Potential for Industrialization in China and Europe

The obsession with European economic dominance is widespread among writers writing in Chinese and English alike. Chinese intellectuals particularly became concerned by the end of the 19th century. Many Western countries used their superior command of technology and military to subdue the ailing Qing dynasty and the future of a sovereign state was uncertain. Since industrialization has been a closely connected idea with modernization, Europeans also have celebrated their unrivaled progress across the globe, contrasting itself to other “savage” regions or a “stagnant” Third World.[1] Even as people accept that “China came within a hair's breadth of industrialising in the fourteenth century,” China’s later demise is still subject to much debate and influence of the stagnant-Orient view. [2] David Landes suggested that Europe’s multiple, competing polities in contrast with the “all-encompassing empires of the Orient or of the Ancient World,” which allowed for more technical dynamism. [3]

Stagnation does not out rule economic growth: China experienced economic growth even in the Qing dynasty, which was notorious for its lack of innovation. Thus the indicator of change should not be growth, but rather technological dynamism in for a meaningful comparison of China and Europe. Joel Mokyr argued that “technological opportunities and constraints by and large determined where and when improvements were to occur” in various places. [4] Thus this paper will examine this debate with a focus on technological innovation. In the chapter of The Levers of Riches comparing China and Europe, Mokyr demonstrates how China’s different government-civil relations, different bureaucracy, lower demand for foreign goods, and Luddism ideology against social conflict and rapid change in comparison to Europe created a disadvantage for technological transformation. But many revisionist economists have engaged this debate and demonstrated that Europe only gained certain advantages through technological merit, and most other advantages through fortuitous global conjectures, such as colonial expansion. As historian Kenneth Pomeranz argues, the number of European macroinventions from 1500 to 1750 was very small and the advantages of merit only played a significant role after 1830. [5] Pomeranz holds the view that before then, many trends in China were similar to Europe, such as efficient economic institutions and labor division patterns. Furthermore, Europe had many ecological constraints that could have stalled progress. Thus for him, Europe’s rise was not inevitable based on earlier socioeconomic trends. This paper will first compare Pomeranz and Mokyr’s approach to this debate.

China’s Lead and Disuse of Technological Innovations

Both Mokyr and Pomeranz acknowledge China’s technological innovation prior to Europe. Improvements in plows, rice cultivation through wet-field techniques, new fertilizers, and hydraulic engineering helped a stable supply of nutrition. [6]  China also led by at least one thousand five hundred years in iron casting technology and one thousand years for paper and the modern horse collar prior to Europe’s adaptation. Weaving equipment for spinning silk appeared as early as 200 B.C. and was later adapted to cotton. While the mechanic clock has been lauded as a “macroinvention” in Mokyr’s book, China during the 11th century also created water clocks. (A macroinvention is “an invention without clear-cut parentage, representing a clear break from previous technique.”) In the 15th century, China also created water-worthy ships, but later could not maintain its superiority due to Ming dynasty’s closed-door policy that terminated sea exploration. Many of China’s technologies were often imported or reinvented in Europe later.

Yet certain inventions in China were not used as much as the European scales of capital accumulation. Iron casting was used for weaponry, but not later improved weaponry such as guns and cannons. China thus had to import weapons from the West in the 19th century when it faced invasion. Mokyr also provided many social and political reasons for China’s slowing innovative progress. The imperial state structure placed a heavy emphasis on meritocracy and examinations. The resources and prestige lay in entering the government, which caused the flow of talent towards bureaucracy rather than fields involving technology. The state could also halt projects very quickly with its central control. Once the Chinese state stopped supporting technology and knowledge dissemination as much as the Song dynasty, there was a discontinuation due to lack of support from the private sphere. Many historians interpreted the role of intellectuals inhibiting the progress, from lack of interest in technical knowledge to benevolent intentions to limit social conflict.[7] Pomeranz himself agrees that the elite men-of-letters conducted few scientific discussions. I agree with Mokyr: he has successfully showed the degree which China’s technological edge lessened its chances for industrialization.

