agriculture. The Chinese tradition also has significant genres of botanical and pharmacological texts (bencao), agricultural manuals (nongshu), and other texts on science and technology.155

    Another important genre for researching environmental history is the travelogue. Numerous records (ji) of travelers in the south are preserved since the Tang, and still greater numbers from the Song and later. Accounts by other East Asians—from Korea, Ryukyu, Dai Viet, and Japan—are widely available from the Ming onward. So are the travelogues of visitors from further afield, including Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta (Yuan), Jesuits (16th to 18th century), and growing numbers of British, French, Russians, Germans, and Americans (18th to 20th century). These are especially useful because they provide outsiders’ perspectives and often comment on features of the environment that are not noted by locals.

    By far the most widely used genre of source to study environmental history in this period is the gazetteer (difang zhi), a type of local history or local geography.156 Aside from a handful of works from the Tang and Northern Song, the oldest available gazetteers are from the Southern Song (1127–1279) and Yuan (1272–1368) and are overwhelmingly from Jiangnan. From the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911), gazetteers are available for every province, nearly every prefecture and county, and sometimes even at lower administrative levels, often in multiple editions. These have a fairly standard format, including many sections like water conservancy or natural disasters that correspond almost perfectly to subfields of environmental history.

    Modern China

    Starting around the 1860s, the source base becomes both more plentiful and more scattered. Gazetteers are available for the late Qing, while “new gazetteers” (xin zhi) from after 1949 (mostly post-1980) are also widely available, sometimes including specialized gazetteers on topics like water control or forestry. There is also scattered coverage of a variety of environmental topics in many newspapers and magazines in foreign languages and Chinese. More recent changes are tracked in policy documents from the Nationalist and PRC states and by various international bodies, although access to state documents is often a difficulty in China. Since the early 20th century there is also a growing body of ethnography that touches on environmental issues.

    In the modern period, probably the most useful works are those produced by natural and social scientists, both Chinese and foreign. Starting in the late 18th century, there are writings of European “natural philosophers” and ships surgeons. These are joined by a large number of increasingly specialized surveys conducted by botanists, geologists, agronomists, and foresters from the late 19th and 20th centuries, some of them still in print and others in the archives of botanical gardens and universities.

    For more detailed information, Endymion Wilkinson, Chinese History: A New Manual is an excellent resource.157

Further Reading

  • Coggins, Chris. The Tiger and the Pangolin: Nature, Culture, and Conservation in China. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2003.
  • Courtney, Chris. The Nature of Disaster in China: The 1931 Yangzi River Flood. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
  • Elvin, Mark. The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.
  • Marks, Robert B. Tigers, Rice, Silk, and Silt: Environment and Economy in Late Imperial South China. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Marks, Robert B. China: An Environmental History. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.
  • Miller, Ian M. Fir and Empire: The Transformation of Forests in Early Modern China. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2020.
  • Muscolino, Micah S. Fishing Wars and Environmental Change in Late Imperial and Modern China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2009.
  • Perdue, Peter C. Exhausting the Earth: State and Peasant in Hunan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 1987.
  • Pietz, David Allen. Engineering the State: The Huai River and Reconstruction in Nationalist China, 1927–1937. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • Pomeranz, Kenneth. The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
  • Schoppa, R. Keith. Song Full of Tears: Nine Centuries of Chinese Life around Xiang Lake. Boulder, CO: Basic Books, 2002.
  • Songster, E. Elena. Panda Nation: The Construction and Conservation of China’s Modern Icon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.
  • Zhang, Jiayan. Coping with Calamity: Environmental Change and Peasant Response in Central China, 1736–1949. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2015.


  • 1. Note that in older scholarship and most scientific papers, Yangzi is written “Yangtze.” Jiang ‎ is probably an Austro-Asiatic loanword for river. See Edwin G. Pulleyblank, “The Chinese and Their Neighbors in Prehistoric and Early Historic Times,” in The Origins of Chinese Civilization, ed. David N. Keightley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 437–444.

