Some controversies about agriculture and change in late Imperial China

Some Controversies about Agriculture and Change in Late Imperial China


E. N. Anderson


WARNING:  Preliminary draft, not all checked out thoroughly.  I’m confident enough of it to allow quotation with proper citation, but be warned.  I would deeply appreciate corrections, commentary, and discussion!


Population Growth

The great drama of late imperial China was the steady growth of population.  Ming reached about 150 million by 1600 (Brook 2010:44-45; see his excellent short discussion of rival estimates).  Then growth was interrupted by the enormous crash in the Ming-Qing transition, when population fell by at least 25% and possibly more.  Qing population soon bounced back:  to “313 million in 1794 and an estimated 430 million by 1840” (Brook 2010:45).  A side note is that with the rapid expansion of the educational system in this period, “lower degree holders…increased from around 40,000 in 1400 to…well over 1,000,000” around 1800 (Rowe 2009:151).  Of course this led to a crisis familiar today:  far more educated people than the system could absorb. 

Population growth put unprecedented stress on the production system.  Agricultural land per capita declined 43% between 1753 and 1812 alone (Rowe 2009:150; the dates are set by the availability of fairly reliable figures).   This was in spite of steady, rapid opening of new farmland on all frontiers.  William Rowe (2009:150) believes labor had previously limited the ability of the system to intensify, but now land was the limit, and labor was poured into making it yield more.  (In fact, the system had been intensifying for centuries, so labor was not a very dramatic limit, if it was a limit at all.)  This is a variant of Ester Boserup’s famous theory of agricultural intensification (1965) and is also related to Elvin’s high-level equilibrium trap (1973; discussed in detail in Anderson 1988).  Rowe also notes Elvin’s further development of a technological lock-in model (Rowe 2009:212; cf. Elvin 2004a).  China was stuck with a labor-intensive organic model and could not switch overnight to anything like a western plan. 

Supporting so many people on so little land took a level of skill, innovativeness, and hard work that has not been adequately appreciated.  Most of the literature (e.g. Elvin 2004a; Elvin and Liu 1998) stresses the grim Malthusian crisis, with deforestation, unsustainable conversion of wetlands, desertification, “retreat of the elephants” (Elvin 2004a), and so on, as the inevitable toll.  All these and more did indeed occur and were horrific, and conditions by the early 20th century were awful beyond modern imagination (Li 2007), but the real news was that somehow those 400 million usually managed to eat.  Superior water management (Zhang 2006), famine relief, forest control, ricefield protection, the New World crops, and many other creative and dynamic innovations were responsible.

As we have seen, Li Bozhong has pointed out that the effects of the new crops and cropping patterns introduced in Song and Yuan were not widely felt till Ming, and thus Ming population and wealth could grow steadily in spite of the poor governance of that troubled dynasty.  The Yangzi Delta and neighboring areas flourished especially.  Evidently this was one reason the dynasty survived so long.

Yields stayed about the same in shi per mu in Ming, but the shi measure became larger than it had been in Song (when it was ca. 145 lb.).  In Ming it was some 220 lb or more (Li 2003:170).  Thus, though landholdings shrank, the combination of higher yields and higher measures meant tha people were, on average, not desperate—though of course the plight of the least fortunate was dreadful.      

Population grew, but the idea that China “always” had a huge, fast-growing population is a myth.  China’s population, and its increase rate, remained comparable to Europe’s through most of this period (Lavely and Wong 1998; Lee and Wang 1999; Pomerantz 2000).  In fact, until the late 19th century, China’s population was less dense than that of the United States today.  Only when China’s 18th century brought peace, and Europe’s birth rate declined (and declined more in the 19th and 20th centuries), did China forge ahead.  Moreover, the rebellions of the 19th century reduced China’s population so much that whole regions were left labor-short (see e.g. Rowe 2009:198), leading to much more favorable terms for farmers and workers.  The effect was like that of the bubonic plague in 14th-century Europe.  This released land and capital for development, especially in the lower Yangzi region, China’s richest and one of the hardest hit by the Taipings.

Population pressure is not a valid explanation for differences between China and Europe.  In fact, I have yet to see a case in which “population pressure” by itself explains anything.  One must always explain why the population pressure builds up in the first place.  One must then explain why people picked one particular method of dealing with it as opposed to the infinite list of other possible ways.  Rising population drove ecological degradation in China (Elvin 2004a; Marks 1998), but other choices were possible, and were locally adopted.  The Chinese were fully aware of the environmental problems (Myers and Wang 2002:640), and did a great deal to prevent them—planting trees, maintaining forests, keeping dykes maintained and when possible keeping them low and letting the rivers run.  True remedies were, however, beyond China’s administrative power.  There simply was not enough government expertise or enforcement capability.

James Lee and Wang Feng (1999) have argued that China was not up against true Malthusian pressures, even in the late 19th century.  Infanticide was widely practised—especially, perhaps, in the most densely populated areas.  Even the imperial family practiced it, the poorer nobles more than the high elites.  In some areas up to a quarter or more of girls were killed, and toward the end of a completed family—when the mother was too old for much further hope of a son—even higher rates were observed (Lee and Wang 48 ff).  Since it was selective, eliminating female babies, it disproportionately reduced overall birth rates.  Lee and Wang also mention abortion, but Matthew Sommer has pointed out that abortion was rare in traditional China (Sommer 2011), which accords with my findings 40-50 years ago.  Today, abortion is common, especially abortion of female fetuses—thanks to ultrasound making sex determination possible.  South Korea has had to outlaw ultrasound to prevent mass abortion of girls.  Before ultrasound, however, people had to wait till the child was born, after which selective infanticide of girls was common.

 China may have had, over its history, 20% fewer people than it would have had if everyone had as many children as they possibly could.  A Chinese woman married at 20 and living to menopause could expect to have six children—Lee and Wang find the figure remarkably consistent over history—as opposed to 7 to 9 in the west in the old days (Lee and Wang 1999:86ff).  The figure of six, however, has been challenged, however, because it refers to registered children, not including those that died at birth.  Lee and Wang explain the lower figure (compared to the west) by sexual restraint of Chinese men—rather oddly, since they had just finished showing that infanticide eliminated exactly enough children to explain 100% of the difference: they conclude that it reduced birth rates by 20%.  Folklore, novels, and medical literature all agree that Chinese men were no more sexually restrained than any other men.  In reality, it was infanticide, poor diet, rampant disease and trauma, and chronic banditry that led to high child deaths in China.  Also, Lee’s and Wang’s high figures for “the west” are for relatively well-to-do countries in the early modern period.  Figures from the Balkans or Ukraine or Russia would show lower rates.

Lee and Wang, however, note a striking shortage of descendants even in noble lineages, where there was every pressure to have children (Lee and Wang 1999:105ff.).  They also note high adoption rates.  Less credibly, they allege that male heads of households had total authority, though qualified by heavy responsibilities (Lee and Wang 1999:125ff.).  This traditional view of the family was always the ideal, but in practice a paterfamilias could not exercise anything of the sort.  Research in Chinese communities confirms what Chinese novels, from The Story of the Stone (Cao and Gao 1973-1986) to Ba Jin’s Family, show:  a strong paterfamilias resorted to consultation and to empathetic listening, while a petty tyrant was invariably a weak man.  In the latter case, any coalition of strong women was enough to run rings around him; they kept him busy with outside matters (men’s proper sphere!) and ran the household more or less as they wanted; The Story of the Stone provides some 4000 pages of detailed proof of this point.  Either way, a man’s authority over his household seems not to have been greater than that found in America in my childhood, when father’s word really was law. 

The importance of this is that Lee and Wang make a case that fathers could both abstain from sex themselves and make sure their sons and sons-in-law did—thus keeping fertility rates low:  “Not only did married couples wait a substantially longer time to initiate reproduction than their European counterparts; they also ended their reproductive life much earlier.  Influenced by a different culture of sexuality, and under the close supervision of the collective family, Chinese couples were able to control the ‘passion between the sexes’” (Lee and Wang 1999:105).  A great deal of further attention is devoted to this saintly abstinence.  This also runs true to stereotype but against all evidence.  Chinese men were often away from home and usually worked terribly hard, often with little nourishing food, all of which militates against their having inordinate amounts of sex.  However, once again, my long stays in Chinese households in traditional times certainly did not reveal any sexual deficiencies.  (My sample was small, but we knew them well.)  And, once again, the novels are far better evidence.  One may also note (as Lee and Wang do not!) the enormous number of prostitutes, singing girls, and other hospitality workers in old China, available often for very small sums.

In fact there were plenty of men, and plenty of male sex drive, but relatively few women to bear children.  Selective infanticide and neglect kept sex ratios imbalanced, though to highly variable degrees in different parts of the country.  Thus men often married late or not at all.  Polygamy made it even harder, though Lee and Wang note that polygamy was rare—one in ten among the high elite, but only one in a thousand marriages among rural poor.  (My surveys 40-50 years ago found a bit fewer than one in a hundred.  These surveys were among middling people—some rich, some poor, most making an adequate but not good living.  Only the rich could afford two wives, and most of the rich actually remained monogamous.) 

Also, chronic disease, malnutrition, and other killers took a heavy toll.  On the other hand, public health was known, and new child care manuals devoted increasing attention to the values of breastfeeding, the proper introduction of solid foods, and other issues of care; in addition, smallpox vaccination was practiced widely (Lee and Feng 1999:45, 91; readers will recall that the Chinese, not Jenner, invented smallpox inoculation; he learned it from them).  Breastfeeding was indeed normal and kept on for two years or more; I found it extending even beyond three years in some cases, on the Hong Kong waterfront in the 1960s and 1970s. 

In all:  “As a result of China’s long history as the largest national population and the most densely settled nation, the Chinese evolved a demographic system early on of low marital fertility, moderate mortality, but high rates of female infanticide, and consequently of persistent male celibacy” (Lee and Wang 1999:105).  Of course this conclusion is debatable, and has been debated.

By the mid-18th century there may have been 500 persons per square kilometer of cultivated land in the densely populated areas of China.  Western Europe had only about 70 per square km at the time (Lee and Wang 1999:168).  The Chinese figure misses a lot of cultivated land in back regions and with low population densities, however.  Meanwhile, cultivated acreage increased considerably (contrary to earlier views; see Lee and Wang 1999:169-170), especially in the remote regions of Manchuria and the montane southwest.  Population grew rapidly here, slowly in most of China, and not at all in the desperately crowded central-east (Lee and Wang 1999:117).  The central-east became an enormous sender area; migrants moved to the other parts of China, but also to Southeast Asia and even farther afield.

China’s population increased from 150 million in 1700 to 300 million in 1800, perhaps 450 million by 1840.  It dropped back sharply because of the Taiping and other rebellions, but rose again to the famous “400 million”—a figure proverbial in the western world in those days—by 1900.  Rowe also stresses the importance of  “the period when Chinese civilization moved decisively uphill” (Rowe 2009:93), the 18h and 19th centuries; this again was due largely to the New World crops, especially potatoes and corn, which flourish on slopes.  Constant problems with servile and exploited labor and underclass populations, as well as ethnic minorities, followed (Rowe 2009:97ff.). 

There is doubt about population figures, since we have no believable figures from late Ming or the Ming-Qing transition, but the general trends are clear (see Lavely and Wong 1998; Myers and Wang 2002; Rowe 2002.)  The problem was certainly not lack of food or lack of ability to feed a growing, increasingly urbanized population. 


The Survival of Ming

Even the infamous “strike” by the Wan Li Emperor, who refused to sign edicts for decades, did not bring the dynasty down (Huang 1982).

