Historical illustration of Mangtseang, the God of Agriculture.

Agriculture has been crucial to the growth and development of Chinese civilization since ancient times. Over the past century many significant changes in agriculture have reflected large-scale political upheaval in China. Today Chinese agriculture thrives through the development of technology, but it continues to face challenges related to food security in a changing environment.

Agriculture has played an integral role in the development of civilization, society, and the rise of the modern state. Throughout China’s long history the importance of providing the nation’s people with food has been linked with the political stability of the state. Emperors and dynasties have gained and lost their political power based on their ability to ensure that the food supply is sufficient to feed the people. An understanding of agriculture’s development in China over centuries offers a unique perspective into the growth and expansion of a large and thriving civilization, not just a view of the ruling elite’s ability to maintain power. During the past fifty years agricultural production in China’s rural countryside has undergone significant transformations. From land reform and collectivization to the household responsibility system, Chinese agriculture has indeed been affected by larger political structures.

Throughout premodern China agricultural production relied on simple tools and organic methods of production. In his early study on Asian agriculture in Farmers of Forty Centuries, the historian F. H. King asserts that the United States and other Western countries have much to learn from Asian agriculture. His book portrays the ability of Asian civilizations to develop agricultural technologies that have produced food in a sustainable way to feed their people over centuries. He draws on experiences along the east coast of China, from Hong Kong and Guangzhou (Canton) to Manchuria, to show how the Chinese have developed agricultural techniques that have allowed the land to produce large amounts of food continuously. The recent introduction of mechanization (although still rather limited because of the abundance of human labor) and chemicals has placed new challenges on Chinese farmers and the environment.

The agricultural challenges that China faces are certainly intensified by the combination of its being the world’s most populous nation and having limited agricultural land. China is home to about 21 percent of the world’s population but only occupies about 6.5 percent of the world’s land area. Further complicating this disproportionate ratio is that much of China’s land is unsuitable for crop cultivation. Ninety-four percent of China’s population lives in the eastern and southeastern regions of China, whereas the northwest and west are mountainous, dry, and difficult to navigate. Moreover, industrial and urban development in the east and southeast is beginning to threaten the ideal growing conditions found in these temperate and subtropical regions.

Major crops in China include grain (rice, wheat, corn), meats (all major types), cotton, soybeans, rapeseed (and other oils), tobacco, sugar-yielding crops (sugarcane and beets), peanuts, and tea. Apples and other commodity fruits and vegetables have also become major export crops in recent years.

Traditional Agriculture

Agricultural production began in China in the loess lands (unstratified loamy deposits found in North America, Europe, and Asia) of the Wei and Huang (Yellow) River valleys around 6500 BCE. By 4000 BCE large farming villages had spread throughout China. Millet was the main grain domesticated at this time. Animals were a part of these villages and, along with wild plants gathered, supplemented the millet diet. Both short- and long-grain varieties of rice appeared before 5000 BCE but did not gain popularity until techniques were developed later to assist with irrigation and improve yields. During the Shang civilization (1766–1045 BCE), food preparation and consumption were considered to have become ritualized and complex. In ancient China the development of food and agriculture was part and parcel of the development of Chinese civilization; cities were expanding, art was flourishing, villages were establishing rituals surrounding the consumption of the food they produced.

Chinese agriculture took shape during the Qin (221–206 BCE) and Han (206 BCE–220 CE) dynasties. The imperial government established a comprehensive agricultural plan to substantially increase yields and technology during this time. These developments, including land terracing and water irrigation, led to the definitive shaping of the food system during the Song dynasty (960–1279), when food production became rational and scientific. Agricultural techniques developed during the Song dynasty, including the organic preparation of soil, maintenance of high-yielding seeds, complex irrigation systems, and the commerce of crops, remained relatively unchanged until the mid-twentieth century. Regional, elaborate banquet cuisine developed at this time, and foreign trade opened China’s economy to foreign influences. New crops that foreigners introduced were adopted and thrived.

With the development of rational agricultural techniques, the Chinese were forced to face the issue of population growth. After the Song dynasty the growth of population dramatically increased through the twentieth century. Throughout the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) dynasties, as well as Republican China (1912–1949) and the early years of the People’s Republic (1949–), China’s farm economy responded to the demands of a rising population. During this period China’s population expanded by eight to ten times the level it had been in 1368, the beginning of the Ming dynasty. As the population grew, agricultural production expanded to meet the needs of the people with no dramatic changes in farming techniques or rural institutions. The expansion of agricultural production at this time is attributed to the abilities of the population to adapt to changing conditions.

In the 1930s John Lossing Buck, a professor of agricultural economics at Nanjing University, conducted a survey of Chinese agricultural management from 1921 to 1925. This survey covered 2,866 farming households during the republican period. Results were published in 1937 as Land Utilization in China and have proven useful in modern times in understanding the transition of agriculture at the turn of the twentieth century and before the Communist revolution.

