New Perspectives on China’s Late Imperial Period

Why China Slept

by Patrick Leung (Author)
Monographs XXVI, 426 Pages

Table Of Content


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

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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.

Chapter Three is concerned with the one factor most frequently singled out as the paramount reason behind China’s decline in the Ming-Qing era, namely, the government’s restrictive foreign trade policies. In the chapter we apply a different approach to the question—we maintain that a great power with a huge domestic economy will put more weight on geopolitical and national security considerations than on economic and financial considerations when it formulates its foreign trade policies, and that was the case with the Ming-Qing Empire. However, it does not necessarily follow that the Empire was pursuing a closed door policy or was anti-trade. The chapter explores the rationale behind the foreign trade strategies of Ming-Qing China as well as Western nations of the same period, given the economic background and geopolitical settings of the time. It discusses the termination of Zheng He’s ocean voyages, limitations of Ming-Qing China’s sea-bans and tributary trade system, trade restrictions imposed by England and other Western states—two striking examples being the British Navigation Acts and Calico Acts, the reasons behind the differences between the trade policies of Ming-Qing China and Western states, and ponders what might have happened if Ming-Qing China had implemented a more open trade policy. Furthermore, myriad examples of interest in foreign products and technology displayed by the empire’s government and subjects serve as evidence that Ming-Qing China was not an insular and self-complacent state. Finally, the expansion of the Qing Empire’s territory to more than twice the size of the Ming indicated that the Qing Empire, if not the Ming, was pursuing territorial conquest beyond its borders, which was not the kind of venture that an inward-looking state which lacked interest in the outside world would be engaged in.

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Because of Confucianism’s preference for agriculture and its denunciation of commerce, traditional Chinese society is widely assumed to be hostile towards merchants. Chapter Four reminds us that a negative attitude towards merchants and commercial activities was not a unique Chinese characteristic; in fact it was a common trait of many traditional societies, in particular, the Christian and Hindu world. Nonetheless the status of merchants in China gradually rose from the Song period onwards, and by the Ming-Qing period the distinction among the so-called four classes in society: mandarins, farmers, artisans and merchants, had become highly blurred. By mid-Ming many big merchant families had maintained close ties with mandarins. Members of merchant families could also become mandarins by passing the civil examinations. In West Europe, on the other hand, the rise in the merchants’ status in the early modern period was a direct consequence of the much greater dependence of certain West European states, particularly England/Britain and the Netherlands, on trade and customs duty as a source of government revenue to finance their many wars with one another, and therefore on the cooperation of merchants. Moreover, wealthy British merchants could enter the ruling class by transforming themselves into country squires. The long period of peace in Ming-Qing China, however, meant that the Chinese state’s reliance on merchants was weaker, although far from non-existent.

Nobel laureate Douglas North, among others, has stressed the key role of market friendly institutions in the rise of the West.6 Drawing on the research of Pomeranz and other scholars, Chapter Five argues that the domestic markets in Ming-Qing China were at least as free and competitive as the markets in Europe in the majority of the cases. In point of fact Qing emperors were very aware of the importance of the private sector and the free flow of goods, and they generally prohibited the protectionist measures of provincial governments. However, the existence of free and competitive markets is not synonymous with the rise of capitalism, an important point made by the economic historian Fernand Braudel.7 Quite the reverse, the development of capitalism is aided by the presence of monopolies and oligopolies. In Ming-Qing China there was ample commercial capitalism, the fruit of a small number (relative to the West) of government-backed monopolies, but industrial capitalism was underdeveloped for reasons to be explored in Chapter Ten.

According to another conventional wisdom, traditional Chinese society favored large families and abhorred birth control, while people in the West were much more aware of the drawbacks of an oversized population; hence the West practiced family planning and birth control (the preventive checks of Malthus), while China allowed its population to grow without restraint. The consequence is: by the Ming-Qing period China had run out of resources to support its growing ←xviii | xix→population, and that is one of the key factors which contributed to China’s poverty. However recent research by James Lee and Wang Feng8 at the California Institute of Technology indicated that traditional Chinese society did practice birth control, although its methods were very different from those of the West. Chapter Six discusses these findings and attempts to identify the true reasons behind China’s population upsurge in the last millennium.