No other Chinese dynasty came even close to this record of continued tranquility without interruption by coups or near-fatal rebellions.  The Yi Dynasty in Korea lasted longer, but faced continual crises and rebellions.  The Tokugawa in Japan lasted almost as long, but the shoguns were highly competent and assertive, and ruled during a period of expanding economy.

How Ming did it remains a mystery.  Apparently a major part of the reason was the incredible success of Ming at maintaining what political scientists call a perception of “legitimacy.”  People were truly loyal to Ming.  Nothing impresses more in this regard than the early Portuguese accounts, which emphasize the profound reverence—beyond mere loyalty—that common people in remote southeast China had for “Da Me.”  (This was the Portuguese transcription of the Hokkien pronunciation of da ming, “Great Ming”; Hokkien converts “ming” into “me,” which in both Hokkien and Portuguese has a strongly nasalized “e.”)  The Portuguese hoped for a local dissident movement that they could take advantage of—hence their concern and wonderment. 

The Dutch later ran into the same problem in Taiwan; they took the island, but were promptly expelled by Ming loyalists looking for a base to reconquer China from the Qing rulers!  The last Ming dynasts bestowed on Taiwan’s conqueror, Zheng Chenggong, the right to use the Imperial surname (Zhu), and he became immortalized in Hokkien slang as Coxinga (Hokkien kok seng a, “Imperial Surname Kid,” Mandarin guo xing zi; a is a Hokkien slangy diminutive with exactly the same extensions as “kid” in English).

Yet more:  even the 1911 revolution, which ended the Qing after almost 300 years of rule, was brought about by rebels chanting “Overthrow Qing and restore Ming!” In hundreds of years of persecution of Ming loyalists, this slogan not only survived, but several hand-gesture forms of it had developed to allow the faithful to communicate their sentiments even when there were Qing spies about.  Some of these morphed into criminal gang signs after Qing finally did fall.

Possibly the dynasty’s very eccentricity helped it.  When the emperor was on strike, or busy playing in a carpentery shop, or otherwise revealing all too well the dynastic family’s streak of mental instability, the country had to look after itself.  Bureaucrats and eunuchs were forced to act for the general good, because they knew they would all go if the system went down.  Ordinary people could be loyal to the Emperor, because he was doing nothing—thus giving no offense.  Obviously, however, this is an inadequate explanation of the fact, and we are left in wonderment.

Ming continued Yuan autocracy, and also Yuan’s repressive view of women.  (The Yuan view is itself surprising, given Mongol norms of female power; steppe women had to run the society when the men were off fighting, and had a great deal of independence and agency.)  Neo-Confucian influences and the development of the property-holding corporate lineage by Fan Chengda and other Song statesmen found fruition; the Ming regime imposed these as part of a comprehensive strategy of top-down, authoritarian control.  The status of women fell.  Widow remarriage, previously the rule, was discouraged.  Women lost many rights to dowry wealth if their marriages failed or husbands died.  Polygamy (as opposed to concubinage) was legitimized (Birge 2002).  Combining this with the property-holding lineage enormously increased not only male power but the power of corporate landholding entities ruled by central authority—the lineage elders in the case of lineages, the father in the case of families, the village leaders in the case of communities, and on up to the imperial court.

Some success was due to trade.   Ming trade with Japan was important, especially for silver.  Japan’s large silver mines were the source of most of this precious metal in Ming, at least until New World silver began flooding into the country—a process that began in Ming but did not become overwhelming till Qing, when Europeans paid in silver coins for Chinese goods.

Ordinary private voyaging, trade, contact, and settlement continued, and by the end of Ming, Southeast Asia—known as the Nanyang, “South Seas”—had large communities of Chinese, mercantile but involved in many extractive industries also.  This was the start of the large and well-educated southeast Asian Chinese communities that are so important in the world today.  The South China Sea, always a “Chinese lake” and heavily used for trade since Tang, became a crowded highway, with people constantly shuttling back and forth.

At first, it seemed that Ming was following in the tracks of earlier centuries.  The Ming government republished the Huihui Yaofang and other works.  It continued to release new books of research.  It opened more and more contacts with southeast Asia.  But after Zheng He’s voyages, China turned inward.  The Ming elite was not deeply concerned with foreign issues, especially of trade and expansion, though ties to southeast Asia and concerns with Japan continued.


The Rise of Qing

Qing came in with dynamism, and, initially, more open government than Ming.  This did not last long, as most Chinese resisted these non-Han invaders.  Rebellions flared everywhere, and, as we have seen, when Qing was finally overthrown in 1911 it was by people who still chanted the ancient line “overthrow Qing, restore Ming.” 

At first, the Manchus claimed to revert to their ancestors the Jurchen, who ruled the Qin Dynasty.  “In reality, [they] built their state partly from scratch and partly by liberal borrowing from…Ming….  In only several decades [before conquering China in 1644], they worked out not only a formidable mutiethnic miltary and political system but also a comprehensive ideology of mission that would put most modern corporations to shame” (Bronson 2006:140). 

Relevant is the wider context of peace; the core provinces were so calm that when a local rebellion finally occurred in Shandong in 1774 (Perry 1981), the local law enforcement personnel could not find their weapons.  When they finally located these in an old storeroom, they discovered that the weapons had rusted away!  I know of no comparable story anywhere else in the world.

In spite of such reign of peace, the Qing Dynasty was increasingly perceived as an unpopular reign of alien “barbarians,” especially after 1800 (Rowe 2009).  It found itself forced to become even more autocratic (see Peterson 2002, passim; also Elliott 2009, but that source is a bit more temperate).  Even their liberation of the (rather few) serfs and low-caste peoples was apparently a way to create a levelled, easily-ruled society, not as a blow for freedom (Rowe 2002).  Intellectuals protested and advocated small government in terms reminiscent of the American founding fathers, and were savagely repressed in consequence (Peterson 2002; see especially Woodside 2002).  Commerce greatly flourished, and capitalist-like firms and behaviors multiplied (Rowe 2002), but the oppression of all initiative crushed any chance of real development. 

            Qing had a surprisingly strong feminist streak in its early popular culture (see esp. Idema and Grant 2004).  Male writers like Cao Xueqin, Zheng Xie and Yuan Mei extolled the value of women, their intellectual equality with men, and their potential.  Yuan Mei not only advocated educating women along with men, but actually educated many of them himself, serving as tutor and mentor to over fifty women—a whole generation of brilliant female writers (Waley 1986).  Cao Xueqin’s great novel The Story of the Stone (Cao and Gao 1973-1986) portrays elite women who had the benefit of such education and turned out to be brighter and nobler than the men in their lives. (On these matters see Epstein 2011; Idema and Grant 2004; Widmer 2006.) 

There were various motives involved.  Cao and Zheng were intensely moral men, were concerned with fairness and ending abuses, but Yuan, who had the mores of a tomcat, made no secret of wanting lovers he could talk to.  Women themselves wrote countless poems, stories, and especially tanci, prose-poetic works thought to be largely a female medium; not surprisingly, tanci routinely portray women as “smart, learned, physically active, and the equal of any man in the examination field, imperial court, and sometimes even in physical combat” (Epstein 2011:7).  It will be recalled that women did not get this kind of fair shake in western literature until the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  (Sappho anticipated the trend by a few millennia, but one swallow does not make a summer.)  One wonders, as so often, why China did not go on to parallel the west.  Neo-Confucian morality reasserted itself.


Qing food

China’s cities were quite “modern,” having—among other things—a wealth of teashops, restaurants, and attendant food-related amenities (see e.g. Rowe 1989, esp. p. 86; Rowe 2002). 

            Business, trade and commerce enormously expanded through the 18th century (Rowe 2009:132ff.).  The old idea of international trade as “tribute”  and internal trade as minor and repressed is largely wrong.  Trade continued to expand after 1800, but, especially after 1840, trade with the west incurred increasing disadvantage.

This was in large measure because of opium, long known but explosively expanding its tentacles in the 19th century.  It was used moderately and reasonably before the 19th century, but then the British began “dumping” it on China in order to get silver and to get a local foothold on trade.  David Bello has recently updated the history of this drug (Bello 2003 and references therein—a comprehensive bibliography).  The Qing Dynasty tried, not without success, to prohibit it, but the western powers—finding little else they could sell at a profit—forced it on China anyway.  By the end of China’s last dynasty, in 1911, millions of Chinese were addicted to this debilitating curse.  The result of the British pressure was a rise in demand and in addiction, and eventually a serious problem, as I had plenty of opportunity to observe in Hong Kong in the 1960s.   The effect on food production was serious, as more and more laborers succumbed.  Attempts to eradicate opium in the early Communist years were quite successful, but, with the opening of the market after the 1970s, heroin and other hard drugs flooded in (Dikötter et al 2002; they are wrong in claiming the problem was not a large one earlier).

            Tea has its own stories.  Robert Gardella (1994) compared China’s smallholder production with the rise of plantations in the colonial world; Qin Shao (1998), in a fascinating article, showed that China vilified teahouses as dens of freethinking and other iniquities—just as Turkey and later Europe attacked coffeehouses, and just as “espresso joints” were attacked as hotbeds of “beatnikism” within my own memory.  Exports of tea to England “grew exponentially, from around 200 pounds eper year in the late seventeenth century…to over 28,000,000 pounds in the early nineteenth century” (Rowe 2009:166), with the average English household by then spending as much as 5% of its income on tea.  England at first paid in New World silver, but eventually only opium was valuable enough to trade to offset the buying of tea, porcelain, cloth, and so on.  So opium spawned the famous colonialist wars, which had much to do with “underdeveloping” China.

China kept developing more and more elaborate dishes, and became more and more committed to what we now recognize as “Chinese cuisine”—no more Central Asian and Near Eastern borrowings (Anderson 2005b). 

The great Chinese gourmet Yuan Mei (1716-1798) flourished in Qing (Anderson 1988; So 35-43; Waley  1956).  His birthday, set at March 25 in the western calendar, has recently been declared International Chinese Food Day.  It could be an arbor day, too; he planted a tree on his 70th birthday, saying:

“Seventy, and still planting trees….

Don’t laugh at me, my friends.

I know I’m going to die. 

I also know I’m not dead yet.”   (Tr. J. P. Seaton, 1997:92.)

His cookbook is thoroughly Chinese (Schmidt 2003; So 1986; Waley 1956).  No central Asian or western influences here.

The great novels, notably The Story of the Stone (Cao and Gao 1973-1986) and The Scholars (Wu 1957), are full of food images (Anderson 1988).  Classical cookbooks appeared, to be mined in our time (e.g. So 1992).  The Qianlong Emperor loved birds’ nests, though, oddly, Li Shizhen did not refer to them (Rosner 1999:7).

An odd sidelight into food in remote Taiwan comes from the career of He Bin, an outrageous rogue in the grand tradition of scoundrels (Andrade 2007).  Among other things, he misappropriated the taxes on mullet, very popular common fish that could be caught wild or farmed.  Working for (and simultaneously against) the Dutch, who occupied Taiwan in the 17th century, he managed, among other things, to channel a great deal of the mullet tax into his pockets.  A tax of 10% on mullet and their roe, during the season for fishing them, was charged, and little of it got past He Bin. 


In Qing, China revived its interests in Central Asia.  The dynasty conquered outward, not only bring China back to its classic Han and Tang borders, but extending these still further, in one of the great territorial upsweeps of history.  At its peak, China held what is now Mongolia and southern Siberia as well as all of contemporary Chinese territory.  Russia slowly pried away the Siberian lands, and then in 1921 the USSR “liberated” Mongolia, but England was never able to take Tibet, which remained Chinese territory.  (In spite of modern-day hopeful romanticism, Tibet was never independent after early Qing).

