Opium again: and some figures.
But even worse (for the interests of the secular Han-chauvinist “Republics”, 1912-1949) than religious schism/separatism was the infixing of a drug economy, one much more manipulable by military separatists than that of the Southeast (coast) because self-enclosed upstream and shielded almost beyond inspection from/by coastal Chinese power. (No inshore patrol boats could move across the Ordos or the Himalayan or Tianshan foothills…). Worsening food insufficiency and desert-impacted terrain – which adds terrible travel times and costs to any market exchange – are the obvious villains behind the story of Islamic “opium” warlordism in this former caravan mecca, or (perhaps better) behind its fragmenting and corruption from (probably) the mid or late 18th century: almost as if he read the stars, Qianlong ceased his Xinjiang/Qinghai interventions – so much the glory of his first years – by 1760, precisely the year when we find a first report of “industrialized” (putting-out) opium production in Gansu’s “Hexi” corridor, then still described as a “green oasis” thanks to its Nile-like loess replenishments and irrigation.
“A local entrepreneur named Hu Yuchang had taken a caravan of goods as far as Shaanxi in that year , returning with [about 13 liters] of poppy seed sample, which he passed around to adjacent villages [as he toured the markets] for trial planting, lending the seed on credit redeemable at autumn harvest. To everyone’s surprise, the seeds were no sooner planted than they bore flowers, doubling the harvest with half the labor [compared to ? wheat?]. The merchant (distributors) made huge profits, and became even more enamored of the plant, going about encouraging others to do likewise, and so it was that the following year the craze spread to adjacent areas”. Some 7.5 kg of seeds – only enough for 1/100 mu, but from small blessings… and a good harvest…
A quasi-Afghanistan: The Northern Corridor’s Atrophic Feedback Loop (1760-1950)?
How did the pieces fit together? In retrospect it is possible to conceptualize a kind of vicious circle. Desert encroachment – which is still very much on the move at the W and SW ends of the Taklamakan – not only halted or pushed back crop yields – both for food (mainly wheat) and oasis-garden/orchard crops (though pre-1950 quantitative information on the latter is practically non-existent) but seems to have prompted the creation of a nasty feedback loop that joined together an increasingly narcotics hinged crop selection atop the regions (characteristically) oasis-island farming on the one hand, and the overspread in semi-modern form of precisely that form of religiously (i.e. Islamic) driven satrapies that the Manchu state had tried so hard to forfend.
Figs ? and ??? UN FAO photodocuments of desertification in W-C Inner Mongolia
Oldest FAO time series, window 1900-1950
DEFORESTATION AND DESERTIFICATION IN CHINA
Which might be abstracted as something like this: (1) Slackening hydro-management at grass roots level > (2) ground level switch from orchard or cereal crops to opium poppies invited by [Muslim?] long haul traders with Guanzhong> (3) advantage of market scale and ? origin-tradename gains national share for “NW” opium > (4) predatory floating militarists reorganize planting (via “Suppression Fine Bureaux) as an easy-collectable tax.
The first two links are hard to pin down in a time series, but a quick look at the interventions in the “West” since 1949 tells us, if we reverse their flow/direction, what probably happened in the two prior centuries. The simplest signpost for initial scan is the crop-specialization scheme that is current in the PRC.