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Asian Topics in World History Asia for Educators Columbia University
China and Europe, 1500–2000 and Beyond: What is Modern?
Was China More Productive Than Europe?, Part 1
Was China More Productive Than Europe?, Part 2
China: An "Early Modern" Society, Part 1
China: An "Early Modern" Society, Part 2
China: An "Early Modern" Society, Part 3
The Silver Trade, Part 1
The Silver Trade, Part 2
Population Growth:
  Myth of the Big Chinese Family
Emperors and Reign Periods (PDF)
Timeline of Chinese Inventions (PDF)
China's Gifts to the West (PDF)
Chinese Ideas in the West (PDF)
Excerpts of Interest
China and Europe: 1500–1800
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China: An "Early Modern" Society, Part 2

Everybody Counts
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Productive Policies
The Qing dynasty built granaries in an attempt to ensure subsistence, and thinking very systematically about the ecological diversity of China, said, "In this place, which is close to river transport, we're not going to need to build granaries. Here the market will work, and we can just give them silver to buy grain from up-river in an emergency. In that place we had better have the grain because it's landlocked."

A European view of officials distributing grain in a famine-struck area.
A European view of officials distributing grain in a famine-struck area.
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  Merchant Incentives  
   
When both the Ming and Qing dynasties faced threats in the northwest and had to deploy large armies in this relatively arid region, they were not going to be able to feed their forces from the local food supply, so they came up with some very clever tricks. They told merchants that if they were willing to move grain cheaply up to the northwest—essentially to move it at a loss—the government would reward them with the right to participate in the government salt monopoly, which was a place where one could make big money. So once again this was a regime that was drawing on a very complicated repertoire of techniques for managing a preindustrial economy. None of these techniques triggered an industrial revolution, but they did produce a remarkably sophisticated and advanced commercial economy that was able to support an enormous population without pushing it into poverty. And in the eighteenth century that was about as good as anybody was doing anywhere.

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Moving Food and Populations
The Qing did this much more systematically than anyone before them in China. But in some sense they were also heirs to a very long tradition of thinking about grain supply. It was a fundamental responsibility of the government, which was quite unusual. If you think about what European governments were doing in the early modern period, about grain supply, it was fundamentally different.

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The Qing Government and Women's Handicrafts
When European governments intervened in the grain supply, it was almost always either to ensure that the army got fed or that the major cities got fed. Those were the two groups of people the government was most worried about. And it went back to a long tradition in the West of cities having special political status.

However, the Chinese notion was that, in a sense, everybody counted and that rural subsistence was something the government should be fundamentally concerned with. The European state in many ways, until modern times, ceded the countryside to the aristocracy, and/or the church, effectively saying, "It's not our problem."

Yangzi River
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Yangzi River and the Grand Canal

 

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