Was China stagnant for 700 years?

Brad DeLong has a long post up on the economic history of China. It’s not all that good, but as he is asking for comments people might want to go and give some. Can anyone think of a good passage by someone more current on the literature that covers the Late Imperial period better?


Actually the post and the comments (on the main page) are a treasure trove of the type of zombie errors that crop up in my classes all the time. “Confucianism” retarded trade. The Chinese economy was stagnant after the Song. The Chinese had a printing press but never printed many books. If you want a nice picture of the general state of knowledge of Chinese history among those who are smart and well-informed but don’t know much about China, this is the place to go.

(I sometimes ask students what they know about China on the first day of class but I never formalize it into essays, since a long boring assignment that makes them feel stupid does not strike me as a good way to start off class. Now if I just assume that my incoming freshmen know about as much about China as Brad Delong (and his commentors) my questions about their knowledge-base are answered.)


  1. A while back I used a small AHA booklet — Francesca Bray, Technology and Society in Ming China (1368-1644), American Historical Association, 2000. — which was an excellent discussion of the technological and economic changes taking place in Imperial China, with some explicit discussion towards the lack of the industrial revolution.

    I think it answers a lot of his questions (or at least the questions he should be asking).

  2. Speaking of that “what do you know about China” exercise: why?

    I’ve heard about people doing it for years, and I’ve never really figured out what purpose it would fulfill in my classroom. Plus, I’ve got so much administrative crap on the first day, I barely get to talk about anything substantive, most of the time, and I hate to spend my fifteen minutes on an exercise which confirms what I already know about my students.

  3. I ask them what they know (and would like to know) about things in part to see what they are interested in, but mostly to get them talking. Writing anything would of course just be a waste of time.

  4. The debates between Kenneth Pomeranz (-The Great Divergence-) and R. Bin Wong (-China Transformed-) on the one side and Philip C.C. Huang (-Peasant Family and Rural Development in the Yangzi Delta-) on the other seem like the best source for economic comparisons between China and Europe in late imperial times. They had a lively exchange in the Journal of Asian Studies around 2002-2003; would that be useable in a classroom? Hmm. I have to admit that a lot of the disagreement among them seems to hinge on very small details of value and calculation the importance of which I feel unqualified to judge for myself, so I can’t really imagine asking students to do so.

    For science and technology, in addition to Bray’s work, Benjamin Elman’s also gives a sense of how attitudes toward, and mastery of, technical knowledge changed in late imperial times. Both his big book on the cultural history of the examination system and the more recent ones on scientific knowledge in late imperial China deal with this. -On Their Own Terms- (2005) is intended for scholars, and -Cultural History of Modern Science in China- (2006) seems to be more classroom-friendly.

  5. In response to Mr. Dresner:

    I did try to use Bray once in a seminar. Students focused on the very end, where she calls for a “technological history of twentieth-century America that [takes] the bathroom as its key focus” and claims that such a history would “tell us as much if not more about ordinary, everyday life” as a history that spent most of its time on, say, electrification. It did not go well.

    In response to Ms. Smith:

    Well, I am going to teach Pomeranz-Huang on… Wednesday February 6, I think. I assess the major points at issue as:

    –Pomeranz asserts rough equivalence between Yangzi Delta and Southern England agricultural living standards in the eighteenth century. Huang points out that the end of the eighteenth century sees Southern England agricultural labor productivity nearly double that at the end of the seventeenth century, so that can’t be right all the time. Advantage to Huang.

    –Pomeranz sees Yangzi Delta female infanticide as a sign of wealth: population restriction to keep Malthusian pressures down and hence farm sizes larger than otherwise and living standards high. Huang sees female infanticide as a sign of poverty: they are so desperately poor they kill their daughters. Advantage to ????.

    –Pomeranz says Chinese coal was relatively inaccessible. Huang points to “mainly” water-born coal from Pingxing in 1905. Advantage Pomeranz.

    Huang concludes: “If it is true that in the eighteenth century Yangzi delta labor productivity declined and pressures of poverty were evidenced… in female infanticide and the widespread sale of girls and women–while in England there were a host of changes… including a (near) doubling of labor productivity in agriculture, an increase of urban population to about three-fold the proportion in the delta… proto-industrial production… dramatic consumption changes… early development of coal… then is it plausible that the two economies remained roughly equivalent?”

    I cavil at the dramatic consumption changes, much of which were due to the availability of New World slave-derived resources, and China had its proto-industry too and had long had it, and Chinese coal was inaccessible, but Huang’s other points strike me as relatively convincing. Pomeranz has, I think, pushed his argument a century later than it can stand. I think Pomeranz is broadly right up through the end of the seventeenth century, but more wrong than right as things stood by the end of the eighteenth.