Chapter Seven considers the estimated literacy rates of China as well as various European states in the early modern period. Because of the huge number of males studying to pass the government civil examinations, and because literacy skills were needed in the highly commercialized world of late imperial China, Chinese literacy rate was probably higher than Europe during the Ming period, but by the Qing dynasty many West European states had caught up with or had surpassed China in literacy.

Chapter Eight raises the question of why hadn’t the Chinese discovered the New World and Australia. Rather than the lack of an enterprising spirit, the answer appears to be the absence of economic and geopolitical reasons for the Chinese (or the Japanese and Koreans) to embark on costly and risky overseas voyages of discovery, together with the fact that the prevailing winds and ocean currents favor the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean from either direction but do not favor the crossing of the Pacific Ocean from west to east. Similar reasons also help explain why the Chinese weren’t able to discover the agriculturally productive regions of Australia.

As a lead-in to the chapter on science and technology, Chapter Nine explores the reasons behind the stagnation of Chinese gunpowder technology from the Ming period onwards. It is well known that the Chinese were the first in the world to use firearms during the Song dynasty, yet by the mid-Ming the Europeans were making more effective guns and cannons than the Chinese. What explains the slowdown in Chinese firearms development? Kenneth Chase’s Firearms: A Global History to 17009 provided an intriguing answer. In the book, Chase argued forcefully that early firearms were most suitable for infantry and siege warfare in densely populated agricultural regions and for naval warfare, but early guns and cannons were less effective in warfare in the Asian steppes against nomads who relied heavily on light cavalry and did not have fortified strongholds. Since Ming-Qing China’s principal enemies before the 19th century (unlike Song China and unlike West Europe) were nomadic tribes in the north and northwest, it is not hard to understand the reason why the Ming-Qing state had put less emphasis on the development of firearms. Chapter Nine examines Chase and other scholar’s arguments to identify the causes of the slowdown in Chinese firearms development during the late imperial period. The chapter provides an overview of the ←xix | xx→capabilities, effectiveness and limitations of early firearms and ponders the reasons why the development of gunpowder technology was far more rapid in early modern Europe than in late imperial China. The last part of the chapter goes over the history of the use and “abandonment” of firearms in 16th and 17th century Japan, a history which in certain ways mirrored the development of gunpowder weaponry in late imperial China.

The subject of Chapter Ten is the Needham Puzzle: why did China, which led the world in technology development in the Song-Yuan period, stop inventing with the start of the Ming dynasty and allowed the West to overtake it? There have been heated debates over this question in past decades and many answers have been proffered. The absence of science was one of them, but others have pointed out that the inventions of the First Industrial Revolution did not require scientific knowledge. Later the importance of scientific culture and the scientific method (i.e. the experimental approach), rather than scientific knowledge, was emphasized. But again other scholars took issue with that argument, claiming that scientific culture could be found in non-Western societies as well. Lately the discussion has turned to the ease of the spread of technical knowledge in the West and the inconvenient location of energy resources in Ming-Qing China. Chapter Ten explores the complex relation between science and technology and the history of their development in Europe and China. The chapter offers a different explanation for China’s relative backwardness in science and technology in comparison with the West in the early modern period, namely, the voyages of discovery and incessant gunpowder warfare provided vital stimuli for scientific and technology progress in the West, but such stimuli were weak or non-existent in China. Furthermore, the shortage of fuel in China’s most proto-industrialized regions is believed to be another contributing factor of China’s slow progress in technology. Other frequently offered reasons for the non-occurrence of a scientific and an industrial revolution in late imperial China, including cultural, social, and religious factors, China’s civil examination system, the absence of patent rights, the underdevelopment of credit and capital markets, the state’s involvement in and control of technology and industrial development, political scrutiny of the literati, oppositions from vested interest groups, and deficiencies in the Chinese language and script, are also reevaluated in the chapter.

China’s backwardness has also been attributed to the absence of a developed legal system and the related inadequate protection of property rights. Chapter Eleven deals with the issue of rule of law versus rule of man in China. The chapter contends that genuine rule of law and genuine rule of man represent idealized cases at the two ends of a continuous spectrum which do not exist in the real world. All legal systems in the real world fall somewhere between those two ←xx | xxi→extremes. The existence of private land ownership and relatively sophisticated markets in the Ming-Qing period suggests that some form of property rights regime must have prevailed during that era. But because of low taxation and the relatively small size of the late imperial government, the courts in Ming-Qing China mostly handled criminal cases, while the majority of civil disputes were settled through extra-judicial mechanisms. That appeared to be a cost-effective way of handling such disputes until the 18th century, when the domestic economy became so complex that more and more people had to resort to the courts to resolve civil disputes, but the courts lacked the resources to deal with the ever-growing case load because of inadequate government revenue. The chapter begins with an exploration of the intricate relation between the rule of law and rule of man and contends that for a legal and justice system to be effective, it must respect the actual power configuration across society. That is followed by an examination of the differences between the traditional power structure in Chinese and Western societies. The last part of the chapter ponders the reasons why China’s traditional legal and justice systems are regarded as inadequate and the possible impact of such alleged inadequacies on China’s economic development during the late imperial period. The question of whether the presence of a developed legal system is a pre-condition for economic progress or whether it is a consequence of economic progress is also addressed.

It has often been asserted that the development of electoral democracy is another major factor behind the rise of the West. Chapter Twelve attempts to make an assessment of the authoritarian nature and openness of the limited democracies of Britain and other Western states before the 20th century, and that of the Ming and Qing state which relied on the civil examination system to recruit talents across society to join the government. The chapter suggests that the extent of autocracy in the Ming and Qing state was more limited than commonly believed. It also examines the connection between wars and the rise and spread of electoral democracy in a number of Western states and considers two negative sides of electoral democracy: the connection between electoral democracy and ethnic cleansing and colonialism, and the presence of a privileged class in some democratic states. To make the comparison more concrete, the degrees of autocracy and inclusiveness of the British and Qing Empire, two contemporaneous “colonial” empires of similar scale, are contrasted against each other.

Building on the previous chapters’ arguments and conclusions, the last three chapters of the book present a new explanation for China’s relative decline in the late imperial era and consider its implications for China’s future development.

Chapter Thirteen is the pivotal chapter of the entire book. It summarizes the arguments of the previous chapters and provides a fresh narrative of Chinese history and an explanation of the relative backwardness of China in the recent past. ←xxi | xxii→The chapter maintains that the vast majority of the important breakthroughs in human history appeared in competitive states periods during which multiple contending states of comparable power co-existed. The differences in the challenges facing a political state which had to struggle to survive in a competitive states environment and those faced by a large universal empire with no serious challengers are highlighted—one had to fight and innovate in order to survive, while the other had to worry about imperial overstretch in an era when only pre-industrial communications technologies were available. The corresponding responses chosen by the two states would explain to a large extent the differences in the development paths of the two and the relative stagnation of China in comparison with West Europe in the early modern period. The chapter also examines the main factors behind the extraordinary rise of Britain and the rest of Europe at the same time as China was slowing down in the late imperial era. The chapter calls attention to the uniqueness in human history of early modern Europe’s competitive states period during which the voyages of discovery greatly expanded the horizon and broadened the perspectives of the West.

Chapter Fourteen raises the counterfactual question of what might have happened to China if Europeans had not come to East Asia in the Ming-Qing period. In addition to the likelihood that China may simply repeat its dynastic cycles, four other hypothetical scenarios for China’s future evolution in the absence of European intrusion are explored. Three of the four assume a prolonged period of division in China following the collapse of the Qing regime. The chapter suggests that innovations similar to those of the First Industrial Revolution (i.e. innovations which appeared in the century after 1750) which did not rely on knowledge of modern science may emerge independently in the Far East—if not in China, then probably in Japan initially—under those scenarios, mainly as a consequence of intense interstate competition, although at a later date. Those inventions will enable China to proceed down the path to early industrialization. However the inventions of the Second Industrial Revolution (i.e. inventions made after the mid-19th century) which require knowledge of modern sciences are more problematic and are less likely to emerge until the more distant future.

Chapter Fifteen considers the implications of the fresh narrative of Chinese history for China’s present resurgence and future evolution. It offers new perspectives and insights on China’s current economic and foreign trade regimes and on the future development of China’s legal and justice system and representative institutions. The chapter maintains that (1) only a continental-scale nation has the potential to be a global power in the present era, therefore China’s long period of unity over the past seven centuries has profound consequences because it enables China to possess the critical mass that is indispensable to a major power today, (2) the government will continue to play a key role in the Chinese economy, even ←xxii | xxiii→though the role of the private sector is also gaining in importance, (3) unlike the late imperial era, modern China will pursue a relatively open trade policy because of its energy, raw materials and technology needs, (4) an effective legal and justice system will gradually emerge in China as the country industrializes, and (5) electoral democracy is unlikely to emerge in China, but China’s meritocratic system can be regarded as an alternate form of representative democracy.