Qing became a cosmopolitan empire, after its fashion, by not only integrating these lands into Great Qing, but also respecting their cultures and giving them and their religions high status within the imperial framework (Elverskog 2013; Rowe 2009).  The Qing court, especially early on when Central Asian ideals of tolerance still held, was respectful of China’s minorities—rather more than some regimes since.  In Beijing they set up religious places of worship for all major faiths.  They patronized Buddhism of various forms, as well as piously continuing traditional imperial sacrifices.  Visitors to Beijing were treated respectfully.  A Muslim Uighur concubine in the court of the Emperor Qianlong in the 1760s and 1770s managed to avoid pork, eating mutton instead, and to eat sweets—probably with a Central Asian flavor (Millward 1994:435). 


Qing Agriculture

            Agriculture had, if anything, even higher prestige in Qing than in other eras.  The Manchus took seriously the Confucian worship of that activity.

            However, China’s (and perhaps the world’s) greatest novel, The Story of the Stone (Cao and Gao 1972-1986), shows that not all was well.  A recent and extremely insightful study (Zhou 2013) shows that Cao Xueqin, the author, consistently casts a sardonic eye on agriculture and farmers, and portrays his elite protagonists as holding it in varying degrees of scorn and ridicule.  This was noted and at least sometimes disliked by other Qing authors.  Evidently Cao touched a nerve (here as in almost everything else he wrote), and people were well aware of mixed attitudes toward farming.  This clearly goes far to explain Qing’s mix of policies favoring agriculture and lack of real energy about modernizing it.

Most careful observers of China’s food and population problems in the Qing and the early 20th century focus not on crude Malthusian stories but on the nature of growth.  China’s development before the Communist period was always “biological” in the terms of Yujiro Hayami and Vernon Ruttan (1985; cf. Elvin 1973; Huang 1990).  People applied more and more fertilizer, worked harder and harder, introduced new crops, learned better cultivation and management techniques—all of which increased output per acre, and output per factor input, much more than they increased output per worker.  It is doubtful whether output per work-hour increased at all.  Lee and Feng (1999) point out that individuals were more productive, and did eat better, but this appears to be the result of working both harder and smarter.  They note, for instance, that women “increasingly joined the main labor force” (p. 39). 

Qing for most of its time on earth had more area and people than Europe; it was continental in size.  By 1800, Europe had 180 million people; Qing had 250-300 million.  Feeding them was a challenge.

By mid-Qing, the borrowings from the New World—crops like maize and sweet potatoes came in the 16th century (Sinoda 1977:493)—were having a revolutionary effect.  Sucheta Mazumdar’s work dramatically confirms and extends our knowledge of this  (Mazumdar 1999).  Among other things, New World crops allowed Chinese cultivators to continue to live as small independent farmers.  The new crops also fed a sustained population increase that still continues.  As William Rowe points out, “New World food crops such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, and peanuts…served as brakes on starvation during harvest failures of the more preferred staples, rice and wheat” (Rowe 2009:91).  They also allowed cultivation of uplands and sandy soils. 

By contrast, increase in agricultural productivity in the western world was due largely to opening up new lands, to mechanization, and to industrial developments such as artificial chemical fertilizers.  Output per worker soared, but output per acre was stagnant until the rise of hybrid seed varieties and other biological improvements in the mid-20th century (Hayami and Ruttan 1985; local exceptions where both output per worker and output per acre increased included Denmark, the Low Countries, and parts of England and Italy.).  Thus, in Qing, China involuted (Geertz 1963; Huang 1990, 2002) while the west industrialized.

Modern authors like Kenneth Pomeranz (2000) and Bin Wong (1997) have stressed China’s many advantages in population, resources, productivity, learning, and organization, even as late as the 17th and 18th centuries.  They have done much to demolish the idea of European exceptionalism.  Li Bozhong (see above), also, emphasizes the enormous increases in agricultural production and productivity and the other economic gains in Ming.  Pomeranz feels that China was equal to Europe in production, productivity, and development until 1700, after which Europe forged ahead because of its maritime successes, its scientific tradition, and its cheap coal (at least in England—but China also has a great deal of coal). 

Against Pomeranz, however, Philip Huang (2002) reaffirms his arguments for agricultural involution, and argues that China was so trapped by its intensive agriculture and high person-to-farmland ratio that few resources (whether land, labor or capital) could be freed for development.  Huang argues from his work in the Yangzi delta (Huang 1990), without reference to pioneer fringes like Yunnan and Manchuria that produced more surplus.  Pomeranz has riposted to Huang (2002), and the debate has been joined by others (Lee et al 2002; Brenner and Isett 2002).  The argument came down to misplaced decimal points, misdrawn curves, and other minutiae, at which point it became beyond resolution with the data available at the time.  Recent work suggests rather strongly that per capita GDP in western Europe was about twice China’s—around $1200 in today’s dollars vs. $600—in 1700, and China remained at that level as late as 1820 (Bolt and van Zanden 2013:6-7).

Suffice it to say that China had a rich economy with a good deal of surplus that could have been invested, but west Europe had more, including a wealth of animals and a more easily accessible trove of coal (Morris 2010; Pomeranz 2000).  It is also clear that much of China was trapped in static situation of local lineage power, micro-farms, and razor-thin margins.  Change was impressive and important in Ming and Qing China, but much of it was driven by governmental desire to centralize and take ever more power, rather than by a real desire for development in the modern sense.  Local individuals and regions might resist, but they could, at best, slow down and dilute the rise of autocracy. 

“Taking grain as the key link”—an infamous campaign of Mao Zedong—had its ancestry in a Qing campaign launched by the Yongzheng Emperor.  In 1725 he wrote:

“I enjoy eating rice, and I never waste even a kernel.  Rice is a gift from Heaven and nourishes the people.  Because I love the people, I must respect heaven and take great pains to save and treasure rice….  If I…waste foodgrain, Heaven will be angry, and our people will suffer calamities.  I have heard that people in Kiangsi feed grain to the hogs.  This is not appropriate behavior….  Avoid waste and love grain!”  (Quoted Myers and Wang 2002:608.) 

Alas, China today feeds a great deal of its grain to the hogs, and in consequence has to import grain on a massive scale, driving up world prices and impacting the world’s poor.  The old Chinese line “Heaven will send calamities” is appropriate: the Chinese knew perfectly well that “acts of God” followed human mismanagement of the rural landscape.

Pomeranz, like other authors, has recently stressed the vulnerability of north China to floods, siltation, and other water problems, the rapid growth of population in Qing, the limits of agricultural intensification except in the very best habitats, and the problems of progressive forest destruction on the internal frontiers (Pomeranz 2010).  Pomeranz also follows others in noting that Qing government was thin on the ground, with one magistrate for every 300,000 people (as of 1840).  Things had been considerably better in earlier years.  In the mid-18th century: “Officials were few in number relative to the population—on average 1 per 100,000 in the mid eighteenth century” (Elliott 2009:152).  Still, even that is a very low ratio, and these government servants were paid little, reducing their capacity to do much.

Only 3% of GDP went to national taxes (Pomeranz 2010:93); recall this was the ideal established by Emperor Jing, far back in early Han.  Taxes were thus low; figures for 1753 are quite comprehensive, and show levels around half a tael to a tael (about 1 1/3 oz silver) per mu (a bit less than 1/6 acre) (figures from Bernhardt 1992:45).  Silver is worth around $27 per ounce today, so taxes were around $36 per mu, or $216/acre.  A tael would buy rather more than a shi of rice.  Yields of good rice land were about 10-20 shi per acre per crop, with most areas double-cropped and some triple-cropped  So taxes were, at worst, a bit over a tenth of income, and at best a mere 1/30 or so: again that classical Chinese ideal figure of 3%.  Rent levels were similar. 

 Of course the farmers paid much more, thanks to local taxes and above all to illegal squeeze.  But it is still a tribute to the Chinese philosophy of light taxation.  Pomeranz stresses that, thanks to all the wise measures from river management to low taxation, China did not collapse in the 20th century, even with the appalling violence and devastation that accompanied the fall of Qing, the rise of the Republic, the Japanese invasion, the Communist takeover, and (perhaps worst of all) the horrific excesses of Communism in Mao Zedong’s old age.

Pomeranz, Wong, and Philip Huang, as well as other scholars, all agree that China was extremely productive agriculturally during this time, thanks to millions of farmers on postage-stamp farms exploiting their family labor.  Myers and Wang’s summary article (2002) describes a stunningly successful, rationalized, developed agriculture with highly sophisticated technology.  Farmers and writers realized that bean plants, plowed in, restored soil fertility, as did beancake fertilizer (see e.g. Myers and Wang 2002:610-611).  They knew the relative values of different kinds of dung.  Efficiency of production, transportation, and processing all increased, at the same time as leasing arrangements, banking, and government policy were making it ever easier to trade in foodstuffs.  On the other hand, rural wages (calculated in rice-buying power) declined as population rose (Myers and Wang 2002:637, citing Kang Chao).  The classic work of Ruddle and Zhong (1988) on the Pearl River delta is relevant here; it describes a system so impossibly sophisticated and fine-tuned that it seems beyond the reach of even modern computerized society.  Yet it flourished everywhere in the coastal deltas.

Victor Lieberman has recently addressed these issues (Lieberman 2009), agreeing to some extent with both sides.  Much of China was involuting by 1800, certainly, but the system was still generating much wealth and showing considerable dynamism.  The involutionists sometimes forget that cultivation was actively expanding in the southern and southwestern frontier, even as the old rice-growing areas were getting more and more congested.  China’s wealth continued to expand up until the 1840s, when rebellions and famines began a devastating course that was to destroy Qing in time. 

Lieberman sees the low taxation rates as emphatically bad.  They prevented China from having the resources to develop, rationalize, invest, and improve governance.  He quotes the truly depressing statistic that the ratio of government administrators to people reached 1:21,750 by 1850; France’s was 1:213 in 1825 and even the rest of Asia had far greater ratios (Lieberman 2009:614).  I share with Pomeranz the view that low taxes on the agrarian sector are basically a good thing, allowing farmers to flourish, but this sort of ratio of governors to governed is indeed a problem by any standards.  Lieberman also notes that the English agricultural worker had 45 times as much land as his Chinese equivalent in 1800 (Lieberman 2009:569), but of course China’s land was far more productive.

Lieberman sees many of China’s problems and successes as due to its military situation; this is part of his wider thesis that military challenges force states to improve the efficiency and competence of governance and revenue collection, but that constant warfare and violence inhibits development.  For Lieberman, the “protected zone”—the areas of Eurasia safe from Central Asian invasions—succeeded and developed rapidly, while the “exposed zone”—the area hopelessly exposed to Central Asian war—was constantly being devastated.  China and, for a long time, Russia were in an intermediate status.  China was open to Central Asian invaders, but too big and isolated to be constantly challenged but other types of threat.  It thus had advantages over some isolated areas, but on the whole tended to be conquered by any strong Central Asian force (to say nothing of the Manchus), rather than subjected to the constant pressures that drove France, Italy, and other states to modernize.  (Lieberman is aware that Tokugawa Japan presents an anomaly here, but notes that true modernization in Japan did not occur until the west challenged it in the 1850s.  This somewhat underestimates Tokugawa success, however.) 

Like others, Lieberman sees China as falling behind the west in technological and scientific advances by 1700; he is skeptical of the extreme ability of China to repress progress and independent thought, but takes a position that the Chinese government (more specifically, the Qing government) was strong enough to discourage it or coopt it (Lieberman 2009:622-623; this is similar to my position in Anderson 1988).

