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The state and the economy in late imperial China

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Non-development of a modern economy, the failure to begin modern economic growth, I am prepared to argue but that would require another article- is “over-determined.” It's not a particularly interesting theoretical question any more. Proponents of economic, political, cultural, social structural, demographic and other explanations have each adduced overwhelming arguments and evidence for their favored explanations. In fact, any one - or two - is a sufficiently mortal debility for the premodern economies and societies that they have studied. More is merely overkill. What we really don't know for sure yet is how modern economic growth begins - even in the case of Western Europe whose economic history has been minutely examined for more than a century. The common fate of most of mankind before the very recent past - slow and uncertain premodern growth of population and output where it occurred, stagnation or decline otherwise - has not (by historians at least) received attention comparable to the more fashionable problem of modern development, whether that be phrased as the Marxist “transition” from “feudalism” to “capitalism,” the neo-classical growth model, or the perhaps now somewhat faded study of “modernization.”

Late imperial China - from the tenth century to the nineteenth - experienced in world perspective a remarkable millennium of premodern economic growth (see table 1). Population and total grain output each increased by a factor of five or six over these centuries, in contrast to the first millennium of the imperial era - from the Qin (221–206 B.C.) through the Tang (618–906) during which, with often sharp fluctuations, a sort of plateau seems have been reached early and never overcome. (Europe's population growth was comparable - the estimates of course, like those for China, are sometimes more testimony to our faith than to our science. There were perhaps 39 million inhabitants in about 1000, 74 million before the demographically disastrous fourteenth century, a recovery to 50 million by 1450,105 million in about 1600, 115 million about 1700, and a total of possibly 190 million inhabitants in 1800.) While overall impressive, the growth of people and production in late imperial China was uneven in both rate and locale, and punctuated by severe fluctuations due to both natural and manmade disasters.

Neither the direct nor the indirect influences of the state on the economy were major factors determining the nature and rate of this premodern economic growth. That was largely decided by the dynamics of the dominant private sector of the economy. So far as they affected premodern growth the policies and actions of China's imperial government do not seem to have differed greatly in range or quality from those of the emerging national states of early modern Europe before, let us say, the seventeenth century. Certainly the acceleration of traditional growth in seventeenth- and especially eighteenth-century China argues against the view that the late imperial “feudal autocracy” was a major obstacle to economic performance in the Ming and Qing periods. On balance, the actions of the state probably helped rather than hindered the long-term growth of population and total output. The state's control of or influence over only a very low percentage of gross national product at the very least limited negative interference with the private sector where the most remarkable Ming-Qing achievements originated.

Toward modern economic growth, on the other hand, the Chinese state contributed little if anything, in contrast to the history of early modern Europe. I have already suggested that this conclusion should not be surprising. It, rather than the still only partially understood European experience, represents the mode in world history. The fact that state policies and performance might have “lubricated” late imperial economic expansion does not imply any necessary forward linkages to the much different and much more difficult task of expanding not just total output but output per capita. The experience of the past is surely not irrelevant, but it may not all be positive for the goal of achieving economic growth in the modern epoch. Thus the Chinese experience of managing and participating in complex bureaucratic organizations may have left a positive legacy for the twentieth century.Footnote 1 And similarly, the much higher degree of male literacy in Qing China than we have hitherto assumed, demonstrated in the admirable work of Evelyn S. Rawski, would presumably be conducive to the later achievement of modern economic growth.Footnote 2 But the distancing - whether by cultural choice or due to political weakness - of the state from the private economy, while it may have facilitated premodern growth, could be a negative rather than a positive asset for a “backward” country seeking economic growth in the twentieth century, as Professor Gerschenkron has shown us.Footnote 3

Does the contrast between late imperial China and early modern Europe derive, after all, mainly from the greater relative “success” of the Chinese experience under conditions of premodern economic growth? I refer of course to the achievement of a unified and integrated polity with an adequate customary standard of living for most of the population (in “normal” times), which was spared (or deprived of?) disquieting church-state conflicts and international wars (for the most part), where one found no “Sunday Confucians” and no domestic “modernist” challenge to a deeply rooted and genuine conservatism before the twentieth century. There was little reason for the Qing emperors and the bureaucratic elite who served them, while they still had the power to do so before the shameful nineteenth century, to follow the path of the Houses of Stuart, Bourbon, and Hapsburg and their bureaucratic administrators who built the modern European nation-states and purveyed some of the critical abstractions and institutions of law and property that unwittingly perhaps facilitated Europe's modern economic growth. The Chinese rulers already possessed “all under heaven” (tianxia), and they could hardly foresee how parochial that universal conceit would become.

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  1. 1.

    See Albert Feuerwerker, “Characteristics of the Chinese Economic Model Specific to the Chinese Environment,” in Robert F. Dernberger, ed., China's Development Experience in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 261–305.

  2. 2.

    Evelyn S. Rawski, Education and Popular Literacy in Ch'ing China(Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1979).

  3. 3.

    Alexander Gerschenkron, Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962).

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Feuerwerker, A. The state and the economy in late imperial China. Theor Soc 13, 297–326 (1984). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00213228

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  • Positive Legacy
  • Chinese Experience
  • Modern Economic Growth
  • Integrate Polity
  • Economic Backwardness