New Perspectives on China’s Late Imperial Period

Why China Slept

by Patrick Leung (Author)
Monographs XXVI, 426 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Tables
  • List of Figures
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Part One Overview
  • Chapter One When Did China Fall Behind?
  • Chapter Two Differences Between the Beliefs and Value Systems of the West and China
  • Part Two Myths and Realities of Late Imperial China
  • Chapter Three What Closed Door Policy?
  • Chapter Four Almost Everybody Disliked Merchants
  • Chapter Five Free Markets Without Capitalism?
  • Chapter Six Why Is the Chinese Population So Large?
  • Chapter Seven Literacy Rates of Ming and Qing China
  • Chapter Eight Why Hadn’t the Chinese Discovered the New World and Australia?
  • Chapter Nine What Happened to Chinese Firearms?
  • Chapter Ten Why China Had No Scientific and Industrial Revolution?
  • Chapter Eleven Rule of Law, Rule of Man and Rule by Law
  • Chapter Twelve Ruling Class Democracy versus Rule by Mandarins
  • Part Three Why China Slept and Implications for the Future
  • Chapter Thirteen China’s Long Sleep: Imperial Overstretch and Its Consequences
  • Chapter Fourteen What If Europeans Had Not Come to China in the Early Modern Period?
  • Chapter Fifteen Implications for China’s Resurgence
  • Index


Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

About the author

Patrick Leung obtained his bachelor’s degree in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his doctoral degree in managerial economics from Harvard University. He is currently Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Economics of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

About the book

The book offers new perspectives on the history of China’s late imperial period and presents a much-needed novel explanation for China’s stagnation and decline in recent centuries. It begins by questioning all the conventional wisdom on the factors behind China’s relative lack of progress and subsequent decline since the 15th century and follows with a fresh interpretation of China’s past. The new vantage points provide insights into China’s resurgence in recent decades and its significance for other nations. The book also makes projections on the general direction that China’s future evolution is likely to take with respect to its market economy, rule of law and representative institutions.

      The author aims to deepen international understanding of China’s past and present which will hopefully facilitate the development of more productive relationships between China and other nations. The book is written so that it appeals to students, academics as well as the general public and whoever is interested in gaining a better understanding of China’s rapid rise today. The book is relevant to third and fourth year undergraduate courses in history, economics, international relations, law and political science. It can be used as a text book for upper class core or elective courses in history and economics and as a reference book for upper class courses in international relations, law and political science. It can also serve as a reference book for graduate students in the above disciplines.

“Patrick Leung has produced an impressive, interdisciplinary examination of the myriad factors that contributed to China’s long period of relative economic backwardness. Drawing on such priors, he offers explanations for the country’s present resurgence and suggests some signposts for its future path of evolution. There are China economists. There are China historians. There are China philosophers. And there are China jurists. Very few China scholars are able to pull together the large body of Chinese and foreign language literature into such a readable and informative analysis.”— Dr Simon Ogus, CEO DSG Asia Limited

“This thought-provoking book by Patrick Leung is most timely at this juncture of geopolitical evolution. The book presents compelling arguments that many of the perceived wisdom about China’s past are flawed and the ‘rise’ of China of late is a natural development from what had transpired in the Ming-Qing period. This book will enhance international understanding of China’s past and present and help facilitate the development of more productive relationships between China and other nations.”— David Tien Sik Kiang, Chief Executive, Da Tang Xi Shi International Group Limited and Chairman of Finance Committee of Silk Road Chamber of International Commerce

“Based on deep research, Patrick Leung has written a book that challenges Western understandings of why China ‘went to sleep’ in its late imperial period, after earlier leading the world in many dimensions, including education, technology and living standards. His findings about the importance of geopolitical rivalries have broad historical implications. Read it!”—William H. Overholt, Senior Research Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School, Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation

This eBook can be cited

This edition of the eBook can be cited. To enable this we have marked the start and end of a page. In cases where a word straddles a page break, the marker is placed inside the word at exactly the same position as in the physical book. This means that occasionally a word might be bifurcated by this marker.

←xii | xiii→



This book is a heavily revised and expanded version of an earlier work in Chinese which dealt with the reasons behind China’s backwardness in recent centuries and its unexpected fast recovery in the past few decades.