1. See for example Rozman (1991), p. 6: “East Asia is a great region of the past, having been in the forefront of world development for at least two thousand years, until the sixteenth, seventeenth, or even the eighteenth century, after which it suffered a relatively brief but deeply felt eclipse.”

2. The Sassanian Empire in Persia and the Gupta Empire in North India.

3. Elvin (1973), Chapters 613.

4. von Glahn (2003), pp. 38–39.

5. Pomeranz (2000).

6. North (1981), (1990).

7. Braudel (1982), pp. 229–30.

8. Lee and Wang (1999).

9. Chase (2003).


Braudel, Fernand. 1982. Civilization and Capitalism 15th–18th Century, Volume 2: The Wheels of Commerce. Translation from the French by Siân Reynolds. New York: Harper & Rows.

Chase, Kenneth. 2003. Firearms: A Global History to 1700. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Elvin, Mark. 1973. The Pattern of the Chinese Past. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Lee, James Z. and Wang Feng. 1999. One Quarter of Humanity: Malthusian Mythology and Chinese Realties, 1700–2000. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

North, Douglas. 1981. Structure and Change in Economic History. New York: W. W. Norton.

———. 1990. Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pomeranz, Kenneth. 2000. The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Rozman, Gilbert. 1991. The East Asian Region: Confucian Heritage and its Modern Adaptation. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

von Glahn, Richard. 2003. “Imagining Pre-modern China.” In The Song-Yuan-Ming Transition in Chinese History, edited by Paul Jakov Smith and Richard von Glahn, 35−70. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center.

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When I attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an undergraduate, the first thing we were taught was not to take for granted received wisdoms as representing the truth, not to be afraid to challenge the validity of orthodox viewpoints, to perform critical thinking on their premises and to make attempts to falsify them. MIT is of course primarily a science and engineering school and this skepticism is directed mainly at the beliefs which concern natural phenomena. Later on in my life, as my interests turn to history, economics and international relationships, I began to apply the same approach to the commonly accepted views in these disciplines. I started to rethink the history of the past couple of centuries—the rise of the West, the decline of China and its recovery in recent years, raising questions about the mainstream explanations for the emergence of these momentous developments in history and ended up with the writing of this book. Therefore this book owes a heavy debt to my education at MIT and to the teachers and fellow students whom I interacted with when I was studying there.

I also wish to express my gratitude to my former colleagues at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Economics and Finance, particularly Steven Cheung, Xu Chenggang, Wing Suen and Frank Song, among others, for their friendship and their comments and support especially in relation to the original version of this book. This book could not have been written without the library and online facilities of the University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University of Hong ←xxv | xxvi→Kong, of which I am appreciative. Since this book draws heavily on the work of other scholars, I am indebted to them for their excellent scholarship. Thanks also to Li Na of Peter Lang Publishing in the United Kingdom, Zhang Yanan and Ding Chuan of Citic Press in Beijing, and Thomas Ip of the Arcadia Press in Hong Kong, all of whom have helped me in one way or another to get this book published. Last but not least, I am grateful to my family, particularly my wife Julie, for their patience and support during the time I was working on this book, without which I could not have finished the writing of it.

Hong Kong
January 2019

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When Did China Fall Behind?

During the Song-Yuan period from the 10th to the 14th century China was one of the richest and most developed countries in the world. Its population enjoyed the highest standard of living on earth and its military and civilian technologies were among the world’s most advanced. But from the Ming dynasty onward China appeared to have stagnated, its creativity and dynamism faded and it was gradually overtaken by the West. By the second half of the 19th century the gap between China and the West had become enormous and Europe’s great powers and Japan vied with each other to exploit China’s weaknesses.

It would enhance our understanding of China’s resurgence today if we know more precisely when China began to fall behind the West in the past before we search for the reasons behind China’s descent. The timing and magnitude of China’s relative decline and the historical context of the age could provide some useful clues as regards the factors behind the slowdown and help us identify those factors. But the timing of China’s downward spiral is a highly controversial topic. There have been intense debates over the subject in academic circles lately and the matter is by no means resolved because of the obvious difficulties involved in comparing societies in the past.

