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Economic Change in China, c. 1800-1950

Author(s):Richardson, Philip
Reviewer(s):Ma, Debin

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,

St. Louis.

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
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII