Chapter 2: Agriculture
2. Agriculture The importance of agriculture for traditional China can never be over emphasized because it has always been an agrarian economy. Between the ninth and eighteenth centuries agriculture accounted for 80 per cent of all employment and 70 per cent of national gross domestic product (GDP) (Feuerwerker 1984). Thus Chinese economic history in the pre-modern period is simply the history of Chinese agriculture (Perkins 1969). One of the main reasons why traditional China outperformed Europe in terms of population and per capita income was the unique performance of China’s agriculture. It brought much higher yields than that of Europe. This was partly due to comparatively better conditions, for in many parts of China there were regularly two harvests per year, and in the warmer southern rice-growing regions even three. However, the comparatively better performance of China’s traditional agriculture was also due to better technology, institutional arrangements and more favourable government policies. In the early period agriculture was confined to the North China dry lands which has similar farming conditions to those of Northern Europe. But due to population pressure and the general scarcity of farmland the Chinese farmers were inspired to improve and perfect their cultivation techniques early on. The first step was to shorten the period during which land was left fallow after harvesting to allow the soil to reaccumulate nutrients before the next sowing. In the early times, from Shang to Zhou times, slash-and-burn cultivation was practised, with long periods for land recovery in between. However, in...
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