Agriculture in the Maoist Period

On 1 October 1949—after the War of Resistance against Japan (1937–1945, also known as the Second Sino-Japanese war), World War II in Asia, and China’s civil war—the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) founded the People’s Republic of China. With a base of support from the peasants in the countryside, the Communist leadership decided that land reform would be one of its first priorities. Throughout the countryside of the new Communist China, land was taken from landlords and distributed evenly among peasant households. The Communists’ first Five-Year Plan (1952–1957) called for a socialist transformation of agriculture. Mutual aid teams and primary and advanced producers’ cooperatives were established to achieve this socialist ideal. Collectivization efforts proved successful; by 1957, 93.3 percent of the peasant households were in advanced producers’ cooperatives and 3.7
percent in lower-level (primary) producers’ cooperatives.

The ideal of self-sufficiency drove the collectivization of agriculture. Along with the political and economic changes accompanying the communes, agricultural output quotas were established, primarily to promote self-sufficiency in grain production. Regardless of its geographical location, each production team had set grain quotas to meet. As communes were established, ownership of the means of production was emphasized as public. Not only were peasant secondary occupations banned, but also all production tools were given over to the state. Communes were entitled to the grain that production teams produced; this grain was distributed throughout the communes and served in common canteens.

The second Five-Year Plan initiated the Great Leap Forward. In 1958 advanced producers’ cooperatives merged to form communes, consisting of a number of production brigades and teams. These communes functioned as the primary form of government in the countryside. Leaders of production teams and brigades participated in local government affairs. Aside from the establishment of communes in the countryside, the central idea behind the Great Leap Forward was that rapid development of China’s agricultural and industrial sectors should take place simultaneously. Grain production and steel production were the keys to economic development at this time. But these two goals proved difficult to balance. The Great Leap Forward took its toll on the countryside when the combination of unrealistic grain production targets, the development of heavy industry, and climatic droughts led to widespread famine between 1959 and 1961. Urban residents, accessing food through ration coupons, faced the results of the famine with stricter rations but did not face famine to the extent faced by rural residents.

After the disaster of the Great Leap Forward the state loosened its control over the countryside. Farmers were given more freedom to grow and produce grain as they saw fit, although they continued to work in collectives and had to give grain output back to the state. In the mid- to late 1960s, as the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) gained momentum throughout the cities and schools were shut down, a number of children of urban residents were “sent down” to the countryside to reform their thinking. Although they were supposed to begin to understand the lives of peasants, these students were kept in separate living and working quarters from the peasant households.

Reform Era

By 1978, two years after the death of Communist Party leader Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping had become leader of China. With this power shift much of the control over the rural collectives had been lost. In some places, particularly Anhui and Jiangsu provinces, farmers began to experiment with selling their grain surplus on the market and not directly to the state, beginning the household responsibility system (HRS). This system disassembled the communes and redistributed land to peasant households through contracts. HRS spread throughout the country by the early 1980s, initiating the period of reform and opening up. The years 1978–1984 are associated with massive rural reforms that broke apart the collective agricultural system and redistributed land from collective use rights to those of individual households.

Although the collectives remained owners of the land, the land was contracted out to the households. Brigade and team leaders divided lots of land up according to their size and productivity. Some households were given a variety of plots throughout the production team area that had differing degrees of size and productivity. Farmers were given incentive to work harder to increase the output from their plots. Each household was granted a procurement goal of grain production that needed to be handed over to the state. After households reached their goal (for which the state paid low grain prices), farmers were free to grow other crops or sell their surplus of grain on the market for a higher price.

Between 1978 and 1984 grain and other agricultural crop outputs rose dramatically. From 1980 to 1985 grain output grew at the rate of about 7 percent per year. Advances in technology, such as the introduction of high-yielding varieties of grain, additional farmer incentives, and the increased use of chemical fertilizers, also contributed to this upsurge in output. This initial dramatic rise in grain output compelled the state to continue economic reforms and, in 1985, shifted reforms to urban areas.

With attention turned to urban reform, the dramatic yield increase in the countryside could not be sustained. Yields stagnated in the mid-1980s. Farmers, whose incomes had grown with the rise in grain output, experienced loss of incomes and began to turn to cash and commercial crops. They began paying the state in taxes earned from the sale of these crops rather than grain. In the years since the initial success of the HRS, the state has focused much of its attention in rural areas on the development of township and village enterprises (TVEs) as a way to curb migration to urban areas for industrial jobs. Also, China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 has challenged the government to align its economy with the global economy. Domestic agricultural production faces the need to find its comparative advantage in the global economy. Experts expect that agriculture will continue to adapt to the challenges and opportunities that the global economy provides in the coming years.

Modern Agricultural Technology

Since 1978 Chinese agriculture has taken several large steps toward modernizing its agriculture. Along with Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening up came the Four Modernizations. Deng believed that modernization was the key to China’s development and took great efforts to improve China’s agriculture, industry, defense, science, and technology. The Four Modernizations accelerated the pace of agricultural industrialization in China. When Deng Xiaoping introduced his plan to bring science and technology to China through modernization, the state invested significantly in agricultural technology. The state sent scientists abroad and brought foreign scientists to China to exchange ideas and information. The Ministries of Agriculture and Science and Technology began to develop modern agricultural technologies. Agricultural extension systems were set up throughout provincial and local governments to disperse new technologies and information.