  • 2. Chinese history sometimes encompasses other “souths” as well, including Yunnan (“south of the clouds”) in the far southwest, and Vietnam (“south of Viet/Yue”) in the far southeast, now beyond the borders of China. Nonetheless, the environments and histories of these regions are distinct enough that they are largely beyond the scope of this article. Throughout this article, “Huainan,” “Jiangnan,” and “Lingnan” specify their respective regions. “South China” refers to the entire territory south of the Huai River; “North China” to regions north of the Huai. This roughly follows the distinction between the “wheat region” and the “rice region” described in John Lossing Buck, Land Utilization in China: A Study of 16,786 Farms in 168 Localities, and 38,256 Farm Families in Twenty-Two Provinces in China, 1929–1933 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1937). “Lower,” “middle,” and “upper Yangzi,” and “southeast coast” roughly follow the contours of George William Skinner’s Physiographic Macroregions developed in “Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China: Part I,” Journal of Asian Studies 24, no. 1 (1964): 3–43; and George William Skinner, “Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China: Part II,” Journal of Asian Studies 24, no. 2 (February 1965): 195–228. Both of these schemes were developed for specific contexts—Skinner for the marketing networks of the 19th century, Buck for the agriculture of the 1930s. They have been broadly used beyond these contexts in ways that are somewhat anachronistic, so they are used here with this caveat.

  • 3. Nigel Harris, “The Elevation History of the Tibetan Plateau and Its Implications for the Asian Monsoon,” Palaeogeography Palaeoclimatology Palaeoecology 241 (November 1, 2006): 4–15.

  • 4. Tao Junrong, “Zhongguo disanji zhibei he zhiwu quxi lishi ji fenqu” [The tertiary vegetation and flora and floristic regions of China], Zhiwu Felei Xuebao 30, no. 1 (January 18, 1992): 25–42.

  • 5. Gina L. Barnes, Archaeology of East Asia: The Rise of Civilisation in China, Korea and Japan (Oxford and Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, 2017), 49, 54.

  • 6. Barnes, Archeology of East Asia, 60–64. Barnes notes that it is widely accepted that both Homo erectus and Homo sapiens migrations are widely understood to follow the “Out of Africa” hypothesis, although some Chinese archeologists continue to claim that the anatomically modern humans in China evolved exclusively from the earlier Homo erectus migration.

  • 7. Xiaohong Wu, et al., “Early Pottery at 20,000 Years Ago in Xianrendong Cave, China,” Science 336, no. 6089 (June 29, 2012): 1696–1700.

  • 8. Chi Zhang and Hsiao-Chun Hung, “The Neolithic of Southern China: Origin, Development, and Dispersal,” Asian Perspectives 47 (January 1, 2009): 299–329.

  • 9. Brian Lander, Mindi Schneider, and Katherine Brunson, “A History of Pigs in China: From Curious Omnivores to Industrial Pork,” Journal of Asian Studies 79, no. 4 (November 2020): 1–25; and Jing Yuan and Rowan K. Flad, “Pig Domestication in Ancient China,” Antiquity 76, no. 293 (September 2002): 724–732. The Yangzi was probably one of several sites of independent domestication, also including the Yellow River valley and sites in West Asia.

  • 10. Dorian Q. Fuller, et al., “The Domestication Process and Domestication Rate in Rice: Spikelet Bases from the Lower Yangtze,” Science 323, no. 5921 (March 20, 2009): 1607–1610. For a summary of the broader debate on rice domestication, see Li Liu and Xingcan Chen, The Archaeology of China: From the Late Paleolithic to the Early Bronze Age (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 76–82.

  • 11. Lander, Schneider, and Brunson, “History of Pigs in China.”

  • 12. Dorian Q. Fuller and Ling Qin, “Water Management and Labour in the Origins and Dispersal of Asian Rice,” World Archaeology 41, no. 1 (March 1, 2009): 88–111.

  • 13. Barnes, Archaeology of East Asia, 162–166; and Liu and Chen, Archaeology of China, 236–242. For more detail, see Bin Liu and Ling Qin, eds., Liangzhu Culture: Society, Belief, and Art in Neolithic China (New York: Routledge, 2019).

  • 14. Bin Liu, Ling Qin, and Yijie Zhuang, “The Liangzhu City: New Discoveries and Research,” in Liangzhu Culture: Society, Belief, and Art in Neolithic China, ed. Bin Liu, Ling Qin, and Yijie Zhuang (New York: Routledge, 2019), 1–17.

  • 15. Zhang and Hung, “The Neolithic of Southern China”; and Liu and Chen, Archaeology of China, 242–246.

  • 16. Dorian Q. Fuller and Ling Qin, “Declining Oaks, Increasing Artistry, and Cultivating Rice: The Environmental and Social Context of the Emergence of Farming in the Lower Yangtze Region,” Environmental Archaeology 15, no. 2 (October 1, 2010): 139–159.

