AGRICULTURE in China has a noble history, dating back fully four thousand years, and Chinese farmers are among the most skillful in the world in the cultivation of crops and the conservation of soil fertility. But during the past century four very important factors, not fully understood as yet in China, have made possible a great advance in occidental agriculture, and it seems probable that the application of these factors in China might result in a large increase in agricultural production. Since the future of China is bound up with agriculture, the study of these factors would be highly useful. They are: (1) power, both animal and mechanical; (2) mineral fertilizers; (3) improved farm animals and plants; and (4) means of control of insect pests and of plant and animal diseases. It is with the first and most important of these that this article principally deals.

To those who live in cities and therefore are unacquainted with the importance of power in providing the modern world with food, it may be pointed out that the development of industry, the growth of the cities, the increase in education and culture, have been made possible largely by the application of power to agriculture. A century ago, when agriculture in the United States was carried on in much the same manner and with the same tools as in the days of the Roman Empire two milleniums before, probably three-fourths of the American people lived on farms and less than one-fourth engaged in industry and commerce in the cities and villages. Today, in contrast, only one-fourth of the population live on farms, the balance being released for the production and distribution of manufactured goods and other commodities, and for rendering the professional and other services essential to modern life. It is owing principally to the application of power, both animal and mechanical, to agricultural production, and to the transportation of agricultural and other products, that this great transformation in the economic organization of the United States has occurred. The amount of power now available on farms in the United States greatly exceeds that in all the factories of the nation.

In China, about the same proportion of the population live on farms today as did in the United States a century ago. But it is doubtful whether China will ever have so small a proportion of the people engaged in agriculture as in the United States at present, primarily because China does not possess the resources of coal and iron which are found in the United States.[i] But even though iron and steel mills and associated fabricating plants cannot develop in China to the extent that they have developed in the United States, it is possible that other industries will engage a larger proportion of the people than is the case with us.

Whether manufacturing becomes of greater or lesser relative importance in China than in the United States, it is certain that there will be need for a constantly increasing agricultural production, and that the fullest utilization of the arable land consistent with a permanent agriculture should be a major concern of the Chinese government.

Land Resources

The total area of the Chinese Republic -- including China proper, Manchuria, where the Chinese share the government to some extent with both the Russians and the Japanese, Mongolia, part of which temporarily is under Russian control, and Sin Kiang, commonly called Chinese Turkestan -- is about 2,440 million acres, which is nearly 30 percent larger than the area of the United States. Half is included in the eighteen provinces of China proper and Manchuria, and half in Mongolia and Sin Kiang. Thibet is omitted because the Chinese have lost control temporarily over that country and no data are available on land utilization there.

As in the United States, the eastern portion of this vast Chinese Republic, especially the southeastern portion, is humid, while the western and northwestern part is arid, more arid than our western states. Climatic records are few in China, and in the northwestern provinces and Mongolia are lacking almost entirely; nevertheless, aided by observations concerning the native vegetation it is possible to estimate the area having sufficient rainfall for crop production within an error of 10 or 15 percent. This area is estimated roughly at 1,300 million acres, or slightly over one-half of the entire area of the Chinese Republic, excluding Thibet. In the United States only one-fourth of the land area is too dry for crop production. The proportion of the land too dry for crop production in the entire Chinese Republic is, therefore, nearly twice as great as in the United States.

This lower proportion of humid land in the Chinese Republic than in the United States is owing primarily to the east-west trend of the Himalaya mountains and several low ranges which extend eastward from the Thibetan Plateau more than halfway across China proper. These mountains cause the precipitation on their slopes of much of the moisture in the winds blowing northward in the warm season from the Indian Ocean and the South Sea; whereas in North America the broad, open Mississippi Valley permits the moisture-bearing winds from the Gulf of Mexico to blow unimpeded across the Central States and on into Canada. As a consequence, the lines of equal annual rainfall trend north and south across the plains region in central North America, whereas in southeastern Asia they trend from the southwest toward the northeast (see Fig. 1). Moreover, the United States is bounded on the west by the Pacific Ocean, which provides practically all the moisture received by the coast states, whereas the Chinese Republic is bounded on the west by deserts.

