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painting of three Chinese men with bare arms working in a field

Farmers reaping millet or wheat

Just like in earlier times, most men and women in Qing Dynasty China were farmers, who spent most of their time planting seeds, weeding, and harvesting. Mostly they grew rice (in southern China) and wheat and millet (in northern China). Even today, almost three out of four people in China are farmers. Most of these farmers didn’t own any land, and worked as sharecroppers for richer people.

But even though most people were farmers, they didn’t just make or grow everything that they needed. They still bought some things and sold some things. Beginning in the Middle Ages, China had already become more involved with trade with the rest of the world through the Silk Road across Central Asia to West Asia, and through trade with Japan and South-East Asia. In the years after 1500 AD, China gradually got more and more involved in world trade. China had always needed more silver for coins than they had.

When about 1540 AD European traders began to sail directly to China with huge amounts of silver from South America, the Ming emperors found all kinds of things to sell to Europeans in exchange for the silver, especially porcelain, silk, and tea. The Chinese economy used more and more silver. Traders also brought new foods like sweet potatoes and chili peppers to China. Chili peppers were very popular, because they made boring food taste more interesting. Sweet potatoes were cheap and easy to grow, and soon many poor Chinese people lived mostly on sweet potatoes (as they still do today).

But about 1580, the supply of silver ran out. Spain had forced all the silver it could get out of South America. No matter what the Chinese tried to trade, they couldn’t get any more silver. That made it much harder to trade, and prices went up on everything. People felt poorer. At the same time, people in China really were poorer because the Little Ice Age brought colder weather to China, and their farms produced less food than before. Everyone was hungry, and a lot of people starved to death.

poor chinese people lying on the ground smoking opiumThe Europeans still wanted to find something they could trade to China to get tea and porcelain and silk. They began to buy opium in Central Asia and sell it to people in China. Once people got addicted to opium, they would buy more and more of it. China’s emperors didn’t like everyone being addicted to opium, and didn’t think it was a good deal to trade silk and porcelain and tea for drugs. They made opium illegal. But the British army fought the Opium Wars in the 1800s and forced the Chinese to let them sell opium in China.

In 1911, Chinese people had a revolution and threw out the emperors. They kicked out the British too, and stopped the opium trade. Then in the 1950s the new leaders decided to make China a modern country and get everyone to use machinery to farm instead of farming with hand tools. They tried to do this all at once, suddenly, but it was too hard to change everything at once. They couldn’t grow enough food, and about 40 million Chinese people starved to death. Today, on the other hand, most Chinese farming has been modernized, and China has become a much richer country.

The Silk Road in Central Asia

Bibliography and further reading:

Ancient China
More about China