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The Economic History of China: From Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century

Author(s):von Glahn, Richard
Reviewer(s):Deng, Kent G.

Published by EH.Net (June 2016)

Richard von Glahn, The Economic History of China: From Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. xiv + 461 pp. $40 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-107-03056-5.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Kent G. Deng, Department of Economic History, London School of Economics.

This book carries on a great scholarly tradition in three dimensions: a macro-level outlook (taking a huge land mass as a single unit), a long-term vision (using one millennium as a basic unit), and a critical synthesis (examining the fields of history from a commanding height) — something that is best suited for study of remarkably long-lasting civilizations and economies like China and yet has become less available (or, to put it bluntly, less popular) among economic historians in the recent decades. One should be considered fortunate to be able to master one such a dimension. To have all three in one is a heroic undertaking. Not only that, the great care that has been taken in selecting and evaluating a wide spectrum of historical factors/facts and views in the on-going scholarly debate and then in weaving them together in a consistent and coherent fashion makes for a masterpiece of scholarship. In this new book, Richard von Glahn of the University of California, Los Angeles, has achieved just that.

The book’s main achievement is three-fold. First, the author gives qualitative data a deserved fair share rather than treating them as inferior evidence. In doing so, a good balance is maintained between quantifiable and non-quantifiable evidence in Chinese history. This is vital for an evenhanded understanding of the China over the very long term. The author’s emphasis on the nature, function, evolution and impact of the imperial state is deeply rooted in such an approach.

Second, the book is based on  “real data” from China’s written records instead of “pseudo-data” made of often dodgy estimates or, even worse, meaningless guesstimates. Here, the author’s unmitigated integrity, as well as his elevated proficiency in handling historical records written in the classical Chinese language, becomes most noticeable. With it, the author demonstrates what a good historical study requires: nonnegotiable training in history plus encyclopedic knowledge. The message from the author is that the heavy lifting in studying and understanding the basics in Chinese history cannot be and should not be skipped.

Third, despite the potentially dull nature of the subject area (i.e. an economic history of the long run) and the dense text and historical data (110 maps, figures and tables), the book is surprisingly an easy read compared to its counterparts. In addition, each chapter is self-contained which makes it highly suited for a layperson or a student.

Structurally, this book has ten substantial chapters, organized with a new periodization according to China’s economic performance rather than the old-fashioned pattern of regime changes from unification to fragmentation to re-unification and then to re-fragmentation (commonly known as fenjiu bi he, hejiu bi fen). What really mattered was China’s economic performance, with a great deal of flexibility in society. After a comprehensive review of the literature in the introduction (covering scholarship in English, Chinese and Japanese languages), the book moves to technology (chapter 1), empire-building (chapters 2-3), maturity in institutions (chapters 4-6), maturity in the economy (chapters 7-8), and ends with crises and challenges from the outside world (chapter 9).

Although the author decides not to offer final conclusions or remarks, the main argument put forward is that despite numerous changes in the state and society, economic life adapted and continued. People’s choices were highly rational — in the short run at least. In explaining China’s comparative “slowing down,” the usual clichés of “Oriental despotism,” “Confucian conservativism,” “dynastic cycle,” “rice economy,” and “high-level equilibrium trap” are not resorted to by the author. Even “Chinese-ness” is not considered anything mysteriously inferior (pace Max Weber). Rather, the author provides us with a new insight: China’s growth trajectories in the long run were either state-led or state-dependent. The market, and with it the general population, played but a limited role. In the Marxian jargon, therefor the “superstructure” determined the “economic base” in China.

For the interest of global or trans-national historians, von Glahn convincingly demonstrates that most elements that have been seen as unique in pre-modern Western Europe or Japan were present in pre-modern China, including technology, feudalism, the fiscal-military state, mercantilism, markets and capitalism. The only difference was that they appeared earlier in China. Such observation resonates the more radical views of Joseph Needham (Science and Civilization in China, Cambridge 1954-2015) and John Hobson (Eastern Origins of Western Civilization, Cambridge, 2004).

This is the kind of book that will almost certainly enjoy a long shelf life, like some of the most recognizable titles on China’s long-term history — such as Joseph Needham’s The Grand Titration (London, 1969), Mark Elvin’s The Pattern of the Chinese Past (Stanford, 1973), and Kang Chao’s Man and Land in Chinese History (Stanford, 1986). I strongly recommend this book to students of Chinese history, East Asian history and world/global history.

Recent publications by Kent G. Deng (k.g.deng@lse.ac.uk) include Mapping China’s Growth and Development in the Long Run, 221 BC to 2020 (London: World Scientific Press and Imperial College Press, 2015) and (with Patrick O’Brien) “Establishing Statistical Foundations of a Chronology for the Great Divergence: A Survey and Critique of the Primary Sources for the Construction of Relative Wage Levels for Ming-Qing China,” Economic History Review.

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Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):Ancient
Medieval
16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century