China had been one of the leading powers of the world for almost two millennia, from the time of the Western Han dynasty in the second century BCE to at least the early part of the Ming dynasty in the 15th century.1 During the Han period, the Han Empire and the Roman Republic/Empire were the two superpowers of the world, each dominating one end of the Eurasian continent. No other political powers in the world came close to matching these two empires in wealth, splendor, military prowess and scale. In the four centuries following the collapse of the Eastern Han dynasty around 200CE, China became fragmented and was subjected to barbarian invasion from the north, but the Roman Empire also disintegrated while lesser powers controlled Persia and Northern India.2 From the seventh to the ninth century, the Sui-Tang Empire which reunified China was again the undisputed hegemon in the Far East, and neighboring countries such as Japan and Korea looked up to it as a model for their own political and cultural development. The Sui-Tang Empire’s only true rival was the Islamic Rashidun-Umayyad-Abbasid Empire in the Middle East and North Africa, the world’s other superpower in those days. The Song-Yuan epoch following the Tang was known as one of China’s most brilliant periods, exhibiting major progress in economic and ←xiii | xiv→political development and in technology.3 China enjoyed the world’s highest living standard at the time, and some historians even went so far as to suggest that the Song dynasty is the harbinger of the modern era.4

But with the beginning of the Ming dynasty in the 14th century, Chinese civilization appeared to have stagnated, and from roughly 1500CE onwards the West gradually caught up with and eventually overtook China in most aspects. By the 19th century China had reached its nadir. It became one of the poorest nations on earth and was devastated by domestic unrests and rebellions. Western powers and China’s former vassal Japan took advantage of China’s weakness, repeatedly defeating it in wars and forcing it to sign multiple unequal treaties.

Table P.1 displays China’s dynasties in the past two millennia together with their corresponding periods in European history. There was a curious parallel between Chinese and European history for about eight centuries, from the time of the Western/Eastern Han Empire and Roman Republic/Empire to the period of barbarian invasion and internal fragmentation following the collapse of the two empires. Then the historical paths diverged, with China reemerging as a superpower under the Sui-Tang Empire while Europe descended into the Dark Ages in the seventh to ninth centuries. The subsequent Song-Yuan era in China was a period of impressive progress while the Middle Ages in Europe was also a period ←xiv | xv→of quick recovery from the Dark Ages, but the gap between East and West gradually narrowed during those centuries, finally closing around the 16th century, the main reason being that European growth accelerated with the coming of the Renaissance Period and Age of Discovery while China stagnated during the Ming dynasty as mentioned earlier. With the arrival of the Age of Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution in the 17th and 18th centuries, European growth accelerated and by the 19th century the gap between East and West became enormous, but this time in favor of the West.

Table P.1: Chinese Dynasties and Their Corresponding Periods in Europe. Source: Author’s creation.

  Chinese Dynasties Corresponding Periods in Europe
221BCE–220CE Qin, Western Han, Eastern Han Roman Republic, Roman Empire
220CE–589CE Three Kingdoms, Western and Eastern Jin, Northern and Southern Dynasties Eastern and Western Roman Empires, beginning of Byzantium Empire
589CE–907CE Sui and Tang Dynasties Dark Ages
907CE–979CE Five Dynasties, Ten Kingdoms Middle Ages
979CE–1276CE Northern and Southern song Middle Ages
1276CE–1368CE Yuan Dynasty Middle Ages
1368CE–1644CE Ming Dynasty Renaissance Period, Age of Discovery
1644CE–1911CE Qing Dynasty Enlightenment Period
Scientific Revolution
Industrial Revolution

Thus there were two periods of divergence between East and West in the past two millennia, the first during the Sui-Tang era in China and the Dark Ages in Europe, and the second during the early modern period.

Historian Kenneth Pomeranz’s influential work The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy5 made popular the expression “Great Divergence,” but as the title of his book implies, he is referring to the second great divergence between East and West.

However, as the existence of another period of great divergence one thousand years earlier with the East in front of the West suggests, it is not foreordained that the West will always be more advanced than the East. In this book we will reexamine the numerous conventional explanations for China’s descent during the second great divergence and attempt to identify the true reasons behind its decline.

