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Economic History of Premodern China (from 221 BC to c. 1800 AD)

Kent Deng, London School of Economics (LSE)

China has the longest continually recorded history in the premodern world. For economic historians, it makes sense to begin with the formation of China’s national economy in the wake of China’s unification in 221 BC under the Qin. The year 1800 AD coincides with the beginning of the end for China’s premodern era, which was hastened by the First Opium War (1839–42). Hence, the time span of this article is two millennia.


Evidence indicates that there was a sharp difference in the economy between China’s pre-imperial era (until 220 BC) and its imperial era. There can be little doubt that the establishment of the Empire of China (to avoid the term of “the Chinese Empire” as it was not always an empire by and for the Chinese) served as a demarcation line in the history of the East Asian Mainland.

The empire was a result of historical contingency rather than inevitability. First of all, before the unification, China’s multiple units successfully accommodated a mixed economy of commerce, farming, handicrafts and pastoralism. Internal competition also allowed science and technology as well as literature and art to thrive on the East Asian Mainland. This was known as “a hundred flowers blossoming” (baijia zhengming, literally “a grand song contest with one hundred contenders”). Feudalism was widely practiced. Unifying such diverse economic and political units incurred inevitably huge social costs. Secondly, the winner of the bloody war on the East Asian Mainland, the Qin Dukedom and then the Qin Kingdom (840–222 BC), was not for a long time a rich or strong unit during the Spring and Autumn Period (840–476 BC) and the following Warring States Period (475–222 BC). It was only during the last three decades of the Warring States Period that the Qin eventually managed to overpower its rivals by force and consequently unified China. Moreover, although it unified China, the Qin was the worse-managed dynasty in the entire history of China: it crumbled after only fifteen years. So, it was not an easy birth; and the empire system was in serious jeopardy from the start. The main justification of China’s unification seems to have been a geopolitical reason, hence an external reason – the nomadic threat from the steppes (Deng 1999).

Nevertheless, empire-building in China marked a major discontinuity in history. Under the Western Han (206 BC– 24 AD), the successor of the Qin, empire-building not only sharply reduced internal competition among various political and economic centers on the East Asian Mainland, it also remolded the previous political and economic systems into a more integrated and more homogeneous type characterized by a package of an imperial bureaucracy under a fiscal state hand in hand with an economy under agricultural dominance. With such a package imposed by empire-builders, the economy deviated from its mixed norm. Feudalism lost its footing in China. This fundamentally changed the growth and development trajectory of China for the rest of the imperial period until c. 1800.

It is fair to state that private landholding property rights, including free-holding (dominant in North China over the long run) and lease-holding (paralleled with freeholding in South China during the post-Southern Song, i.e. 1279–1840) in imperial China laid the very corner stone of the empire’s economy since the Qin unification. Chinese laws clearly defined and protected such rights. In return, the imperial state had the mandate to tax the population of whom the vast majority (some 80 percent of the total population) were peasants. The state also depended on the rural population for army recruits. Peasants on the other hand regularly acted as the main force to populate newly captured areas along the empire’s long frontiers. Such a symbiotic relationship between the imperial state and China’s population was crystallized by a mutually beneficial state-peasant alliance in the long run. China’s lasting Confucian learning and Confucian meritocracy served as a social bonding agent for the alliance.

It was such an alliance that formed the foundations of China’s political economy which in turn created a centripetal force to hold the empire together against the restoration of feudalism and political decentralization (Deng 1999). It also served as a constant drive for China’s geographic expansion and an effective force against run-away proto-industrialization, commercialization and urbanization. So, to a great extent, China’s political economy was circumscribed by this alliance. Occasionally, this state-peasant alliance did break up and political and economic turmoil followed. The ultimate internal cause for the break-up was excessive rent-seeking by the state, seen as a deviation from the Confucian norm. It was often the peasantry that reversed this deviation and put society back on its track by the way of armed mass rebellions which replaced the old regime with a new one. This pattern is known, superficially, as the “dynastic cycle” of China.

The Empire’s Expansion

China’s fiscal state and landholding peasantry both had strong incentives and tendencies to increase the land territory of the empire. This was simply because more land meant more resource endowments for the peasantry and more tax revenue for the state. The Chinese non-feudal equal-inheritance practice perpetuated such incentives and tendencies at the grass roots level: unless more and more land was brought in for farming, the Chinese farms faced the constant problem of a shrinking size. Not surprisingly, the empire gradually expanded in all directions from its hub along the Yellow River in the north. It colonized the “near south” (around the Yangtze Valley) and to the West (oases along the Silk Road) during the Western Han (206 BC – 24 AD). It reached the “far south,” including part of modern-day Vietnam, under the Tang (618–907). The Ming (1368–1644) annexed off-shore Taiwan. The Qing (1644–1911) doubled China’s territory by going further in China’s “far north” and “far west” (Deng 1993: xxiii). At each step of this internal colonization, landholding peasants, shoulder to shoulder with the Chinese army and bureaucrats, duplicated the cells of China’s agricultural economy. The state often provided emigrant farmers who resettled in new regions with material and finance aid, typically free passages, seed and basic farming tools and tax holidays. The geographic expansion of the empire stopped only at the point when it reached the physical limits for farming.

