Ming Dynasty (1368-1644): The Economy

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Ming Dynasty (1368-1644): The Economy



Population Growth. The economy during the Ming dynasty, as a whole, experienced growth, and the population of China expanded greatly. The Chinese constituted between one-quarter and one-third of the world’s population during the Ming period. A census undertaken in 1393 recorded a population of at least 60,545,812. The figure more than doubled to about 150,000,000 by 1600. This increase was a result of combined factors. First, the long period of peace established by the Ming government encouraged population growth. Second, China suffered no nationwide epidemics. Third, the vast lands of China provided people with a safeguard against natural disasters, warfare, and social unrest. Internal migrations from distressed areas to more-prosperous regions mitigated large-scale human suffering, thus offsetting the consequences of natural calamities and social disturbances. In addition to population growth, there was a continuous shift of people


During the imperial era the population of the southern provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi (collectively known as Lingnan) increased as peasants migrated into the region from North China and elsewhere. Significant growth occurred especially in the Ming era (1368-1644) because of long periods of relative peace and economic prosperity.

YearHouseholds (Thousands)
Source: Robert B. Marks, Tigers, Rice, Silk, and Silt: Environment and Economy in Late Imperial South China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 85.

to the lower Yangzi region and areas even farther south, such as Lingnan, which primarily included the Guangdong and Guangxi provinces.

Trade Development. During the Ming period domestic trade was further developed. The establishment of Beijing and the construction of a canal system in the south stimulated trade between northern and southern China. The southerly population shift also contributed to commercial development in that region. Merchants from Jiangxi province, for example, exported porcelains, silk, tea, salt, and other local products. The expansion of trade in turn promoted specialized handicraft production and the development of early capitalistic industry. Jindezheng in Jiangxi province became the center of Chinese porcelain production; pottery from this region was in high demand for its beauty and quality. It was made from a special clay, called gaoling (a hydrous silicate of alumina), that was found in a nearby hill. The Songjiang region near Shanghai was the center of cotton textile production; its products were trans-ported everywhere in the country. Some textile shops hired more than twenty workers. These laborers, and the mass production of textiles, have inspired academic debate on whether incipient capitalism appeared in China before modern times. In the commercial centers, especially Beijing, regional guilds—usually sponsored by officials and merchants from the same geographical area to provide

mutual aid for its members while they traveled far from home—were established.

Li-Jia System. The land tax constituted the major income source for the Ming government. Based on the Double Tax system, this tax was collected in the summer and autumn. The summer tax (grain) was collected in the eighth lunar month; the autumn tax (husked rice) was collected in the second month after the harvest. To ensure proper tax collection and to maintain peace and order at the local level, the Ming government established the li-jia system. 110 households were grouped into a //, which was divided into tenjia of 10 households each. Family heads from the additional 10 households, usually comprising local notables, each served as the lizhang (heads of //) for one year in a ten-year rotation and was responsible for collecting and delivering the summer and autumn taxes. The l’i were normally structured along existing natural villages and neighborhoods. In cases in which the villages were too small, several communities were combined to make a //. Otherwise, larger villages and towns were divided into several //.


Wm. Theodore de Bary, Self and Society in Ming Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970).

John K. Fairbank and others, East Asia: Tradition and Transformation (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973).

Ray Huang, 1587, A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981).

Charles O. Hucker, The Ming Dynasty: Its Origins and Evolving Institutions (Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 1978).

Robert B. Marks, Tigers, Rice, Silk, and Silt: Environment and Economy in Late Imperial South China (Cambridge &c New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

F. W. Mote, Imperial China, 900-1800 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999).

Mote and Denis Twitchett, eds., The Cambridge History of China, volume 7, The Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644, Part 1 (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

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