Recent agricultural reforms in the People’s Republic of China have generated great interest in the ability of the Chinese state, traditional and modern, to accommodate rapid economic change. Exhausting the Earth examines an earlier period—from the late Ming to the mid-Qing era marked by tremendous population growth, extension of the market, and increases in agricultural productivity.
Peter C. Perdue describes the relationship between agricultural production and state policies toward taxation, land clearance, dike-building; property rights, and agriculture in Hunan. During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Hunan changed from a peripheral, sparsely populated region into a crowded, highly commercialized, grain-exporting province. State policies had stimulated this growth, but by the early nineteenth century serious signs of overpopulation, social conflict, and ecological exhaustion had surfaced. Local officials were conscious of these dangers, but the influence of the state on the economy was so weakened that they could not alter the ominous trends. The stage was set for the disintegration and rebellion of the nineteenth century. This in-depth study of official policies in one region over a long stretch of time illuminates the dynamics of official initiatives and local response.