As in the United States, part of the land in China which is too dry for crop production (located mostly in Mongolia and Sin Kiang) is used for grazing livestock, principally cattle, horses, sheep and goats. Much of it, however, is too dry even for grazing -- probably more than in the United States, where less than 10 percent is too arid for the grazing of sheep.

Over 90 percent, possibly 95 percent, of the area in the Chinese Republic having sufficient rainfall for crop production is included in the eighteen provinces of China proper and Manchuria. The area in Mongolia having sufficient moisture for crops is estimated at 100,000 square miles, or 64 million acres, but this is only a guess and probably an optimistic one. In Sin Kiang (Chinese Turkestan) the present area under cultivation is about 2 million acres, mostly non-irrigated, according to the Chinese statistics. The few records in this province show an almost rainless climate, but these records are from irrigated districts. The total cultivable area outside of China proper and Manchuria, therefore, is almost certainly not in excess of 100 million acres, or less than 8 percent of the total area of the Republic possessing sufficient moisture for crop production; and it may be much less.

The other climatic condition that limits crop production is temperature. China has a more southerly location than the United States, its center of area, and of population also, lying in about latitude 30, as compared with latitude 40 for these centers in the United States. As a consequence only a very small proportion of the area having sufficient rainfall for crop production fails to receive sufficient heat -- probably not more than 5 percent. Subtracting this 5 percent from the 1,300 million acres having sufficient moisture for crop production there remain roughly 1,235 million acres having both moisture and temperature conditions that permit the production of crops.

The third physical limitation upon the area of land available for crop production is that of land relief, or topography -- the lay of the land. As only a few small areas have been topographically surveyed in China, it is necessary to assume that in an area as large as the humid and sub-humid portions of China (nearly all of which was originally covered with forest), the proportion of the land too mountainous or rough for crop production would be similar to that in the humid, forested area of the United States, namely about 40 percent. On this basis, our figure for the area in the Chinese Republic climatically and topographically available for crop production must be reduced to about 740 million acres.

The fourth physical factor limiting the area of land suitable for crops is the soil. The control of this factor is not as rigid as that of temperature or moisture or topography; consequently, it is difficult to say to what extent it would set a limit to crop production, especially in a country like China where labor is abundant and cheap and the use of fertilizing materials is common practice. However, all forms of amelioration of physical conditions are expensive, even the modification of soils by the use of fertilizers. If it may be assumed that the Chinese farmers are no more likely to use very sandy land or sterile clays than the farmers of the United States, and that the proportion of such soils in two such large and otherwise similar areas is similar, our figure of 740 million acres of land, climatically and topographically suitable for crop production, must be further reduced by 5 percent to allow for unproductive soils. As a final figure we have about 700 million acres. In the United States the corresponding figure is 975 million acres.

The Chinese Republic has, therefore, about 29 percent of its land area physically available for crops. In the United States the corresponding proportion is 51 percent. But as the Chinese Republic has a population of about 440 millions and the United States less than 120 millions, the area of land on which it is physically possible to grow crops is at present 1.6 acres per person in the Chinese Republic and 8.1 acres in the United States. In other words, the United States now has five times as much potential crop land per capita as the Chinese Republic.

Land Utilization

As nearly as can be estimated, the area of cultivated land in China and its dependencies is about 180 million acres (Fig. 2). In 1919 there were about 354 million acres of land in harvested crops in the United States, to which should be added about 13 million acres of crop failure, and, probably, as much more summer fallow. In that year, then, there was in the United States approximately twice as much cultivated land as there had been in the Chinese Republic the previous year. In other words there is about nine times as much cultivated land per person in the United States as in China.

