CHINA'S fundamental problem is the intractable one of pressure of population upon resources, and, as usual, there is a great temptation to look for panaceas. For some people, collective farming is the solution; for others, mechanization. Others pin their hopes on redivision of land, abolition of tenancy or reduction of rents. There are those who believe that the primary requirement is the elimination of usurers and the lowering of interest rates and taxes; and there are those who say that China cannot possibly supply her own food and that hence the remedy is to arrange for imports.

As usual, also, there is no panacea. But when the misconceptions which becloud the situation are removed and the real elements of the problem are examined, it is apparent that much can be done to alleviate conditions in China. China can feed her people and can raise the standard of living; but to do so she must increase production per capita.

Surveys of 17,000 farms in 22 provinces of China reveal a farm population of some 1,500 persons per square mile of cultivated land. This ratio of approximately one-half an acre of land per farm person is the factor which determines the kind of food Chinese people eat and the kind of agricultural program that is feasible. Nearly all the land in China is privately owned. The farms are family farms, 80 percent of which are too small to be economically sound even under Chinese conditions. Farm implements are hand tools or animal-drawn tools and carts, and although improvements could be made, the native implements are often well designed and of excellent workmanship. A wheat crop as large as the prewar crop in the United States, and a rice crop nearly double that of wheat, are harvested each year with sickles. Crops are raised as food for human beings, not for animals, and 98 percent of the food energy is obtained from the vegetable kingdom.

With this background in mind, we may take a look at the various palliatives. The idea of collective farming in China is largely theoretic, praised by some reformers, but not advocated by any agriculturist. A variation known as "coöperative farming," characterized by a more or less voluntary pooling of land and labor and a sharing of the produce, has been tried in a limited way in west China and north China. Its proponents emphasize the saving of labor which it effectuates: where three men are required to do the work on individual farms, only two are needed for the same amount of land in a "coöperative." But those who propose extending this system over all China fail to say what will be done with the third man.

Experience has shown that large-scale farming is practical only under special conditions. It may be adapted to monoculture, but even so it requires exceptionally good managers. Its advantages lie chiefly in the savings that can be made in the purchase of supplies and in the marketing of products; but family-sized farms can obtain these advantages by forming coöperatives to buy and sell, without any need to assume the economic disadvantages of pooling farm lands. State services which supply technical information on farm operations could be more fully developed in China. Experience has shown that farmers almost everywhere readily accept advice from such state extension services, and are willing enough to form organizations for coöperative marketing. But the Chinese farmer has no more interest in "coöperative" farming, or collective farming, than do farmers elsewhere. He is as much an individualist as a farmer in the United States. He prides himself on owning land and on planting and reaping his own crops; and this pride in the land is shared by tenants when, as often happens, they work the same land for life and even generation after generation, as a preferred method of farming.

The extensive surveys of China of which I have spoken revealed that medium-sized family farms, there as elsewhere, utilize labor of men and animals more efficiently than do small farms. In China, a farm of five acres is called "medium-sized," and on such a farm one man works 2.6 acres; a farm of 13 acres is classed as "very large," and on this one man works four acres. An "economic-sized" unit varies in the eight different agricultural regions from 6.2 acres to 20 acres depending on soils, climate and type of farming; on the average, a farm may be called "economic" if it is eight acres in size. With the development of industry, transportation and the professions farms will probably tend to increase slightly in area.

Although every effort should be made to bring all good land into cultivation, the possibilities of an extension of farm land are limited. Two percent of the farm area of China is in graves, and adoption of cremation would release some land, but the Chinese would not readily accept such a practice. Some rolling lands in south China might be brought into cultivation by soil conservation methods, including the use of chemical fertilizers when they become available at a sufficiently low cost, and some reclamation of land along the coast is still possible. But there are no vast uncultivated areas in northwest China suitable for agriculture, as is sometimes supposed. Redivision of land, one of Sun Yat-sen's basic principles, would not change the man-land ratio but would on the contrary decrease the size of farms, reduce their economic efficiency and depress the standard of living.


Those who believe that mechanization of farming is a solution for agricultural problems in China usually know little or nothing about the management of a farm. The chief advantage of mechanization comes from the increased productivity per hour of work and makes itself felt only when the machinery is in frequent use. A Chinese farmer with a tractor and its accompanying implements would find that his work would be done quickly, but he would have nothing to do when it was over, and his expenses would be so much greater that he would be bankrupt in the first year.