When we compare the development levels of two regions, there are two principle dimensions which we could look at—standards of living and technology levels. The two are related—technology levels clearly impact living standards, but, by ←3 | 4→and large, we could view the two separately. Other dimensions, such as art and music, are more difficult to compare because of the subjectivity involved and will be ignored in this book. The degree of urbanization is often used as a measure of development, because the relative size of the urban population reflects the ability of the agriculture sector to support a non-food growing population which is freed up to pursue other endeavors such as manufacturing, commerce, administration, war-making, etc. But since there are indications that the Ming-Qing government deliberately put a lid on the population of the capital and other big cities1 while allowing the number of small towns in the rural areas to proliferate, and since the majority of Ming-Qing China’s manufacturing activities actually took place in the rural areas, using the level of urbanization as a measure could be misleading for China, at least before the 19th century. Thus we will also overlook the urbanization dimension. Literacy rate is another possible measure. The estimated literacy rates of China and various European states in the early modern period will be examined in Chapter Seven.

This chapter begins by presenting an overview of some important estimates of China and other countries’ GDP per capita based on purchasing power parity (PPP) in the 19th and earlier centuries, as well as surrogate measures 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 observations of contemporary Europeans who visited China during the Ming-Qing era will also be considered, since they were often the best people to judge the differences in development levels between Europe and China in their time. Next, the technology levels of China and the West in various areas on the eve of the Industrial Revolution are compared. As a measure of military prowess, we will examine three clashes between a Chinese and a Western force all of which took place in the 16th and 17th century. Finally, we will look at the gradual decay of Qing China from about the middle of the 18th century onward.

GDP (PPP) Per Capita Estimates for Earlier Centuries

When we talk about the wealth of a nation, we could mean one of two things—the total wealth of the nation, or its per capita wealth. As far as total wealth is concerned, there is little question that China had one of the highest, if not the highest, GDP in the world as late as the early part of the 19th century, due mainly to its huge population. China’s total wealth grew almost non-stop alongside its population from the start of the Ming dynasty in the second half of the 14th century all the way to the mid-19th century, a process which is known as extensive growth. ←4 | 5→The only interruption occurred in the 17th century during the transition from the Ming to the Qing dynasty. China’s GDP accounted for anywhere between 30 and 40% of the world’s total at start of the 19th century, depending on the estimates used, which was greater than the GDP of all other contemporary states. The controversy only arises when we turn our attention to per capita GDP figures. Although most scholars agree that China experienced a rise in per capita GDP during the Song-Yuan era, it is unclear whether there was any growth in per capita GDP, a process known as intensive growth, during the entire Ming-Qing period. What is obvious is by the time of the Opium War near the middle of the 19th century, China was a lot poorer than most West European nations.

Two renowned scholars, Paul Bairoch and Angus Maddison, had come up with estimates for the per capita GDP (PPP) of China and other countries/regions in the 19th and earlier centuries.2 Bairoch, a highly regarded economic historian from Belgium, believed that the income levels of the richest and poorest countries on earth before the Industrial Revolution differed from one other by at most 60%. And if we compare larger, continental size units such as West Europe and China, the difference was even smaller—no more than 30%.3

But the most noteworthy feature of Bairoch’s estimates was the high GNP per capita figure attributed to China in the year 1800, which was only slightly below that of West Europe (by about 2%). However, West Europe’s GNP per capita would skyrocket from 1800 onward in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, while China’s GNP per capita would decline in the 19th century as a consequence of overpopulation and domestic rebellions, so that by mid-century West Europe’s GNP per capita was almost double that of China. The gap was even bigger if China was compared to the United Kingdom—by 1860, the United Kingdom’s GNP per capita was more than three times that of China. China’s descent would continue all the way down to the middle of the 20th century, when it finally began to recover following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. But by 1950, China’s GNP per capita had fallen to only 18% of that of West Europe, 12% of that of the United Kingdom, and a mere 7% of that of North America.4 Thus according to Bairoch, the divergence between China and the West did not happen until after 1800. Based on Bairoch’s estimates, China’s total GNP would account for close to 39% of the world’s total in 1800.

Unfortunately for us, Bairoch did not provide detailed explanation of the methodology employed by him to arrive at his estimates. Nonetheless, he was regarded as one of the great economic historians in the post-war era and his estimates should be given due consideration.