Yet another important point raised by Lieberman and Pomeranz is the extreme importance of the New World and Australia in providing food and other resources for western Europe, and thus for releasing the pressure on European food production.  Pomeranz and others have pointed out that Europe was expanding its own agriculture and basically feeding itself, so one cannot make too much of a point of this, but the fact is that Europe was flooded with cheap food, silver, timber, and all manner of goods from its colonial conquests.  A problem barely noted by these authors, but worthy of more attention, is why China did not take over the Philippines, Borneo, and other lands occupied only by small, scattered, technologically less sophisticated populations.  The spice islands, in particular, had been supplying China with spices for millennia, yet they were always left alone. 

That Qing could have conquered the islands is proved by the example of Taiwan.  But the Qing government never wanted such expansion, and was not even very active in opening its own southwest.  Taiwan was taken, after all, by Ming loyalists under Zheng Chenggong.  Taiwan was settled against Qing’s will.  Qing was stuck with it after a long period of trying to ignore it.  Apparently there was plenty of food at home; involution could always produce more.  No need to take over remote islands at untold military and strategic cost.  The Iberians and later the Dutch, of course, had no such qualms, and took over the islands as soon as they could get more than one or two ships to them.  It is a profoundly interesting contrast.  Especially interesting is the contrast with Qing’s obsessive fascination with the deserts and uninhabited mountains of Central Asia and Tibet, which it took over at great expense and with enormous drive and determination (Perdue 2005).  The reason is clear: China had always seen Central Asia as the zone of threat, opportunity, and interest—the “gate of war,” the Arabs would have said.  Also, the Manchus identified with the Central Asian peoples.  But by seeing the world thus, Ming and Qing missed their great opportunity.

In general, as pointed out by Pomeranz and Lieberman, Europe was always a much more maritime world than China, especially after 1420, in spite of the enormous and continuing trade between China and the Nanyang.  China simply did not see its interests lying there. Europe may have been forced to the sea by its desperate need for protein (see e.g. Morris 2010, citing a very long chain of sources); beans yield poorly in Europe, especially the native Near Eastern species, while fish was available and cheap before the fishing boom of the late 20th century wiped out the North Atlantic fisheries almost entirely.  Europe’s dependence on high-seas fishing contrasts with China’s conservation of inshore resources and development of aquaculture.  As in agriculture, China did the sensible thing by intensifying local sustainable production, but Europe’s strategy paid off in the long run. 

By the 1700s, intensive development had progressed especially far in the Yangzi and Pearl river deltas.  Agriculture was thoroughly commercialized.  Most people depended entirely or in part on cash cropping and on their own labor in spinning their cotton and silk production into thread and weaving it into cloth for sale.  Other local crafts, from basketmaking to embroidery, added to income.  Families depended on crafts as well as farming, and many would starve if either income stream was disrupted.  Labor productivity, however, increased; yields increased after the troubles; and wages even rose, such that there was more meat for the farm laborers (Lee and Feng 1999:34) and more people could be supported.

Of course many farmers were purely subsistence producers as far as rice went, and had to raise silk, cotton or the like, and/or carry out household craft production, to make money for taxes.  There were extortion, illegal rent-seeking, theft, and other ills to contend with.  These were backbreaking for poor farmers, but not unsupportable for most.  

Around 1800, environmental crises due to rapidly rising population and cultivation began to get more serious.  “Generations of encroachment on lakeshores and riverbanks of the middle Yangzi watershed, stimulated by the growing downriver demand for commercial risce, had rendered the Yangzi valley, likely for the first time in imperial history, a source of flooding of equal concern as the Yellow or Huai rivers to the north” (Rowe 2011:76).  Lakes and sloughs silted up, hills eroded, mountains were stripped bare, forests fell.  The Grand Canal silted up (again).  The beginnings of China’s ecological catastrophe, so immeasurably worse today, were at hand.

Encroachment on lakes and wetlands continued (e.g. Osborne 1998), though it was far less serious than what is going on today.  More serious, and perhaps the worst environmental problem of Qing, was the massive deforestation (Vermeer 1998)—though again it was nothing compared to today’s.   Reduction of minorities was often the cause (Vermeer 1998:246 describes this for the Miao).  Their forests were plundered.  Sometimes this was done on the excuse that “bandits and rebels” (Vermeer 1998:247), many of whom were actually desperate resistance fighters, were taking refuge there.  Other forests were cut by poverty-stricken people who invaded them in spite of rules and restrictions.  Vermeer quotes a number of contemporary sources, some pro-forest, some pro-deforestation.  Awareness of the devastating effects of deforestation was widespread, but not adequate to stop the combination of official fear and grassroots desperation.  Agroforestry was practiced widely (Menzies 1994; Vermeer 1998:251).  Tree plantations were, however, vulnerable to poaching and government takeover.  These acted as disincentives.  Government reserves fell apart and were given over to cultivation, continuing a trend established as early as the Han Dynasty.

Keith Schoppa (2002) has chronicled the fate of the Xiang Lake, across the Qiantang River from Hangzhou.  This study is important not only for itself—and it is excellent—but because it is fairly representative of what happened in the more densely populated parts of China.  This lake was created as a reservoir in Song times; it held excess water and released it later for irrigation.  It became famous for its water-shield plants (Brasenia schreberi, a small waterlily relative, famous for its crunchy and succulent texture), and for bricks and tiles made from its alluvial clay.  Local elite lineages constantly tried to encroach on it, being stopped off and on by heroic efforts of local activists and magistrates; Schoppa’s main point in the book is that only a few such individuals existed, and could turn the tide, while the vast majority lived in terror of the local elites and dared not combine to act against them.  However, the well-meaning citizens succeeded often enough, and had enough local support, to slow degradation and keep the lake viable until the end of imperial times.  In the 20th century, the Xiang Lake met the fate of most of rural China—it was trashed by the Nationalists and destroyed utterly by the Communists, to the enormous damage and impoverishment of the area.

The highlands were even more stresssed.  Thanks to overcutting and similar environmental problems, “a huge pool of late eighteenth-century mountaineers led rootless, impoverished,and desperate lives” (McMahon 2009:94).  Fortunately, some forests were well managed.  Menzies (1994) recounts temples and “clans” that preserved forest adequately; best preserved, however, were commercial plantings of China fir and pine.  Worst managed were the imperial reserves.  Mushrooms were abundantly produced. 


The lower Yangzi was the economic heart of China.  “In Qianlong’s day, Jiangnan accounted for 16 percent of the total agricultural land in the empire, but provided 29 percent of the government’s land tax revenue in cash (paid in silver) and 38 percent of its revenue in kind (paid in grain), as well as 64 percent of the tribute grain sent to feed the capital” (Elliott 2009:78-79).

 Kathryn Bernhardt, in Rents, Taxes, and Peasant Resistance, a thorough and detailed study of the lower Yangzi River area, provides full statistics.  In the Yangzi delta, cotton had largely replaced rice, forcing import of thousands of tons of rice per year from upriver (Bernhardt 1992:18).  Rents were high; rice in the mid-19th century was about 2-3 taels of silver per shi, and a shi per mu (about 1/6 acre) was a standard rent (Bernhardt 1992:24).  A tael of silver today is worth about $36.00, which would mean that rice cost almost a dollar a pound in modern terms—a good deal more than rice costs today.  Of course one would have to adjust all these prices for inflation and so forth, but by no standard was rice cheap or rents low in those days.  Mark Elliott adds:  “Popular wisdom had it that it required 4 mu of land (about two-thirds of an acre) to feed one person.  With rapid population growth, this ratio had worsened under Qianlong from 3.5 mu per person in 1766 to 3.33 mu per person in 1790” (Elliott 2009:148).

In contrast to the typical, and ideal, situation, small independent yeoman farmers were relatively few in this rich but heavily-populated area.  Most were tenants.  A few large landlords, mostly resident in towns and cities, owned thousands of hectares.  Rents were high.  A division had come about of actual ownership of land from rights to cultivate it; the suffering farmer often had to pay rent to both.  (These were confusingly and inaccurately called rents for “subsoil”—actually, actual ownership—and “topsoil”—actually, rights to cultivate, i.e. usufruct.)  In Taiwan, the aborigines often retained ownership, but had no control over cultivation and virtually no income, because aggressive ethnically-Chinese immigrants had managed to get control of the cultivation rights, and used those to maintain a stranglehold over both the cultivators and the actual owners.  This is a case in which actual ownership of the land (“subsoil rights”) meant virtually nothing; “topsoil rights” had taken over.  Never was Marx’ distinction between formal ownership and actual control more dramatically seen.

Tenants thus continually used every possible means to make more money and pay less rent, from working harder to cutting corners to resisting rent collectors to rebelling openly.  Both they and their landlords also resented and resisted taxes.  As water management deteriorated and population increased, tensions grew worse and worse, and increasingly large resistance movements arose. Bandits could work for themselves, for angry tenants, for landlords repressing tenants, for the government, or for social ends—the same groups doing all these things in rapid succession (Bernhardt 1992).  Violence and crime became common, ultimately resulting in total meltdown in the Taiping Rebellion, when various rebel armies, various pro-government forces, and many independent militias and bandit gangs all vied for local control.   Writing of his fellow locals, an anonymous villager commented in 1860:  “Some even follow the bandits.  They do not know shame” (Bernhardt 1992:90).  

The resulting chaos was partially resolved by government success in quelling the Taiping Rebellion; the war devastated thousands of square miles and eliminated a large percentage of the population.  However, imperial China never recovered.  Kathryn Bernhardt goes on to tell a depressing story of the decline of rural society.  The decline of Qing led to increasingly desperate attempts by the government to raise money by taxing more and more heavily.  The fall of Qing in 1911 merely unleashed lawless violence on all scales.  China was not at peace till after 1949.

Western colonialist pressure was increasingly a factor after 1842, leading to classic peripheralization (Wallerstein 1976).  As this continued, through the 19th and 20th centuries, the western world was almost unanimous in taking a supercilious, patronizing attitude toward China’s traditional food sector.  Only those who had intimate acquaintance with it, such as F. H. King (1911; and several others quoted in The Food of China), recognized what an accomplishment mere survival was, under the circumstances.  Now that the United States has as dense a population as late Qing China had, and now that the world food system is tottering toward collapse, we may be able to take a more properly humble attitude.


Qing and Famine

Famines took place constantly (Li 2007; Mallory 1926; Wu 1996, 1997—with comments on the fears of cannibalism; Lee and Wang minimize famine, but are contradicted by all other sources).  They were worse in China than in most of the world, including Europe (Li 2007).

Particularly dramatic was the expansion of food, famine relief, and—consequently—population in the Qing Dynasty, and the collapse when Qing failed.  Lillian Li, in her magistral study of famine in China, Fighting Famine in North China:  State, Market, and Environmental Decline, 1690s-1990s (2007), notes that population rose from 150 million around 1700 to 300 million in 1800 and 430 million by the late 19th century.  “The human impact on the forests, soils, and rivers of China was a centuries-old historical process, but by the eighteenth century, the effects of human encroachment on land, forest, and water resources was becoming evident to officials and local elites of many parts of China.  Increasing population size demanded greater agricultural productivity…” (Li 2007:3-4), and this put yet more pressure on resources. 

By the 20th century, China was in trouble, especially the dry north, where south China’s land-making and land-enriching strategies did not work well.  Li’s chronicle of the disasters of the Beijing area is harrowing indeed.  She gives whole classification schemes for different types and levels of disasters (Li 2007:30, etc.).  The North Chinese had about as many words for floods and droughts than the Inuit have for snow.  Extremely erratic rainfall at the margin of the monsoon led to frequent droughts.  Wheat, the staple, was one of the more susceptible crops, making one understand why more drought-tolerant millets, sorghum, and sweet potatoes were traditional staples of the poor (Li 2007:25).  Foxtail millet was more nutritious than wheat, but sweet potatoes—newly introduced from the Americas—were not, and dependence on them always made for problems.  (Unlike American varieties, the common Chinese varieties are not rich in vitamin A.)

