Thursday, May 25, 2006

Peasant mobility: The questions it raises

Perdue, Peter (1996) "Military Mobilization in Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century China, Russia, and Mongolia" Modern Asian Studies 30.4 (1996) 757-793

This paper by Perdue has an interesting discussion of peasant mobility (Also see Krugman's "Serfs Up!"and Brad De Long's republishing of Domar's original paper on the economics of serfdom).

In the history of land tenure in any given society, the notion of peasant mobility appears to be central.

The serf status of Russian peasants bound to the land must be the prototype of immobility.

Peasant mobility is intimately related to the ability to mobilize peasants for warfare.

The notion of peasant mobility raises many questions:

1. During times of warfare, do peasants voluntary move to the center for protection? Or do they flee to the forest?

2. During times of peace, is there more freedom to migrate from the center to the periphery?

3. How mobile were early modern peasant populations in mainland Southeast Asia?

4. Does it really make sense to make only binary distinctions for peasants like mobile versus bound?

5. What does mobility really mean? Is it peasant mobility or elite mobility? Don’t peasant clients follow their elite patron-protector? Did the poorest migrate or was it more affluent peasants?

6. Why did they migrate? What crisis precipitated the migration? Was it over-taxation by an elite trying to extract more of the food surplus? Did the land become unproductive for some reason like environmental degradation or not enough manpower to work it productively? Was protection, war, and raiding for manpower a factor in location? Was mobility associated with homesteading? If population grows, then the land farmed by parents is not enough to sustain the children. Did populations go through cycles of centralization during times of expansionary warfare and political consolidation and decentralization during times of collapse? What about times of endemic internal warfare, non-expansionary, where there is no clear winner? Did you find shifting loyalties among the elite and their peasant-client followers? During these periods of endemic warfare, protection would have been even more important.

7. Was migration always within the same polity or did it sometimes occur across polity boundaries in inter-dynastic times of fragmentation and chaos?

8. Did mobility vary with location? Agricultural productivity? Nearness to the capital and center of the kingdom?


Fernquist, Jon. 2005a. “The flight of Lao war captives form Burma back to Laos in 1596: a comparison of historical sources,” SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research 3.1: 41-68 [Link]