The estimates made by Angus Maddison are probably more familiar to many of us because they have been widely quoted. Unlike Bairoch, Maddison’s figures ←5 | 6→showed that West Europe was already ahead of China by as early as 1500, and the difference in GDP per capita between the two regions was more than 20% even then. Europe’s growth, both intensive and extensive, would continue and accelerate in the following centuries, while China experienced no intensive growth at all. By 1820, China’s GDP per capita was only 35% of that of the United Kingdom, half that of West Europe and 60% of that of Europe as a whole.5 But even these figures show that the gap between China and the West was actually not that big at the beginning of the 19th century—if we compare continental size units (which is more appropriate since China has the size of a continent), the difference in GDP per capita between China and West Europe or Europe as a whole in 1820 is similar in degree to the difference between Portugal or Spain and the United States today.6 In other words, there was only a small divergence between China and the West at the beginning of the 19th century. The huge divergence between the two would begin to appear only around the middle of that century. Based on Maddison’s lower estimates, China’s GDP would still account for 33% of the world’s total in 1820, but would drop to only 5% by 1950.7

Maddison provided more detailed descriptions of his methodologies than Bairoch. They were based mainly on the extrapolation of relatively more reliable 20th century GDP (PPP) per capita estimates backwards in time to the 19th and earlier centuries; and the further back in time we go, the more conjectural the estimates become. This is particularly true in the case of China, where the great upheavals in the middle of the 19th century made estimation of population, let alone GDP, levels extremely difficult.

What we need to stress is that measuring GDP per capita based on purchasing power parity is notoriously difficult even today. As an example, in the past ten years the World Bank had made two major revisions to its GDP (PPP) estimates of the world’s countries, the first one in 2008 and the second in 2014.8 In the second revision, the estimates of over 70 countries were adjusted by an amount which exceeded 20% of the old estimates. In the case of Nigeria the estimate more than doubled while Indonesia’s estimate surged 85%. India’s figure rose by larger than 30% and China’s increased by a little over 20%. Furthermore, even West European GDP (PPP) figures had to undergo some revisions, albeit by only a few percentage points, later in 2014.9 The multiple adjustments and their magnitudes highlight the uncertainties in GDP (PPP) measures even for the 21st century. That in turn implies that the margin of error for the beginning of the 19th century or earlier GDP (PPP) per capita estimates of any country in the world must be enormous, since we can hardly claim that we have more abundant and reliable economic and demographic data on any part of the world two or more centuries ago than we have on even a Third World country today. The paucity and unreliability of economic ←6 | 7→and population data in past centuries means that estimates for earlier periods have to be to a large extent speculative, or even subjective. That might explain the difference between Bairoch and Maddison’s numbers. Hence we cannot simply rely on the GDP (PPP) per capita estimates of Bairoch, Maddison or other scholars10 to compare the level of development of China and the West in the past. Their numbers should be viewed at best as educated guesstimates of the relative wealth of China and the West in the 19th and earlier centuries which could be off by a wide margin.11

The Great Divergence and Its Detractors

Instead of making futile attempts to estimate past GDPs, Kenneth Pomeranz’s seminal work The Great Divergence tried a different approach—he made use of estimates (based on extant 18th and 19th century data) of various aspects of living standards in a number of regions in China and Europe to compare China and the West. That approach has its problems too—surviving data are only available in a small number of regions, but China and Europe are huge and the regions where data do exist may not be representative; another problem is the available data themselves are sometimes subject to interpretation or are deemed unreliable. Nevertheless, such data do provide us with a way to compare the living standards of various regions in China and Europe in the past.

Life expectancy is one of the best surrogate measures of living standards. Pomeranz reviewed a number of studies on the life expectancies of various population groups and regions in England, France, Germany, Japan and China in the 18th and 19th century and came to the conclusion that in the more prosperous regions of China and Europe, the longevity of the population were comparable in the 18th century and perhaps even in the early 19th century.12 Studies by other scholars not included in Pomeranz’s survey appear to concur.13 Their results indicate that in the 18th century, life expectancy of various locations in Anhui, Zhejiang and Liaoning and Beijing were between the high-20s and 40 years, perhaps somewhat above France’s high-20s but below England’s high-30s to over 40 in the case of British peers. However a noticeable gap between Europe and China would emerge in the 19th century, as the life expectancy of England and Northern Europe soared to 45 and France’s increased to over 40, while many locations in China witnessed a decline in longevity as the consequence of war and natural disaster. In one study, the mortality risks of 5–14 year olds in Liaoning were found to be higher than those of children of similar ages in Belgian and Italy in the 19th century.14 Another study concluded that the percentage of the population surviving to age 55 and ←7 | 8→over in Liaoning was below that in Belgium and Sweden (but not Italy) in that century.15,16

