An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Three Empires - Economy

Oct 30, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

War, drought, locust plagues and the decaying state administration at the end of the second century AD did not only contribute to the deterioration of the national economy and the social welfare, but these phenomena in total caused unimaginable calamities for the population in the few cities and the countryside, especially in north China. People that did not die due to hunger, war and pest betook themselves to flight. Many thousands of peasants left their homelands and immigrated to modern Sichuan, the lower Yangtze area or to the northeastern region. The political disturbances that should determine the fate of China’s north for the next four centuries brought about immeasurable afflictions to the people.
It was just the great warlords of the north, Cao Cao, who perceived that a social and therewith also an economical improvement could only occur if the peasants would be organized and directed by the state. The peasant refugees (liumin 流民) had to be settled and forced to tillage and weaving. Cao Cao resorted to a method that was first used during the Western Han Dynasty to create economically self-sustaining military agro-colonies (tuntian 屯田) in the western territories. The forces deployed at the northwestern border had to till their fields by themselves, being peasants and soldiers at the same time. Now, Cao Cao installed two kinds of agrarian colonies in the middle of his empire: civil agrarian colonies (min tuntian 民屯田), and military agrarian colonies (jun tuntian 軍屯田). The inhabitants of the latter were especially obliged to serve as soldiers if necessary. The colonies were administered by special officials (diannongli 典農吏 or diannongguan 典農官) that did not belong to the regular administration system with commanderies (jun 郡) and counties (xian 縣). While the client-farmers (dianke 佃客 or tuntianke 屯田客) working in the agro-colonies in the first years were only compelled to till their fields respectively to serve as soldiers, they were later obliged to perform corvee labour (yi 役). There were few incentives for the people to abide on the agrarian colonies. They were not allowed to leave their homelands, could only merry people from their own “caste” and worked as a kind of state-owned peasant-slaves. Besides the state agrarian colonies, there existed of course also private estates, but the social situation of these peasants was not better. Because the population had shrunk dramatically (some authors say, by 90 %), it was necessary to ridigly control and to concentrate the few remaining peasants. The measures to resettle peasants, compulsory labourers, and slaves in the vicinity of the capital or on the estates to ensure the economical surviving of the state should be a kind of regular state violence for the next centuries in north China, and the least landholders used material incentives but rather brutal force to bring the fleeing peasants back to their old or their new homelands.

The Shu-Han Empire

The area of modern Sichuan and north (region of Hanzhong 漢中) was roamed and governed by the Daoist sect of the Five-Pecks-of-Grain (Wudoumidao 五斗米道) founded by Heavenly Master Zhang Jiao 張角 during the middle of the 2nd century AD. While north China suffered most under the natural disasters and the warfare of Dong Zhuo, Yuan Shao and their opponents, the remote region of the Sichuan basin was a relatively quite and peaceful place during these unpeaceful decades, even after Liu Bei withdrew to Yizhou 益州 (Chengdu 成都) and founded his Shu-Han empire in 221. Chancellor Zhuge Liang's southern conquest, and the few military campaigns against the Cao-Wei empire did not have a significant impact on the recovering economy in the Sichuan area. Partially due to the incoming refugees from China's north and their workforce, but also because Zhuge Liang had the montagnard people of the south imported as workers in the Sichuan basin, there was almost no need of state-guided intensive agriculture in semi-militarian agrarian colonies (tuntian 屯田) like in the north. Agricultural (re-)construction was not only promoted in the water-rich Sichuan basin with its natural ressources of irrigable fields, but also in the mountainous southern regions of modern Yunnan Province, a region that experienced its first real economical opening during the time of the Shu-Han Empire. Following the tradition of the Han Empire, the state seized the monopol of salt, iron and silk production, transport, commerce and distribution. A great part of commerce was handled by barter trade with natural materials, but we find already the casting and circulating of copper coins, a currency that was far more widespread in the Shu-Han empire than in the economically wrecked north of China.

The Sun-Wu Empire

The area south of the Yangtze river was rich of natural ressources, but the few Chinese inhabitants living there were not able to exploit all these natural ressources and at the same time to fight against the non-Chinese mountain tribes. The natural richness and fertility of this area did partially prevent the development of a sophisticated agriculture like it had been exerted in north China for already more than two thousand years. Only with the advent of peasant refugees and some immigrant aristocracy from the north, there was the social need to draw more attention to an enforced agriculture, using the immigrants from the north as workforce. Like in the Cao-Wei empire, the arable land was either worked by private peasants or by state peasant-slaves in civil or military agrarian colonies. But while the state-run agrarian colonies in the north were administered independently from the commanderies and counties, Sun Quan's agrarian colonies were equally administered among commanderies and counties, at the same level. Furthermore, the military agrarian colonies (juntun 軍屯) of the south were inhabited not only by the peasant-soldiers, but also by their families, giving them the same surfacial appearance like the civil agrarian colonies (mintun 民屯). Apart from the state-owned agrarian colonies, most land belonged to the rich gentry of the south that had now many workforces at their disposal, immigrant people from the north looking for tenant land and work, and captives from the mountain tribes. Following the tradition of the Han Empire, the state seized the monopol of salt, iron and silk production, transport, commerce and distribution. A speciality of southern handicraft was the green glazed pottery (qingci 青瓷) and the construction of sea-going ships that took over the commerce along the numerous inland waterways and with foreign countries in East Asia (Koguryŏ 高句麗/Korea and the Wa 倭 states in Japan), Southeast Asia (Funan 扶南 and Linyi 林邑 in modern Vietnam and Cambodia) and even South Asia (Daqin 大秦, Tianzhu 天竺/India). Although copper coins served as a common currency in the Sun-Wu empire, salt and silk often served as barter goods.