UCSC seminar–part 3

The third set of readings is Richard von Glahn's new book, The Economic History of China, published by Cambridge University Press in 2016. The most salient feature of this book is its periodization, which does not conform to either standard progression from ancient through medieval to modern history or from early through middle to late imperial history. It is better read against the framework set by Mark Elvin's The Pattern of the Chinese Past (Stanford, 1973).

The rise of Jiangnan (market/money/silver/rice) economy:

During the Tang-Song transition (775–1127), fundamental economic transformation took place in China. Four aspects of this transformation are decisive: (1) the formation of market economy linking all regions both inside and outside China proper; (2) Jiangnan emerged as the wealthiest region powering national economy; (3) high level of urbanization of large cities rivaling early modern European counterparts; (4) rice economy created labor-intensive and small unit farming in Jiangnan and other regions of rice economy.

This precocious development of market economy, unmatched in world history, set China to a sustainable and long development of market economy. The per capita GDP and real wages of urban workers fluctuated as more and more market towns emerged in different regions and population continued to grow. Whether or not you subscribe to models of involution or divergence, the historical outcome is clear: No comparable system of sustainable and rapid growth driven by capital had been developed in China (capitalism) until the twentieth century when a set of unfortunate trends, such as economic depression, ecological disaster, large-scale civil war, and European imperialism, took over in the nineteenth century.

Eight hundred years of market economy! After the interruption of Mongol conquest and early Ming anti-commercial policy, the market economy roared back in the sixteenth century. The Manchu conquest did not result in much interruption of market economy in the seventeenth century. The Qing state subsequently pursued a laissez-faire policy and taxed lightly on commercial transaction. The debates on divergence and involution focus primarily on the market economy in the eighteenth century. Both Wong and von Glahn discredit involution model and provide new key measures of market economy to revise divergent model. Their conclusions have far reaching consequences of many research agenda to come. 


  1. Adding on Von Glahn’s comment on the importance of rice cultivation in Jiangnan and other regions of China, I wonder if the high labor cost created cycles of population boom, along with a landed economy with locked-in diminishing return? Was the labor-intensive rice cultivation a hindrance to mechanization, due to the lack of the need for labor saving devices? Was the switch to rice cultivation a mixed blessing in the long run?

    Also, Von Glahn’s description of the Qing tax regime help to explain the structural causes for the failure of the Qing state to provide for itself. Laissez-faire policies and lax taxes on commercial transactions, combined with the permanently frozen level of land tax, kept the Qing fiscal regime rigid and with poor foundation. Without a mean to extract resources from the rich Southern China, the Qing state could not recover from past expenses and indemnity until the introduction of lijin. I would like to know more about the effects of lijin on market economy, and whether the lijin system was a mean to control the market economy?

  2. What I found most useful about Von Glahn’s reading, besides its comprehensive look at thousands of years of economic history, was the way it incorporated different regions into the analysis. While I understand the divergence model’s efforts to compare similarly-sized regions, therefore only discussing economic development in Britain and Jiangnan, that does not seem to speak well to other historiography of China (including texts read for this course) that emphasize that China’s size and governance structure are crucially important. Von Glahn's challenges to the divergence model are much more numerous than just that, but I think considering different regions interacting and passing the torch of economic success, so to speak, made his argument much more convincing. Because I’m not familiar with economic history as a genre, I still question some of the methods of measuring economic success or strength; calculating GDP for the distant past does not seem like that precise of a project to me, and I’d be curious about how other students feel about the quantitative side of economic history, which sometimes seems to dazzle or intimidate while distracting from real holes in analysis. That said, I think Von Glahn made useful connections between politics, military, and economy, along with his unique periodization, to avoid some of the pitfalls of the genre. He also did an admirable job of making economic conditions seem accessible to readers and historically contingent, rather than overstating an economic essentialism or teleology.

  3. Richard von Glahn’s 2016 The Economic History of China, a notable synthesis of scholarship focused on China’s economy, beckons historians to reexamine China outside of Western-biased economic models such as the static China model or Marxist evolution. Further, while historians adhering to the divergence model often begin their studies of China’s economy around the eighteenth century, von Glahn intervenes with a comprehensive history that begins with antiquity. Although he highlights the economic transformations of the Tang-Song in particular, he locates the roots of key socio-political-economic factors—hierarchical meritocracy, state allocation of land, disdain for merchants, the domination of private magnates—to the Qin, Han, and Three Kingdoms. von Glahn’s work is thorough and sophisticated, meticulously mapping the dynamism of China’s economy both spatially and chronologically. As somebody who tends to not utilize quantitative history, I also appreciated the accessibility of von Glahn’s study.


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