China and Europe: 1500-1800

Was China More Productive Than Europe?, Part 1

When we think about the kind of trade taking place across the world in the 1600s and 1700s, and we recognize that Chinese finished goods are going to Europe in return for silver, this shouldn't be too great a surprise, since we know that if we go back several centuries to the Song dynasty that the first real urban commercial dynamism within Eurasia took place there.

A water-turned wheel for irrigation

There was an expansion of trade, the development of larger cities, the improvement of agricultural technologies to raise the yields of rice and other grains and crops on the land. And there was the development of transportation technologies to take advantage of river transport. Those developments start in China much earlier on a broader spatial scale than they do anywhere else in the world. And therefore in the year 1100, the most developed economy in the world was certainly in China.

And it's that lead, as it were, that China developed, beginning in roughly 1000, that remained in place for several centuries. Eurasian economies grew and contracted in this preindustrial area, but in essence, the Chinese economy remained a very productive economy for the following 500 years, so that when trade started to take place between China and Europe, fueled by the American silver that the Europeans were bringing to China, it was not surprising that the Chinese economy was, in certain ways at least, a more productive economy.

A water-powered pounding mill. China had captured the energy of water by the first or second century AD

We can only understand this contrast if we're aware of the Chinese economy beginning in the year 1000. If we tell our stories about global economic history beginning with European explorations in the late fifteenth century, we don't pick up the story until the time when Europeans themselves started to develop economically. We don't take into consideration that the Chinese had, in earlier centuries, already achieved levels of productivity that the Europeans only started to achieve in the 1500s.

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