Chinese Economy History



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China has continued to amaze the world by her resilience amidst all the natural and man-made disasters it has encountered throughout the centuries - Chinese Economy History introduction. While China parallels beliefs and ideas held in the western half of Europe and Asia, Chinese culture as a whole has remained firm despite opposing factions waiting to lustfully suck up its wound from several assaults. Yet, remarkably after numerous wars and defeats with rival powers, China continued to stand tall with pride and sophistication in the face of adversities. During the 15th -17th century, records would somehow reveal that the Chinese economy had prospered at par with Europe’s. China has always enjoyed a history of inventive genius across a wide spectrum in cultural and economic supremacy until the 17th century (Deng Gang, 1999: 2). When the Ming dynasty rose to its zenith at the first quarter of the fifteenth century with control over the Mongols in the north and governance in southwest regions of Tibet; the country had every opportunity for a full industrial revolution during those times. Yet none occurred despite established contacts with foreign countries that were contemporarily experiencing the phenomenon. A country as prosperous and well-equipped as China during the Ming and the Qing dynastic periods could have easily risen as a globally industrial power. Yet the phenomenon has evaded them in history which is what this paper intends to look into.



Following the end of the Mongol rule after repeated natural calamities and rebellion, the Ming dynasty was established as the last native Chinese dynasty to rule after years of foreign occupation (Elvin, 1996: 325). The Ming dynasty rose to its zenith at the first quarter of the fifteenth century with control over the Mongols in the north; governance in southwest regions of Tibet; the western region and bilateral relation with South East Asia which attributed to the Ming dynasty’s influence as the most prosperous in Elvin (1996:326). Political power was centralized with a command sector of the economy never going out of control after inheriting the Mongol Yuan dynasty’s good relations with traders giving China enough leverage to the succeeding Ming Dynasty (Twittchett and Fairbank, 1986: 51).


Unnecessarily pressured by tradition and conservative values, the empire soon succumbed to the pressures from Neo-Confucian bureaucrats who desired an agrarian-centered society (Li, 1998:108). This became a stable period that has facilitated in a population increase accompanied by a consequent diminishing of landholdings and the developments of marginalized lands previously unfit for production (Twitchett and Fairbanks, 497). This process allowed farmers to rely mostly on new agricultural products introduced in China for a living like corn, cotton and sweet potato which resulted to the declining of an urban economy (Elvin, 1973: 387). Little attention was focused on development of laws in order to protect merchants and farmers thereby allowing full exploitation of its marginalized sectors. Although the dynasty was best known for its strong and complex central government as mentioned in Twitchett and Fairbanks which unified and controlled the empire, this same complexity was the main cause of an inability to grant industrial success that eventually led to its decline.



Although infrastructure during the prosperous Ming dynasty sought to continue the repair of the Great Wall which had been built in earlier times, the dynasty insured it continuity with the enlargement of the brick and granite work. At the same time, China was also producing porcelain and textiles which was used for trade with other countries Asia and Europe. Noted for its trade endeavors, the Ming Dynasty also engaged in sea explorations. But such opportunities for economic and industrial dominance was never realized that Miller et al (1997, 52) blamed on repeated attacks on Korea by the Japanese and even Japanese attacks on Chinese coastal cities which greatly hurt the economy of the Ming dynasty. Under a cacophony of problems and symptoms for a declining power of the Ming Empire, the situation worsened that suddenly brought about an uprising in 1627 by the marginalized peasant sector (Li, 1998: 209).



At the beginning of the Ming dynasty, the government was keen on creating and encouraging trade and private wealth so rulers could impose taxes that could be used for defense and expansion (Blank et al, 1991:141). This was a positive outlook where the government has the potential to use funds and invest in projects under a taxation system with features that can augment an industrial growth similarly employed and applied by the European states during the same period. But as the years passed on, it was evident that the Ming dynasty preferred a lethargic status where little concern is brought forward to increase urban wealth. Tax evasion became rampant while legal exemptions were encouraged among the rich compatriots of the empire and the government. Furthermore, the government failed to keep track on social and economic development in its inability to keep land and population records (Gang, 1999:30). The few large landowner compatriots went wealthy without paying taxes while the marginalized peasant sector and small landowners suffer higher taxes and levies (Twitchett and Fairbanks, 1986: 477). Coupled with an increasing population, the diminishing size of landholdings and the development of marginalized lands which were soon left abandoned after high taxes and fees, production could not sustain the food needs of a booming population. Hunger became evident and smaller markets were the only ones who could survive in keeping with the economic situation where not much profit could be made.



