is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

The Cambridge Economic History of China: Volume I

Editor(s):Ma, Debin
Von Glahn, Richard
Reviewer(s):Hübner, Jamin Andreas

Published by EH.Net (October 2022).

Debin Ma and Richard Von Glahn, eds. The Cambridge Economic History of China: Volume I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022. 732 pp. $155 (hardback), ISBN: 978-1108425575.

Reviewed by Jamin Andreas Hübner, LCC International University and University of the People.


We live in a privileged moment in the 21st century, not least because of the amount of history behind us and the availability of resources shining a light on this past. The Cambridge Economic History of China: Volume 1 (henceforth CEHC) consolidates the latest scholarship on the economic aspect of China’s remarkable civilization from the earliest archeological finds to around 1800, thereby introducing a number of perspectives that affect not only perceptions about China, but also global economic history as a whole.

The first of this two-volume work is divided into three sections: “Before 1000,” Interlude (“The Tang-Song Transition in Chinese Economic History”), and “1000 to 1800.” Eighteen chapters cover every major aspect of China’s ancient and early modern economy with the kind of prose, quality, and content one would expect from a series of this kind. The contributions come from a variety of scholars who have an established record within various subfields of this subject and generally write well. There are plenty of graphs and charts where appropriate and many helpful resources in Chinese and English listed after each chapter.

It is not possible to comment on each contribution in such a short review as this, so I can only provide a few reflections and impressions. These are obviously biased and determined by my own background and scholarly interests (which are currently eurocentrism in economic history, religion and cooperative economics, and direct democratic forms of firm and political governance.)

First, CEHC is, despite its price tag and occasionally technical portions, accessible for those unfamiliar with China’s economic history. While Von Glahn’s The Economic History of China (2016) is better suited for general readers, the CEHC doesn’t assume an excessive amount of prior knowledge, and is helpfully arranged not just chronologically but also topically.

Second, this work in many ways alters the standard Eurocentric narratives about “oriental despotism,” global economic development, and the various institutions surrounding capitalism (property rights, markets, financial institutions, etc.). This is very welcome. China has its own economic history and must be interpreted on its own terms—though occasionally even efforts to highlight this challenge ironically fail to succeed. For example, in an essay on “Property Rights and Factor Markets,” we read:

“[China’s economic performance from the Song to mid-Qing period] has puzzled historians of Chinese economy for more than a century. The controversy surrounding this question is caused not only by the lack of quantitative data but also by the difficulties in characterizing Chinese economic institutions according to the models constructed out of European historical experiences. On one hand, the late imperial Chinese economy shows ostensibly ‘modern’ features in the sense that, for example, people could freely trade land, choose jobs, and move to other regions. On the other hand, Chinese society seems to have lacked precise concepts of proprietorship and human rights, which are the cornerstones of modern European society.” (p. 482)

This kind of assessment leaves readers asking, “Is it Chinese society that lacks ‘precise concepts of proprietorship’—as if this is a deficiency according to some universal standard—or is it European society that lacks the ability to think outside of its sacralization of property rights?” (On this “sacralization,” see Thomas Piketty, Capital and Ideology). More importantly, it is puzzling how one could so confidently suggest that “human rights” is a cornerstone of a society that itself achieved some of the most notorious violations of human rights recorded in the last five hundred years—violent colonization of entire continents, international slave trading, and ongoing state-capital imperialism—all dressed in the same justifying language of superiority. (America’s founders in the late 1700s didn’t value the “human rights” of countless women, indigenes, and African Americans, for example, regardless of what they may have written in political documents.) In brief, some essays could have benefited from a China-sized dose of James Blaut’s The Colonizer’s Model of the World and Eight Eurocentric Historians; few of the essays in this new volume, unfortunately, were critically informed by a decolonial framework, which is essential for any kind of comparative analysis.

Nevertheless, even when occasionally lacking a critical perspective, many readers will be surprised to learn about the free-market ideologies and philosophical debates about private capital and merchants exercising too much power over the state (ch. 5), significant increases in living standards and wealth production, private property (chs. 10-12), contract law and commercial law (p. 433-51), joint-stock companies (pp. 627-28), vast markets (chs. 4, 16) and mass production, wage labor (pp. 463-71), the critical roles of institutions like education and religion (Interlude, p. 243 ff; cf. 204-5), sophisticated political and taxation models (chs. 3, 9, 10), monetary regimes, the first known breweries (p. 65), a plethora of land and rent arrangements, and countless other aspects of economic and social life—all of which are typically assumed to be “western” and post-1492—that existed during the Warring States Period and/or Song Dynasty. Popular neoliberal historians and economists, like David Landes, who argued that the “Chinese lacked . . . curiosity,” the “Chinese savants had no way of knowing when they were right,” and “unlike China, Europe was a learner” (The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, pp. 96, 344, 348) are repudiated yet again.

Third, this volume has plenty on various markets, crops, productive activities, goods, and significant alterations (like the equal-field system), but little on specific, popular technologies. One will find more on this subject in survey works of global history in sections about China’s role in the “Scientific Revolution” (contrary to another Eurocentric myth that postdates the more substantial scientific revolutions of the Arabic and Chinese world by several centuries; note Gunder Frank, Re-Orient, pp. 186-92), such as Craig Lockard’s Societies, Networks and Transitions. This is not necessarily a fault, as the book is rigorously focused on issues of economics proper, but readers should be aware that they will have to go elsewhere for insights on this related subject.

I enjoyed reading the first volume of The Cambridge Economic History of China and highly recommend it to others who want to go a bit beyond short surveys on this area without getting too tangled in the weeds. While not intending to be “revisionist” per se, it is sure to challenge some preconceived beliefs about the world’s largest nation—and its dynamic, vibrant, and rich history.


Dr. Jamin Andreas Hübner is a faculty member at the University of the People and LCC International University. He is a scholar of religion and economics, as well as an activist, and organizational leader, and is currently writing a book on cooperative economics.

Copyright (c) 2022 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (October 2022). All EH.Net reviews are archived at


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