The Tyranny of Numbers: Are There Acceptable Data for Nominal and Real Wages for Pre-modern China?

  • Kent DengEmail author
  • Patrick K. O’Brien
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Economic History book series (PEHS)


Estimates of the purchasing power of the pay for a Chinese unskilled labourer have repeatedly been used as a shorthand for gauging the degree of economic development. This chapter exposes the fragility of the data used to measure nominal and real wages in pre-modern China and shows ‘most of the evidence recently marshalled for the Great Divergence Debate comparing levels and trends in real wages between Qing China and Western Europe is not ‘fit for purpose.’ This has serious implications for the debate over the ‘when’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the ‘Great Divergence.’


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© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.London School of Economics and Political ScienceLondonUK

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