Industrial Revolution in China

Industrial Revolution in China

There was no indigenous Industrial Revolution in China in the 18th and 19th centuries like that of Europe. Numerous factors have been suggested, including ecology, government, and culture.

Traditional view

Until the 1970s, economic historians viewed 18th century China as an underdeveloped region of the world at that time if compared to Western Europe. Adam Smith supports this view:

"The accounts of all travelers, inconsistent in many other respects, agree in the low wages of labor, and in the difficulty which a laborer finds in bringing up a family in China. If by digging the ground a whole day he can get what will purchase a small quantity of rice in the evening, he is contented." [the wealth of nations, vol, 2 pg 108]

"The poverty of the lower ranks of people in China far surpasses that of the most beggarly nations in Europe....The subsistence which they find there is so scanty that they are eager to fish up the nastiest garbage thrown overboard from any European ship." [the wealth of nations, vol, 2 pg 109]

Some historians such as David Landes and Max Weber credit the different belief systems in China and Europe with dictating where the revolution occurred. The religion and beliefs of Europe were largely products of Judaeo-Christianity, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Conversely, Chinese society was founded on men like Confucius, Mencius, Han Feizi (Legalism), Lao Tzu (Taoism), and Buddha (Buddhism). The key difference between these belief systems was that those from Europe focused on the individual, while Chinese beliefs centered around relationships between people. The family unit was more important than the individual for the large majority of Chinese history, and this may have played a role in why the Industrial Revolution took much longer to occur in China. There was the additional difference as to whether people looked backwards to a reputedly glorious past for answers to their questions or looked hopefully to the future. Furthermore, Western European peoples had experienced the Renaissance and Reformation; other parts of the world had not had a similar intellectual breakout, a condition that holds true even into the 21st century.

The California school

By contrast, there is a historical school which Jack Goldstone has dubbed the "California school" which argues that China was not essentially different from Europe, and that many of the assertions that it was are based on bad historical evidence.

Benjamin Elman argues that China was in a high level equilibrium trap in which the non-industrial methods were efficient enough to prevent use of industrial methods with high costs of capital. Kenneth Pomeranz, in the "Great Divergence", argues that Europe and China were remarkably similar in 1700, and that the crucial differences which created the Industrial Revolution in Europe were sources of coal near manufacturing centers, and raw materials such as food and wood from the New World, which allowed Europe to expand economically in a way that China could not. [Immanuel Chung-Yueh Hsu. "The Rise of Modern China", Oxford University Press US. ISBN 0-19-512504-5 [ Read it] ]

Some have compared England directly to China, but the comparison between England and China has been viewed as a faulty one, since China is so much larger than England. A more relevant comparison would be between China's Yangtze Delta region, China's most advanced region, the location of Hangzhou, Nanjing and contemporary Shanghai, and England. This region of China is said to have had similar labor costs to England.Andre Gunder Frank "reORIENT" University of California Press, 1998. p. 312] Moreover, an overall look at economic data from 1750 is somewhat staggering for a person used to Eurocentric conceptions. According to Andre Gunder Frank, "Particularly significant is the comparison of Asia's 66 percent share of world population, confirmed above all by estimates for 1750, with its 80 percent share of production in the world at the same time. So, two thirds of the world's people in Asia produced four-fifths of total world output, while one-fifth of world population in Europe produced only a part of the remaining one-fifth share of world production, to which Europeans and Americans also contributed."Andre Gunder Frank "reORIENT" University of California Press, 1998. p. 173] China was clearly Asia's most advanced economy at the time and was in the middle of its 18th century boom brought on by a long period of stability under the Qing Dynasty.


* [ China and Europe] , 1500-2000 and beyond: What is modern? with Ken Pomeranz and Bin Wong
* [] , The Rise of the West or Not
* [ Needham Puzzle, Weber Question, and China's Miracle: Long Term Performance since the Sung Dynasty (pdf file)]

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