Europe’s Inevitable Rise?

Mokyr showed that inventions played a crucial role in the Industrial Revolution. While Pomeranz accepts that Europe had revolutionary inventions, he indicates that the current increase in studies of private initiatives-cum-miracles are due to the dominant pro-market narrative. Pomeranz complicates this claim of technological progress and shows how European state interventions played a significant role. The usual argument was that labor-saving innovations came about because laborers in the “West” were freer and received higher wages compared to the “Rest.” “The Rest” busied over saving over land, capital, or another scarce material. The European exceptionalists often champion the process of Proto-industrialization, in which they saw encouraged people to engage in non-food related work, while the rural areas started creating surplus in food for town. [8] The increase in demographic growth in towns reinforced this process. Historian Andre Gunder Frank holds that China only engaged in a similar process between 1500-1800 (increase in labor and population) after Europe introduced the currency system of New World Silver. Pomeranz challenges this idea on many grounds: China had domestic demand much larger than exports to Europe; China had more labor mobility than Europe and the state facilitated migration; low wage costs do not necessarily inhibit the use of labor-saving technology; many British technologies aimed to save money on fuel, such as coal, rather than labor; finally, the people who did invent technology for saving labor were not aware of it.[The Great Divergence. 52] “In a study of eighteenth-century English patentees, Christine MacLeod finds that most declared the goals of their innovation to be either improving the quality of the product or saving on capital...only 3.7 percent cited saving on labor as a goal.” This is understandable since Europe had used certain land-intensive products inefficiently, such as fuel wood.] Thus Pomeranz supports Jan DeVries’ argument that Europe invested much labor over many years which had high yield--an “industrious revolution” rather than one of rapid productivity increase.

Pomeranz also argues that the while the inventions were labor-saving, only some inventions had long term importance. Global conjectures of colonial conquest mattered more for solving land problems. The expanded land abroad allowed western European countries to feed a growing population despite diminishing per capita resource at home. This development saved labor and allowed the inventions to have larger impacts compared to the marginal technological improvements in China and India.

Female Labor and Involution

Labor output serves a key category in the evidence for proving that China was involuted. Pomeranz also discusses the point made by many social historians regarding China’s female labor and nature of demand. DeVries has argued that in Europe, labor increased and reallocated for industrial and semi-finished goods, such as bread and candles, due to more employment of women in non-domestic workforce. Philip Huang adds that China’s society only increased female labor for domestic needs and thus lacked demand for the same goods. Pomeranz holds that 1) Chinese women also participated in the non-domestic workforce and 2) Empirically, like Europe, China also had an increase in demand for finished goods and services, such as candles and ritual expenses; 3) China also copiously consumed sugar and tobacco and experienced an equivalent rise of the commercialized leisure life in Europe.

Pomeranz uses Jack Goldstone’s studies of Chinese female participation in the workforce and emphasizes that they earned above above subsistence rates in silk production.[ Goldstone, Jack A. 1996. 'Gender, Work, And Culture: Why The Industrial Revolution Came Early To England But Late To China'. Sociological Perspectives 39 (1): 1-21.] But he differs with Goldstone’s explanation that the Chinese society’s reluctance to allow women to leave the house for work hampered industrialization. The ideal was for men to plow the fields and women to weave at home. Yet there were many writings indicating women working alongside men in the Lower Yangzi Delta fields throughout the 17th and 18th century, while writings about Anhui, Guangdong and Fujian indicated women working outdoors throughout the 19th century. Pomeranz also cited the cultural impression made by empresses gathering mulberry leaves for silkworms as evidence of the widespread acceptance of women working out-of-house. He concludes that there is little historical evidence regarding the non-elite attitude towards women and thus he does not accept Goldstone’s hypothesis that China did not industrialize due to cultural norms that promoted female seclusion.

