China: Mulberries and Famine

China's Silk Trade: Traditional Industry in the Modern World, 1842-1937 University Press

by Lillian M. Li
Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard; distributed by Harvard, 288 pp., $20.00

Bureaucratie et famine en Chine au 18e siècle

by Pierre-Etienne Will
Mouton, 312 pp., $38.00


by Keith Buchanan and Charles P. FitzGerald and Colin A. Ronan, with a foreward by Joseph Needham
Crown, 519, with over 600 illustrations pp., $40.00

A History of Chinese Civilization

by Jacques Gernet, translated by J.R. Foster
Cambridge University Press, 757 pp., $27.50

Chinese Civilization and Society: A Sourcebook

edited by Patricia Buckley Ebrey
The Free Press, 429 pp., $19.95; $10.95 (paper)

Near the beginning of the Chinese “Classic of Historical Documents” (the Shujing), where the doings of early mythic rulers are being described, there is a brief passage that stands out among the others for its precision and clarity. The focus of this part of the text is on a minister named Yu who, around the year 2000 BC, was aiding the emperor Shun in his attempts to control the great floods that were ravaging the north China plain. Yu’s actions are described as follows:

The nine river branches were led into their proper channels, and the combined waters of the Yong and Ju were restricted to the area of delineated marsh at Leixia. The land with mulberry trees was made suitable for silkworms, so that the people came down from the higher ground and settled on the plain.

A few lines further on the following sentence also appears:

The tax revenues from this area were assessed at a suitable level, but thirteen years grace were granted before they were collected.

Yu, later known as “Yu the Great,” according to various records subsequently became the founding emperor of the Xia dynasty (circa 1900-1500 BC), but he remains a shadowy and doubtless largely imaginary personage. Nevertheless this particular section of one of China’s earliest historical works points to several of the major developments of China’s later economic and social history: the interdependence between social stability and the control of river systems—their channels, dikes, and spillway areas; the production of mulberry leaves and silkworm cocoons in the context of correct drainage conditions for the growth of healthy trees that can bear the highest quality leaf; and the granting of tax rebates of varying length in response to local conditions of flood or death.

Curiously enough, though there has been a sizable amount of Western scholarship on the imperial Chinese state, on Confucianism, and on the traditional bureaucracy, we have had no detailed study of either the traditional silk manufacturing process or the state-controlled relief system. It is thus intriguing to find both gaps filled within a single year by two careful studies that place our knowledge of China’s socio-economic history on a higher plane.

China’s Silk Trade, by Lillian Li, who teaches Chinese history at Swarthmore, is meticulous in providing the background necessary to an understanding of the transformation of China’s silk industry in the modern era, and manages at the same time to help us interpret those fragmentary remarks about Yu the Great. She shows how, for successful silk production in the eighteenth and nineteeth centuries, proper drainage and fertilization of the trees were probably the most important factors, with temperature control during the time of cocoon spinning following close behind. Transplanted mulberry seedlings also, of course, needed several years to take sturdy root, and then a complex process of grafting usually followed, to assure the highest yields. Yu the Great’s thirteen-year tax rebate following the initial drainage work was therefore both humanitarian and economically sound.


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