Chinese Performance from the Ninth to the Eighteenth Century
Between the ninth and the thirteenth centuries there was a major shift in the centre of gravity of the Chinese economy. In the eighth century three–quarters of the population lived in North China, where the main crops were wheat and millet. By the end of the thirteenth, three–quarters of the population lived and produced rice south of the Yangtse river. This had been a swampy lightly–settled area, but with irrigation and early ripening seeds, it provided an ideal opportunity for massive development of rice cultivation.
Higher land productivity permitted denser settlement, reduced the cost of transport, raised the proportion of farm output which could be marketed and released labour for expanded handicraft production, particularly the spinning and weaving of cotton, which provided more comfortable, more easily washable and healthier clothing.
While there is widespread agreement that this change in the locus of production and product– mix increased Chinese living standards, there has hitherto been no quantification of how big a rise occurred. My assessment is that it was relatively modest — a rise in per capita income of about a third. The rise in income was accompanied by a more intensive use of labour, so labour productivity did not rise as much as per capita income.
China’s economic advance in the Sung dynasty relied heavily on exploitation of once–for–all opportunities for switching to intensive rice agriculture and there is little convincing evidence for believing that China was on the brink of developing a mechanised industry.
From the thirteenth to the eighteenth century, China was able to accommodate a four–fold increase in population whilst maintaining the average level of per capita income more or less stable over the long run. However, the pace of growth was far from smooth. In the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, population dropped by more than 30 million. These crises were due largely to devastation that accompanied changes in regime and to epidemic disease (bubonic plague and smallpox). In the eighteenth century the demographic expansion was particularly large. It was in this century that China’s extensive growth was most impressive.