However, the rest of the world had no shortage of famines in those times.  For the vast majority of humanity, freedom from want became a real possibility only with the rise of modern bulk transport of grain and perishable commodities, by rail and ship, in the late 19th century.  Of course, even today, over a billion people, including a quarter of American children, live in poverty and want.  We can hardly feel superior to the Qing bureaucrats.

A study by Deng Yunte (as summarized in Xu 2010:157) found a total of 5,258 recorded famines in China from 1766 BC to 1936 AD.  Of course the earliest were either legendary or actually later, since there was no writing in China in 1766 BC, but on the other hand local small-scale famines were not normally counted, so for actual historic periods this is an absolute minimal figure.  These famines involved 1074 droughts and 1058 floods. 

Pierre-Étienne Will and Bin Wong (Will and Wong 1991) carried out major studies of famine relief, amazingly effective in much of Qing.  They and others (see Myers and Wang 2002; Rowe 2002) have showed that the Qing Dynasty’s famine relief system was pervasive and effective, probably the best in the world in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Beijing’s food security, for instance, was guarded effectively by a range of institutions (Li and Dray-Novey 1999).  Few countries at that time were so well organized as China in making sure that people had some access to food.  Moreover, while Ming sent taxes skyrocketing (to around 9.1% of grain; Brook 2010:108), Qing, as we have seen, dropped them back to the historic 3%.  Low agricultural taxes meant life to the farmers and thus to the whole food system.

Stockpiles of grain for famine relief could be huge, overflowing granaries and rotting because there was simply not enough storage capacity (Li 2007:169).  Famines persisted, however, because the population was so dense and so fast-growing that a government with only premodern transportation methods at its disposal was handicapped.   Lillian Li (2007) investigates the problems of Beijing and the areas around it.  Beijing grew from 660,000 to over a million in Qing (p.a 146) and the region grew even more. 

Like other observers, Li describes a diet of wheat, millets, sorghum, and—increasingly—the New World crops, maize, peanuts, and sweet potatoes.  Many varieties of soybeans were grown; the black one was for horses or for the starving.  Cotton competed for land with food.  Rice was grown but never did well in that cold climate, and there was little water for it in many years.  Rice from the south tended to be old and probably bug-eaten.  The land was productive (far more so than most of Europe at the time).  However, the climate was changeable and official policies and practices were too.  The climate could produce droughts or floods; the region has a very high amplitude of variation in rainfall.  The officials could produce excellent policy in a good time (such as the early 18th century), but corruption was common, and in bad decades even minimal law enforcement was difficult. 

Unlike the north, however, southern and especially central-east China were doing well (Lee and Wang 1999; Li 1998).  The lower Yangzi region and the coast southward from it were well fed and productive, and continued to increase production and per capita consumption through much of the time period in question (Li 1998).  This was accompanied by true involution, but it was successful; an incredibly dense population survived, and even thrived during the more peaceful periods.

The grain tribute brought an enormous amount of food to the capital.  Up to “13-15 million shi” (Li 2007:148; a shi was 133 lb. in the early 20th century) were stored in the city at a time; that would be about 10,000 tons of grain.  One effect was linking prices over the empire; regionalism was inhibited and grain flowed throughout eastern China and to some extent through the center and west.  The nobility was given huge donations of grain (as well as silver and other items) and sold some of it.  As so often, the novel The Story of the Stone is a good source for the realities of this system.

The government tried to keep grain prices low, favoring the urban population but often hurting the farmers.  This is a practice familiar in the modern world, where many countries have done it, usually with unfortunate results for agriculture.

Soup kitchens and other aid facilities, as well as grain storage, helped the hungry.  The system functioned best in the 18th century, preventing mass deaths.  The dreadful tales of late Ming, and again of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, are singularly absent from the records (Elliott 2009; Li 2007:247)  We do not read of cannibalism, living on bark, selling of children for a few coins or scraps of food. 

In the 19th century, all this slowly unraveled.  Rising population led to want, which fueled rebellions that brought the Qing down in 1911.  The worst rebellion was the Taiping (1850-64), which led to tens of millions of deaths, mostly from starvation due to the scorched-earth tactics of all sides in this multi-sided civil war.  Soon after it came perhaps the worst peacetime famine in premodern history.  In 1876-79, some ten to thirteen million people died (Li 2007:272; Lee and Wang 1999:174).  Up to 90% of the population died in some districts in 1878 (Bohr 1972).  Then and throughout the early 20th century, people were reduced to eating chaff, bark, weeds, and corncobs.  Even the more edible weeds and tree barks were long gone.  Cannibalism from desperation was widespread in the 1876-79 famine, and was observed by sober outside observers, not merely reported by the Chinese sources.  (The latter are unreliable, since, like literary sources everywhere, they loved to exaggerate this horrific recourse.)  A great deal of this is summed up in a beautiful and heart-wrenching poem by Chen Wenshu (translated by Yan-Kit So, 1992:226, and well worth looking up).  Food relief failed because transportation and communication resources were simply overwhelmed. 

James Lee and Wang Feng (1999) make the case that south and east China had a great deal of economic growth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  They ignore the fact that these areas had been substantially depopulated a couple of decades before by rebellions and famines, and were rebounding economically.  They also ignore or minimize the effects of westernization, which brought new health and farming practices.  Perhaps most serious, they misconstrue the key arguments about growth vs. involution (a.k.a. high-level equilibrium trap).

 In the early 20th century, population growth and environmental deterioration reached a collision point (Anderson 1990; Bohr 1972; Li 2007; Mallory 1926).  Famines were appalling.  People were reduced to eating husks, roots, bark, and grass, until all the trees died because people had eaten not only the leaves but also the bark. 

By the early 20th century, however, China had a great deal of international help (Anderson 1990; Li 2007), which at least prevented cannibalism in most cases, though sale of children continued.  In the famines of the 1920s, death tolls were comparable to those of 1876-79 (Li 2007:304).  Even when it came, relief was slight; rations of 8 oz. of grain a day—i.e. 800 calories, 1/3 the needs of an adult—were given in 1921 (Li 2007:300).

By the 1930s, China, especially the north, was in the grip of chronic poverty, and people were reduced to near-starvation even in good times.  William Hinton (1966) reported people in the 1940s virtually hibernating in winter because there were not enough calories to allow any activity.  People simply lay down under wraps for days on end.  Maize had replaced more nourishing grains over much of China, with a resulting increase in malnutrition.  Life expectancy may have dropped to 25 in north China, with infant mortality running to 30 or 40% (Li 2007:315).  Modernization, trade, factory work, and other improvements stabilized matters, but the diet of the ordinary people remained one of coarse grain.  Banquets increased for the well-off, but very few were in that category.   The world depression of the 1930s and the Japanese invasion were utterly devastating.


Qing Fails to Modernize

This inevitably leads to the ancient question of why Qing failed to modernize—whatever that much-abused word may mean.  At the beginning, Qing China was in many ways ahead of Europe.  It had a much more productive agriculture and much more efficient food system, for one thing.  It had an outward-looking, tolerant policy toward its own varied peoples, and toward the rest of east and southeast Asia. 

As of 1100 A.D., anyone betting on different regions of the earth would probably have bet that China would be the unquestioned leader in all fields for the next many centuries. India, the Near East and perhaps southeast Europe would stay a strong second.  Any objective observer would have bet in 1100 that west Europe would remain a marginal backwater, except in so far as Muslim civilization brought Spain into the wider world.

By 1200 this was beginning to change.  India by 1100 was already beginning to suffer from Central Asian invasions that progressively restricted its cultural independence.  In the west, scientific progress had been dramatic in the Islamic world, but came to a brutal near-ending.  The Mongols ravaged the Near East in the 1250s, and the bubonic plague 90 years later (Dols 1977) completed the work of ruining the region economically and academically.  Our futurologist in 1100 could not possibly have predicted these two world-altering processes.  Science survived under the Mongols—one thinks of the brilliant polymath Nasīr of Tus, who covered everything from astronomy to ethical psychology—but significant scientific innovation almost ended with the plague epidemic.  In later centuries, the increasingly oppressive and violent competition and colonialism of Europe kept the Near East down.  The Ottomans succeeded to the Byzantine Empire, but unfortunately tended to continue its policies, which did not involve heavy investment in science and progress.

By 1300, China was also showing strains.  It had not only had the Mongol conquests, but, even earlier, the declining Song and its war-torn environment (Twitchett and Smith 2009). 

However, Kenneth Pomeranz (2000, 2010) has argued strongly that China did very well indeed through Ming and Qing, developing as fast as Europe and remaining as prosperous, until the Industrial Revolution pulled Europe far ahead.  He minimizes the importance of China’s turn away from sea travel in 1420, regarded by others as a critical retreat from what could have been a breakthrough to modernity, since it gave the seas to Portugal and Spain (cf. Anderson 1988).  Jared Diamond (1997, 2005) thus stresses 1420 as a key date. 

Pomeranz argues that Europe’s coal and farmland, and to a lesser extent metal ores and forests, gave it an advantage.  Pomeranz also argues that China was as developed as Europe, in technology and in capitalist economic forms, till the 18th century. Certainly the Middle East could not compete, but China had its own coal and soil, and Bin Wong and Philip Huang have proposed alternative formulations that make the situation more complex (Huang 2002; Wong 1997).  They show that Europe lacked a huge lead in resources, and they reaffirm the conventional wisdom that Europe had pulled ahead of China well before the 18th century.  Huang, like Morris (see below), points out that Europe’s sparser population allowed more feeding of and thus use of animals, and so productivity per person was greater.  One must add, here, that productivity per acre was correspondingly less—a real problem.  Europe could export its excess population to the colonies.  Further, Huang shows that the price of labor was low, especially in the 19th century in China.  The vast majority of Chinese lived on a bare subsistence wage.  Starvation was by far the commonest cause of death.  Pomeranz is on very shaky ground in maintaining that China still had parity and a good shot at the brass ring as late as the 18th century. 

It was much easier for Europe to develop economically.  But China could have risen, had it been ready.  Not all areas were poor and densely populated.  Surplus could be, and was, extracted.  Some people were well paid, and levels of living were not abysmal for everyone.  Also, capitalism, science, and technology require a mind-set rather than a rich peasantry.

As noted above, most scholars today would probably accept the conclusion that, while China failed to expand into global sea trade, Europe was forced to expand in that direction, and profited greatly.  Portugal in particular had nowhere to go but out into the Atlantic, and the Dutch too had little option but to take to seafaring.  These nations were, successively, the leaders of long-range voyaging and trade.  The Dutch are sometimes credited with, or accused of, inventing capitalism as a result.  (On all these matters, Wallerstein 1976 remains classic.)  Thus the Europeans became, in Victor Lieberman’s striking and insightful phrase, “white Inner Asians” in their relations with southeast Asia, especially the islands; they came as overwhelming conquerors who appeared out of the blue and swept over the region with devastating effect, like the Mongol hordes (Lieberman 2009:857-894).

China was ahead in maritime matters until the early 1400s, but then turned against government sponsorship of large-scale marine trade and voyaging.  Ming tried to ban sea trade, and Qing fought piracy in ways that damaged the seafaring economy.  Sea trade actually continued, and even flourished, but was largely confined to trade with southeast Asia and other nearby points, and remained largely a trade in luxuries rather than staples—though pottery and other useful goods were exported in industrial quantities.  Ventures did not stop, but the lack of major voyaging gave the west a chance to catch up and then forge ahead, to take a commanding lead by 1500.

