The Good Earth, circa 1937

Pearl Buck published, “The Good Earth,” in 1931 while married to John Lossing Buck (1917 to 1935), a professor of agricultural economics at the College of Agriculture and Forestry, The University of Nanking.  While a faculty member, he directed a study funded by the Rockefeller Foundation through the International Research Committee of the Institute of Pacific Relations entitled, Land Utilization in China (1937, v. 1, Univ. of Chicago Press, 494 p.). The work carried out was with the assistance of  investigators from the College of Agriculture and Forestry.  J.L. Buck’s study team examined 16,786 Chinese farms at 168 localities, and 38,256 farm families in 22 provinces.  The study had three aims: (1) to train students in land-use research methods, (2) to make knowledge of China’s agriculture available for design improvements and for developing national agricultural policies, and (3) to make China’s agricultural information available to other researchers. First-hand, English-language reports that describe land conditions at a particular time in China, help fill out our understanding of the positive and negative changes that have affected China’s renewable-resource base over time.  J.L. Buck’s study provides some information on land conditions in China for the period just prior to the Japan-China war.

In about 1929, the agricultural literature began to show concerns for the effects of its expansion into renewable resources generally — forests, pastures, etc. (The Stubborn Earth, 1986, R.E. Stross, 272 p.).  J.L. Buck’s survey dealt primarily with the economics of “land utilization” but was light on presenting information on its environmental effects.  Stross commented further that J.L. Buck expressed concern about the farmers’ undesirable behavior related to excessive drinking, gambling and idleness, quarreling, and immorality.  Buck believed the solution to be church organized recreation for farmers.  Nevertheless, some interesting points can be gleaned from the team’s work on agriculture’s environmental effects.

Below, are some of J.L. Buck’s major land-use findings (marked in bold “1937”).  These, in part, provide information on South China’s land conditions at that time.  For comparison purposes,  South China land-use data from 2011 to 2019 are included in the following starred or bullet sections (*).

1937: Forest fires — tigers and/or ash:  A subtropical vegetation cover interspersed with large expanses of Imperata grass, characterize China’s hot, wet lands.  The farmers burned the mountainside vegetation annually to destroy the habitat of tigers, and/or for the ashes which, when washed down hill, helped to fertilize the rice fields below.

  • Figure 1: Today, the South China tiger is likely extinct.  China’s State Forestry Administration 2019 survey of terrestrial wild-animals, begun in 2011, states that “habitat loss is the single biggest threat to the country’s wildlife.” (, July 15, 2019).
  • Figure 2: Each year, the long traditions of burning paper offerings at grave sites is practiced widely in China — Chung Yeung Festival (October; ancestral grave cleaning) is about 2000 years old, and the Qing Ming Festival (April, “sweeping of the graves”), is about 2500 years old.  Accidentally, winds often carry burning paper from grave sites, setting fire to the country’s surrounding vegetation.  In 2917 alone, 85 such wildfires spread from Hong Kong grave sites into the countryside during the Qing Ming (, April 4, 2017).

Figure 1: Severely eroded land and animal habitat lose at Dian Bai, Guangdong, 2003 (photo by W. Parham).

Figure 2: Lan Tau Island, after a grass fire that damaged broad wildlife habitat, Hong Kong, 1994 (photo by W. Parham).

1937: Deforestation:  Deforestation of China’s rice-region’s hills and mountains failed to furnish permanent new farms.  The hill and mountain erosion did, however, bury productive valley-lands under sterile clay.  Figure 3 shows a 1998 example of a valley floor covered with clay.

Figure 3: Badly eroded, highly weathered granitic-terrane.  Erosion covers the valley floor with a layer of low-nutrient clays, Wuhau County, Guangdong,1998 (photo by W. Parham).

* China’s National Forestry and Grasslands Administration reports that China’s planted forest now is the world’s largest (, Oct. 23. 2018), even though the forest replenishment has taken 40 years.  Some 85 percent of wood harvested in China between 2009 and 2013, came from planted forests.

1937: Soil leaching: Where annual rainfall is sufficient to leach out the soil’s free lime, it also removes a large part of the soil’s other plant-nutrients, thereby reducing the soil’s overall fertility.

