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The major conclusion is not new: Yes, China had famines, lots of them, more than perhaps any other major region. The revisionist position that China was rather well off during this time is not supported, except for the 18th century. It emerges from Li's book (as from other recent work) as a relatively prosperous, peaceful time.
The Qing emperors and officials come out very well. Going into even more detail than P.-E. Will and Bin Wong in their well-known works, Li shows that Qing famine relief was extensive and fairly successful--indeed, in most of the 18th century, quite dramatically successful. Good, competent, responsible officials were common at the time. The idea of China's imperial regime as corrupt and incompetent does not stand up.
The early 20th century, previously something of a black hole in studies of Chinese food history, is extremely thoroughly covered, with the important conclusion that it was as bad as the bleak observers of that time thought--not the relatively prosperous time alleged by some recent economists.
Li is extremely objective and fair, eschewing values statements and treating controversies with caution and balance. She breaks into a strong voice only in assessing the Great Leap Forward, when Mao Zidong created the worst famine in Chinese history by incredibly wrong-headed policy.
This is not an "environmental" history, rather a history of food and food policy, but there is much about the local environment--a land dominated by extreme climatic fluctuations, leading to chronic droughts and floods, and by rivers that swing wildly over their flat silty alluvial plains unless forcibly restrained. Li takes a properly nuanced view of climate and its changes: climatic change had its effects, but was not determinative (see e.g. her attention to the late Ming dynasty, p. 37).
Thanks to Li's careful work, we learn far more about environmental realities than from most of the more explicitly "environmental" histories. For instance, Li's book is a really different order of achievement from Mark Elvin's rather disappointing RETREAT OF THE ELEPHANTS.
This book should absolutely be read in detail by anyone interested in food shortages and famines. One warning, though: if said persons are not China specialists, they will have to have a map and a good history of China constantly beside them! No concessions to non-Sinologists here! There was (I assume) simply no space.
Fighting Famine in North China: State, Market, and Environmental Decline, 1690s-1990s Overview
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