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Ming Dynasty Farmers reaping millet or wheat: the Chinese economy

What did most people work at?

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.

Earlier Chinese economy
Ming Dynasty China
Qing Dynasty China
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What did China’s farmers grow?

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.

History of rice
What is millet?
What’s a sharecropper?

The Silk Road and China

circular coin with four chinese characters on it and a square hole in the center

A silver coin from the Ming Dynasty

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.

What is the Silk Road?
History of silver
More about Japan
History of Vietnam

China also traded 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.

China and European trade

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. Europeans charged super high prices for the silver, but the Ming emperors were so desperate for silver that they were happy to pay anything for it.

What is silk?
Where does tea come from?
Brazil and silver

New foods from the Americas

The Chinese economy used more and more silver. Traders also brought new foods like sweet potatoes and chili peppers to China. In China, farmers started to grow these new crops. Sweet potatoes would grow on mountains where you couldn’t grow rice, so many people moved up into the mountains.

Sweet potatoes 
Chili peppers
History of tobacco

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). European traders also sold tobacco, and many people in China, especially soldiers in the army, got addicted to smoking. China’s farmers started to grow tobacco, too.

Getting more silver

Now that people could plant sweet potatoes and live in the mountains, China could feed more people. The population got much bigger. Then China needed even more silver to make enough coins for everyone to use. But by 1580, the Ming Dynasty Chinese emperors had figured out that there was plenty of silver in Peru and Brazil. They still bought silver, but at regular prices now, not super-high prices.

What’s the Little Ice Age?
Food in Qing Dynasty China

At the same time, the Chinese economy slowed down because the Little Ice Age brought colder weather to China, and their farms produced less food than before. Many poor people went hungry, and a lot of people starved to death.

China’s Qing Dynasty

In the late 1600s, China’s Manchu Qing Dynasty was careful not to buy a lot of stuff from Europe and get into debt. They sold lots of tea and porcelain and silk to European traders. But they didn’t get colonized like India, Vietnam, and Mozambique. China kept control of their own economy.

The Opium Wars

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.

What is opium?
The Opium Wars
Victorian England

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. Opium was illegal. But the British army fought the Opium Wars in the 1800s and forced the Chinese to let them sell opium in China.

China and the Industrial Revolution

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.

Communist China
Modern steel
Modern glass

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.

Modern China’s economy

Today most Chinese farming has been modernized, and China has become a much richer country. China today produces almost half of the world’s tobacco, and more than half of the world’s steel and glass, and half of its pork, as well as many other things like computers and cell phones. China is on its way to being the richest country in the world. But still today, about one out of three people in China work on farms.

Did you find out what you wanted to know about the Chinese economy? Let us know in the comments!

The Silk Road in Central Asia

Bibliography and further reading:

Ancient China
More about China