Mechanization may be found practicable for certain farm operations (including processing of products) if it is carried out on a custom-work basis. In the canalized area of the Yangtze Delta, for example, contractors owning one or more internal combustion engines place the power unit on a canal boat and ply the canals, pumping water for the farmers at a specified charge. The farmers supply their own pumps to which they have added a belt wheel, and which for low lifts are more efficient than centrifugal pumps. This innovation in traditional ways of irrigating came about through a need to lift more water to rice fields at the right time.

Increased farm mechanization wherever economically possible is desirable, but general mechanization is impracticable until favorable changes occur in the man-land ratio, until machinery is available at low prices and until there is a cheap source of power. Since the Chinese are skilled with their hands, intelligent, industrious and have already demonstrated their ability to use machinery, no particular difficulty would be met on the farms in training them to use tractors and other power equipment. But again it is the number of people in relation to the amount of land that determines the possibility of farming with machinery. Putting farms in large "coöperative" or "collective" units in order to mechanize agriculture would not alter the fundamental ratio of men to land, except for the worse.

In the minds of many people all the problems of China are associated with farm tenancy. They assume that the landlord's share of the produce is exorbitant and they believe that if tenants can somehow become owners there will be more land per farmer and the food supply will be increased. The misinformation about land tenure in China is colossal. For instance, it is said that some 70 percent of the rice crop in the province of Szechwan is paid to landlords, and the statement is taken as complete and irrefutable evidence of abuse of Chinese peasants by the landlords. But the fact is that the Szechwan farmer grows two crops a year, a winter crop of wheat, barley, rapeseed or broad beans, and a summer crop of rice. The tenant pays no rent on the winter crops. In fact, management surveys of 203 farmers in ten counties of Szechwan revealed that the average rental paid was only 31.8 percent of farm receipts -- less than half of the sum the tenants were said to pay. In two other farm-management studies of 786 tenant farms in nine provinces, the average proportion of all receipts paid as rent were even lower -- 24.5 percent in one case and 29.1 percent in the other. These rents are considerably lower than the ceiling rent set by both the Nationalists and Communists -- which is 37.5 percent of farm receipts.

Conditions of tenancy vary so greatly throughout the country that no definite proportion of the receipts can be designated as "fair" for landlords or tenants. Fair rents can be determined only for specific farming areas and for particular systems of rental within each area. The fact is that rents are much too high in some areas and very low in others. The lowest rents occur where the landlords hold land primarily for prestige.

Not only is the degree of farmer's rents misrepresented but the extent of tenancy is usually exaggerated. The proportion of farmers who are tenants is no greater in China than in other important countries. More than one-half of the farmers own all the land they work, approximately one-fourth own some land and rent additional land, and only one-fourth rent all the land they work. Moreover, the part owners are more nearly in the class of owners than tenants, since their main object in renting land is to increase the size of their farm business. Five different nation-wide surveys show a variation in percentage of owners from 47 to 63 percent, of part owners from 17 to 29 percent, and of tenants from 17 to 29 percent. In a sample survey of 16,786 farms in 22 provinces made by the University of Nanking, 71.3 percent of all land was worked by farmers owning the land.

Moreover, in spite of popular opinion to the contrary, the yield from tenants' farms is just as high as that from owners' farms; there is no significant difference between them. Isolated instances are found of higher yields on owner farms than on tenant farms and vice versa, but this is usually due to differences in quality of land. The tenants use the labor of men and animals as efficiently as do owners, and a study of 1,077 farms in five provinces revealed that the indebtedness of tenants is one-third smaller than for farmers who own their land. Naturally, however, the tenant is not as well off as the owner, by and large, since he does not receive income from investment in land.

There are special land tenure problems in limited areas, and problems which apply to a small percentage of all tenants. These occur in sections of the country where absentee landlordism prevails and under conditions where rents are collected by agents who cheat both the landlord and the tenant. Some 20 years ago there were counties near Shanghai where landlords had organized themselves into Landlords' Associations and obtained the right to imprison their tenants for nonpayment of rent. But in the early thirties, the pressure of public opinion and new regulations of provinces and the National Government improved the position of the tenants, and the landlords began to sell some of their property and invest the proceeds in the developing industries of the Yangtze Delta cities where greater profits could be obtained. This movement reinforced the conclusion drawn from other data as to the limited margins of profit in rentals of farm land.