According to conventional wisdom, the main reasons behind China’s backwardness in recent centuries include:

Deficiencies in the traditional beliefs and value systems of China.

Ming-Qing China’s anti-foreign trade policies and self-complacent attitude.

Confucianism’s pro-agriculture and anti-commerce/anti-merchants bias.

Absence of free markets due to government restrictions on market activities and the presence of state monopolies.

Absence of birth and population control in traditional China.

Confucianism’s low opinion of science and technology.

The Chinese civil examination system’s over-emphasis on the study of Chinese classics which resulted in the decline in interest in science and technology.

Underdevelopment of Chinese legal institutions, rule of man took precedence over the rule of law, weak protection of property rights.

Absence of democratic development.

The above reasons represent the mainstream explanations for China’s decline in recent centuries. Such views are held by many Westerners as well as Chinese today. But to borrow a quote from George Orwell’s novel Nineteen ←xv | xvi→Eighty-Four: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” The West is the victor in the past two centuries, it controls the present, and hence it also controls the orthodox interpretation of the past which include the reasons behind China’s stagnation and decline during its late imperial period. Therefore the above views, regardless of whether they are held by Westerners or Chinese, are heavily shaped by the perspectives of opinion formers in the West.

More importantly, if we agree with the standpoint that “who controls the past controls the future,” it follows that if the solutions designed to deal with China’s problems and help it modernize today are based on the explanations of its past backwardness as summarized above, and if those explanations are incorrect or distorted, then the solutions will be bad solutions that are ineffective or even counterproductive, and they could impede China’s recovery.

During the past two decades, new research and studies by both Western and Chinese scholars have produced novel ideas about China’s past which differ from and challenge the mainstream perspectives. Many former orthodox viewpoints are regarded as, at best, misleading or, at worst, downright mistaken, while other points of view are thought to represent only partial truths. These new approaches, together with the unanticipated resurgence of China since the 1980s, point to the need for a new understanding of China’s history in the early modern period. That is the purpose of the present book.

Chapter One focuses on the timing of the second great divergence between East and West. Ever since the publishing of The Great Divergence in 2000, there have been heated debates over the beginning of the divergence. Chapter One provides an overview of the latest research results. The chapter begins by presenting some of the estimates of China and other countries’ GDP per capita based on purchasing power parity (PPP) in the 19th and earlier centuries, as well as estimates of living standards, such as life expectancies and caloric intakes, etc. based on available data for those centuries, and of income figures for particular regions and periods in China and Europe. The work of Pomeranz and his detractors are discussed. It is, however, very difficult to measure and compare living standards when we are dealing with societies in the 18th and earlier centuries when data was limited. And since we are comparing continental size units such as Europe and China within which there were huge variations, we may never know when before the 19th century (when the gap in living standards between China and Europe had become obvious) China fell behind Europe in terms of GDP per capita, if in fact it did. The observations of European travelers in the Far East in those days, however, could shed some light on this question, since they were often the best people to judge the differences in development levels between Europe and China ←xvi | xvii→in their time. But the divergence also includes gaps in geographical, scientific and technological knowledge as well as military capabilities, for which we have better information. Lastly, the chapter looks at perceptions of China’s rapid decline from around the middle of the 18th century onwards.

Chapter Two provides an overview of the differences between the beliefs and value systems of China and the West which some scholars believe to be an important cause of the great divergence. The chapter looks at Christianity’s role in the advancement of science and technology in Europe, Chinese cosmology and how it impacts the development of the natural sciences in China, the significance of the idea of progress as a key factor in the outbreak of the Scientific Revolution in the West, the similarities and dissimilarities between the Protestant and Confucian work ethics, and the historian G.E.R. Lloyd’s insights on the fundamental difference between Greek and Chinese ways of thinking.

Chapters Three to Twelve examine ten commonly held notions about traditional China and introduce a number of new ways to look at China’s past.


XXVI, 426
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2020 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XXVI, 426 pp., 6 b/w ill., 4 tables

Biographical notes

Patrick Leung (Author)

Patrick Leung obtained his bachelor’s degree in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his doctoral degree in managerial economics from Harvard University. He is currently Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Economics of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.


Title: New Perspectives on China’s Late Imperial Period