An initial agricultural expansion and productivity had allowed an increase in population as farmers become attached to their families with nothing to do between planting and harvest seasons. Likewise farmers developed a mistaken notion that bigger families would be beneficial in having enough farm help. Soon, the large population brought down the ratio between arable land and people waiting to be fed from its production. Although this could be a biased view of the situation, nonetheless, this process surely is one of the reasons for China’s decline during the period. Another likely reason is China’s traditional reliance of an autocratic empire who could not delegate authority to local gentry. Everything was sanctioned by the state and lesser opportunities were available for capitalists because of the political organization that work for its pleasure. Such reasons are in consonance with the symptoms of the empire’s decline that soon catered to an uprising that ushered a new dynasty.




The Qing Dynasty



China experienced many changes in the economic sphere although largely remaining an agricultural society in which 85% of the population was farmers (Pomeranz, 2000: 155). Rice was made abundant in the South with the wet climate and wheat became the prevalent crop of the North due to a regular climate, yet few farmers went into commercial farming (Li, 1998: 234). Due to a long period of peace and stability with absent foreign invasion and disputes, a drastic rise in population continued. Altogether a rise in agriculture was evident and a sea of individuals populating China which brought forward negative effects.


A rise in population put an incredible amount of pressure on land yet there were no longer enough lands to cultivate to accommodate to the needs of a vast population. To make land available the Imperial Court of China tried to stop wealthy land owners from keeping too much land so that there was vacant land for smaller farmers (Tracy, 1991:104). Although trade and manufacturing was expanded during the Qing period, many merchants, peasants, skilled and unskilled workers left their hometowns in search of opportunities resulting to a further decline in the less urbanized areas and a rapid growth in urban centers that resulted to a stark gap. Although trade was rapidly growing, the areas which were left out experience lingering effects that totally hold back a multi-regional economic growth. Yet despite all this, China did not develop the commercial capitalism that was taking effect in Europe.



Why No Industrial Revolution Took Place in China


Several factors work to create the reasons why no industrial revolution took place in China during the two main periods despite growth in many aspects. China could have easily equaled the developments prevalent in Europe during the period because they had enough resources in human and trade capital to rise. For a time, China was about to have an industrial revolution similar in Europe because its water power was already developed by the 10th century; porcelain was already made; paper and other technologies were available. Yet Pomeranz had theorized that for a true economy to come into being with vast amount of commodities, capital and technologies; laws and practice had to become more predictable and universal (1999:170). Such was not the case with China mainly during the Ming dynasty that was carried on to the Qing dynasty. The factors below will enumerate the possible reasons for the absence of an industrial revolution in China.



Philosophy and Political System


The family system that suppressed the younger generation and demanded their humility, impaired Chinese creative abilities, and prevented it from advancing in the field of technology (Twitchett and Fairbank,1986: 575). Li also attributes this failure to advance to a philosophical system which fortified the emperor’s role, conferring upon him a critical and delicate position that and linked man and nature (1998:244). The emperor, minions and subjects believe in a cosmological view involving heavenly forces, energy and spiritual forces that connect with the land and physical matter which viewed labor as a holy spiritual endeavor that despised industrial work (Buoye, 2000: 29). On analysis, the unchallenged status of the emperor and his intellectuals also saw no reason to promote technology despite a rapid demand and presence which languished and soon regressed following an Imperial withdrawal in 1400 (Pohjola, 2001:82). It is likely that the primary study of spiritual and cosmic forces did not radiate a need for scientific and industrial development. Likewise, the people’s efforts in a great part were focused on its immediate needs rather than on ambition and social standing.



The development in Europe during the period was not similarly brought on by intellectuals who cultivated the government but by regular individuals who anticipated vast dividends to develop goods and resources in accordance with demand. In China, the absence of any competition and invasive forces during a period of peace brought forth a process of stagnation where the government was not engaged in power struggles to hold on. Coupled with a conservative attitude for reasons of self interest(Li, 210); and fear of provoking opposition after Mongol rule the Ming dynasty in particular undermined innovation and potential for technological development in China(Pohjola, 2001:83).






Likewise, the family as the basic structure, the clans, extended family, native tribes, and ancestor worship were presented as possible reasons for the Chinese predisposition to loyalty and submission and to uniting under one single ruler (Snowdon, 2002: 349). In Imperial China, disrespect for one’s father was inconceivable and respect for one’s mother was also valued which could be a major impact on the regression of industry, or lack there of in a society who looked up too much to its elders for decision-making. Bodde presents that proof of the roots of the lag in China’s industrial growth lie not only in the Chinese system of values, but also in the makeup of the family as a whole (1967:10). The father’s status in the family and the obedience that was shown him established a connection between his position in the family and imperial rule in China linking to the figure of the emperor, and to the Chinese desire for unified government after foreign rule. The people believed that they all shared one father in the emperor, who is the rightful person to maintain equilibrium. Perhaps the changes in the family brought about by long periods of peace drove husbands to leave the home with the assurances that their family can be left in peace enabled the father-husband to work in industry and factories that was prevalent in the Qing dynasty.