China’s turn from world trade after 1420 contrasted with Europe’s dependence on it.  The effects of long-range seafaring and trade on west Europe have been stressed far too often to need repetition here (see e.g. Wallerstein 1976).  It seems clear that world trade forced science and development.  China’s exceedingly active trade with southeast Asia just was not the same thing.  Southeast Asia, always a realm of small trader states, was never a world leader in change or development, though the people are among the most dynamic and enterprising in the world.  Apparently the old southeast Asian states were always land-based and tributary enough, and sufficiently oppressed by bigger empires, to prevent them from taking full advantage of their situation.

A key date with much symbolic significance is 1593.  That was the year of publication of Li Shizhen’s Bencao Gangmu, the climax of Chinese herbal writing and a truly stunning achievement.  But it was also just slightly later than Rembert Dodoens’ Flemish herbal of 1554, which represented a similar breakthrough for herbals in Europe.  Soon after, in 1597, came Gerard’s Herball (1975 [1633], originally written 1597; based heavily on Dodoens), the first great modern herbal in English.   In 1593 there was every reason to believe that Li would stimulate a major breakthrough in Chinese herbal and botanical science, as Dodoens and his colleagues and followers did in Europe.  But Li remained unexcelled.  The Ming Dynasty fell, the Qing showed no interest in advancing the science, and Li is still the standard text in traditional Chinese herbalism.  By contrast, Gerard was almost immediately eclipsed by John Parkinson’s incredible achievement Paradisi in Sole (1976 [1629]), and then by John Ray’s development of taxonomy.  After that botany exploded in the west.  One could tell similar stories about medicine, zoology, geology, nutrition, weaving technology, and other natural sciences.  China lost the spirit at the same time the west got it.

Ming progress was slender enough, but the collapse of Ming seems to have truly blown out a light.  Only medicine slightly breaks the pattern, developing strongly in late Ming and staying dynamic in early Qing (see e.g. Furth 1999; Wu 2010).  Otherwise, in the sciences, the Qing Dynasty republished old works and added to encyclopedias and agricultural manuals, but really did very little creative work.  Recent works on Qing (e.g. Elliott 2009, Rowe 2009) are cautious about explaining this, but recognize the continuing growth of autocracy. They also point out the increasing woes of Qing as population grew, Europeans took over trade and then invaded, and the environment deteriorated.  Under a despotic but floundering government, China was in no position to innovate.

A fateful episode, probably more symptom than cause but still a very significant block on progress, was the Qianlong Emperor’s “literary inquisition.”  Plagued by increasing fears of disloyalty, he launched in the late 18th century a comprehensive attack on the literati.  It is reminiscent of, though far less extensive than, Stalin’s purges in the 1930s and 1940s. 

The inquisition came at the same time as the European Enlightenment.  As the Qianlong Emperor was turning the clock back to autocracy, the west was discovering human rights, democracy, nonviolence, liberation, and free trade.   Steven Pinker (2011) has conclusively shown how extremely transformative the Enlightenment and its values eventually were in the west; slavery was outlawed, wars gradually declined, feuds and duels ended, and eventually even ordinary murder and robbery became less common.  China had long eliminated chattel slavery, had no cult of the duel, and was relatively peaceful in most of Qing, so there was not so much to change.  In China the rise of the middle classes went on peacefully and was rather unproblematic though woefully slow.  In the west, the middle class rose fast, came into conflict with the nobility, and pushed hard for more rights.

One direct effect of Qing’s overextended autocracy was that corruption was rampant, and the victims had little recourse.  The fantastic levels of “squeeze” certainly prove that lack of capital was not China’s limiting problem!  Of course the west, and the rest of the world, did not lack for corruption, but in the west the ill-gotten gains were often invested in trade and industry.  The problem in China was that the spare capital was all going into someone’s pocket, to be spent ultimately on luxuries or on acquiring land.  This bid the price of land up to distressingly high figures, among other things, and thus created yet another wealth sink.  The corrupt officials did not do as America’s robber barons did, and invest their ill-gotten gains in progressive schemes.  (A few in China did, in such areas as irrigation improvement, but not on any scale until well into the 20th century.)  One cannot help noting that today’s American robber barons are investing in luxuries and land….

Finally, while Japan was frantically playing catch-up after 1868, China—with the same opportunities—was caught in a form of political paralysis, following Qing’s near-death experience in the Taiping Rebellion.  The Tongzhi Restoration of 1862 saved the dynasty, but it was dominated thereafter by the wily and foxy but increasingly conservative Empress Dowager Cixi.  China did not, of course, ignore the west.  The treaty ports and other imperialist impositions saw to that.  But such impositions (including, alas, many missionaries) showed the west in its worst light, and rarely led to much beneficial change.  All the revisionist literature cannot stand against the testimony of the Chinese themselves, who in the last decades of Qing were the first to admit that they were falling far behind Japan in adopting western industry, military technology, governmental management, media, educational innovations, and other “modern” developments.

The food economy was increasingly impacted by western technology and imports.  It did not suffer as much or as directly as the iron industry, of which Donald Wagner reports that  “up to about 1700 China had the world’s largest and most efficient iron industry” (Wagner 2008:74) but after 1850 the west flooded China with cheap imports, and ruined the old metal industries.  “It hit hardest precisely in the places where the most technically sophisticated and capital-intensive techniques were in use” (p. 78).  They were the most in need of skills, capital, and markets, and they were most directly competed by high-quality imports. 

Agriculture did not suffer that much, but comparable if less devastating impact occurred.  Then much greater damage was done when the Communists invoked Soviet-style westernization after 1958.  Everything old, whether sophisticated or rough, went down.  The result, with ironworking and agriculture, was that western observers and western-educated Chinese ones developed very low estimations of traditional technology.  They not only had the biases of their training; they had only the bare survivors of the traditional system to observe. This point has not been made for agriculture—we have, rather, F. H. King’s famous and wonderful exposition of the successes and strengths of the traditional system (King 1911).  But Wagner’s generalizations about the iron industry clearly apply to other aspects of technology, including much of agriculture.  This led to widespread ignoring of the successes of the old ways.


Europe and Qing Compared

In southern and western Europe, conversely, the coming of Aristotelianism from the Near East (Gaukroger 2006) led to a steady rise in scientific thinking and knowledge collecting.  Stephen Gaukroger thinks the “scientific revolution” of the 1600s was more or less a smooth continuum from this medieval and early Renaissance revolution.  He and other historians have cut the “scientific revolution”  of the 17th century down to size, pointing out that it had long antecedents (Gaukroger 2006; Osler 2010), and that it did not revolutionize everything, either.  Copernicus and Galileo genuinely revolutionized astronomy, Vesalius really changed anatomy, but progress in chemistry and biology was much slower.  Even Newton’s epochal contributions took a long time to be worked out, propagated, and adopted. 

Thus, revisionists now deny the existence of the scientific revolution.  I must respectfully disagree.  It seems to me that without the burst of sea trade and the religious wars, Europe would simply have kept developing slowly along very traditional lines.  The breakthroughs represented by Bacon and Descartes when they advocated experience above received wisdom were real.  They were related to the triumph of observation over tradition in the work of Galileo in astronomy, Harvey in anatomy and physiology, Boyle in chemistry, Sydenham in medicine, and others, including early agricultural and herbalist experts.  What is distinctive about the 17th century “scientific revolution” in Europe is that scholars throughout western Europe, throughout all the scholarly disciplines, kicked over the traces of received wisdom.  They looked with fresh eyes at the enormous masses of data being revealed by exploration and experiment.  Galileo, John Ray, Linnaeus, Boyle, Harvey, and their contemporaries were not only willing to break with tradition, but also—thanks to new instrumentation from microscopes to telescopes—they had the necessary data to do it successfully. 

They then came up with entirely new paradigms—not just new theories—based on that observation.  Francis Bacon and René Descartes were the spokesmen for all this, but not the inventors of it nor the most active in actually doing it. 

The 17th-century revolution was real.  Certainly, it built on a steady increase in knowledge and in original thinking, which came at a time when those were stagnating or decreasing in other areas of the world.  But so does any revolution.

Comparing China’s relatively slow progress with the west’s breakthrough certainly revitalizes the old idea of a “scientific revolution”!  China had the same slow development from traditional ideas through the period from 1200 to 1900.  After 1600, China did not stagnate, and did not ignore western learning; it simply did not match the frenetic pace of Europe in changing basic knowledge.  China did have the advantage of some European science (out-of-date and thin in many cases), thanks to the Jesuit missionaries.  Contrary to frequent western claims, the Chinese welcomed, adopted, and used the more valuable of the Jesuit introductions (Elman 2005).  This makes the problem more thorny; it seems that China could, at any time before 1700, have overtaken and passed the west. 

What really happened, to give an architectural metaphor with some “resonance,” was that the Chinese kept adding bricks to their old structure.  The Europeans tore down their old structure (or most of it) and built a whole new one, from different and superior materials.  We see this in medicine, for instance.  The Han and Tang Dynasty classics not only were still the textbooks in the 1700s, but they still are the textbooks for Chinese traditional medicine in the 21st century!  In medicine, the great Song, Yuan and Ming works are competitive with anything western before 1500 or even 1600, but then the explosion of medical innovation by Vesalius, Sydenham, Harvey and others coincided in time with the final shut-down of Chinese medical innovation.  Not only were there no revolutions, but the Song and Yuan breakthroughs became neglected.

Joseph Needham held in his early work that the eclipse of Daoism by Confucianism was the problem; Daoism was science-oriented and nature-oriented, Confucianism dry and moralistic.  The truth is otherwise.  China’s strong tradition of pragmatic conservation of resources found its home in Confucianism, not Daoism (Anderson 2001).  The Song Confucians were more similar to modern scientists than most Daoists.  Confucianism animated scholars like Song Yingxing and Li Shizhen.  Daoism did indeed represent and encourage Chinese love for nature and desire for unity with it.  It did indeed inspire a great deal of science.  However, it was the creativeness of the Chinese people and the union of the two philosophies (not to speak of other schools, absorbed by the two dominants) that led to the rise and glory of early Chinese science, food, and development. 

Needham wrote that China had equivalents to da Vinci (I assume he was thinking of Tao Hongjing and Shen Gua) but not of Galileo (Needham 2004).  Mark Elvin, in his introduction to Needham’s work, agrees (Elvin 2004b:xlii). China had polymaths, but no one who dramatically smashed a reigning paradigm and established a new and more accurate one.  Of course Galileo did not do that as cleanly and single-handedly as the old-fashioned books of my childhood said, but he did do it, and no one in China did anything comparable until the 19th century.

In chemistry, China had its alchemists but no equivalent to Robert Boyle.  In mining and mineralogy, China had been the leader for centuries, but Agricola’s work eclipsed it.  We have seen that in general technology, Song Yingxing’s Tiangong Kaiwu was similar to a number of contemporary western works, but the latter stimulated more and better, while Song had no followers.  We have also noted that Li Shizhen was ahead of the west in botany in the 1590s, but had already lost the lead by the 1640s.  The list could go on. 


Thoughts on Change, 1700-2100 

Marshall Sahlins (1993) said that speculations on why China didn’t develop capitalism when “they came so close” are like the speculations the Fijians might have made when first seeing missionaries explain Holy Communion:  why didn’t they develop true ritual cannibalism when “they came so close”?