This contrast is not so surprising, however, as the fact that in the United States the proportion of the physically cultivable land which is actually cultivated is 39 percent, whereas in the Chinese Republic the proportion is only about 26 percent. Why should China, an old country with severe pressure of population on land resources, nevertheless cultivate a much smaller proportion of its cultivable land than the United States, which is only now emerging from the pioneer period of development and in which the pressure of population on the land is lighter than in almost any other country of the world? One would expect that in China almost every hillside would be terraced to its top, all land susceptible of irrigation would be irrigated, all land which it was possible to drain would be drained, and that settlers would long since have pressed out upon the subhumid prairies of Manchuria and the semi-arid plains of Inner Mongolia, instead of having just started to do so, almost timidly, during the past quarter century. Why do large tracts of tillable land lie untouched in the neighborhood of many cities, sometimes even within the city walls, as at Nanking? To this seemingly anomalous situation let us now turn our attention. This is apparently to be found principally in the word Power, and its corollary Machinery.

Power on Farms

American progress in agriculture, perhaps fully as much as in manufacturing and mining, has been dependent upon the development of machinery and of power to operate it. The plowing of a 40-acre field, six inches deep, involves the movement of 50,000 tons of earth, and the distance traveled using a single 12-inch plow is fully 330 miles. Drawn by two horses at two miles an hour this would require one hundred and sixty-five hours, or over sixteen ten-hour days. A tractor pulling three 14-inch plows would require only five days. But think how much more laborious the effort and how much longer the time required if this 40-acre field had to be spaded by hand -- or perhaps we should say by foot. At fifteen days per acre it would require six hundred days, or nearly two years.

The average area of cultivated land per farm in southern China, where rice is the important crop (usually followed the same season by some other crop), is 1⅔ acres. But in northern China, where wheat, millet and the sorghums are dominant and only a part of the land grows a second crop the same season, less labor per acre is required and the farms are twice as large, averaging about 3⅓ acres of cultivated land per farm. The average area of cultivated land per farm for all China, including Manchuria, where the farms are still larger, is 3.1 acres. This doubtless is as large an area as the average farmer and his son or hired man can spade up in time to put in the crop, and cultivate by using hand tools. The farmer who has a bullock or donkey can handle a somewhat larger farm. But in the United States the average acreage of crops per farm, including the small negro-tenant cotton farms of the South, is 57 acres. This is eighteen times the average acreage of cultivated land per farm in China. The 18-fold greater acreage of crops per farm in the United States than in China is made possible by means of power and of machinery adapted to its utilization.

Let us now compare the power available to the farmers and farm laborers in the United States with that available to the farmers and farm laborers in China.

In the United States: The horse-power available on the farms of the United States in 1924, two-fifths supplied by horses and mules and three-fifths by mechanical engines, was about 52,300,000.[ii] This was fully a third greater than the horse-power available in all the factories of the United States. On the other hand, the amount of labor employed in agriculture, including the labor of farmers and their families, was 17 percent less than that employed in manufacturing. The average horse-power per man available in agriculture is nearly 6¼, whereas in manufacturing it is only 3¼.

Neither of these figures includes the power developed by the laborers themselves. In manufacturing this is almost insignificant -- the employees in most industries merely watch and guide the machines, or help to administer the organization. But in agriculture muscular labor is still significant -- perhaps one-third as much energy is expended as would be if no machinery existed. If a man's physical strength may be considered to equal one-sixth that of a horse, we should add to the 52,360,000 horse-power available on farms about 600,000 more horse-power of human labor, which would raise the total to nearly 53,000,000. Were the farmers and farm laborers in the United States dependent for power solely upon their own muscles, they could probably develop less than 4 percent of the power available to them on farms at present. The power available on farms in the United States is equal, perhaps, to that of 300,000,000 slaves.