    I don’t think I can respond to Mr. Baumler because he seems to have serious reading comprehension problems.

    Brad DeLong

  6. Dear Dr. DeLong, thanks for stopping by. I don’t suppose you will respond to this comment, (nor is there any reason you should) but I stand by what I said. The comments -are- a trove of typical misunderstandings about Chinese history and the essay itself, while far better than an essay on modern economic thought written by me, is IMHO, not very good. I know you have read Pommeranz and Huang, you mention them on the site often enough, but as one of your comments pointed out, the essay reads like it was written in 1970. I did not write a line-by-line fisking, as that seemed boring, but there is lots and lots in here that just does not work. To take your four reasons for China’s 19th century crisis.
    1. The “Manchu yoke” thing does not work much better than the Norman yoke does in England. Lots of people were loyal to the Qing court despite their Manchuness. Liang Qichao supported them down to 1909. I agree that China could not have followed the same path of nationalist development as Japan, but then no place could. Chinese elites spent a lot of time thinking about loyalty, and it was quite possible to both enjoy the Peach Blossom Fan and be loyal to the Qing, just as it was possible to be loyal to George II and burble about the King across the water. This section seems to be a hangover from early 20th century anti-Manchuism from the likes of Zou Rong and Sun Yat-sen rather than anything based on the New Manchu History of the last 20 years.
    2. The local and national elites were such a varied group that I hate to generalize about them in this broad way (and most of them were not in government service) but “Confucians” were not the monolithic group of obscuritanists you present them as. I suppose this is the most obvious zombie error in this section. Everyone from my undergrads to Brad Delong to Terry Pratchett is convinced that the Chinese, maybe for biological reasons, or as the prime intellectual commitment of “Confucians” always “discouraged any liking for change.” Yes, local officials were aware of the problems mining could bring, and the top levels of the Chinese elite were no more in favor of radical social change than were the House of Lords, but most of this seems to be a hangover from British 19th century critiques of China’s rejection of the worship of the Goddess of Progress than anything that fits with what we know about Chinese elites.
    3. Peasant rebellions were indeed bad, and probably a sign of worse things going on. Mao and the communists portrayed the Taipings as proto-bourgeois revolutionaries, and in fact there has been some criticism of recent Chinese textbooks as they downplay peasant revolts as the motor of Chinese history. I don’t think it works. To say that the Taiping defeat meant that “China’s political revolution was postponed for half a century” is to assume that the result of Taiping victory would have been …Meiji? 1911? I think Mogadishu would be more likely.
    4. Yes, the Chinese state in 1860 was militarily and politically weaker than the British one, the French one, and perhaps even the Russian one. It was not, however, utterly powerless, and there has been a lot work on the nature of the Chinese state and its successes, such as they were. I’m not sure why this point is here. There was quite a lot of state-led reform in the Qing, and some of it was successful. This section seems to be a hangover from the 19th century claim that China had no state (and thus was available for colonization.) It is simply not correct to say that “European and American mercenaries, concessionaires, merchants and manufacturers went where they wanted, did what they wanted, and enforced whatever laws they thought were good.”

    I suppose the main problem with the essay is that I can’t really figure out what to make of it, as it slides right by most of the major concerns of historians of China. Not that you need to concern yourself with what historians think (or one historian in this case). Were the Manchus slavering horse-riding killers or assimilated Chinese? Not a helpful question, they were neither. Was China in 1880 a modern developmental state or a stateless area? Not a helpful question. I started thinking about what I would say if a student turned this into me. I assume I would give it an “F”, since I don’t ask these sorts of broad questions and this would be coming from one of those students who answers their questions rather than mine. (I like those students, so I would feel bad about it.) If I did ask this type of question I would have given them a boat-load of reading to do first, and would probably wonder why they had done so little of it.

  7. Wow.

    I was bowled over by your first point, and couldn’t get any further.

    The question is: Why was the Qing court around 1900 different from Meiji Restoration Japan or the Thailand of Mongkut and Chulalongkorn in its inability to rally energetic modernizers like Zou Rong and Sun Yat-sen to its banner?

    You say: “The ‘Manchu yoke’ thing does not work…. This section seems to be a hangover from early 20th century anti-Manchuism from the likes of Zou Rong and Sun Yat-sen rather than anything based on the New Manchu History of the last 20 years…”

    But Zou Rong and Sun Yat-sen said that the reason they did not rally was that the Qing court was corrupt, obscurantist, and alien–that for the sake of China the “Manchu yoke” needed to be overthrown. And Zou Rong and Sun Yat-sen are not historians whose interpretations are to be disputed, but historical actors whose thoughts are to be understood. And in those thoughts the “Manchu yoke” had a substantial place.