Well, fair enough; the west has never been into ritual cannibalism, but it did have human sacrifice as an institution, very widespread from Denmark to Ukraine.  But its disappearance is easily explained:  the western world needed the labor power, and thus ended human sacrifices as cities and farms got large and absorbed more workers.  Forget “evolving morality” as an explanation; we are talking about the civilization that gave us the Inquisition and the African slave trade. 

Richard von Glahn (2003) and Victor Lieberman (2009:2-8) have reviewed a vast number of theories, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous.  The ridiculous ones are those that essentialize Europe, making it either racially superior or else a homogeneous realm characterized by a single political-economic framework that somehow unites early Renaissance Italy and modern England.  One mentioned by von Glahn, and going back to Marx and earlier, is that Europeans were more ruthless than anyone else.  Anyone who has studied Chinese and Mongol history will have doubts.

Ian Morris (2010) sees largely a geographic determinism (partly following Jared Diamond 1997).  Morris finds in particular that the west had more energy resources, from animal traction to coal (recall Pomeranz’ point, of which Morris is well aware).  Also, the west had more diversity both ethnically and ecologically.  It had more farmland, more different kinds of habitat and thus more different kinds of farming systems, more mines and mineral resources.  It had more opportunities for trade.  The Mediterranean Sea, for instance, was indeed “medi-terranean,” in the midst of the lands, and thus a perfect place to develop trade and shipping; the China Sea was comparable but not enough to be equivalent.  China’s great trade route for most of history was the Silk Road, which did more to lay China open to predatory nomadic raiders than it did for serious trade in staple goods.   

Geography is not destiny; much of Europe never developed, and much of the Mediterranean shorelands were less developed in 1900 than anywhere on the continental shores of the China Sea.  Morris has to admit that China was generally ahead of the west in technical, economic, and scientific progress from about 400 to 900.  (I would see 400 to 1300 as more reasonable, and Morris considerably underestimates the successes of Han, too.)   Morris’ history founders on the rock of his belief that “it was not emperors and intellectuals who made history but millions of lazy, greedy, and frightened people looking for easier, more profitable, and safer ways to do things” (Morris 2010:359).  This is exactly wrong.  Emperors may not matter, but intellectuals and other people who are not at all lazy, greedy, or frightened are the ones that make progress.  Laziness and fear motivate people to crawl in a hole, do as little as possible, and above all change as little as possible.  This is well demonstrated in psychology and in common experience.  Change comes in moments of confidence, hope, and hard work for the group.  Any reasonable history of China proves this, but one may call particular attention to Johanna Smith’s study of charity in Ming, cited above (Smith 2009).

This matters, because if people really created out of laziness and fear, we would see creativity enriched and increased by poverty and insecurity.  As with Boserup’s theory of intensification, this would predict that Haiti would be leading the world; the United States would be the least innovative society.  Obviously, the opposite is true.  The way to get creative, proactive societies is to provide them with the most resources and the best security available.  In history, it was individuals and societies who were on the way up—who were doing well and fully expected to do better if they worked harder—who did the innovating.  (This also explains the purported “industrious revolution” in Europe—if it really happened, which I doubt.)  Max Weber traced the resulting feedback loops long ago.

The question is not explaining why “the west” won.  There was never a time when “the west” won.  The west always consisted, and consists today, of a few winners and a lot of losers.  In the 19th century, China was ahead in every way of much of eastern Europe, and it is today also.  The question is why a fast-moving, fast-changing subset of western polities kept replacing each other as winners.

A much more important point noted by Morris (among others) is the reliance in the west on extensive grazing, which forced the west to expand continually.  I have noted the importance of this above.  The New World was looted by those hungry for gold, but European settlement was largely about finding land to raise livestock, and to a lesser extent grain, sugar and cotton.  China’s agriculture, maximizing land productivity, tended to make people stay where they were, developing their home landscape more and more intensively.  Morris and others have thought the added animal power and meat in the diet mattered, and made that extensive land use worthwhile, but I doubt it; Chinese had plenty of protein from grain and soybeans, and had an intensive cultivation system that made maximal use of a few animals, rather than minimal use of a vast number. 

The scientific revolution was not only restricted to Europe, but to a handful of countries there:  Italy, the German realms, the Low Countries, France, and Britain.  Most obviously, its rise followed the rise of commerce and capitalism, a point not missed by Needham (2004) or others.  It was precisely in those countries that had gone from commerce to seafaring to full capitalism that science developed.  Moreover, countries developed science in the order in which they had achieved the (dubious?) status of capitalism:  Italy first, northwest Europe last.  Needham and most others have made the obvious inference. 

In fact, the great difference was not between “Europe” and “China,” but between the fast–changing trade-based states and the dinosauric tributary empires.  In Europe, this was an old and familiar story.  The Greeks had already told it, comparing themselves with the Persians.  Then the Greeks succumbed, and the Byzantine Empire ossified while Genoa and Venice rose and eventually made mincemeat of the Byzantines.  Then the Ottomans took over Byzantium’s territory, but did little to blast eastern Europe forward; the Ottomans remained more innovative than Byzantium, but hardly a force for rapid change.  Meanwhile, the Hanseatic League and later states in west and central Europe peripheralized the Polish-Lithuanian empire (Wallerstein 1976).  Then France, the Low Countries, and Britain entered the trading stakes in a serious way, reaping the benefits from the increasingly ossified and tribute-based Spanish and Portuguese empires.  The rise and fall of states in Europe, then and since, has always perfectly tracked the difference between small, innovative trading states—and then, later, democratic republics—and the great land-based empires. In fact, the great tributary empires of Europe—Byzantium, Poland, early Russia, and even the Spanish and Portuguese empires in their expansive days—were far less scientific-oriented and progressive than China.

The popular literature is still full of sweeping claims about the innate superiority of “Europeans” or of “Western civilization” from the ancient Greeks onward.  These conveniently overlook the Dark Ages, the Counter-Reformation, and the hapless state of eastern Europe throughout most of history—today included.  I have always wondered why “the west” never seems to include places like Rumania or Russia.  They remained backward as long as China did, if not longer.  Even today, the smaller Balkan and ex-Soviet nations are far behind China, let alone Japan or Singapore, in every respect.  Some, such as Moldova and Byelorus, are behind even the better-off African states on many statistics.  These failed European nations certainly disprove the classic racist and civilizationist arguments! 

By contrast, if the lower Yangzi or the Guangzhou area or central Sichuan were independent countries, they would have been consistently among the richest and most forward-looking ones for the last several hundred years, and they would be today.

The Chinese found it possible to “think outside the box,” but they needed to break out of the box entirely.  Essentializing claims such as Chinese lack of individuality, or slavery to tradition, are wrong.  The Chinese had come up with highly original and individualist philosophies and ideas in the Warring States and Han periods, and to some extent in mid-Tang and Song; why did they not in Qing?  Basically, the reason is that they were constrained by a repressive government that could coopt any fresh new thinkers into its bureaucracy.  The ancient ideas remained powerful and compelling. 

It should be remembered that people do not normally innovate.  Revolutionary new ideas are usually wrong and always disturbing.  People realize this.  They fear change—above all, revolutionary change in basic ideas.  This is especially true if they are aging emperors unsure of their thrones.  But it is true of humans in general, as psychologists have found.  Moreover, Chinese children were raised in a highly traditional educational system, and saw no great reason to challenge it. 

Europe—or, rather, France—adopted Chinese ideas, or what they thought were Chinese ideas, in the 18th century.  Montesquieu, Say, Voltaire, and others idealized China, and introduced such concepts as China’s rule of law (rather than by men), agriculture as the foundation of the state, and many others.  (Ironically, it was the Legalist ideas that inspired these radical critics of European autocracy.)  Of course printing, paper, gunpowder, and other innovations had already had their effect. 

Thus, not only did China fail to beat Europe, not only did it fail even to imitate Europe (before the 19th century), but it even wound up losing its best ideas to Europe.  Europe, not China, profited most from China’s own institutional inventions. “Fortune favors the prepared mind,” and only a mind ready for a new idea will accept it.    The European radical intellectuals needed new ideas about the rule of law and the development of a rationalized bureaucracy.  The European elites did not need Chinese religion or medicine, and found the religion (at least) too challenging to be acceptable.

In so far as China had brilliant, dynamic people anxious to improve the world—such people sprout in every country, and certainly China had many—those people went into religiosity, or arts, or developing more farmland, or government.  They did not create modern science or innovate new political-economic institutions.  The Neo-Confucians in China had the same high ideals and high hopes as the Enlightenment sages of Europe, but felt that hopes could best be realized by going back to the past—or, with Wang Yangming, the most original and driving Confucian thinker of the Ming Dynasty, into mystical escape. 

This shows a critical point.  A regime naturally attracts opposition, and the have-nots generally coalesce behind a particular ideology, as Marx pointed out.  The elites’ position is always quite clear:  We are on top; we want to stay there; therefore we oppose all disruptive change, whether progress or regress.  The have-nots can then take what they feel is the opposite position.  In Marx’ theory, they will simply oppose the haves, and a third, new class will appear between the two and take over.  The feudal lords escaped the master/slave opposition when Rome fell.  The capitalists escaped the feudal lord/peasant and serf opposition.  The proletariat was supposed to take over, led by Communist intellectuals. 

What really happens is that a number of possible ideologies can unite those who are out of power but want to take it.  In Ming, those who were not bandits tended all too often to Wang’s type of escapism.  In Qing, Han chauvinism and scholarly Confucianism fused to produce a different but equally regressive anti-elite ideology.  In the west, increasingly after 1500, the scientific and proto-Enlightenment ideology gained ground steadily, in spite of regressive religious movements.  The latter either went along with the scientific program or were too other-worldly to attract many elites or middle-class people.

The fact that ideology was the final, proximate cause of modernization is shown by the very rapid changes in Japan, Korea, and the Chinese polities once they accepted a western-type ideology that favored moderizing science and production.  They did not even abandon Neo-Confucianism or Buddhism; they simply added western attitudes toward material progress.  The transition happened in only a generation in Japan, and not much longer in Korea.  Economics, military contingencies, and other real-world matters forced the change, but in the end the ideology had to change with them.

The autocratic, backward-looking state created incentive issues. For an upwardly mobile Chinese in imperial times, getting into government service was always a major goal.  Families diversified their portfolios by investing in land, trade, and education for government service, rather than focusing on economic development.  China had large cities but rather few large towns, and the population was scattered and rural, in a vast network of marketing areas.  Myers (Myers and Wang 2002:579) contrasts this with the highly urban-centric (“plexus”) economy of Europe.

Moreover, if they did think outside the box, they had nowhere to go to escape inquisitions like Qianlong’s.  In Europe, an original thinker could flee persecution in his homeland by going to the Netherlands (as Descartes did), or England, or whatever other realm might tolerate him.  In China, one could become a mountain hermit, but there was no other real option.  Japan and Vietnam were regarded as unthinkably barbarous, and if a Chinese thinker did go there he had little opportunity to publish and be read at home. 

Thus, Europe’s geography of small states into which one could easily escape, while keeping contact with friends just over the border, was certainly a factor.  Europe benefited from lack of unity; geography made unification under an autocratic emperor almost impossible (Lieberman, Morris and Pomeranz are among many who have discussed this idea).  It was not for lack of trying.  From the Romans to Napoleon and Hitler, conquerors attempted to unite Europe.  The mountains always got in the way, saving Europe from unity and stagnation.  The European Union might theoretically have ended European progress, but by 2012, it was already showing strains that threatened to dismantle it. 