In China: The principal sources of power on Chinese farms are men, cattle and horses. There are over 60 million farm families in the Chinese Republic -- almost ten times as many as in the United States. Let us assume that these farm families average two farm workers -- the farmer and a son or a hired man. This was the case in the United States until recent years, but now there are less than one and three-fourths workers per farm. Let us further assume that these 120 million farm workers in China and dependencies exert their full muscular strength in their work. As a man's power is about one-sixth that of a horse, the power developed by these 120 million men is equivalent, perhaps, to that of 20 million horses.

The average number of horses, mules and asses in China and dependencies in 1914 and 1915, for which years data are available for all China, was about 9,700,000, and the number of cattle 22,000,000, which apparently includes water buffalo.

These figures indicate that the Chinese Republic has nearly two-fifths as many horses, mules and asses, and one-third as many cattle, as our census reports on farms in the United States. Let us first assume that all these horses, mules and asses in China are used to develop power on farms, although the Chinese reports indicate that the figures include many which are probably used for transportation. And let us further assume that each cow or steer, ox or calf develops as much power as a horse, certainly an overestimate. Adding the 20,000,000 horse power potentially available in the farmers and farm laborers themselves to the 9,700,000 horses, mules and asses, and the 22,000,000 cattle, an estimate is reached of nearly 52,000,000 horse-power available for agricultural production in China and dependencies. This is a maximum estimate. A minimum would be 41,000,000.

It appears, therefore, that China and its dependencies has between 80 and 100 percent as much power available on farms as has the United States. This power available for the production of crops needs to be considered from two standpoints: (1) that of the land, or the amount of power available per acre, and (2) that of the man, or the amount of power available per person employed in agriculture.

Dividing the 180 million acres of cultivated land by 46 million horse-power (an average of the maximum and minimum estimate), it appears that the average area of cultivated land per horsepower in China is about 4 acres. In the United States it is about 7 acres. In other words, the farmers of China have available nearly twice as much power per acre as the farmers in the United States.

Moreover, it seems likely that a larger proportion of this available power is utilized in China, because nearly half of it consists of human labor, which undoubtedly is kept employed most of the year, owing in part to the warmer climate. In the United States the power available is mostly that of horses, mules and tractors, which are used a surprisingly small portion of the year. In view of this more continuous use of power in China it is not unlikely that four times as much power is applied to the average acre of crop land as in the United States.

Let us now view the matter from the standpoint of the man, or the amount of power available per farm. Dividing the 46 million horse-power by the 62 million farms, we have an average of about three-fourths of a horse-power per farm. In the United States the average is over 8 horse-power per farm, or fully 10 times as much.

Apparently land is scarce in China compared with the United States, and men are cheap, for the Chinese apply two to four times as much power to the acre of crop land as we do in the United States, while we put ten times as much power in the hands of each farmer. But we will recall that the proportion of the cultivable land in China which is cultivated is only about 26 percent, whereas in the United States it is nearly 39 percent. With almost as much power available as is available in the United States, why should the Chinese leave about 520 millions acres of their tillable land untilled -- an amount which is nearly three-fourths of their tillable area?

Influence of Limited Power Per Man on Land Utilization

The concentration of power in China on the best land seems to be owing primarily to the character of the power available and to the use of hand tools rather than modern machinery. About half of this power available on farms in China is human labor, whereas in the United States human labor as a source of power is insignificant. Human labor without the use of agricultural machinery and a relatively large amount of power cannot produce enough food on poor land to maintain a family. The man with the spade and the hoe cannot dig up and cultivate more acres of poor land than of good land. Even if he has a horse or mule, which perhaps one-tenth of the farmers of China have, or an ox, which perhaps three-tenths more of the farmers possess, he can plow at most only a few acres. For the Chinese farmers who depend on their own muscles solely for power (and these constitute according to the statistics over half the farmers of China) two acres per farm or one acre per man in the rice region, and twice as much in the wheat and millet region, seems to be near the maximum amount of land that can be spaded and cultivated by the farmer and his son or hired man in the period of time permitted by the progress of the seasons. Records of time required in spading gardens, kept by Department of Agriculture employees, indicate that it would require about 15 days to spade up an acre of land. These two to four acre farms must support five to six people. Each of these five or six people will eat 10 to 14 bushels of wheat, or equivalent other food, yearly, which is 50 to 80 bushels of wheat, or equivalent, per family. As the average acre yield of wheat in all China is apparently less than 12 bushels, it undoubtedly does not exceed 8 bushels on the semi-arid or less fertile soils. This is about the acre-yield on such soils in the United States. It would require, therefore, 6 to 10 acres of these lands to grow enough wheat to feed a family, which is twice the average acreage per farm in the wheat growing regions. Even on the better land, it is obvious that to produce enough food for a family to live on, the farmer must either grow another crop on the land the same year, which many farmers do, or else cultivate a larger acreage by means of horses, mules or cattle.