  • 17. Barnes, Archaeology of East Asia, 173–176; and Liu and Chen, Archaeology of China, 242, 246.

  • 18. Sergey V. Lapteff, “The Origin and Development of the Wucheng Culture (in the Context of Intercultural Contacts between Bronze Age Inhabitants of the Lower Yangtze Valley and Indochina Peninsula),” Archaeology, Ethnology and Anthropology of Eurasia 38, no. 4 (December 2010): 93–102; Liangren Zhang, “Wucheng and Shang: A New History of a Bronze Age Civilization in Southern China,” Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities 78 (2006): 53–78; and Liu and Chen, Archaeology of China, 268–372.

  • 19. Robert Bagley, ed., Ancient Sichuan: Treasures from a Lost Civilization (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001); and Liu and Chen, Archaeology of China, 372–377.

  • 20. Richard Von Glahn, The Economic History of China: From Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 54.

  • 21. Susan Weld, “Chu Law in Action: Legal Documents from Tomb 2 at Baoshan,” in Defining Chu: Image and Reality in Ancient China, ed. John S. Major and Constance A. Cook (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999), 76–97.

  • 22. Heather A. Peters, “Towns and Trade: Cultural Diversity and Chu Daily Life,” in Defining Chu: Image and Reality in Ancient China, ed. John S. Major and Constance A. Cook (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999), 99–119.

  • 23. Von Glahn, Economic History, 65.

  • 24. Jenny F. So, “Chu Art: Link between the Old and New,” in Defining Chu: Image and Reality in Ancient China, ed. John S. Major and Constance A. Cook (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999), 33–49.

  • 25. Olivia Milburn, The Glory of Yue: An Annotated Translation of the Yuejue Shu (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010), 104–113. According to Milburn, these chapters were probably compiled in the Eastern Han but contain content from the Warring States (see pp. 43–52, 93–95). See also Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 4: Physics and Physical Technology, pt. 3: Civil Engineering and Nautics (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1971), 271–272.

  • 26. Millburn, Glory of Yue, 234–235.

  • 27. Steven F. Sage, Ancient Sichuan and the Unification of China (Albany: SUNY Press, 1992), 148.

  • 28. Needham, Civil Engineering and Nautics, 299–305.

  • 29. Mei-Ling Hsu, “The Han Maps and Early Chinese Cartography,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 68, no. 1 (1978): 45–60.

  • 30. Anthony F. P. Hulsewé, Remnants of Ch’in Law: An Annotated Translation of the Ch’in Legal and Administrative Rules of the 3rd Century B.C. Discovered in Yün-Meng Prefecture, Hu-Pei Province, in 1975 (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1985), 97–98, 111; and Von Glahn, Economic History, 154.

  • 31. Von Glahn, Economic History, 115–120.

  • 32. Brian Lander, “State Management of River Dikes in Early China: New Sources on the Environmental History of the Central Yangzi Region,” T’oung Pao 100 (April 10, 2014): 325–362.

  • 33. Robert B. Marks, China: Its Environment and History (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 114–115.

  • 34. Francesca Bray, Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 6: Biology and Biological Technology, pt. 2: Agriculture, ed. Joseph Needham (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 285–286; and Von Glahn, Economic History, 131–132.

  • 35. Pulleyblank, “The Chinese and Their Neighbors.”

  • 36. Bray, Agriculture, 98–101.

  • 37. Andrew Chittick, The Jiankang Empire in Chinese and World History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 4–9 and generally.

  • 38. Von Glahn, Economic History, 158–160.

  • 39. Mark Elvin, “Three Thousand Years of Unsustainable Growth: China’s Environment from Archaic Times to the Present,” East Asian History 6 (December 1993): 25; and Von Glahn, Economic History, 160–161.

  • 40. Chittick, Jiankang Empire, 183–184, and Appendix A.

  • 41. Chittick, Jiankang Empire, 182–198; and Von Glahn, Economic History, 164–166.

  • 42. Mark Edward Lewis, China between Empires (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 216–220; Hugh R. Clark, The Sinitic Encounter in Southeast China through the First Millennium CE (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2015), 33–36; Von Glahn, Economic History, 162; Jacques Gernet, Buddhism in Chinese Society, trans. Franciscus Verellen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 116–129 and chap. 3; and Marks, China: Environment and History, 138–141.

  • 43. Chittick, Jiankang Empire, 72–76.

  • 44. James A. Benn, Tea in China: A Religious and Cultural History (Honolulu: University of Hawai’I Press, 2015), 21–42; and Chittick, Jiankang Empire, 75.