However, an exactly comparable disunity did not work for southeast Asia (Lieberman 2009).  It was apparently locked in a luxury-trade pattern, supplying unmodified primary products, mostly luxuries, to more developed realms.  It was, in short, a classic periphery (or at best semi-periphery).  It was kept down by the logic of trade.  Traditional rulers drew strength from keeping the system backward; they profited from selling primary products, and were threatened by innovation.  They did try hard to get into the modern world of manufacturing and industry when it came calling, as Lieberman shows, but by then it was too late; they were taken over outright by European powers, or, in the case of Siam (Thailand), forced to do a complex and difficult dance to keep from that fate (Lieberman 2009).  In short, southeast Asia was exactly comparable to eastern Europe in Wallerstein’s model (Wallerstein 1976).  It had all the geographic and cultural advantages, but its position in the military-economic order of the times kept it down.

Conversely, if Japan had been a continent with several conflicting polities, it might have parlayed its rather striking parallels with Europe (see von Glahn 2003) into equally rapid and impressive development.  It too was split by mountains into several different local regions.

Another major component in Europe was religious pluralism.  The Jews were always at the forefront of thought and innovation.  So were the Muslims on the tense frontiers in Syria and Persia, and later in Italy and Spain, in the early medieval period.  Later, certain radical Catholic monastic orders took over some of the function of being dissident innovators.  Then, finally, the Protestant explosion in the 1500s led to both violent and intractable conflict and a whole new way of thinking.  The importance of this for the development of science is well known (Merton 1970; Morton 1981).  Particularly critical was the idea that one could be in a minority and still absolutely right—a bearer of God’s truth.  This led people to argue, defend, and stick to their principles and perceptions, rather than accommodating.  Such arguing over truth began on the Muslim frontiers, driving science there, among both Muslims and Christians.  This suggests a reason why the Jews were among the most important thinkers: they were minorities on both sides. 

The Protestant reformation wrote a whole new book, one in which forward thought, new ideas, and innovative perceptions were argued with dogmatic stubbornness.  It is certainly no accident that so many of the greatest early scientists—including John Ray, Robert Boyle, Rene Descartes, and Baruch Spinoza—were major religious thinkers.  By contrast, the Chinese fondness for accommodating all worldviews into one harmonious bureaucratic order was fatal to sustained argument.  The exceptions prove the rule:  new and exciting currents of thought (such as Song medicine, mathematics, and philosophy) were accepted all too easily, and swallowed up into a vast blur of ideas, where they were diluted into innocuousness rather than sharpened into revolution.

Interestingly and significantly, China remained ahead of the west in agriculture, forestry, nutrition, silk work, and certain other practical fields until rather later.  Chinese nutritional science was ahead of the west’s until the discovery of vitamins around 1900.  Forestry was better in China and Japan than in most of the west until the late 19th century, though a few forests in northwest Europe were at least as well-managed as anything in China.  We must beware of bland stereotypes.  But the fact remains that China did not have a scientific revolution or an Enlightenment until later times.

It should be remembered that science—in the sense of discovering new knowledge—is rarely popular.  In general, people like the familiar and are wary of anything new and different.  In particular, science is notoriously challenging to orthodoxy, not only in religion but in politics, land management, water use, forestry, everything.  Scientists are constantly finding things that are at least embarrassing and often devastating to the interests of big landlords and giant firms.  This was perhaps more true in the Renaissance than at any time before or since, but it is a general finding.  China and the Near East lost their early and commanding lead in science because the elites not only ceased to back it; they actively opposed anything that rocked the boat.  Even today in the United States, there are only a few tens of thousands of research scientists, while 40% of the country actively disbelieves in evolution, while even more disbelieve in global warming.  A large number (some estimates run to 20%) do not even realize the earth circles the sun.  Science is hated, feared and distrusted by the millions that hang on every word of Fox News. 

Now, of course, the importance of trade and commerce is proved by the fact that as the east Asian countries moved into it, they quickly adopted European science and technology, and soon made themselves leaders and innovators in what is now a truly global scientific enterprise.

As they became democratic and trade-based, the small East Asian countries have explosively modernized, become prosperous, and become world leaders in education and science.  Merchants in Hong Kong and Japan held their own from the 19th century onward, and eventually outcompeted the west at its own games.  Slowly, Vietnam is coming on board today.

Even dinosauric China is waking from the Maoist nightmare.  However, it can be confidently predicted on the basis of past experience that China’s hopeful beginnings in science and education will come to a bitter end if repression and corruption continue.  China is developing an even more bureaucratic, dictatorial, and corrupt government than that of Qing.  It is also eating its seed corn:  destroying its resource base and overworking its people.  Also, it is copying the west, not innovating or developing new paradigms. 


William Rowe (2009:216-218) lists four main possibilities for China’s failure to industrialize and modernize in the 19th and early 20th centuries:  political failure of will, traditionalism and Confucian scholarly reaction, the high-level equilibrium trap (however phrased), and deliberate Western suppression through colonialism, war, unequal treaties, industrial policies, and general terms of trade.  One may note that these are not mutually exclusive, but, in fact, would be mutually reinforcing if they were all true.

As he points out, the traditionalist argument is probably the weakest.  Confucian traditionalism not only singularly failed to halt the explosive development of Japan in the 19th century and the various Chinese-majority nations in the late 20th; it is actually claimed by the latter as their secret of success.  Singapore, currently by some measures the best-off and best-educated nation in the world, has been explicitly neo-Confucian in policy since its independence.   Japan transitioned from an extremely “traditional” frame of mind to a very modernizing one in a few years in the late 19th century; the change of “mentalité” seems to have been real enough, but did not displace, or even much affect, the basic Buddhist-Confucian character of Japanese culture.  It is now clear that broad religious and philosophical traditions can all accommodate modernization perfectly easily—or they can justify stagnation and reaction.  Even within American Christianity, we have the gap between classic Weberian Protestantism and the extreme reaction and anti-modernity of the fundamentalist sects.  Islam has its range from the educated elite of Lebanon and Turkey to the Taliban of Afghanistan. 

The same could be said for the high-level equilibrium trap.  China was indeed trapped in a biointensive agriculture.  So were France, Denmark, the Netherlands, and, in east Asia, Japan.  Enough said.

Rowe’s book confirms my long-standing opinion that autocratic repression coupled with weak local rule was the main problem.  In fact, it is so overwhelmingly the obvious cause that I cannot help wondering what the debate is about.  The government could not even control bandit gangs, yet it could and did shut down free enquiry.  Autocracy in China vs. relative openness in Europe was already visible in the days of ancient Greece—though China’s Warring States period came close to Greek openness—and more visible by 1200 (Lieberman 2009:2). 

The key here is not so much autocracy per se.  Most modern success stories begin with autocratic governments that aggressively modernized.  This applies not only to east Asia from Japan to Singapore, but also to France, Germany, Sweden, and some other western states (though not England or America).  France in particular got its major and dramatic intellectual and scientific revolution before it had its famous (or infamous) political one.  But even earlier than that was France’s commitment to trade, commerce, and nascent capitalism. The connection of commerce and revolution seemed obvious to contemporaries, whether they liked the changes (as Smith generally did) or hated them (as Edmund Burke did). 

The problem is with huge imperial bureaucracies that have the power to suppress change over vast areas and populations.  There is no case anywhere in the world of an agrarian tributary empire successfully modernizing; the Chinese came fairly close, and so did the Ottomans, but both collapsed when change became really rapid.

Also incompatible with rapid change are weak, incompetent autocracies that are threatened by modernization and change.  They are effective at suppressing, terrorizing and disuniting progressive forces of any sort, but are ineffective at controlling corruption, local violence, or local rapacity.  This was the story of Ming and Qing.  It was a problem with the late Ottoman and Mughal and other empires (Dale 2010; Streusand 2010).  It is the story of Myanmar, Congo and Sudan today.  To some extent it was and is the story in the Old South of the United States.

Such states can even be “democracies,” if the democracy is not backed up by meaningful legal protection for the weak; Indonesia today is one eastern Asian example (though, after the overthrow of Suharto’s fascist regime, even it is economically progressing—somewhat—thanks to what democracy it has). 

A strong, modernizing autocracy can give way easily to a strong, modernizing democracy, as in Korea and Taiwan, but a corrupt, ineffectual autocracy tends to give way to a corrupt, ineffectual “democracy,” as in Indonesia and several post-Soviet states.  What matters is whether the government feels threatened by change and can effectively crush it.  Most autocracies think this way, but the exceptions are striking.  Conversely, even slightly democratic states usually prefer dynamism, but here too there are striking exceptions.

It seems clear to me—though I recognize there can be debate on this—that if Europe had continued on the path to autocracy from 1600 onward (P. Anderson 1974), Europe would have had the same sluggish development as China, if not even more sluggish.  It would have had the same involutional tendencies.  We may point yet again to eastern Europe, ruined by autocracy and by peripheralization (Wallerstein 1976).  The Ottoman Empire, like the Byzantine before it, proves that large tributary empires are hopelessly stagnant, even when they are the heirs of the ancient Greeks.  The fate of the Spanish Empire in the 17th and 18th centuries provides another example.  In short, and this cannot be said often enough, the contrast is not between Europe and Asia but between small, relatively open countries and autocratic empires.  The European exceptionalism (or racism) of authors like Samuel Huntington and David Landes always founders on this rock (Morris 2010).  It simply cannot explain Byzantium and Russia on the one hand or Japan and contemporary Taiwan, South Korea, or Singapore on the other.

Revolution, colonization, the labor movement, and other processes saved the western nations (P. Anderson 1974).  It was a near thing.  It was not automatic.  It would never have happened without the massive injection of wealth from oveseas trade, and probably the advantage of cheap and easily available fuel (such as England’s coal; Morris 2010), but these were not enough.  They did not do much for Spain or Poland, or China.

One further refinement is provided by the failure of southeast Asia to take advantage of its trade centrality and small, diverse states.  Southeast Asia had trading city-states comparable to Venice and Genoa:  Melaka, Aceh, Palembang, and others.  These followed in the footsteps of earlier trading cities from Oc Eo onward.  The great empires of Majapahit and Mataram were trade-based and urban.  But these trading city-states were all run  more or less as the agrarian states were.  Thomas Raffles and other early western observers (Marsden 1966; Raffles 1965—both originally early 19th century)  compared them with Europe in this light, noting the autocratic and closed nature of southeast Asian society as opposed to European openness.  Even allowing for the huge doses of racist and colonialist distortion in these sources, the point is hard to deny after reading them.

Thus, in the end, I personally continue to accept the hoary, time-honored view that China’s autocratic centralism inhibited change, while the ferment and competition of multinational western Europe’s small nations and feuding religions forced change.  The rise of science tracked the rise of capitalism and ran ahead of the rise of Enlightenment politics.  The coincidence here is not “mere” coincidence.  This is why Adam Smith (1910 [1776]) envisioned a fourth age, that of commerce, following the classic Greek ages of hunting-gathering, pastoralism, and farming.

After all, and this book exists to prove the point, China did not refuse to westernize.  During earlier centuries, Central Asian cuisine had penetrated north and especially northwest China, where it is still robustly evident in the cuisine.  Such items as mantou and shaobing recall the centuries of Silk Road contact.  We have seen that mantou comes from the Turkish root mantu, a word found throughout the Turkic languages in various forms (Eren 1999:286; Paul Buell, pers. comm.). Then later, since the mid-sixteenth century, western food crops totally revolutionized China, as shown long ago by Ping-ti Ho (Ho 1955).  Some medical and other influences crept in too.  But they were not addressed by scholars on any major scale.  Ho had to comb local gazetteers for the first mentions of crops, and even then it is clear that many crops had been established for years or decades before making it into the gazetteers, let alone the more elite sources.  But on these matters I defer to those more expert than I (e.g. Elman 2005).





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