Published by EH.NET (August 2000)

Xu Dixin and Wu Chengming, Chinese Capitalism, 1522-1840. Translated by

Li Zhengde, Liang Miaoru and Li Siping. Edited and abridged by C.A. Curwen. New

York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. xl + 517 pp. $79.95 (cloth), ISBN:


Reviewed for EH.NET by Kenneth Pomeranz, Department of History, University of

California, Irvine.

This is a translation and abridgment (by about 30 percent) of the first volume

of Xu Dixin and Wu Chengming’s huge three-volume history of Chinese capitalism.

It was originally published in China in the mid-1980s, though much of the work

was done quite a bit earlier (Xu died in 1968). It has now been rendered into

very readable English, and trimmed in a way that retains the real essentials of

the work.

The Chinese version was immediately proclaimed a landmark work, even by people

who disagreed with its sometimes rigid Marxist framework. Since the text now

reaches English readers through a bit of a time warp — and what current

readers may find most valuable may differ from what the authors emphasized — a

few words about its original context are in order. (Some of this context is

provided in the helpful introduction by Peter Nolan and Chris Bramall, who also

suggest ways of relating this book to more recent scholarship, and to more

recent developments in East Asia. In particular, they argue — as would I,

though for somewhat different reasons — that contrasts between Qing China,

Tokugawa Japan, and much of early modern Europe may have been overstated.)

Official Chinese Communist historiography faced a conundrum. If the four stages

of society — slave, feudal, capitalist, socialist — identified by various

authoritative Marxist texts were truly a universal progression, why had China

remained in its “feudal” stage so long? If it had still been “stuck” in that

stage at the time of the Opium War (thus explaining why it was roundly defeated

by relatively small forces from the capitalist world) but had been ready for a

proletarian revolution by 1949, did this mean that capitalism had come from

abroad, and imperialism needed to be accorded a progressive (if painful) role?

To deny that — and to rescue the universality of the Marxist stages — it was

necessary that China had been incubating its own “sprouts of capitalism.”

Various scholars found signs of just that in the late Ming and early Qing; the

failure of these sprouts to blossom fully were then blamed on either Manchu or

British intervention from outside. But there was clearly something ad hoc about

such a solution — if capitalist development had been well underway in the

sixteenth century, why had it been so easily derailed, leaving China to enter

the twentieth century with a small bourgeoisie, tiny proletariat, and much of

what was considered “feudal” society still intact? At least through the 1950s,

the majority of PRC scholars preferred to see Chinese “feudalism” as remarkably

stable, if not quite stagnant, and capitalism as something that came to China

from without.

Xu and Wu sought to cut through the debate by identifying both endogenous

Chinese tendencies toward capitalism and endogenous reasons why they were not

strong enough to “dissolve feudalism” and create a transformation comparable to

what occurred in Northwestern Europe. In a short concluding section, they then

argued that despite the limitations of China’s pre-1840 “embryonic capitalism,”

its development is crucial to understanding what they see as an accelerated

growth of capitalism after 1840, when the economic stimulus and socio-political

disruptions of imperialism were added to endogenous forces. But since we

already have a fairly large literature on the post-1840 period (some of which

builds on material unavailable to Xu and Wu), most readers will find the

material on late Ming and early Qing the most useful part of the book.

Xu and Wu’s response to the received wisdom took two separable, though related,

paths. First, they painstakingly collected evidence of the scale of commerce in

late Ming and early Qing society: how much grain, cloth, iron, liquor, and so

on were sold for cash. The results suggested that far too much of the Chinese

economy was commoditized in this period for it to be comfortably characterized

as “feudal,” and that the scale of commercial exchange was continuing to grow

in the late-eighteenth/early nineteenth century. (It should be noted here that

since Xu and Wu were primarily interested in showing the scale of commodity

production in China, they rarely attempted to estimate total output, or the

quantities of goods that were consumed by their producers, bartered, provided

as in-kind payment for services, or traded locally without the participation of

merchants seeking to accumulate capital, rather than peddlers meeting their own

subsistence needs. Thus these estimates are of relatively little use in the

more recent debate over late imperial Chinese standards of living.) A more

recent generation of scholars has since refined many of these estimates with

the help of additional data, and has usually found them to be lower than is

probably warranted. But many of them are still the state of the art for

particular kinds of trade; making them available to those who don’t read

Chinese is a very important contribution. (An unfortunate limitation of this

contribution is that somewhere in the production of the English text, a number

of numbers were reproduced incorrectly — dropping zeros, for instance — which

sometimes makes two calculations [of say, the number of workers involved in an

enterprise and the size of its output] inconsistent. As far as I can tell, none

of these arithmetic errors are in the original; so while readers who cannot

check the original may need help in figuring out which of two conflicting

numbers is correct, they should not conclude from this that Xu and Wu were

generally unreliable.) For many comparativists –particularly those who do not

share the authors’ Marxist viewpoint – these estimates will be the most

valuable part of the book, and the volume’s organization, with many short

clearly labeled chapters, makes it easy to zero in on the numbers provided for

a particular industry.