  • 45. Bray, Agriculture, 285–286, 495–496, and passim; and Chittick, Jiankang Empire, 76–80.

  • 46. Von Glahn, Economic History, 163.

  • 47. Chittick, Jiankang Empire, 177–182.

  • 48. Chittick, Jiankang Empire, 199–204.

  • 49. Ian M. Miller, Fir and Empire: The Transformation of Forests in Early Modern China (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2020), 143.

  • 50. Von Glahn, Economic History, 183, 186.

  • 51. Miller, Fir and Empire, 24–26.

  • 52. Needham, Civil Engineering, 306–311.

  • 53. Needham, Civil Engineering, 305–306, 309; Robert Marks, Tigers, Rice, Silk, and Silt: Environment and Economy in Late Imperial South China (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 20–23; and Marks, Environment and History, 121–127.

  • 54. Marks, Tigers, 71–76.

  • 55. James A. Anderson and John K. Whitmore, “Introduction: ‘The Fiery Frontier and the Dong World,’” in China’s Encounters on the South and Southwest: Reforging the Fiery Frontier over Two Millennia, ed. James A. Anderson and John K. Whitmore (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2014).

  • 56. On upland peoples see James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010).

  • 57. Von Glahn, Economic History, 210–212, and map 6.3, p. 215.

  • 58. Denis Crispin Twitchett, Financial Administration under the T’ang Dynasty (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1963), 49–53; and Miller, Fir and Empire, 99.

  • 59. Twitchett, Financial Administration, 39–43.

  • 60. On the anti-Buddhist campaigns, see Twitchett, Financial Administration, 67–69, 76–83. On the effects of the Huang Chao rebellion, see Nicolas Tackett, The Destruction of the Medieval Chinese Aristocracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2016).

  • 61. On these “transitions,” see Paul Jakov Smith, “Introduction: Problematizing the Song-Yuan-Ming Transition,” in The Song-Yuan-Ming Transition in Chinese History, ed. Paul Jakov Smith and Richard Von Glahn (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2003).

  • 62. Mira Ann Mihelich, “Polders and the Politics of Land Reclamation in Southeast China during the Northern Sung Dynasty (960–1126)” (PhD diss., Cornell University, 1979), figure at 193. See also Yoshinobu Shiba, “Environment versus Water Control: The Case of the Southern Hangzhou Bay Area from the Mid-Tang through the Qing,” in Sediments of Time: Environment and Society in Chinese History, ed. Mark Elvin and Ts’ui-jung Liu (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 135–164; and Yoshinobu Shiba, “Ningbo and its Hinterland,” in The Diversity of the Socio-Economy in Song China, 960–1279, ed. Yoshinobu Shiba (Tokyo: Toyo Bunka, 2011), 129–180; and Von Glahn, Economic History, 223–224.

  • 63. Marks, Environment and History, 127–128.

  • 64. Von Glahn, Economic History, 220–225; and Joseph P. McDermott and Yoshinobu Shiba, “Economic Change in China, 960–1279,” in The Cambridge History of China, vol. 5, pt. 2: Sung China, 960–1279, ed. John W. Chaffee and Denis C. Twitchett (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015). See also Mark Elvin, The Pattern of the Chinese Past (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1973), 113–130. Elvin’s claim about a “revolution in farming” attributes too much rapid change to the Song period but is nonetheless influential.

  • 65. Ping-Ti Ho, “Early-Ripening Rice in Chinese History,” Economic History Review 9, no. 2 (1956): 200–218.

  • 66. Li Bozhong, “Was There a ‘Fourteenth-Century Turning Point’?: Population, Land, Technology, and Farm Management,” in The Song-Yuan-Ming Transition in Chinese History, ed. Paul Jakov Smith and Richard Von Glahn (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2003), 135–174.

  • 67. Von Glahn, Economic History, 225–226.

  • 68. Shiba Yoshinobu, Commerce and Society in Sung China, trans. Mark Elvin (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, 1969); and Von Glahn, Economic History, 227–231.

  • 69. Yoshinobu Shiba, “The Business Nucleus of the Southern Song Capital of Hangzhou,” in The Diversity of the Socio-Economy in Song China, 960–1279, ed. Yoshinobu Shiba (Tokyo: Toyo Bunka, 2011), 89–128.

  • 70. Miller, Fir and Empire, chap. 2.