Most of the horses and cattle in China are in the wheat and millet growing regions of northern China, where the land yields only one-third to one-half as much food per acre as in the rice growing regions of southern China. The less productive crop per acre requires the cultivation of a larger acreage per farm and utilization of more power (Fig. 3).

The acreage of cultivated land is, in general, less dense in southern China than northern China (Fig. 2). This may be owing in part to a smaller proportion of tillable land, but it is also doubtless owing in part to the fewer work animals and the opportunity which the rice crop affords of concentrating human labor on the best lands. Obviously the man who is dependent on his own muscles and can, therefore, handle only 2 or 3 acres, must cultivate the more fertile land in order to obtain enough food for himself and family to live on, and must, if possible, grow the most productive crop, which is rice. Not being able to increase the acreage, he must increase the yield per acre by every means. He must irrigate wherever possible, -- one-third of the cultivated land of China is irrigated, as compared with less than 6 percent in the United States. He must fertilize every plant, because every plant is precious.

It is principally the small quantity of power available per man, particularly for plowing the land, that restricts the utilization of the land in China to about one-fourth of the potentially arable area.

The Possibility of Power Farming in China

The existence of these 500 million acres, more or less, of uncultivated tillable land in China is a challenge to all those who are interested in the welfare of China. It is probable that, were peace and protection of property assured, much of this land located not over 30 miles from a railroad, especially the subhumid to semi-arid land in the northwestern provinces, could be profitably plowed and seeded to wheat by using machinery such as is used in our own wheat growing regions. Whether tractors or horses would prove the cheaper source of power could be determined by a few seasons' experience on an experimental farm, or, perhaps, even on the basis of existing information. The utilization of unused land would afford employment for a few Chinese, and could not occasion complaint that machinery was displacing human labor, such as would arise if machinery were used on the rice lands of southern China or on the lands in northeastern China already growing wheat.

The fact that the United States exports wheat to China almost every year, and often exports rice also, suggests, however, that modern machinery could economically be utilized on the best wheat and rice lands. But the displacement of human labor that would result from the extensive use of modern farm machinery on the cultivated lands of China would have such serious economic and social consequences that it should be undertaken only with the utmost caution. Unless industry developed in the cities with sufficient rapidity to absorb the surplus rural population that would result (as industry is doing in the United States at present), the replacement of men by machines in the agriculture of China would probably mean the starvation of millions.

Agricultural Production and Population

Although the yield per acre of rice in China is apparently about 40 percent higher than in the United States, the acre-yields of the other cereals are so much lower that the average acre-yield of all the cereals for which comparison can be made, principally rice, wheat, corn, barley, and the grain sorghums, is about 20 percent lower in China than in the United States. With only two-thirds as much of the tillable land actually tilled in China as in the United States and with the acre-yield of the cereals (which include over ¾ of the cultivated land in China and nearly ½ in the United States) possibly 20 percent lower in China than in the United States, is it not possible that agricultural production in China may increase more rapidly than the population, and the standard of living, therefore, be raised? To this question the future will probably give a negative answer, unless the volume of manufactured products increases much more rapidly than the volume of agricultural products.