But Xu and Wu probably felt that their second line of inquiry — a

reconstruction of the forces and relations of production in various sectors —

was even more important. One need not share their assumption that those sectors

in which workers were fully proletarianized (earning a cash wage, owning none

of the tools of production, enjoying full legal equality, etc.) necessarily

represent the cutting edge of historical change (and were most the likely to

experience technological breakthroughs) to profit from their clear and detailed

reconstructions of how particular industries financed production, paid and

monitored laborers, marketed their products, and so on, and of who was involved

in various lines of production at various times. For most industries, the

technological material offered is less detailed than in the enormous volumes by

Joseph Needham and his collaborators, but quite sufficient for an introduction,

and more attentive to describing average (as opposed to best) practices. The

discussion of the social organization of production is skewed toward

enterprises closely tied to the state (a small portion of the economy, but by

far the best documented part), but exemplary in its careful attention to what

the sources actually do (and don’t) say about payment, supervision,

productivity, and various other topics.

In explaining why what they call “embryonic capitalism” was “retarded” in China

— such that it was a real phenomenon, but not one that would radically remake

Chinese society anytime soon — Xu and Wu emphasize two phenomena: 1) the role

of the Chinese state and 2 )the “unity of agriculture and industry”: i.e. the

fact that much handicraft production was carried out by rural people whose

families continued to own or rent some land.

On the first point, they stake out a rather moderate position, arguing that the

Ming and Qing did not encourage commerce, but were not hostile to it except in

certain specific areas and at certain specific times: they single out frequent

restrictions on foreign trade, mining (which it was felt collected too many

unruly young males in a single place) and in certain frontier zones (where it

was feared that rapid commercialization might undermine local customs and lead

to violence that would be expensive to suppress). They also note that in

general, policies were liberalizing during the first half of the Qing, though

they note that they did not approximate true free trade. (Did they anywhere?)

Given the huge size of China’s domestic economy and long-range internal trade,

the intermittent restrictions on foreign trade seem to me probably not crucial,

except insofar as they inhibited access to foreign science and technology; and

both the Japanese example (where quite a bit of “Dutch learning” was absorbed

through a trade window much narrower than China’s) and the speed with which

certain Western crafts were reproduced on the southeast coast of China suggest

to me that freer foreign trade would not have made a crucial difference here,

either. The arguments about mining seem to me more promising, given the ways

that energy problems and shortages of certain metals may have shaped the Qing

economy. Perhaps most impressive in a book written in pre-reform China is the

simple fact that the authors break down the question “Was the Qing state good

for commerce?” into more specific and verifiable pieces, not insisting on a

blanket answer that covers all kinds of trade and industry; in this way, they

remain ahead of what one still encounters in many of the polemics about Chinese

development, European exceptionalism, and so on.

On the second point, Xu and Wu simply take it as axiomatic that a society in

which the same households produce handicrafts and agricultural goods must be

more “backward” than one in which these functions are separated, and that

households of workers with no way to secure any of their subsistence except by

selling their labor will be more ruthlessly driven to do only those things that

create the highest marginal return than those that still have some access to

subsistence not mediated by the market. These both seem to me questionable

assumptions, not only in the light of late imperial Chinese experience, but

that of Tokugawa Japan, various parts of continental Europe, and the booming

economy of contemporary rural China. But if the persistent combination of

farming and handicrafts, and of market-oriented and subsistence activities in a

highly commercialized economy (perhaps one might call it the failure of

proletarianization rather than the failure of capitalism) was not necessarily

the impediment to growth that Xu and Wu suggest, it is nonetheless a phenomenon

worth careful study; and, for anyone who is interested but does not read

Chinese, the mass of material that Xu and Wu have assembled is now available as

an excellent point of departure. By thus widening the range of scholars who can

help us sort this out, this translation renders an important service.

Kenneth Pomeranz is Professor of History at the University of California,

Irvine. His most recent book is The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the

Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton University Press, 2000).