* Soil nutrient-leaching is a natural process that continues today.  It is  especially effective where soil’s are subjected to high rainfall, like much of South China’s the lands.  The depth of strong nutrient leaching reaches down as much as 50 to 100 feet into surface rocks and their soils.  Figure 4 shows a man-made cut in deeply leached granite.

Figure 4: Deeply weathered granite, Kowloon, Hong Kong, 1967.  For scale, note the workers along the top of cut (photo by W. Parham).                                   

1937: Erosion:  Agricultural encroachment on China’s marginal hill and mountain lands was extensive, and resulted in severe “sheet” and “gully” erosion; the Chinese name for gulley erosion is “beng gang.” This ultimately led to soil destruction and land abandonment.  Figure 5 shows a 2003 example of “beng gang” erosion.

Figure 5: “Beng gang” gulley erosion in Zhuhai, 2003.  Such gullies have a horseshoe shape and a narrow opening (photo by W. Parham).

* China’s Ministry of Water Resources reports that in 2019, field and satellite studies show the amount of eroded land adversely affecting China, stands at 28.6 percent, a decrease of about seven percent since 2011 (, June 28, 2019).

1937: Polyculture: The practice of growing two or more crops together is called polyculture.  This agricultural practice was in use in the early 1930s on nearly two-thirds of all of China’s cultivated land.  It was one way the farmers increased production to meet the needs of the country’s large population.  Figures 6 and 7 show two, modern, Chinese polycultures.


Figure 6: Polyculture of tobacco and beans.  Tobacco provides an insect-repellent source to aid the bean crop, Guizhou, Guangdong, 1999 (photo by W. Parham). 

Figure 7: A polyculture of tea bushes and rubber trees was developed in southern Yunnan Province.  It provides growth benefits to both crops, 1990 (photo by W. Parham).

  • Polyculture sidelight: In the early history of the United States, “Washington and Jefferson adopted the practice of alternating rows of potatoes or some other vegetable with rows of corn.” (1937, USDA Misc. Pub. no. 256, p. 410).
  • Even though polyculture was practiced widely in China, the Chinese farmers have moved toward monoculture farming.
  • Though not polyculture per se, interest is growing in China in crop rotations.  Their Ministry of Agriculture in 2016, initiated a program to encourage farmers annually to rotate corn with soybeans, soybeans is a nitrogen-fixing plant, or to put the land in fallow for one year to allow recovery from its long overuse.  China’s president, Xi Jinping, in 2017, stated that he strongly supports the program.  Note: Rotations of corn and soybeans have been practiced in the United States successfully since 1983.  The beneficial effects of including a nitrogen-fixing crop in rotations was demonstrated by Charles Townshend in England, in as early as 1730, where he rotated clover with other food crops (

J.L. Buck and his research team did not focus on water, soil, and air pollution in their 1937 survey.  Much of that pollution is associated with China’s rapid industrialization of the 20th century (Dec. 2009, Environment and health in China, Envir. Health Perspective, H. Kan).  However, Buck did warn of health problems associated with farm use of night soil as fertilizer.

China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment’s 2019 report says that, “air quality nationwide has shown continuous improvement.”  They state further, however, that, “it was still a long, arduous, and complicated process to combat air pollution.”  In addition, the report adds that, “underground water quality, especially shallow water, remains poor.” (, May 30, 2019).  Lastly, in 2016 the same Ministry released a plan in which it pledged to “curb the worsening soil pollution by 2020, get soil pollution risks under control by 2030, and form a virtuous cycle in the ecosystem by 2050.” (, July 3, 2018).  Soil pollution is a serious problem in China.  One remediation cost-estimate alone for 2016-2020 reaches US$1.3 trillion (IISD, 2018, Sept. 10, Cleaning up toxic soils in China).

China’s Chairman Mao banned opium production in China in 1949.  Once banned, the growing space needed for its growth became available for other crops.  Buck’s study provides some historic information on where opium was grown in China in the early 1930s — the southwestern rice-region accounted for 43 percent of opium production (J.L. Buck, 1937, table 4, p. 215).  Other of Buck’s information describes the use of opium stalks on Chinese farms — 100 percent of opium stalks found some farm use and, of these, 86 percent were used for fuel (J.L. Buck, 1937, table 24, p. 238).

W. Parham, October 2019

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