In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section China's Agricultural Regions

  • Introduction
  • Historical Western Perspectives of Chinese Agriculture
  • Chinese Agricultural Overviews and Sustainable Practices
  • Mao’s Famine
  • Agricultural Production in the Reform Era
  • Anthropology of Chinese Food and Agriculture
  • Food Security Controversies
  • Chinese Agriculture Journals
  • Agricultural Statistics

Chinese Studies China's Agricultural Regions
Amy Zader
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0054


The production of China’s agriculture has been a topic both observed and scrutinized by many within and outside of China. The scope of work has been focused on how the government and people have been able to feed China’s large and growing population. Since around 1990, however, the focus has shifted from Chinese agricultural production as a nation to regional production. This allows researchers to take a more focused and micro-examination of larger agricultural processes happening in China. A new regional focus on agriculture in specific places allows scholars to understand the various—and often competing—sources of pressure that farmers, agricultural experts, and state officials face in terms of producing agricultural products, maintaining economic development, and working within environmental constraints. In any case, maintaining a high level of self-sufficiency in grain production, making agriculture profitable, and producing healthy food in a way that does not further harm the environment are all ideals that Chinese officials at all government levels strive to achieve. In recent years, China has undergone massive industrialization, which has affected land use in regions throughout the country. The southeast is no longer the large rice-producing region that it once was, as many rice paddy fields have been converted to industrialization. At the same time, the northeast has undergone a transformation from being a large industrial zone to gaining the reputation as the breadbasket of China as more and more grain is produced in this region. Meanwhile, regions such as western and northern China have encountered significant environmental constraints as a result of water shortages. Together, these issues drive the complex and multifaceted practices of agriculture in China. Environmental concerns about agricultural production and fears of food insecurity have certainly influenced leaders to make sure that they maintain high levels of self-sufficiency in grain and other staple products. Moreover, reforms in the countryside beginning in the early 1980s enabled private companies in the 1990s to come into certain villages and counties and to set up incentives to enable specialty crop production in those regions. A regional focus on these areas reveals just how diverse agricultural practices and constraints can be in this populous nation.

Historical Western Perspectives of Chinese Agriculture

Historically, Western researchers have recognized Chinese agriculture for the ways farmers were able to maintain production (except in times of famine) over time and space, thereby feeding its large population. Technology, population growth, the family farm, and economic development are important factors that come up repeatedly in both enabling and constraining agriculture at this national level. Large-scale political change, such as the Communist Revolution in China and the ensuing Mao era, also find their way into these historical studies. Although these studies are admittedly centered on how Western researchers have explored Chinese agricultural production, they provide a strong basis for the ways that narratives and discourses about Chinese agriculture in the West have been shaped. Each of the following studies provides some background to understand how Chinese agriculture has developed into what it is today. Buck 1937, a large-scale survey of agriculture throughout China, provides the basis for understanding the ins and outs of China’s agriculture during the 1930s. Whether it was King 1911 writing about traditional intensive farming techniques, Perkins 1969 addressing how the nation was able to feed its large population, or Netting 1993 focusing on Chinese family farms, Western academics have long been fascinated by what the Chinese have achieved in the arena of agricultural production. Most recently, the historian Seung-Joon Lee has documented the transformations of agriculture and food security in Canton during the Republican period that accompanied rising incomes and increased contact with Westerners (Lee 2011).

  • Buck, John Lossing. Land Utilization in China: A Study of 16,786 Farms in 168 Localities, and 38,256 Farm Families in Twenty-Two Provinces in China, 1929–1933. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1937.

    A large historical survey report on agriculture and land use in China from one of the most prominent American agricultural economists to work there. Buck advocated more technology in Chinese agriculture to increase productivity. Reprinted in 1964 (New York: Paragon).

  • King, F. H. Farmers of Forty Centuries. Emmaus, PA: Rodale, 1911.

    Seeks to address how Asian (including Chinese) farmers have been able to produce crops on their land intensively for so long. Reprinted as recently as 2011 (Folkestone, UK: Global Oriental).

  • Lee, Seung-Joon. Gourmets in the Land of Famine: The Culture and Politics of Rice in Modern Canton. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011.

    This recent publication looks at the role rice played in the making of modern Canton during the Republican period.

  • Netting, Robert McC. Smallholders, Householders: Farm Families and the Ecology of Intensive, Sustainable Agriculture. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993.

    Chapter 8 of this book, “Chinese Smallholders,” examines the ways that Chinese families have farmed their land. Takes the social, economic, and ecological factors of Chinese agriculture into consideration.

  • Perkins, Dwight. Agricultural Development in China, 1368–1968. Chicago: Aldine, 1969.

    One of the most significant studies by a Westerner of Chinese agricultural development. The main focus of this book is the ways that China has been able to build and sustain agricultural production to feed its large population over time.

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