The Military Competition and Property Debate

Pomeranz has observed in the Introduction that recent scholarship tend to explain Europe’s success through endogenous growth. Pomeranz does not hold the Marxist theory of primitive accumulation, since Britain had accumulated surplus values prior to its colonies. Still, he attributes Europe’s crucial aspect of success to its spatial advantage in colonies (“peripheries”), the slave trade, and other forms of overseas coercion. He also revisits Eric Williams’ thesis of colonial accumulation’s role in Britain’s industrialization, and argues that without the military fiscalism, Britain would have later experienced a labor-intensive rather than capital-intensive growth.

Yet this difference deserves attention: China also had tributaries, yet the state did not establish itself as an economically productive empire. Pomeranz also puts forward that Chinese merchants and laborers had large presence in the sparsely populated land of southeast Asia. They created much revenue through land-intensive products, such as sugar and grain, but southeast Asia “never became for coastal China what the New World was for western Europe.” The “state had no interest in directly providing military and political backing” for these merchants. Why did the Chinese state not engage or exploit this linkage? The rulers of the Qing dynasty were more invested in Central Asian expansion and had budget surpluses every year to concern itself with revenues and taxes. Landes, K. N. Chaudhuri and M. N. Pearson to some extent supported variations of an explanation beyond China’s particularity: without intense military competition, major Asian empires did not need as much commercial revenues as Europe; thus these empires did not regard commercial property or revenue as important as tributaries. Pomeranz questions this claim and cites DeVries that argued military competition in Europe urged states to “put more offices, tax farms, and titles on the market was an impediment to this transformation, not an aid.” He also adds that war increased rate of asset and skills lost, and increased business costs.

But I still find the military competition argument persuasive and I hold that China’s unique imperial culture inhibited its industrial revolution. Pomeranz discusses Qing rulers’ paranoia regarding militarizing oversea efforts and “suspicion of any combination of mercantile and naval power in the same set of hands” as major reasons for the lack of support for a Chinese East India Company in Southeast Asia. But he does not explore cultural reasons that halted China’s seafaring initiatives in the earlier Ming dynasty. He also does not delve into the Chinese ideologies of the time that could have been comparable to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations or John Locke’s discussion of property. Pomeranz focuses on many aspects that de-emphasizes cultural difference, but these differences cannot be ignored in the discussion when comparing processes of industrialization.

Furthermore, most scholars mentioned have treated China more or less as a nation-state with a coherent citizenry, when in reality it was an ever-changing multi-ethnic empire during many of the periods discussed. Many comparative histories of technology assume China to be a coherent nation while each dynasty had its unique interests and priorities. Yet there is much debate within Chinese history regarding technology that these narratives overlook, such as the extent to which the Mongolian-established Yuan dynasty changed the dynamics and progress created during the Song dynasty. This picture can be lost in comparative approaches between China and the West. Rather than interrogating the multiple Chinas at stake, the discourse is shaped around questions like “how China can take over the West” or why it did not. This is a worthy question for another paper to explore.

[1] Landes, David. 1969. The Unbound Prometheus. Cambridge University Press. 7, 11. “The nations of the Third World have yet to effect their industrial revolution, and the gulf in wealth and standard of living between them and the economically advanced countries has increased to the point of scandal and danger. The disparity has been aggravated by the partial character of their modernization.”
[2] Jones, Eric L. 1981. The European Miracle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 160.
[3] The Unbound Prometheus. 15.
[4]  Mokyr, Joel. 1990. The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress. Oxford University Press. (Kindle Locations 1287-1289).
[5] Pomeranz, Kenneth. 2000. The Great Divergence. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. 47.
[6] The Lever of Riches. Kindle Location 3356.
[7] Fei, Hsiao-tung, 1953. China's Gentry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
[8] Kriedte, Peter, Hans Medick, & Jürgen Schlumbohm. 1981. Industrialization before Industrialization. 12.