    Now it would be one thing if you said that Zou Rong and Sun Yat-sen said that they were motivated by the desire to rid China of the Manchu yoke but that they were lying, or that they were wrong because they did not understand their own motivations. But you don’t say that, do you? All you say is that their thoughts were not in accord with “the New Manchu History of the last 20 years.”

    You are aware that you have descended into self parody? Pathetic, sad, and not a little funny.


    Brad DeLong

  8. Dear Brad,

    Actually, the Qing court was quite able to rally energetic modernizers like Liang Qichao and lots of others through the whole New Policies period down to about 1909, just as they had the loyalty of Li Hongzhang in the 19th century and Kang Youwei till he died. Sun and Zou were both rather fringe characters in the Qing. Sun and Zou -were- historians in the sense that they claimed, as you seem to, that the Han people had been chafing under the rule of the Manchus since 1644 and that Manchu oppression was an important way to explain Chinese history. They may well have believed this, but they were, as far as I can tell, wrong, although it did become part of later Chinese nationalist mythology. The Qing court did not “define themselves as barbarians” or “oppose all change” and they actually quite concerned with the well-being of the peasants, like any Confucian rulers. Nor had they “always been weak” unless you are defining weak very oddly. Frankly it was not until late that they were even Manchus. China was taken over in 1644 by the banner armies of the Qing emperors, and many of the bannermen were Han, Mongols or Others. It was only after a long period of ideological development that Manchu oppression was even thinkable. The Qing was supported by the elite, both in and out of office and they carried out a lot of reforms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that were supported by lots of people. Zou Rong wanted to kill all the Manchus, but he died in prison. Sun Yat-sen called for people to rise up against their Manchu oppressors, but got little traction with this. If you are looking four 4 keys to understand post-Opium War China I don’t think anti-Manchuism is one of them.



  9. Actually, Prof. DeLong, I had a lovely chat with a Center for History and New Media fellow at the last AHA who is, in fact, doing some wonderful things on the history of bathroom plumbing, in addition to revolutionizing scholarly communication. It draws on traditional social history, history of science and technology, history of commerce, sensory history and architectural history, just for starters. I think Bray’s wrong about electrification being less important, but I’m very sorry that her point that the study of the way things are done matters was lost on your students.

    And your point about Huang and Pomeranz hinges on the usual error about China: that Chinese standards of living were stagnant while others were changing.

    You might want to read Paul Cohen’s old historiography, Discovering History in China for a quick review of the standard themes which you seem to be reiterating.

  10. I may blog on this later on, but would only at this point refer you to the argument made by Eric Mielants in his recently published “The Origins of Capitalism and the Rise of the West”, which I reviewed here:


    Basically, he makes the case that it was only in Western Europe that a merchant bourgeoisie was able to consolidate its power and begin to use the state on its own behalf. In China, India and North Africa, the various kingdoms were hostile to mercantilism and instead exploited the peasantry to build an economic base. Although he takes considerable pains to differentiate himself, Mielants sounds a bit like the old Asiatic Mode of Production theory that Marx alluded to.

    If I find the time tonight, I might recapitulate Jim Blaut and Andre G. Frank’s ideas on this matter.

  11. My sense is that the Chinese state, the Qing state, was, if anything, too strong, not too weak. That is, the centralized bureaucracy, at least before the Taiping, was quite effective at maintaining routine political control over a vast territory. It could extract resources to support its coercive power and its public projects, again on a scale much greater than any single European country. It benefited from the allegiance of the rural gentry, who had a material interest in participating in the political and cultural hegemony (in a Gramscian sense, via the examination system) of central rulers. As Alan has suggested (though he may not agree with my reasoning), ethnic identity just wasn’t that powerful: everyone was “Chinese.” And most power holders, or those interested in holding power, were co-opted into the system. We could argue that it was precisely the extraordinary success of this political economy – effective state, prosperous economy – that created the conditions for its demise (sorry to get all Hegelian on you – I don’t like him either), and that came in the form of population increase and pressure on the land, producing the kind of rural difficulty that under girded the Taiping. In short, the real crisis of the Qing doesn’t begin until after the Taiping, when centralized military power has been dissipated. Nationalism, or ethno-nationalism if you like, is not seriously in play, politically, until the Japanese attack in 1895.
    I imagine you all will disagree with some or all of this, and I welcome your comments.

  12. Hi,

    China was not stagnant. China has been frozen by female infanticide removing from the procreation pool men that would not fit the culture ideal. Undesireable males could find no wives. This included men that were creative.

    Please consider visiting http://www.neoteny.org/?p=132 and http://www.neoteny.org/?p=133 for a unique unorthodox theory of female infanticide based on an evolutionary interpretation of social structure in patrifocal societies.

    Thank you,


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