  • 71. Nanjing literally means “southern capital,” reflecting its role as the regional administrative center in the unified empire. On the formation of the two-capital system in the Ming, see Edward L. Farmer, Early Ming Government: The Evolution of Dual Capitals (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 1976).

  • 72. Miller, Fir and Empire, 175–176.

  • 73. This process can be reconstructed in retrospect from cadastral maps and by comparing acreage figures over time; see Miller, Fir and Empire, 72.

  • 74. Joseph P. McDermott, The Making of a New Rural Order in South China, vol. 1: Village, Land, and Lineage in Huizhou, 900–1600 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014), chap. 6; Nicholas K. Menzies, Forest and Land Management in Imperial China (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1994), chaps. 5 and 6; and Miller, Fir and Empire, chaps. 4–6.

  • 75. Xi He and David Faure, “Introduction: Boat and Shed Living,” in The Fisher Folk of Late Imperial and Modern China: An Historical Anthropology of Boat-and-Shed Living, ed. Xi He and David Faure (London: Routledge, 2015), 1–30; and Yang Peina, “Government Regulation in the Fishing Industry in South China During the Ming and Qing,” in The Fisher Folk of Late Imperial and Modern China: An Historical Anthropology of Boat-and-Shed Living, ed. Xi He and David Faure (London: Routledge, 2015), 33–44.

  • 76. Miller, Fir and Empire, 54, map 2.2; and Marks, Tigers, 119.

  • 77. Lander, Schneider, and Brunson, “History of Pigs in China,” 6–8.

  • 78. Valerie Hansen, Changing Gods in Medieval China, 1127–1276 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990); Anne Gerritsen, Ji’an Literati and the Local in Song-Yuan-Ming China (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007); and Richard von Glahn, The Sinister Way: The Divine and the Demonic in Chinese Religious Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

  • 79. Miller, Fir and Empire, 63–71.

  • 80. He Bian, Know Your Remedies: Pharmacy and Culture in Early Modern China (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020), 130–145.

  • 81. John E. Herman, Amid the Clouds and Mist: China’s Colonization of Guizhou, 1200–1700 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2007), esp. chap. 4.

  • 82. Miller, Fir and Empire, chap. 7; Aurelia Campbell, What the Emperor Built: Architecture and Empire in the Early Ming (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2020), chap. 2; and Menzies, Forest and Land Management, chap. 8.

  • 83. Von Glahn, Economic History, 297–300.

  • 84. Harriet Zurndorfer, “Cotton Textile Production in Jiangnan during the Ming–Qing Era and the Matter of Market-Driven Growth,” in The Economy of Lower Yangzi Delta in Late Imperial China: Connecting Money, Markets, and Institutions, ed. Billy K. L. So (New York: Routledge, 2013).

  • 85. Joseph P. McDermott, “The Rise of Huizhou Merchants: Kinship and Commerce in Ming China,” in The Economy of Lower Yangzi Delta in Late Imperial China: Connecting Money, Markets, and Institutions, ed. Billy K. L. So (New York: Routledge, 2013) provides a useful summary of the extensive scholarship on Huizhou merchants.

  • 86. Sow-Theng Leong, Migration and Ethnicity in Chinese History: Hakkas, Pengmin, and Their Neighbors (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997); Wing-hoi Chan, “Ethnic Labels in a Mountainous Region: The Case of She ‘Bandits,’” in Empire at the Margins: Culture, Ethnicity, and Frontier in Early Modern China, ed. Pamela Kyle Crossley, Helen F. Siu, and Donald S. Sutton (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); and Miller, Fir and Empire, 72–73.

  • 87. Peter C. Perdue, Exhausting the Earth: State and Peasant in Hunan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 1987); and Will, “State Intervention.”

  • 88. David Allen Pietz, Engineering the State: The Huai River and Reconstruction in Nationalist China, 1927–1937 (New York: Routledge, 2002), 8–17; and Ling Zhang, The River, the Plain, and the State: An Environmental Drama in Northern Song China, 1048–1128 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 280ff.

  • 89. Mark Elvin and Ninghu Su, “Action at a Distance: The Influence of the Yellow River on Hangzhou Bay Since A.D. 1000,” in Sediments of Time: Environment and Society in Chinese History, ed. Mark Elvin and Ts’ui-jung Liu (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 344–410.

  • 90. The literature on the productivity of Jiangnan agriculture in the Qing is both extensive and contentious. Important English-language works include Philip C. C. Huang, The Peasant Family and Rural Development in the Yangzi Delta, 1350–1988 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990); Li Bozhong, Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620–1850 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998); and Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001). Von Glahn, Economic History, 322–336 and 349–361 provides a recent and comprehensive survey of this literature, including works in Chinese and Japanese.