State scientists designed technology to produce high yields of grain. Hybrid rice, developed and patented by Chinese scientist Yuan Longping, is especially important to China, given the cultural importance of rice as a staple crop. Much of the high quantities of rice produced in the 1980s was attributed to hybrid rice. More recently Chinese scientists have developed genetically engineered rice that is pest-resistant. The central government, however, afraid of trade repercussions with the European Union, has not yet fully commercialized this rice.

Another technology in which China holds an advantage is aquaculture. For centuries China relied on paddy fields, ponds, and canals to grow fish and other seafood products. Scientists have developed innovative techniques in recent years to improve China’s pond-raised fish, shrimp, crayfish, and eels. The combination of intensive human labor in aquaculture and the development of controlled ponds has given China a comparative advantage in aquaculture. When China entered the WTO, it found that possessing unique comparative advantages on certain agricultural techniques worked to its benefit.

Food Security in a Changing Environment

In 1995 Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C., asked a profound question that shaped the issues of food secur
ity in China. With the publication of Who Will Feed China? Wake-Up Call for a Small Planet, Brown called attention to global food security by highlighting China’s environmental problems. His simplified claim was that the combination of industrialization and population would certainly affect not only China’s ability to feed itself but also the world’s food supply. In response to this book Chinese state scientists claim that hybrid and “super” rice technology will make it possible to feed the people of China. In the years since the book’s publication, many scientists have pointed out the flaws associated with the generalized claims that Brown made.

The legacy of the book, however, is the awareness it raised about the relationship between pressures of development and feeding China’s large society. The emphasis on grain production and self-sufficiency from the Mao era continues to guide policy. Yet China faces the need to develop and industrialize its economy. Moreover, the introduction of a consumer society in urban China also has the ability to affect grain production. In 2000 the Chinese government eliminated its price support for low-quality, early-season hybrid indica rice. This move drew attention because in the past the state had pushed farmers to grow double-season, high-yielding hybrid rice to prove China could be self-sufficient in grain production. By 2004, despite a drop in the quantity of rice produced in China, state agricultural officials initiated a campaign to promote “high-quality” grain. As China competes on a global scale, the importance of producing quality food products increasingly competes with the need to produce mass quantities of grain.

Growing Challenges

Chinese agricultural history is a complicated mix of political, economic, technological, and ecological opportunities and challenges. Many traditional practices of crop cultivation and technology continue in the twenty-first century. Many other practices have given way to modern forms of technology and economics. The large-scale political and social experimentation of agricultural collectivization in the 1950s through the 1970s provides an example of how the state had the power to organize society based on its own political ideals. The more recent introduction of the market economy and global integration have provided new opportunities and challenges for Chinese agriculture. With China’s entry into the WTO agricultural production has changed so China can compete in the global economy. At the same time, however, China faces the domestic needs of feeding its population, meeting the demands of a new consumer society, and protecting its fragile environmental resources.

Further Reading

Anderson, E. N. (1988). The food of China. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Brown, L. (1995). Who will feed China? Wake-up call for a small planet. New York: W. W. Norton.

Buck, J. L. (1937). Land utilization in China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Huang Jikun, Rozelle, S., & Rosegrant, M. W. (1999). China’s food economy to the twenty-first century: Supply, demand, and trade. Economic Development and Social Change, 47(4), 737–766.

Keeley, J. (2006). Balancing technological innovation and environmental regulation: An analysis of Chinese agricultural biotechnological governance. Environmental Politics, 15(2), 293–309.

King, F. H. (1911). Farmers of forty centuries. Madison, WI: Democrat Printing.

Oi, Jean. (1989). State and peasant in contemporary China: The political economy of village government. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Perkins, D. (1969). Agricultural development in China, 1368–1968. Chicago: Aldine.

Smil, V. (1999). China’s agricultural land. The China Quarterly, 162, 414–429.

Veeck, G., Pannell, C. W., Smith, C. J., & Huang Youqi. (2007). China’s geography: Globalization and the dynamics of political, economic and social change. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Wu Bin. (2003). Sustainable development in rural China: Farmer innovation and self-organisation in marginal areas. London: Routledge Curzon.

Source: Zader, Amy. (2009). Agriculture. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 33–39. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

A view of cultivated fields. Major crops in China include rice, wheat, corn, cotton, soybeans, rapeseed, sugarcane, beets, peanuts, tobacco, and tea. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

The square-pallet chain-pump, a Chinese water-raising machine, as pictured in the Thien Kung Kai Wu (The Exploitation of the Works of Nature), a book published in 1637.

A Chinese farmer works in a commune vegetable field outside of Dalian, Liaoning Province, in 1979. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

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