So, in essence, the expansion of the Chinese empire was the result of dynamics of the Chinese institutions characterized by a fiscal state and a landholding peasantry, as this pattern suited well with China’s landholding property rights and non-feudal equal-inheritance practice. Thus, one of the two growth dimensions of the Chinese agricultural sector was this extensive pattern in geographic terms.

Agrarian Success

In this context, the success of the geographic expansion of the Chinese empire was at the same time a success in the growth of the Chinese agricultural sector. Firstly, regardless of its ten main soil types, the empire’s territory was converted to a huge farming zone. Secondly, the agricultural sector was by far the single most important source of employment for the majority Chinese. Thirdly, taxes from the agricultural sector made up the lion’s share of the state’s revenue.

Private property rights over land also created incentives for the ordinary farmers to produce more and better. In doing so, the agricultural total factor productivity increased. Growth became intensive. This was the other dimension in the Chinese agricultural sector. It is not so surprising that premodern China had at least three main “green revolutions.” The first such green revolution, the dry farming type, appeared in the Western Han Period (206 BC–24 AD) with the aggressive introduction of iron ploughs in the north by the state (Bray 1984). The result was an increase in the agricultural total factor productivity as land was better and more efficiently tilled and more marginal regions were brought under cultivation. The second green revolution took place during the Northern Song (960–1127) with the state promotion of early-ripening rice in the south (Ho 1956). This ushered in the era of multiple cropping in the empire. The third green revolution occurred during the late Ming throughout mid-Qing Period (Ming: 1368–1644; Qing: 1644–1911) with the spread of the “New World crops,” namely maize and sweet potatoes and the re-introduction of early-ripening rice (Deng 1993: ch. 3). The New World crops helped to convert more marginal land into farming areas. Earlier, under the Yuan, cotton was deliberately introduced by the Mongols as a substitute for silk in the Chinese consumption of clothing to save the silk for the Mongols’ international trade. All these green revolutions had high participation rates in the general population.

These green revolutions significantly and permanently changed China’s economic landscape. It was not a sheer accident that China’s population growth became particularly strong during and shortly after these revolutions (Deng 2003).

Markets and the Market Economy

With a fiscal state which taxed the economy and spent its revenue in the economy and with a high-yield agriculture which produced a constant surplus, the market economy developed in premodern China. By the end of the Qing, as much as one-third of China’s post-tax agricultural output was subject to market exchange (Perkins 1969: 115; Myers 1970: 12–13). If ten percent is taken as the norm for the tax rate born by the agricultural sector, the aggregate surplus of the agricultural sector was likely to be some forty percent of its total output. This magnitude of agricultural surplus was the foundation of growth and development of other sectors/activities in the economy.

Monetization in China had the same life span as the empire itself. The state mints mass-produced coins on a regular basis for the domestic economy and beyond. Due to the lack of monetary metals, token currencies made of cloth or paper were used on large scales, especially during the Song and Yuan periods (Northern Song: 960–1127; Southern Song: 1127–1279; Yuan: 1279–1368). Consequently, inflations resulted. Perhaps the most spectacular market phenomenon was China’s persistent importation of foreign silver from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries during the Ming-Qing Period. It has been estimated that a total of one-third of silver output from the New World ended up in China, not to mention the amount imported from neighboring Japan (Flynn and Giráldez 1995). The imported silver consequently made China a silver-standard economy, eventually causing a price revolution after the market was saturated with foreign silver which in turn led to devaluation of the currency (Deng 1997: Appendix C).

Rudimentary credit systems, often of the short-term type, also appeared in China. Houses and farming land were often used as collateral to raise money. But there is no sign that there was a significant reduction of business risks for the creditor. Frequent community and/or state interference with contracts by blocking land transfers from debtors to creditors was counter-productive. So, to a great extent, China’s customary economy and command economy overruled the market one.