  • 91. Perdue, Exhausting the Earth; R. Keith Schoppa, Song Full of Tears: Nine Centuries of Chinese Life around Xiang Lake (Boulder, CO: Basic Books, 2002); and Jiayan Zhang, Coping with Calamity: Environmental Change and Peasant Response in Central China, 1736–1949 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2015).

  • 92. Meng Zhang, “Financing Market-Oriented Reforestation: Securitization of Timberlands and Shareholding Practices in Southwest China, 1750–1900,” Late Imperial China 38, no. 2 (December 21, 2017): 109–151.

  • 93. Robert Gardella, Harvesting Mountains: Fujian and the China Tea Trade, 1757–1937 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

  • 94. Ping-Ti Ho, “The Introduction of American Food Plants into China,” American Anthropologist 57, no. 2 (April 1955): 193–194; Sucheta Mazumdar, “The Impact of New World Food Crops on the Diet and Economy of China and India, 1600–1900,” in Food in Global History, ed. Raymond Grew (New York: Routledge, 2000), 58–78; and Charles C. Mann, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (New York: Knopf, 2011), chap. 5.

  • 95. Marks, Tigers, 184; and Sucheta Mazumdar, Sugar and Society in China: Peasants, Technology, and the World Market (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 1998), esp. chap. 5.

  • 96. Brian R. Dott, The Chile Pepper in China: A Cultural Biography (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020), esp. chaps. 1 and 2.

  • 97. Carol Benedict, Golden-Silk Smoke: A History of Tobacco in China, 1550–2010 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).

  • 98. These figures are for all of China. Von Glahn, Economic History, 329–330 summarizes several converging population estimates. The scholarship is largely divided on the extent to which population growth was a cause or consequence of land clearance, and whether high population densities led to rural poverty.

  • 99. Pierre-Etienne Will, Bureaucracy and Famine in Eighteenth-Century China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990); Pierre-Etienne Will and Roy Bin Wong, Nourish the People: The State Civilian Granary System in China, 1650–1850 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, 1991); and Von Glahn, Economic History, 330–336.

  • 100. Perdue, Exhausting the Earth, 104–110; and Zhang, Coping with Calamity, 33–35.

  • 101. On the 1720 gaitu guiliu see Jodi L. Weinstein, Empire and Identity in Guizhou: Local Resistance to Qing Expansion (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013), chap. 3; and Herman, Clouds and Mist.

  • 102. On fengshui forests, see Coggins, “When the Land Is Excellent: Village Feng Shui Forests and the Nature of Lineage, Polity, and Vitality in Southern China,” in Religion and Ecological Sustainability in China, ed. James Miller, Dan Smyer Yu, and Peter van der Veer (New York: Routledge, 2014); and Menzies, Forest and Land Management, chap. 5.

  • 103. Marks, Tigers, 323–327 and passim; and Mark Elvin, The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 9–18.

  • 104. Stephen C. Averill, “The Shed People and the Opening of the Yangzi Highlands,” Modern China 9, no. 1 (1983): 84–126; Anne Osborne, “The Local Politics of Land Reclamation in the Lower Yangzi Highlands,” Late Imperial China 15, no. 1 (1994): 1–46; Anne Osborne, “Highlands and Lowlands: Economic and Ecological Interactions in the Lower Yangzi Valley under the Qing,” in Sediments of Time: Environment and Society in Chinese History, ed. Mark Elvin and Ts’ui-jung Liu (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 203–234; Marks, Tigers; and Leong, Migration and Ethnicity. See also Marks, Environment and History, 205–208.

  • 105. Pomeranz, The Great Divergence, 228–234 and appendix C, 307–312. His estimates are based on Marks, Tigers, 277–287; and Ling Daxie, “Wo guo senlin ziyuan de bianqian” [Changes in the forest resources of our country] Zhongguo Nongshi 3, no. 2 (1983): 26–36.

  • 106. Fanneng He, et al., “Forest Change of China in Recent 300 Years,” Journal of Geographical Sciences 18, no. 1 (February 2008): 59–72.

  • 107. Osborne, “Highlands and Lowlands.”

  • 108. Zhang, Coping with Calamity, 40–44, flood data p. 43 table 3. See also Perdue, Exhausting the Earth, 200ff; Marks, Environment and History, 243–244; and Chris Courtney, The Nature of Disaster in China: The 1931 Yangzi River Flood (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 37–49.

