Agriculture in China

  • Francesca Bray
Reference work entry

China is a vast country covering roughly the area of Europe. Because much of it is steep mountains or fragile grasslands, only about 10% of China's total area is suitable for farming (see Online resourcesfor some useful maps). However, intensive patterns of land use, increasingly refined over the centuries, sustained high levels of population and production throughout much of the imperial period. The modernization of farming in the West has characteristically involved increasing the size of farms or managerial units while substituting machines or other industrial products for human labor. In China the process was reversed: farms and equipment became smaller and inputs of human skills intensified. There is a fierce debate among historians as to how this long‐term trend should be interpreted. Some see it as a “technologically blocked” system, incompatible with the emergence of capitalism, in which farming families had to work ever harder for smaller returns. Others argue that the...

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Some Online Resources

  1. is the Web site of the Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, prepared by the social historian of China Patricia Buckley Ebrey, with the assistance of Joyce Chow, Lenore Hietkamp, Kevin Jensen, Robert Lin, Helen Schneider, Cyndie‐Lee Wang, Kim Wishart, Cong Zhang and Lan Zhang. The project was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Freeman Foundation and the Chiang Ching‐Kuo Foundation. The Web site provides useful historical timelines and geographical background, and it presents the main periods of Chinese history from the Neolithic up to the present by selecting two key themes (such as tombs, or calligraphy, or weapons) for each period. The illustrations (maps, photographs and art works) are excellent. As good background for the history of agriculture in China, under “Geography,” “Land” ( you will find a series of maps showing topography, climate, etc. If you follow through to “China proper” and then to “Outer China,” among the photographs you will see images of the farming landscapes typical of China's regions, and of typical crop plants and farming techniques (plowing, transplanting rice with a machine, picking tea, herding).
  2. Another useful online source for maps of China and its contemporary provinces, with good information about regional history, contemporary economics, climate, agriculture, cuisine, etc., is the Web site of the South China Morning Post, the Hong Kong English‐language newspaper:
  3. For brief accounts of Chinese history from its origins up to 1988, try http://www‐
  4. On contemporary economic issues concerning Chinese agriculture, see the UC Davis site
  5. China Facts and Figures provides useful statistics on contemporary agriculture in its section on “Economy”; the English‐language Web site for 2003 is‐shuzi2003/
  6. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) webpage on China = en&ISO3 = CHN is an excellent source for a wide range of studies and statistics on contemporary agricultural issues in the People's Republic of China, including themes like sustainable development. It also offers a useful set of interactive maps which include maps showing elevation, slope, precipitation, length of growing period and major environmental constraints as well as more conventional maps of political boundaries, population, communications, etc.

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg New York 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Francesca Bray

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