Though there are abuses to eradicate, the essential fact, again, is that making owners out of tenants does not affect the man-land ratio. Any government attempting to deal with the landlord-tenant problem in China will be on sound ground if it considers a program which provides for progressive taxation of absentee landlords with large holdings, education of both landlords and tenants as to the proper forms of farm leases, legal provision for drawing up and enforcing contracts, and establishment of a national land-credit organization which will grant loans at a reasonable rate of interest to bona fide farmers for purchase of land.

The problem of providing farm credit at reasonable rates of interest is more pressing in China than the problem of farm tenancy. Interest rates are very high -- even before the period of inflation of the Second World War they were about 20 percent per annum. The "money-lenders" are usually made the scapegoat for this state of affairs, by foreign commentators. Actually, surveys indicate that about three-fourths of all borrowing by farmers is from relatives, friends and neighbors at whatever the "normal" rate of interest is at the time. Rates are high chiefly because of the insufficiency of credit, but also because the borrowed money is likely to be used for social or consumption purposes. Moreover, the amounts of individual loans are small. The problem can be solved only by finding larger amounts of money for farm credit purposes, not by attempts at compulsory lowering of interest rates. As soon as there is enough credit available to meet the demands of farmers, interest rates will go down.

Taxation is everywhere a problem, though that too is a different kind of problem than is generally supposed. The taxes paid by Chinese farmers per unit of land are only a little higher than taxes on similar land in the United States. There are, of course, special wartime taxes which are extremely burdensome and which should be eliminated, but otherwise the land tax rates cannot be considered too high. The trouble is that the farmer does not receive enough services in return for them; a larger proportion of tax monies should be allocated to government services for development of various agricultural practices. The over-all taxation problem is one of equalizing the land tax between different political and geographical areas in terms of the ability of farmers to pay. One of the first major reforms in this field should be the accurate measurement of land in order to bring all farm land under taxation. Dependable surveys of many counties indicate that no taxes at all are paid on about one-third of the cultivated land of China. In some parts of the country this untaxed land is known as "black land." It is in the hands of both large and small owners.


If the size of the farm business (quite another thing than size of farms) is increased through improved technological practices, the evils of farm tenancy are remedied, credit made available at reasonable rates and equitable taxation effected, there is no reason why China could not increase her food production by 50 percent. Countrywide surveys of the consumption of food show that in normal years the amount of food consumed is now adequate, though the quality needs to be improved, especially by adding more vegetables to the diet to supply vitamins, calcium and other minerals.

A problem associated with production is lack of transportation and inefficient marketing organization. Before the war, millers in Shanghai imported wheat, not because there was insufficient wheat in China but because it was less troublesome to import it than to buy Chinese wheat. They could sit at their desks, issue letters of credit and after a month or two the wheat would arrive -- and would be the wheat that was ordered. On the other hand, if the miller were to purchase the wheat from an area some 300 miles north of Shanghai where wheat is grown, he would have to send agents to purchase it in small lots. The agents would have to assemble these lots on an open railway station platform, (hoping that it would not rain), load the cargo into freight cars -- some covered and others uncovered -- whenever they could get them, and then accompany the cargo to the mill. Since the wheat had been insufficiently cleaned, special machinery would be required to clean it before milling. Proper marketing organization, including provision for grading, is more necessary in China than is an increase in production.

Size of farm business can be increased by more and better irrigation and drainage, application of more fertilizers, better cultural practices, and by growing crops that give greater returns per acre and at the same time require additional labor. The principle is that the more labor and capital are put into the land, the more farm production will rise. The Chinese have applied this principle for centuries. They have found water so important to high production that they irrigate nearly one-half of the total cultivated area. They have levelled immense areas of land to grow rice, a crop which produces more food per unit area than any other, thus utilizing immense amounts of labor in levelling and terracing land for rice fields, in diverting stream waters, digging irrigation canals and ponds, dyking and pumping. The whole Yangtze flood plain is a network of community dykes within the main river-channel dyke. Under conditions of a shortage of land in relation to population these intensive methods paid off in higher production and a better standard of living. But in spite of all this work, too much or too little water is still the chief factor limiting production in China. Chinese farmers can further increase their production by extending irrigation, drainage and run-off control in hundreds of thousands of small individual farms and community projects, by improvement of existing projects, and by major water-control projects.

