Published by EH.NET (July 2004)

Thomas P. Lyons, China Maritime Customs and China’s Trade Statistics, 1859-1948. Trumansburg, NY: Willow Creek Press, 2003. viii + 168 pp. + data and text files on CD. $34.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-9729147-5-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Tim Wright, Chinese Studies, University of Sheffield.

Studies of the economic history of China (and of many other developing countries) are bedeviled above all by the lack of trustworthy economic statistics. By far the most reliable and comprehensive set of statistics on nineteenth and early twentieth-century Chinese economic history are those produced by the Maritime Customs, and there are few scholars of the period who do not use them extensively. So historians will be grateful to Thomas P. Lyons (Professor of Economics at Cornell University) for publishing this thorough guide to their conventions, reliability and compilation.

This book originates in Professor Lyon’s important work on the economic history of Fujian province (which spans the whole period from the nineteenth century to the present), and it must be stated immediately that the contents are more limited than the title suggests. Essentially this is an account of the compilation of the Customs statistics, but one based mainly on a case study of the Fujian tea trade — which was one of China’s main export trades in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The book is of broader relevance than just the tea industry, however, and the problems identified and the methods suggested can certainly be extrapolated to other situations. But that work is left to other scholars.

The book consists of two parts: a general analysis of the Customs organization and statistics (albeit with the examples still from the Fujian tea trade), and a detailed case study of the figures for Fujian tea exports and the way they can be used in Chinese economic history. In the first of five chapters, the author outlines the history, institutional structure and key functions of the Maritime Customs, as these changed over time. The second chapter outlines the structure and nature of the customs statistics. Although the various distinctions will be familiar in outline to most scholars who have worked on the figures, Lyons makes a major contribution by systematically explaining them. The third chapter points to the key problems in the statistics. Although the figures themselves have a high degree of reliability, when using them one has to be careful of variations in nomenclature and classifications, of issues arising from the aggregation of figures for different commodities — even different types of tea — or for different ports, of changes through time in degrees of inclusiveness (for example, increasing coverage of existing levels of trade, or inclusion and then exclusion of Taiwan and Manchuria), and of what is not covered in the statistics (much overland trade and all illegal trade).

The two chapters of Part II first examine what the customs statistics tell us about the tea trade of Fuzhou, and then expand the vision to take in the tea trade of the whole province of Fujian. The author illustrates the pitfalls that can face scholars by comparing the figures for Fuzhou tea exports he gathered directly from the Customs statistics with earlier series published by Robert Gardella and Chen Ciyu. It turns out that both the earlier series are an amalgam of figures for different variables, some for total exports to foreign countries, some for original exports to all destinations. Even if the differences are not very consequential, it is sobering to think that even a scholar as careful and thorough as Gardella can be misled by the intermediate sources from which he draws his statistical material. Finally, Lyons analyzes the issues involved in aggregating figures for tea exports over the whole province, and very productively shows how the Customs statistics can be used to cross-check other figures, for example those for the production and consumption of tea in the province (basically he shows that existing estimates of production in the early twentieth century are almost certainly too low).

Within each chapter, Lyons also provides a series of “boxes” — more detailed discussions of particular issues that are of tangential relevance to the general argument. Some of these are again extremely useful, for example Boxes 11 and 12 (pp. 77-85) on the format of the Returns of Trade that are the original source for most of the statistics used by scholars. Finally, with the book comes a CD that presents an extensive set of Customs data, mainly on the tea trade of Fujian. This includes sixty-five spreadsheets and seven documents, providing both a substantial amount of raw data on the tea industry and the aggregate estimates underlying all the charts and tables in the book, so that the author’s analysis is reproducible. One must hope that this is a harbinger of things to come, and that increasingly authors will provide in electronic form the raw data underlying their conclusions.

All scholars will be grateful to Lyons for making available such a thorough guide to the Customs Statistics, albeit one based on one particular (but important) case. In the future, scholars using these statistics will, at the minimum, be more aware of the institutional origins of the figures and the pitfalls involved in their use. As the author himself points out (pp. 154-155), there is an issue of the marginal productivity of effort in going into the level of detail and of thoroughness that he himself is prepared to invest. While some will, therefore, probably still want to use the available aggregate figures without going so deeply into the details, everyone will benefit from having a better idea of the problems involved.

Tim Wright is Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Sheffield. His recent publications include Modern Chinese Economic History: Recent Chinese Studies, and “Distant Thunder: The Regional Economies of Southwest China and the Impact of the Great Depression,” Modern Asian Studies 34.3 (July 2000): 697-738. He is currently working on the history of the 1930s Great Depression in China, and on economic reform in the contemporary Chinese coal industry.