Published by EH.NET (June 1, 2000)
Philip Richardson, Economic Change in China, c. 1800-1950. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1999. xii + 111 pp. $39.95 (hardback), $12.95
(paper), ISBN 0-521-58396-9 (hardback), 0-521-63571-3 (paper).
Reviewed for EH.NET by Debin Ma, Institute of Economic Research, Hitotsubashi
University, Tokyo, Japan and Department of Economics, University of Missouri,
In a little over a hundred pages, Philip Richardson’s Economic Change in
China c. 1800-1950 provides a concise and excellent survey of current and
major English language scholarship. The book is part of a publication series
called the New Studies in Economic and Social History by Cambridge University
Press which is “designed to introduce (students and teachers) to fresh topics
and to enable them to keep abreast of recent writing and debates” (p. ii).
Measured by that objective, Richardson’s book fares very well.
The book has set a clear focus: “without seeking to deny the influence of
social, cultural and institutional factors, the focus of the inquiry here lies
with an exploration of economic variables. The concern is with the dynamics of
interplay between continuity and change which facilitated, inhibited and
determined not just the process of change but the emergence of modern features
within the Chinese economy and, perhaps, the development of a modern Chinese
economy” (p. 4).
Organized around this theme, the book first lays out the analytic frameworks
(chapter 1), then supplies a background picture on China’s eighteenth-century
legacy and the early nineteenth-century crisis (chapter 2). The third chapter
presents China’s growth and structural change within a national account
framework for the period between the 1890s and 1933. In the next three
chapters, Richardson individually examines China’s external, industrial and
agricultural sectors from the second half of nineteenth century to the 1950s.
The seventh chapter examines the relationship between the state and the
Overall, Richardson’s presentation of major hypotheses, theories, and debates
are comprehensive, balanced, lucid and largely accurate. Sources are very well
indicated. The bibliography, organized by topics, carefully numbered and
cross-referenced, is particularly useful. But the most commendable feature of
the book is Richardson’s consistent and able presentation and discussion of
quantitative evidence and economic statistics for almost all the major issues
on national income, agriculture, industry and international trade. This is no
easy task as Chinese statistics are a source of controversy.
As Richardson shows, there are relatively firm statistics indicating that
foreign trade and investment grew enormously in the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries. Industrial output, particularly the modern sector, also exhibited an
impressive growth record during the twentieth century. But these elements were
far from altering the basic structure of the economy dominated by the giant
agricultural sector where traditional technology prevailed and estimates of
per-capita output growth are dubious due to the lack of consistent aggregate
time series data.
Richardson’s final assessment on the nature and magnitude of economic changes
in China in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries being characteristically
well-balanced, remains also somewhat non-conclusive. “The major long-term
influences on the process and extent of economic change were the pressure of
population on the land, the intensification of commercialized market
mechanisms, contact with the outside world and the role of state. By the middle
of the twentieth century those factors had combined and interrelated to produce
an economy which contained significant elements of modernization but not an
economy which can be confirmed with certainty as having achieved the onset of
sustained growth. It was also, in the short term, an economy suffering the
effects of more than a decade of war and economic mismanagement” (p.101).
I believe there is still room for Richardson to push his assessment a little
bit. If modern economic growth may or may not have taken hold in China as whole
(p.99), it had clearly taken root in regions where modern industrial sectors
clustered and agriculture was most commercialized. The regional characteristics
of modern economic growth would give us new insights into the nature of
economic change in China. Furthermore, if we are willing to look beyond the
macroeconomic variables, we also find in the twentieth century the spread of
primary education, the growth of a modern scientific community, the beginning
of agricultural experimental station, and the rise of new industrial and
commercial organizations, as well as monetary and fiscal reform of the 1930s.
(Richardson mentions some of these factors in chapter 7.) These all meant that
China was farther along on the path toward modern economic growth in the 1930s
or 1950 than in 1890 or 1850.
I do have some reservations about Richardson’s assessment of Chinese
agricultural conditions in the 1930s. After giving a fairly objective summary
of the optimists’ and pessimists’ cases in the debate on Chinese rural income
and productivity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Richardson
leans towards the conclusion: “it is clear that the agrarian economy was in a
state of crisis” and this did not seem like a short-term problem brought on by
the world Great Depression (p. 81-82). This view of the 1930s “agrarian crisis”
(beyond the short term) comes about partly due the lack of historical
comparison in the China field — not necessarily comparing China with Europe,
as was most often done, but rather comparing China in the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries with other East Asian countries such as Japan, Taiwan and
Korea. The relatively reliable data on rice yield per acre in the 1930s shows
that the Chinese level was still about 60-70% of the contemporaneous Japanese
level. This level was also equivalent to the rice yield level prevailing in
early Meiji Japan. Meanwhile, the average farm size in China was comparable to,
if not larger than that in Japan, Taiwan and Korea. Various sources also
clearly indicate that per-capita gross value added of farm output in the 1930s
represented one of the peak levels compared with most of the years in 1952-78
in China. The 1930s per-capita level was only surpassed after
de-collectivization and the diffusion of the household responsibility system in
the 1980s China.
Chinese farmers may have been poor in the 1930s, but they were not much poorer
than those in Japan, Taiwan and Korea in their early stages of development.
Very likely, they were just as well-off as the Chinese farmers in the late
1970s before the launching of the successful agricultural reform. Recognition
of these facts not only puts Richardson’s use of “agrarian crisis” (beyond the
short term) to describe the 1930s Chinese agriculture in serious doubt, but
also motivates us to reevaluate the connection between modern economic growth
and the state of Chinese economy in the pre-Communist era.
Debin Ma is the author of “Modern Silk Road: Global Raw Silk Market:
1850-1930″ Journal of Economic History (1996) and “Chinese Agricultural
Production in the Republican Period” (co-authored with Makino and Luo), in
Chinese Economic Statistics in the Republic Period (in Japanese and
Chinese), published by the Institute of Economic Research, Hitotsubashi
University, Feb. 2000.
|Subject(s):||Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History|
|Time Period(s):||20th Century: Pre WWII|