Land use surveys show that from 1904 to 1929, crops like corn, cotton, rapeseed, sesame and sweet potatoes which utilize a large amount of labor or have a high export demand have occupied a constantly higher proportion of crop acreages. Likewise a farm management survey in Szechwan revealed that crops which have industrial uses, such as ramie and cotton, are particularly profitable and will probably find a growing market.

The cultural practices of the Chinese are excellent, but the plentiful supply of labor could be used to increase crop yields by controlling insects and diseases, by better spacing of some crops such as cotton and fruit trees, by better pruning of fruit trees and by applying chemical fertilizers, when they become available at reasonable prices. The use of comparatively small amounts of additional capital for fertilizers, for better seeds, for better animals and for improved implements would likewise enlarge the farm business.

Such methods of increasing farm output may seem to some too conservative and too slow, but short of killing off millions of farm families there is no other way to do it. The point is that it can be done. There is no need for China to import food, and it is unwise for any country to plan to export wheat, cotton or tobacco to China. China is able to produce them all in sufficient quantities for her own consumption and intends to do so.


Western agriculturists have made significant contributions to the improvement of China's food supply. In the middle twenties, for example, an arrangement was made by the University of Nanking with the International Education Board and with Cornell University whereby five plant breeders from Cornell University would come, one each year during their Sabbatical leaves of absence, to introduce up-to-date plant breeding methods. These specialists taught classes in the University of Nanking, attended also by students from the Central University, held evening classes for faculty members, conducted experimental field work, and held special institutes for plant breeders from all over the country at Nanking and elsewhere. Today, the up-to-date plant breeding methods are in use in every national and provincial experiment station and improved varieties of various crops are in the hands of farmers. The demand for these new varieties is greater than the supply.

As a result of the visit of an American cotton specialist in 1921-22, it was found that certain American varieties are adapted to the climate and the soil in North China, and acreages are increased year by year. This produced some interesting developments. Near Nanking, local merchants refused to pay farmers higher prices for the better quality of American varieties of cotton, so a marketing expert at the University of Nanking organized the farmers into a coöperative and found that a cotton mill near Shanghai would be glad to get this cotton; for years this marketing coöperative has sold its cotton to the same mill. In this same area a University of Nanking extension worker successfully organized farmers into "farmers' associations" to stimulate agricultural improvement. After the third year the farmers felt they had received so much benefit that they themselves took over the salary of the extension organizer. Two years later a farmers' association had a lawsuit with the local magistrate and won! In the summer of 1946 it also elected a representative to the Anhwei Provincial People's Council. Many successful farmers' associations were organized during the war -- 101 sound coöperative credit societies in one county alone.

During the war, the leading Chinese entomologist of the National Agricultural Research Bureau developed the production of insecticides with improvised equipment, shipped insecticides to various areas and after two years of work all the cabbage growers outside the city of Chengtu were using arsenate of lead to control the cabbage worm. Other enterprising persons of government institutions organized a tenant-purchase project in Peipeh district near Chungking, where land was purchased from landlords, improved agricultural practices introduced and rural schools established. This project was eminently successful and because of inflation the tenant farmers were able to pay off the landlords in about five years. These illustrations of what Chinese agriculturalists, or foreigners in coöperation with Chinese, have done in China could be multiplied many times. I mention them also because they may be of interest in connection with plans now being made to carry out President Truman's "Point Four."

Western agriculturalists who have worked in China insist that they have learned more than they have taught -- and indeed American agriculture has been greatly helped by the studies of the plant specialists which have been sent to China -- as the spread of the soybean in the United States indicates. With the more recent developments in genetics, specialists in crops like rice, wheat and corn need to make further studies for particular plant characteristics which might be used in improving crops. Moreover, Chinese agricultural practices have kept the Chinese soil productive for centuries, and there is no little that the west can profitably borrow in this regard. Here, again, is evidence of the way Point Four can operate to the benefit of countries supplying technical aid, as well as to that of the country receiving it.

In short, China is capable of feeding herself. Collective farming and redivision of land would probably decrease production per capita rather than increase it. Development of transportation, communication, industry, the professions, water control and various technological practices are the factors which would tend to utilize the immense fund of labor now employed part time only and thus to raise levels of living within the ratio of population to land. Any national administration will stand, or eventually fall, depending upon whether or not government policy and services succeed in attaining a greater output per worker and thus an increase in the standard of living.

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  • J. LOSSING BUCK, Chief, Land Use Branch, Agriculture Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; author of "Land Utilization in China" and "Some Basic Agricultural Problems of China"
  • More By J. Lossing Buck