China and Europe: 1500-1800

Was China More Productive Than Europe?, Part 2

Lower Yangzi Leads in 1750

If you look towards the end of that early modern period, let's say circa 1750, the comparison actually is quite revealing, and food supply per capita is roughly comparable.

A woman working at a simple loom
C. V. Starr East Asian Library

In fact the Lower Yangzi may even have been a little bit ahead. Cloth production per capita would again be very close. And those were the two most important sectors of the economy: food and textiles. They were the two largest sectors. Wages seem to be roughly comparable, though it's a little bit deceptive because in England what we're talking about as we get towards the end of the eighteenth century is really wages.

It's people who work for somebody else and get a pay envelope at the end of the week. Whereas in China you're mostly talking about peasants. People who owned their own little farm and maybe had a loom in the house somewhere where the wife or wife and daughter worked. So it's earnings from their own self-employment compared to English wages, which is a little bit deceptive. But still real income seems to be pretty comparable.

Refuting Old Beliefs

The argument that income per capita in the Yangzi delta was pretty comparable to that in England has a whole series of implications for how we think about both the earlier period and the period after that. For the period before that, it has the impact of throwing into question a whole set of truisms that we have about China, a whole series of claims that I think most scholars don't believe anymore but that are still very often found in textbooks.

So we still wind up teaching them to our students even though we don't believe them. Things like the claim that the Chinese state was hostile to commerce and therefore crushed it and ruined the Chinese economy. Or that China was a so-called Oriental despotism, where property wasn't safe, and because property wasn't safe there wasn't any incentive to improve it. It becomes very hard to reconcile these "truisms" about the institutional structure with the kind of results we see in the eighteenth-century Lower Yangzi. If these things were true, how could this place be as rich as England? As rich as the richest place in northwestern Europe? It just doesn't make any sense. One way to refute those old stories about the institutional structure is to go look at the documents and work in the archives, and say, "Hey look, here's a case where property seems to be very effectively protected, et cetera." But there's a problem with standards of proof: how many such cases are enough to prove the case?

But another way is to cut straight to the economic results and say these results are not consistent with that old, broad-brush story. If institutions had been so unfavorable to economic development, there never would have been this much of it. So that's one way in which this matters a lot. And it then leads us to have to ask more nuanced questions about the Chinese state. If it wasn't hostile to commerce, what exactly was it doing? What were its commercial policies? What particular sectors did it promote, restrict or ignore? How and why?

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