Why no Industrial Revolution in China?

by on February 19, 2008 at 12:56 pm in History | Permalink

John Darwin gives it a shot:

The best answer we have is that it [Kiangnan and China] could not surmount the classic constraints of pre-industrial growth.  By the late eighteenth century it faced steeply rising costs for food, fuel and raw materials.  Increasing population and expanding output competed for the produce of a more or less fixed land area.  The demand for food throttled the increase in raw cotton production.  Raw cotton prices probably doubled in the Yangtze delta between 1750 and 1800.  The demand for fuel (in the form of wood) brought deforestation and a degraded environment.  The escape route from this trap existed in theory.  Kiangman should have drawn its supplies from further away.  It should have cut the costs of production by mechanization, enlarging its market and thus its source of supply.  It should have turned to coal to meet the need for fuel.  In practice there was little chance for change along such lines.  It faced competition from many inland centres where food and raw materials were cheaper, and which could also exploit China’s well-developed system of waterway transport.  The very perfection of China’s commercial economy allowed new producers to enter the market with comparative ease at the same technological level.  Under these conditions, mechanization — even if technologically practical — might have been stymied at birth.  And, though China had coal, it was far from Kiangnan and could not be transported there cheaply.  Thus, for China as a whole, both the incentive and the means to take the industrial "high road" were meagre or absent.

In other words, who really knows?  The excerpt is from Darwin’s new book After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire Since 1405, which should be read by anyone…who…reads books with titles like that.  It is most interesting on the Indian and Arabic collapse of the 18th century and on fitting the Russian conquest of Central Asia into the more general history of European imperialism.  I didn’t find any revelations in the book, but it was consistently interesting and readable throughout.

1 dearieme February 19, 2008 at 2:36 pm

“By the late eighteenth century …”: why start there? Why no Industrial Revolution in 0 AD?

2 jn February 19, 2008 at 3:26 pm

Some insight into the problems of innovation in East Asia can be found in:

Ma, Debin. ‘Why Japan, not China, was the first to develop in East Asia: lessons from sericulture 1850-1937.’ Economic Development and Cultural Change 52, no. 2 (2004), pp. 369-394

It’s clear that Japan’s success in that industry gives lie to the view that “the very perfection” of Chinese commerce hindered modernization or that innovation was somehow “not available” in East. It was rent-seeking, special interests, and resistance to technical change that held back China.

3 James A. Donald February 19, 2008 at 5:49 pm

This is a load of baloney. China could not industrialize because technological leaders were apt to be flogged, their testicles cut off and their technology nationalized.

China was determined to keep the merchant class subjugated – which meant that advanced technology in private hands was a threat, a threat that was brutally punished even in areas, such as cannon, that were utterly essential to national security.

4 jean February 19, 2008 at 9:02 pm

“The industrial revolution didn’t happen “in Europe” either, since without the wealth produced by Europe’s conquests overseas industrial development could never have been financed.”

So thats why it happened in England and not in Spain and Portugal, the two greatest imperial powers and owners of gold and silver mines.In the Spanish Empire the sun never setted. Mexico , Peru and Colombia were full of resources and were SpainĀ“s colonies.Spain remained one of the poorest countries in Europe until 1986.
Portugal owned Africa and monopilized trade with Cathay and Cipango and remains a extremely poor country.
England lost USA shortly after the industrial revolution. And neither USA or Canada have any gold , silver or any resource for what matters.

5 K. Larson February 19, 2008 at 11:44 pm

We covered this same topic in a Developmental and Demographic History of China course I took in college a few years back. The resource-pressure angle has serious problem, not the least of which is the temptation to ret-con China’s current population woes onto earlier periods in history. Furthermore, the theory fails to explain adequately why plentiful opportunities for trade, excellent infrastructure, and common cultural/linguistic standards failed to produce technological development. The theory also fails to explain non-economic failures in technology- the Chinese possessed “advanced” gunpowder weaponry far earlier than European powers, yet the military establishment failed to deploy the technology for centuries, choosing to rely on the traditionally-approved ‘nu’ crossbow.

The conclusion that we arrived at was primarily cultural. Chinese culture in the later dynastic periods was intensely Confucian. It is difficult to overstate the degree to which traditional Confucianism is neophobic, collectivist, and hierarchical; insisting on explicit observance of established tradition and the denigration of new invention. Civilization was thought to be decayed from a condition of perfection under the ancient Sage Kings, and the prime duty of the ruling class was to emulate their more enlightened predecessors in every respect. The Analects specifically instruct the reader to disregard novel solutions to recurrent problems, recommending traditional techniques as more respectful of one’s ancestor spirits.

Additionally, the co-opting for the intellectual and mercantile classes into the confucian scholar-administrator system, as well the abundance of peasant labor, largely eliminated the institutions that might demand and supply technological development.

6 Chewxy February 20, 2008 at 2:14 am

James A Donald:
I think you should re-read chinese history. The guys who have their balls cut off? They’re called eunuchs, they’re palace servants. There was no evidence of any kind that technology leaders were punished.

I’d have to say, China on the whole wasnt resistant to technological change. What china lacked was Thomas Hobbes. Thomas Hobbes was one of the first philosophers in Europe who advocated property rights, spurring incentives to innovate.

The Chinese, on the other hand, was a more, communual society, or as some people put it, Confucian (which is a sorta version of Benthem’s utilitarianism + Kant’s moral sensibilities and blabla). Ergo, people simply didn’t have the incentive to innovate in China, because there weren’t anythings like copyright laws to protect them.

K Larson perhaps has the most valid comments in his post. Except the view that confucianism is neophobic, a view which I oppose.

7 fs February 20, 2008 at 7:41 am

Te reason is lack of competition! China had many of the prerequisities for devleopment, clearly, but a culture or at least a government and a ruling class that held back the reins. And it coudl do that because it didn’t need to engage in state competition, also known as war, with neighbours at the same level. Europe, at least West, for perhaps geographical/historical reasons combines pluralism with natural(ish) borders, thus having both war and stability. China no war, India no stability (of states)

8 jorod February 20, 2008 at 10:04 am

I recommend the book “Victory of Reason: How Christianity led to Freedom, Capitalsim and Success in the West” by Rodney Stark. The book addresses all of your questions.

9 david foster February 21, 2008 at 12:06 pm

“Industrial revolution” is too often equated to “steam power.” Actually, much industrial technology was developed to be powered by water–for example, the water-powered fulling mill and the water-powered blast furnace were both developed in Europe during the Medieval period. Arkwright’s late-1700s mechanized spinning device was known at the Water Frame, indicating its expected power source.

Without steam power, industrialization would have been constrained by the available waterpower sites, but considerable development would still have been possible. Almost certainly, we still would have had a mechanized textile industry.

In his history of the waterwheel, Terry Reynolds says that China employed water-operated furnace bellows possibly as early as 238 BC and certainly by 31 AD.

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