This project examines the role that institutions played in mediating social and environmental change in the forests of early modern China. Forestry is central to the story of the cameral state and environmental awareness in the West, but in early modern China we find the state retreating from territorial oversight of the woods. Does this imply that China failed to develop the requisite institutions for modernity or environmentalism? By placing institutions at the center of my analysis, I find that we must question both of these propositions.
First, by exploring the institutions that governed the wood supply empire-wide, I find that the government bureaucracy’s retreat from the forest was both enabled and impelled by the development of highly effective private networks of timber plantations and wood merchants. Rather than expensive and difficult management of woodland, the state could focus its oversight on wood markets.
Second, by exploring the institutions that governed the wood supply locally, I find that landowners were able to define a range of distinct forms of forest ownership, despite the state’s relative lack of interest in defining property rights. Courts’ reliance on private documentation allowed landowners to negotiate the forms of ownership that best suited their purposes. In major timber-exporting regions, private, profit-seeking corporations demanded exclusive ownership rights. But for local needs villagers often negotiated usage rights to woodlands held in common.
I argue that the fate of China’s forests, and the communities that used them, can only be explained by examining the interplay between the large, impersonal institutional demand for timber and the array of local institutions that governed its supply. Ultimately, China’s forests were transformed not by a single, prime mover like “the state” or “the market,” but by the diffuse aggregation of individual decisions into greater norms, rules, and economic forces.