A family system that repressed the younger generation was the contributing factor to the repression of an industrial revolution. This idea is a possible explanation on the lack of an Industrial Revolution in Imperial China, to compare China with the West we are led to the knowledge that teachers and students in the West today and during the time of the Industrial Revolution do and did not study natural sciences but did study philosophy, literature, sociology, law, history, anthropology, and other classical subjects (Pomeranz, 1999: 191).




Religion in Imperial China has a different denotation which refers to Buddhism, Daoism, and various other regional and national religions, that are all connected with idols or spirits and demons (Pohjola, 2001: 85). Every political figure in the Chinese government possessed a spiritual-pagan twin whose bureaucratic function paralleled that of the actual political ruler, and whose existence strengthened the rule of the actual leader (Twitchett and Fairbank: 585). Confucianism, known in China as “the intellectual’s school of thought,” was from the outset popular primarily among Chinese elite and a system that propounded respect and deference for the emperor which was also adopted by many imperial books of law. It promoted the value of honest labor and efficiency, and rejected economic equality (Blank, 1991: 162). However, I could not entirely agree on this aspect because in comparing the West with China, let us be aware that the rise of Christianity that hunted down the heretics during the period was in consonance with technological development in Europe as clearly pointed out in Pomeranz (2000: 158). In Europe, the church’s disposition against those who defied its teachings and proclaimed explanations relative to science were declared heretics yet scientists like Galileo promoted scientific innovation even in an environment whose ruling powers sought quash them down.



The Chinese considered themselves as one family, and under this perception caused the Chinese to perceive themselves as a united force, rooted in hundreds and thousands of years of common history. Under foreign rule of the Mongol Yuan dynasty and the Manchurian Qing dynasty, the government lasted for many years and many believed that although industrialization evaded China due in particular to the reclusive efforts of its government; the Chinese were successful subjects to have survived a spate of tragedies.






Bodde also added that the Chinese society and its partiality for the upper social-political class of intellectuals over the social class of merchants contributed to its downfall(1967:9).Twitchett and Fairbanks explained that China’s previous history under an immense social structure during the years 750-1000 CE in commerce, the general money system, and urbanization, as well as changes in government bureaucracy (1986:575). The government favored the farmers, since they paid taxes and served in the army at a time of war while merchants were considered a threat to the established order because of their pursuit of wealth and material gain. However during the Ming dynasty after the fall of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, the empire became softer on its “intellectual and favored classes” by encouraging tax evasion and exemptions while the peasant class suffered high tax levies (Snowdon, 2002:349).



Lack of Proper Laws


During the Ming dynasty, tributary trade replace managed trade system where only foreign ships on a tributary mission to the dynasty could be allowed to engage in trade with China (Bodde, 1967: 67). Such missions were richly rewarded by the Ming government who was aching for recognition that soon allowed and extended trade with its ordinary people (Bodde, 68). Later trading was soon banned and then largely abandoned after the completion of the Hui Tong Canal to Beijing when sea transport was no longer crucial and ships were allowed to decay (Bodde, 68). It did continue during the Qing dynasty yet faced some gradual impositions. This efforts combined with several factors is a great demise for a kick-off of an industrial revolution that its rulers clearly thwarted off.



Agricultural Pressures


The Chinese reverence for agricultural labor place pressures on the land tilled coupled with the booming population that was cited beforehand in this research is a profound reason where a demand for technology was withdrawn by the Ming Empire. Snowdon also believed that property rights which had a lot to do with China’s reverence for agriculture (2002:348). Prior to the Mongol rule in China, a healthy picture was created as primitive accumulation of lands by seizing properties and coercing labor was practiced for thousands of years. The government had control of lands and property which was not held long enough before an industrial revolution could take off (Snowdon, 2002:349). The emperors after the excessive nature of the Mongol rule was intent at first on rebuilding the economy and refused to invest in other purposes aside from agriculture. Rice as the major staple food of the population was encouraged coupled with other less nutritious goods like the Champa rice which could be grown in a little over half the growing season of regular rice (Miller et al, 1997: 142). Crop rotation was encouraged and fields were continuously in cultivation and in addition, peasants also began experimenting with cash crops, such as cotton for clothing, indigo for clothing dyes, and cane (Li, 1998: 49). Trees were planted to provide for lumber that would build a naval fleet and reforestation greatly replenished both the timber and the food supply. Such agricultural pressures soon gave way as farmers who were imposed tax levies religiously paid their dues while the “rich intellectuals and compatriots” of the empire did not. Soon lands were abandoned as farmers and peasants flock to the urban centers to work on trade and earn faster money and a low turn-out of its gross domestic product was seen.




