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Arable land in China is scarce; little more than 10 percent of the total land area, most of it in the eastern third of the country, can be cultivated. This compares with more than 20 percent for the continental United States, which is slightly smaller than China. Further agricultural expansion would be relatively difficult because almost no land that could be profitably cultivated remains unused and because, despite intensive cultivation, yields from some marginal lands are low. Some possibility for expansion exists in thinly populated parts of the country, especially in the northeast, but the growing season there is short and the process of land reclamation prolonged and costly.

China Proper (see Glossary) is divided by the Qin Ling range into highly dissimilar north and south agricultural areas (see fig. 8). In semitropical south China, rainfall is relatively abundant and the growing season long. Rice is the predominant grain crop. The paddies can generally be irrigated with water from rivers or other sources. Although much of the soil is acid red clay, the heavy use of fertilizer (at one time organic but by the mid-1980s also including a large proportion of chemical nutrients) supports high yields. Frequently two or even three crops a year are cultivated on the same land. Food crops other than rice are also grown, most frequently in hilly areas or during the winter. These include potatoes and winter wheat. The highest grain yields in the country in the mid-1980s were generally found in the Sichuan Basin, the lower Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) Valley, and Guangdong and Fujian provinces, where multiple cropping of rice and other crops was the typical pattern. Cotton, tea, and industrial crops were also produced there.

Wheat has traditionally been the main crop in north China, a considerably drier region than south China. The winter wheat crop accounts for nearly 90 percent of China's total production. Spring wheat is grown mainly in the eastern portion of Nei Monggol Autonomous Region (Inner Mongolia) and the northeastern provinces. Other important grain crops include corn, sorghum, and millet. These are usually dryland crops. Since the late 1960s, irrigation has been greatly expanded, but water remains an important limiting factor. Compared with the south, soils in the north are generally better; however, because of the shorter growing season and colder, drier climate, yields per cultivated hectare tend to be lower and irrigation less extensive. Labor is not as abundant in the north as in the south, but cropping patterns tend to require less labor, and mechanization (especially of plowing) is more advanced.

The North China Plain, the most important growing area in north China, extends across several provinces. Winter wheat and corn are the leading grain crops; cotton is also grown, and Shandong Province produces peanuts. The North China Plain, although fertile, was traditionally subject to frequent floods and droughts, but water conservation measures ameliorated the problem (see Physical Environment , ch. 2). Winter wheat is grown in the mountainous areas west of this plain, but the climate is more severe and the danger of natural disasters even greater. The fertile soils of the northeastern plains have been used to plant corn, spring wheat, and even rice. High-quality soybeans are grown in the northeast and are exported to many Pacific rim countries. Although Nei Monggol Autonomous Region produces some spring wheat and other grain, it is best known as a pastoral area.

Much of China's vast and generally inhospitable northwest and southwest regions is unsuitable for cultivation. Xinjiang-Uygur Autonomous Region in the northwest, like Nei Monggol Autonomous Region, is also best known as a pastoral area. In Xizang Autonomous Region (Tibet) in the southwest, most of the cultivated area has been irrigated, and special strains of wheat, rice, and barley suitable for the climate of that high-altitude region have been developed.

China's rural labor force in 1985 consisted of about 370 million people. The quality of the labor force had improved in the previous three decades, primarily because of the introduction of rural schools, which stressed elementary education (see Primary Education , ch. 4). Nevertheless, a large portion of the rural population was illiterate or semiliterate in 1987, and very few high school and college graduates lived in villages and towns. Lack of education continued to retard the spread of advanced technology in rural areas. The scarcity of cultivable land and the abundance of manpower led to the development of labor-intensive production in most parts of the country. And, although China's agriculture was less labor intensive than that in some neighboring countries, it was characterized by meticulous tending of the land and other techniques employed in East Asia for centuries.

In the 1980s the rural labor force also was employed in rural capital construction projects and small-scale industries. During the winter months, large numbers of rural people worked on construction and maintenance of irrigation or land-leveling projects. Where rural industrial plants existed, they usually employed a small proportion of the rural labor force, and many peasants also engaged in sideline activities, such as handicrafts. The government tightly limited migration from rural to urban areas (see Migration , ch. 2).

By the 1980s China had improved its agricultural resources, but important obstacles remained. The country's agricultural capital stock had been built up in large part by land modification. Through the centuries fields were leveled and consolidated, and substantial investments were made in building and modernizing irrigation facilities. Since the 1950s the production of mechanical agricultural equipment had been a major industry. But in the 1980s many observers still noted a shortage of transportation facilities to take crops to market and bring seed, fuel, and fertilizer to users (see Transportation , ch. 8). In addition to capital, China had available a supply of skilled labor and a stock of technical information on seed varieties and fertilizer use despite the damage done by the Cultural Revolution (1966-76; see Glossary).

Data as of July 1987

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China Table of Contents