  • 109. Micah S. Muscolino, Fishing Wars and Environmental Change in Late Imperial and Modern China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2009).

  • 110. There is a very extensive literature on these conflicts. The most useful recent work is Tobie Meyer-Fong, What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013).

  • 111. Meyer-Fong, What Remains, 1–9, chap. 4; and Peter B. Lavelle, The Profits of Nature: Colonial Development and the Quest for Resources in Nineteenth-Century China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020), 64–69.

  • 112. Courtney, Nature of Disaster, 48; and Shirley Ye, “Corrupted Infrastructure: Imperialism and Environmental Sovereignty in Shanghai, 1873–1911,” Frontiers of History in China 10, no. 3 (November 2, 2015): 428–456.

  • 113. Courtney, Nature of Disaster, 50.

  • 114. Stephen C. Averill, Revolution in the Highlands: China’s Jinggangshan Base Area (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), 229ff; and Brian DeMare, Land Wars: The Story of China’s Agrarian Revolution (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019), 6–9.

  • 115. E. Elena Songster, “Cultivating the Nation in Fujian’s Forests: Forest Policies and Afforestation Efforts in China, 1911–1937,” Environmental History 8, no. 3 (2003): 454–468.

  • 116. Muscolino, Fishing Wars, 122–178.

  • 117. Courtney, Nature of Disaster.

  • 118. See, for example, Rana Mitter, Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937–1945 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), chap. 6.

  • 119. Marks, Environment and History, 269.

  • 120. Judith Shapiro, Mao’s War against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 86–89 and chap. 2 more generally.

  • 121. Shapiro, Mao’s War against Nature, chap. 3; and Marks, Environment and History, 270.

  • 122. Vaclav Smil, China’s Environmental Crisis: An Enquiry into the Limits of National Development (New York: Routledge, 2016); and Marks, Environment and History, 274.

  • 123. Lander, Schneider, and Brunson, “History of Pigs in China,” 12–15.

  • 124. Ling Cao, et al., “China’s Aquaculture and the World’s Wild Fisheries,” Science 347, no. 6218 (January 9, 2015): 133–135; and Lijing Jiang, “The Socialist Origins of Artificial Carp Reproduction in Maoist China,” Science, Technology and Society 22, no. 1 (March 15, 2017): 59–77.

  • 125. These three cuttings are covered in some detail in Vaclav Smil, The Bad Earth: Environmental Degradation in China (New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1984), 15–25. See also Shapiro, Mao’s War against Nature, 80–86; and Marks, Environment and History, 276–287. As Smil points out, the PRC continues to substantially manipulate forest cover statistics to promote a picture of continuous reforestation that is belied by the specifics.

  • 126. Smil, Bad Earth; and Shapiro, Mao’s War against Nature, 80–86.

  • 127. Elizabeth C. Economy, The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future, 2nd ed. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019), 64–68.

  • 128. Stanley D. Richardson, Forests and Forestry in China (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1990).

  • 129. Chris Coggins, The Tiger and the Pangolin: Nature, Culture, and Conservation in China (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2003); E. Elena Songster, Panda Nation: The Construction and Conservation of China’s Modern Icon (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018); and Emily T. Yeh, “The Politics of Conservation in Contemporary Rural China,” The Journal of Peasant Studies 40, no. 6 (November 1, 2013): 1165–1188.

  • 130. Marks, Environment and History, 288.

  • 131. Yeh, “Politics of Conservation”; Michael T. Bennett, “China’s Sloping Land Conversion Program: Institutional Innovation or Business as Usual?,” Ecological Economics 65, no. 4 (May 1, 2008): 699–711; and Christine Jane Trac, et al., “Reforestation Programs in Southwest China: Reported Success, Observed Failure, and the Reasons Why,” Journal of Mountain Science 4, no. 4 (December 1, 2007): 275–292.

  • 132. Sylvie Démurger, Hou Yuanzhao, and Yang Weiyong, “Forest Management Policies and Resource Balance in China: An Assessment of the Current Situation,” The Journal of Environment and Development 18, no. 1 (March 1, 2009): 17–41.

  • 133. See, for example, Elisabeth Köll, Railroads and the Transformation of China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019).

  • 134. Smil, China’s Environmental Crisis; Smil, Bad Earth; and Economy, River Runs Black.

