What Weber Did Not Know: Towns and Economic Development in Ming and Qing China

  • David Faure
Part of the St Antony’s Series book series


Max Weber argued that China was significantly different from the West in that Chinese cities did not develop the mechanisms whereby the urban elite might become autonomous from the state. China historians have responded by saying that he probably exaggerated the strength of state control, for Chinese merchants, through their guilds, could demonstrably withstand state pressure for tax and service, and indeed promote the sphere of public activities that allowed them room to exert their urban character. (Rowe, 1984; Mann, 1987) However, one can go back to Weber and see that to a large extent he had anticipated the argument. The guilds, Weber might have said, were entrapped within protective regulations which would not have promoted the capitalism essential to the breakthrough to the modern state. Weber realized, in any case, that the Chinese government’s authority never extended very far beyond the magistrate’s office. Beyond the confines of the city, which might have defined the area in which the magistrate could exert himself, one would have reached the realm of the clans (‘the sibs’, as his translator put it), and there, certainly, one would not have found the openness that capitalist enterprise would have required. China historians might well agree. They know that in the Yangtze delta in the Ming and the Qing dynasties, a great deal of business was conducted not in the county cities, but in the towns; that no clear-cut rural-urban divide separated the Chinese village from the city; and that periodically the emperor exacted taxes out of merchants that sometimes, but not always, left them reeling and writhing. There the case seems to rest.


Pearl River Delta Sixteenth Century Qing Dynasty Poyang Lake Song Dynasty 
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© David Faure 2002

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  • David Faure

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