Agricultural production is not capable of a rapidity of expansion comparable with that in manufacturing. Agriculture is based on the land, and good land is limited. Normally, moreover, land can be cleared, reclaimed, or otherwise prepared for crop production only slowly. In the United States, for instance, the most rapid increase in agricultural production was during the two decades 1869-1889, when the very fertile prairie lands of the Upper Mississippi Valley, possibly the largest area of land of high fertility in the world, were plowed up and put into crops. The increase in agricultural production during these twenty years was over 100 percent, or at the rate of about 4 percent a year. After the best land had been brought into use, about the year 1900, agricultural production increased less rapidly. During the past few years, for the first time since 1900, agricultural production has increased more rapidly than population. This very rapid increase in agricultural production since the World War is the principal cause of the present agricultural "surplus." As it is caused in large part by exceptional conditions (notably the substitution of automobiles and tractors for horses and mules, resulting in the release of a larger amount of feed for other farm animals) it cannot be expected to continue for more than a decade or two.

But the recent increases in agricultural production are small compared with the increases in manufactured products. From 1899 to 1909 the physical volume of manufactured products increased 59 percent, according to the recently completed index tables compiled from the census returns by Day and Thomas. From 1909 to 1919 the increase was only 36 percent, but in the four years from 1919 to 1923 the increase was 22 percent, and all of this increase occurred between 1921 and 1923. Manufactured products, in other words, are increasing from 3 to over 11 percent a year, or at an average rate during the past quarter century several times that of agricultural production.

Agricultural production per capita of the total population in the United States decreased between 1899 and 1919 and, although it has risen notably since 1921, it is now back only to the 1899 level. In contrast, the per capita production of manufactured products has nearly doubled since 1899. The increasing income per person in the United States and the rise in general welfare are obviously to be attributed primarily to the increase of manufactured products, rather than of agricultural products.

If agricultural production in the United States during the past quarter century has increased less rapidly than the population (except during the few years since the World War), despite all the advance in scientific knowledge and the development of a vast organization for dissemination of this knowledge and promotion of agriculture, how can agricultural production in China be expected to increase as rapidly as the population might increase if it were not restrained by the diseases, biological and political, that accompany poverty and ignorance?

The principal hope for improvement in the general welfare of the Chinese people is to be found, the writer believes, in the rapid expansion of manufacturing, -- so rapid that it will be greater than the increase in population that may result. If manufacturing can be expanded so rapidly as to attract labor from the farms more rapidly than men can be reared on the farms, thus raising wages and encouraging greater efficiency per man in agriculture, as well as manufacturing, China will have solved its population problem.

In view of China's limited mineral resources, particularly of iron, it will be difficult to achieve such an increase in manufacturing. It is wholly possible, however. In Japan, largely through the development of manufacturing and commerce, the standard of living has improved greatly in the past fifty years, despite a doubling in population and despite the handicap of agricultural and mineral resources that are far inferior to those of China. This example of Japan should stimulate the political leaders of China, as well as the agriculturists and business men, to consider how the vast areas of unutilized arable land in the Republic can be put under the plow and how the vast supply of labor, as industrious and inherently capable as any in the world, can be utilized in the further development of manufacturing. With land and labor so abundant, it would appear that the principal need is capital, and particularly that form of capital represented by machinery for the production and utilization of power.

[i] See H. Foster Bain: "Ores and Industries in the Far East," New York, Council on Foreign Relations, pp. 208-212. See also his article, "China's Coal Reserves," p. 498 of the present issue of Foreign Affairs.

[ii] C. D. Kinsman, and others, "An Appraisal of Power Used on Farms in the United States," U. S. Dept. of Agriculture Bulletin 1348, corrected by 1925 census data. The power developed by automobiles other than trucks is excluded in this estimate. But it is probable that the power developed by horses and mules has been underrated as compared with the power developed by tractors and other mechanical means.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now