China during the Ming and Qing dynasty could prove no evidence that competition existed between scholars and intellectuals. Neither will any evidence point that it developed any competition with the Western world. In effect China led a sedentary life that almost causes stagnation of the economy during the reign of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The conservative nature of the two dynasties is another cause when the imperial system clearly avoided creating concentrations of economic strength within the empire. This was another reason why no industrial revolution occurred in China that apparently stemmed from the view that the emperor plays a critical role in balancing between natural forces and human forces, a balance that is essential if no natural disasters are to occur and if life is to be tranquil and fruitful(Buoye, 2000: 86). This belief sought to give ultimate power and endurance to the imperial form of government. Working under the philosophy of a paternal leadership coupled with the strong value of respect for the father as a parental authority, the system gave to the views of the emperor as a unified father for a country who so desired unity among its people after foreign rule. This kind of authority vested upon a sole leader channels all good ideas into one mechanism that could seek to disregard and completely ignore its benefits.



China enjoyed extensive trade with foreign countries during the Ming dynasty which declared it as the most prosperous dynasty with even direct trade routes to Europe. It was a necessary part of the global economy that traded silver for Chinese silks and porcelain. The Ming, however, had built their own merchant marine using the trees planted which rivaled that of any European power. The Ming shipped silks, cotton, and porcelain to Manila in the Philippines and traded with the Spanish for silver, firearms, and American goods such as sugar, potatoes, and tobacco. The Chinese porcelains, marked by the Ming style of blue painting on a white ceramic background, became all the rage in Europe in the seventeenth century as the Dutch began importing tea and later became wildly popular all throughout Europe. The global growth had spawned a technological boom and China was clearly on its way to becoming an industrial economy. Yet all this proved futile as an imbalance could be observed in the internal part of the economy.



The major problem with an absolute ruler and a concentration of power laid all the authority at the hands of an emperor (Elvin, 1973:105).  Mediocre emperors meant mediocre activities for the country who neglected state affairs as its ruler completely retreated into concerning himself solely with his pleasure and the life of his family. Driven by long periods of peace and practically stark invasion, power at the court vacillated between officials and the eunuchs yet public scandals grew around the emperors and his successor(Poemranz, 2000:475). Corruption was clearly active as corrupt officials and eunuchs fight for control of the government by beginning of the seventeenth century(Tracy, 1991: 124). No industrial evolution could set in because the government clearly negated to encourage the phenomenon that was prevalent at that time. China could have easily benefited from an industrial revolution with its vast manpower and resources but when the sole power is granted to only one leader, a problem would exist. Likewise when long periods of peace is felt by people, nothing fruitful can probably come out of it except an increase in population. A famous movie quote once said, “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed — they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock”…



































Works Cited


Blank, Stephen, Grinter, Lawrence, Magyar, Karl and Ware, Lewis. Conflict, Culture and History: Regional Dimensions. Diane Publishing, 1991.



Bouye, Thomas. Manslaughter, Markets, and Moral Economy: Violent Disputes Over Property Rights in 18th-Century.Cambridge University, 2000.


Deng, Gang. The Pre-modern Chinese Economy: Structural Equilibrium and Capitalist Sterility. Routledge, 1999.


Elvin, Mark. The Pattern of the Chinese Past. Stanford: Stanford University, 1973.


Elvin, Mark and Samuel Noah Eisenstadt. “Was there a transcendental Breakthough in China?” in the The Origins and Diversity of Axial Age Civilizations, Wild peony, 1996.


Li, Bozhong and Li, Po-Chung. Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850. St. Martins Press,1998.


Miller, Sally M., Latham, Anthony John, Flynn, Dennis Owen. Studies in the Economic History of the Pacific Rim. Routledge,1997.


Pohjola, Matti. Information Technology, Productivity, and Economic Growth: International Evidence. Oxford University , 2001.


Pomeranz, Kenneth. The Great Divergence: Europe, China, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Princeton University, 2000.


Snowdon, Brian. Conversations on Growth, Stability and Trade: An Historical Perspective. Edward Elgar, 2002.


Tracy, James. The Political Economy of Merchant Empires. Cambridge University, 1991.


Twitchett, Dennis and Fairbank, John. The Cambridge history of China. Cambridge University, 1986.


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