Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The great commercial revolution in Chinese history occurred in the late Tang and Song periods, which saw the transformation from a basically subsistence economy to one of a peasantry firmly tied into local and long-distance trade networks. From then until the twentieth century, the great majority of the 80 to 90 percent of Han families who tilled the soil were also dependent on markets for purchase of cloth, oil, implements, furniture, condiments, alcohol (and later tobacco), and a variety of services. To obtain cash to purchase these goods and to pay taxes, they sold grain and, in some areas, commercial food and nonfood crops as well as home-produced handicrafts. By the Qing period, some areas in eastern China were given over entirely to the production of such nonfood crops as silk and cotton, and many farmers near cities grew mainly vegetables. Still, most peasants in most places continued to grow grain.
Grain agriculture was and still is predominantly one-crop, dry grains in the north and double-crop, dry grain and rice or two crops of rice in the south. Rice agriculture in particular is highly productive, and since the first green revolution in the Song period, constant improvement of varieties and intensification of effort have allowed increases in production, in surpluses, in population density, and in the commercialization of agriculture. In modern times, there has been some mechanization of agriculture as well as the expansion of irrigation to some parts of the north but in many places traditional technologies continue with little change other than the addition of chemical fertilizer and insecticides.
Industrial Arts. Chinese peasants were using the iron-bladed plow in the preimperiai era, and Chinese soldiers fought with iron weapons. Chinese inventors developed the three devices Francis Bacon considered to be most essential to the Age of Discovery in the West (paper, the compass, and gunpowder); during the Song dynasty Chinese engineers developed the spinning jenny and the steam engine, the invention of which is traditionally considered to have set off the Industrial Revolution in Europe. Why the Industrial Revolution did not begin in China in 1050 instead of England in 1750 is still a subject for dispute, but seems to be attributable to economic rather than technological factors.
In the late imperial period, however, Chinese invention and technology began to lag behind those of Europe and North America, and China's industrial weakness was a major factor in its humiliation by Western powers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Contemporary Chinese industry is that of a developing country, derived from, and in many cases technologically and economically inferior to, the comparable industries of Japan, Western Europe, and North America. Since 1979, China has shifted from a one-sided emphasis on heavy industry to a more consumer-oriented industry and from national self-sufficiency to increased reliance on foreign trade and investment.
Trade. Local and interregional trade were vital to the economy of late imperial China; in addition, trade and tribute formed an important part of the Ming and Qing regimes' relations with their Inner Asian and, to a lesser extent, their Southeast Asian neighbors. Because of the size of the Chinese economy, however, foreign trade has been less important overall than for many polities in both the late imperial and modern times.
Certain regions of China have subsisted heavily on trade. Coastal Guangdong and Fujian were important trading centers in the Song, Yuan, and Ming periods; much of the overseas migration of Han people was for purposes of trading; and Overseas Chinese in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have controlled much of the commerce of Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines and are prominent in overseas trading from Polynesia to Japan to North and South America. Han-dominated Singapore and Hong Kong are primarily trading economies, and Taiwan, which has always had a substantial agricultural population, now derives substantial surpluses from manufactures for export.
Division of Labor. The basic division of labor in agrarian China was set out in Confucian social philosophy: scholar-bureaucrats ranked at the top, because they provided the wisdom and knowledge to maintain the social order. Next came farmers, who produced the necessary goods; then artisans, who added value with their skills; last were merchants, who merely moved things around. By late imperial times, merchants had acquired power and influence beyond their lowly normative position, as well as the ability to convert wealth into prestige by investing in land and education. In contemporary mainland China, the basic division of labor has until very recently been that between peasants—bound to subsistence labor on the land by restrictive social policy and using traditional, human- and animal-powered technologies to grow food—and urban workers and officials, working for wages in factories or at various kinds of desk jobs. Since the 1979 Reforms this distinction has begun to break down, with much rural and increasing amounts of urban private commercial and entrepreneurial activity.
The division of labor by gender was nearly absolute in imperial China, except among the poorest classes. Women were barred from holding office and prevented by foot binding from many kinds of physical labor. They worked hard at domestic tasks, however, in all but the most elite families. These tasks included the production of textiles for home use and for sale, as well as some assistance in agricultural tasks and care of livestock. During the Republican period, women gained some forms of legal and educational equality and began to take on a limited number of professional positions, as well as being hired as low-wage industrial laborers. Foot binding basically disappeared by the 1930s, enabling women to do more kinds of work.
In Communist China, women have gained full legal equality, and the participation of women in all walks of life has been a prominent feature of propaganda, especially during the Cultural Revolution. This equality probably always existed more in theory than in practice, though, and, since the Reforms, there has been some backsliding. There is much evidence of job discrimination, but it is less overt—women are considered suitable for and do pursue just about any career in business, the professions, or the public sector, but expectations that they also manage a household and care for children have kept them from achieving equality in practice.
Land Tenure. For the last 1,500 years, land tenure in China has involved a struggle between the tendencies of governments to allocate land administratively and the tendencies of a commercial economy to make land into a freely exchangeable commodity. In the early Tang dynasty, the equal-field system allocated land to families according to their population and their social rank; this system, which was never universal, broke down entirely by the middle of the dynasty. The early Ming emperors also advocated an inkind rather than a cash economy and looked with disfavor on land transactions. Finally, between 1956 and 1979, the Communist party collectivized all agricultural land.
In between these government efforts at domination, land has been a marketable commodity and has tended to concentrate in the hands of landlord classes in some areas, though not in others. In the late imperial and Republican periods, most land in northern China was worked by owner-cultivators, whereas much greater proportions of the rich rice lands of the south were held by noncultivating landlords. Tenancy arrangements in these areas were of three sorts: tenants paid either a share of the crop, a fixed rent in kind, or a fixed rent in cash. In general, there does not seem to have been a strong trend toward greater or lesser concentration of land from the Ming period to the twentieth century, but the forms of tenure tended to gravitate away from more paternalistic, "feudal" forms involving personal service and patronistic protection and toward more strictly commercial forms involving cash or in-kind rents and little else.
The Communist party based much of its appeal to peasants in the 1921-1949 revolutionary struggle on a promise to eliminate the power and wealth of the exploitative landlord class. This was done in a sometimes violent program of land reform in 1949-1951 and was followed in the middle 1950s with a series of collectivization campaigns, culminating in the establishment of the large, centralized Peoples Communes in 1958. The communes were rather quickly decentralized as unworkable, however, and from 1962 to 1978 land in effect belonged to a production team—a group of twenty to forty households whose members were compensated in shares of the collective harvest by a complex system of labor points. The Reforms of 1979 involved a devolution of land rights (except for purchase and sale) and agricultural labor organization to the individual family; in effect, the prerevolutionary landlord system has been restored with the state rather than the private landlord claiming rights to part of the crop.