The nature of this surplus-based market exchange determined the multi-layered structure of the Chinese domestic market. At the grass-roots level, the market was localized, decentralized and democratic (Skinner 1964–5). This was highly compatible with the de facto village autonomy across the empire, as the imperial administration stopped at the county level (with a total number of roughly 1,000–1,500 such counties in all under the Qing). At the top of the market structure, the state controlled to a great extent some “key commodities” including salt (as during Ming and Qing), wine and iron and steel (as under the Han). Foreign trade was customarily under the state monopoly or partial monopoly, too. This left a limited platform for professional merchants to operate, a factor that ultimately determined the weakness of merchants’ influence in the economy and state politics.

So, paradoxically, China had a long history of market activities but a weak merchant class tradition. China’s social mobility and meritocracy, the antitheses of a feudal aristocracy, directed the talent and wealth to officialdom (Ho 1962; Rawski 1979). The existence of factor markets for land also allowed merchants to join the landholding class. Both undermined the rise of the merchant class.

Handicrafts and Urbanization

The sheer quantities of China’s handicrafts were impressive. It has been estimated that in the early nineteenth century, as much as one-third of the world’s total manufactures were produced by China (Kennedy 1987: 149; Huntington 1996: 86). In terms of ceramics and silk, China was able to supply the outside world almost single-handedly at times. Asia was traditionally China’s selling market for paper, stationary and cooking pots. All these are highly consistent with China’s intake of silver during the same period.

However, the growth in China’s handicrafts and urbanization was a function of the surpluses produced from the agricultural sector. This judgment is based on (1) the fact that not until the end of the Qing Period did China begin importing moderate quantities of foodstuffs from outside world to help feed the population; and (2) the fact that the handicraft sector never challenged agricultural dominance in the economy despite a symbiotic relationship between them.

By the same token, urbanization rarely exceeded ten percent of the total population although large urban centers were established. For example, during the Song, the northern capital Kaifeng (of the Northern Song) and southern capital Hangzhou (of the Southern Song) had 1.4 million and one million inhabitants, respectively (Jones et al. 1993: ch. 9). In addition, it was common that urban residents also had one foot in the rural sector due to private landholding property rights.

Science and Technology

In the context of China’s high yield agriculture (hence surpluses in the economy which were translated into leisure time for other pursuits) and Confucian meritocracy (hence a continued over-supply of the literate vis-à-vis the openings in officialdom and persistent record keeping by the premodern standards) (Chang 1962: ch. 1; Deng 1993: Appendix 1), China became one of the hotbeds of scientific discoveries and technological development of the premodern world (Needham 1954–95). It is commonly agreed that China led the world in science and technology from about the tenth century to about the fifteenth century.

The Chinese sciences and technologies were concentrated in several fields, mainly material production, transport, weaponry and medicine. A common feature of all Chinese discoveries was their trial-and-error basis and incremental improvement. Here, China’s continued history and large population became an advantage. However, this trial-and-error approach had its developmental ceiling. And, incremental improvement faced diminishing returns (Elvin 1973: ch. 17). So, although China once led the world, it was unable to realize what is known as the “Scientific Revolution” whose origin may well have been oriental/Chinese (Hobson 2004).

Living Standards

It has been argued that in the Ming-Qing Period the standards of living reached and stayed at a high level, comparable with the most wealthy parts of Western Europe by 1800 in material terms (Pomeranz 2000) and perhaps in education as well (Rawski 1979). Although the evidence is not conclusive, the claims certainly are compatible with China’s wealth in the context of (1) the rationality of private property rights-led growth, (2) total factor productivity growth associated with China’s green revolutions from the Han to the Ming-Qing and the economic revolution under the Song, and (3) China’s export capacity (hence China’s surplus output) and China’s silver imports (hence the purchasing power of China’s surplus).

Debates about China’s Long-term Economic History

The pivotal point of the debate about China’s long-term economic history has been why and how China did not go any further from its premodern achievements. Opinions have been divided and the debate goes on (Deng 2000). Within the wide spectrum of views, some are regarded as Eurocentric; some, Sinocentric (Hobson 2004). But a great many are neither, using some universally applicable criteria such as factor productivity (labor, land and capital), economic optimization/maximization, organizational efficiency, and externalities.

In a nutshell, the debate is whether to view China as a bottle “half empty” (hence China did not realize its full growth potential by the post-Renaissance Western European standard) or “half full” (hence China over-performed by the premodern world standard). In any case, China was “extra-ordinary” either in terms of its outstanding performance for a premodern civilization or in terms of its shortfall for modern growth despite its possession of many favorable preconditions to do so.

The utility of China’s premodern history is indeed indispensable in the understanding of how a dominant traditional economy (in terms of its sheer size and longevity) perpetuated and how the modern economy emerged in the world history.


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Citation: Deng, Kent. “Economic History of Premodern China”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. November 7, 2004. URL