  • 135. For a more literary approach to the Three Gorges landscape, see Corey Byrnes, Fixing Landscape: A Techno-Poetic History of China’s Three Gorges (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019).

  • 136. Michael Webber, Britt Crow-Miller, and Sarah Rogers, “The South–North Water Transfer Project: Remaking the Geography of China,” Regional Studies 51 (January 17, 2017): 370–382.

  • 137. Karl August Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957); and Owen Lattimore, Inner Asian Frontiers of China (Irvington-on-Hudsong, NY: Capitol Publishing Co., 1940).

  • 138. Mark Elvin and Tsui-Jung Liu, eds., Sediments of Time: Environment and Society in Chinese History, ed. Mark Elvin and Ts’ui-jung Liu (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Elvin, Retreat of the Elephants; and Robert B. Marks, China: An Environmental History (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).

  • 139. Wittfogel, in particular, has been heavily critiqued, for example in Perdue, Exhausting the Earth; Zhang, River, Plain, and State; and Zhang, Coping with Calamity.

  • 140. Examples include Hugh R. Clark, Community, Trade, and Networks: Southern Fujian Province from the Third to the Thirteenth Century (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991); Perdue, Exhausting the Earth; Evelyn Sakakida Rawski, Agricultural Change and the Peasant Economy of South China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972); and Richard Von Glahn, The Country of Streams and Grottoes: Expansion, Settlement, and the Civilizing of the Sichuan Frontier in Song Times (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 1987).

  • 141. Marks, Tigers; Schoppa, Song Full of Tears; and Pietz, Engineering the State.

  • 142. Zhang, Coping with Calamity; and Courtney, The Nature of Disaster.

  • 143. Muscolino, Fishing; and Miller, Fir and Empire.

  • 144. Book-length treatments include Economy, River Runs Black; Smil, Bad Earth; and Smil, China’s Environmental Crisis.

  • 145. Coggins, The Tiger and the Pangolin; Songster, Panda Nation; and Byrnes, Fixing Landscape.

  • 146. This literature includes Bozhong, Agricultural Development; Francesca Bray, The Rice Economies: Technology and Development in Asian Societies (New York: Blackwell, 1986); Kang Chao, Man and Land in Chinese History: An Economic Analysis (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1986); Elvin, Pattern of the Chinese Past; Huang, The Peasant Family; and Dwight Heald Perkins, Agricultural Development in China, 1368–1968 (New York: CRC Press, 2013 [1969]).

  • 147. Pomeranz, The Great Divergence; and see also Andre Gunder Frank, ReORIENT: Global Economy in the Asian Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); and Roy Bin Wong, China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997).

  • 148. See especially, Jean-Laurent Rosenthal and Roy Bin Wong, Before and beyond Divergence (Cambrdige, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011); and Billy K. L. So, ed., The Economy of Lower Yangzi Delta in Late Imperial China: Connecting Money, Markets, and Institutions (New York: Routledge, 2012). A useful summary of the “divergence debate” is provided in Von Glahn, Economic History, 349–361.

  • 149. Bray, The Rice Economies.

  • 150. See Joseph Needham, The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West (London: Routledge, 2013).

  • 151. Benjamin A. Elman, On Their Own Terms: Science in China, 1550–1900 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).

  • 152. See especially Bian, Know Your Remedies. Other important works include Carla Nappi, The Monkey and the Inkpot: Natural History and Its Transformations in Early Modern China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010); and Dagmar Schäfer, The Crafting of the 10,000 Things: Knowledge and Technology in Seventeenth-Century China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

  • 153. Bian, Know Your Remedies.

  • 154. See, for example, Erica Brindley, Ancient China and the Yue: Perceptions and Identities on the Southern Frontier, c. 400 BCE–50 CE (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Chittick, Jiankang Empire; Hugh R. Clark, The Sinitic Encounter in Southeast China through the First Millennium CE (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2015); Liu and Qin, Liangzhu Culture; and Major and Cook, Defining Chu.

  • 155. The most useful survey of agricultural manuals is still Bray, Agriculture, 47–84. A broad survey of the bencao literature is provided in Bian, Know Your Remedies. Surveys on works related to other topics can be found in their respective volumes of Needham, Science and Civilisation in China.

  • 156. On the difang zhi as a genre, see Joseph R. Dennis, Writing, Publishing, and Reading Local Gazetteers in Imperial China, 1100–1700 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2015).

  • 157. Endymion Wilkinson, Chinese History: A New Manual, 5th ed. (Cambrdige, MA: Harvard Universit Asia Center, 2017).