Caloric intake can serve as another proxy measure of living standards. Pomeranz’s survey indicated that based on available information, the caloric intakes of Chinese and Europeans in the 18th century were broadly comparable after taking into account the difference between urban and rural laborers, male and female, and age. A factor which he did not consider was the warmer climate of China when compared to Europe overall, which would lower the caloric requirements of the average Chinese relative to the average European. Thus adjusting for the climate factor would favor China in caloric intake comparisons.

Pomeranz also compared protein intake, and textile, sugar, tea, and other non-essential consumptions per capita. Again he found 18th century Chinese and European consumption levels roughly comparable. In the case of protein, although Chinese clearly consumed less meat and dairy products than Europeans, they had an alternate source of high quality protein in rice, the staple food of South China, and in bean curd. On the other hand, comparison of tea consumption levels could be misleading because while tea was consumed throughout China, it was drank primarily in England and Russia only in Europe, and Europeans had other beverages like coffee, cocoa and wine from grapes that were absent in China.17

It was in the 19th century that a huge divide appeared between European and Chinese consumption levels. Chinese per capita consumption of most commodities either declined or stagnated in that century due mainly to growing population pressure (particularly in the poorer parts of the country), while European per capita consumption climbed as a result of the Industrial Revolution and increased colonial exploitation. That is why Pomeranz came to the conclusion that the great divergence in living standards only began to appear near the end of the18th century.

It is worth mentioning that another historian, Jack Goldstone, believed that the Industrial Revolution did not have any significant impact on the English economy until after 1830, which could lend support to the view that living standards in Europe and Asia might not be that far apart before then.18 The French sinologist Jacques Gernet also thought that Chinese peasants in the Yongzheng and early Qianlong era were better off than their counterparts in France during the reign of Louis XV (1710‒1774), thereby suggesting that China fell behind France only in the late 18th or 19th century.19

Pomeranz’s work stimulated a host of new research and debates over the relative development levels of Europe and the rest of the world in the early modern period. Three papers by the Oxford historian Robert Allen appear to confirm Pomeranz’s findings.20 One paper found that the real income of a Chang Jiang delta peasant family was close to that of an English agricultural laborer in 1820. ←8 | 9→But the Chang Jiang family’s real income was on a downward trend from 1620 to 1820, and its real income around 1620 (near the end of the Ming dynasty) was considerably higher than its real income, as well as the English laborer’s real income, two centuries later. The second paper estimated the real wages of unskilled laborers in London and Canton in 1704, and found them to be about the same. The third paper found that the living standards of farm workers in Europe and urban workers in central and southern Europe were broadly comparable to their Asian counterparts in the pre-industrial era. However, the same paper also found that London and Dutch urban workers did appear to receive much higher real wages than the rest even before the onset of industrialization.

But a fourth highly significant paper co-authored by Allen and four other scholars,21 which appeared to be an expansion of the third paper, challenged Pomeranz’s view of broad parity between East and West before the 19th century. The paper utilized surviving data on nominal wages of unskilled workers and commodity prices in the Chinese cities of Beijing, Canton and Suzhou/Shanghai, and the European cities of London, Amsterdam, Milan and Leipzig in the 18th and 19th century to estimate the real wages of unskilled workers in those cities. The results suggested that real wages of northwestern Europeans cities were not only two to three times that of the Chinese cities, but also that of southern and central European cities as early as the first half of the 18th century. Real wages of Chinese cities were on a par with southern and central European cities throughout most of the 18th century, but began to fall noticeably behind central Europe in the first half of the 19th century as the living standards of German cities rose, and by the end of the century a huge gap would emerge between the Chinese cities and central European cities as well, but not yet between the Chinese and Italian cities. The results highlighted the uniqueness of northwestern Europe, in particular England and the Netherlands, which appeared to have surged ahead not only of Asia but also of the rest of Europe in the 18th century.22

Pomeranz could have responded that the population of England and the Netherlands when taken together constituted only about 13% of the population of West Europe and about 8% of the population of the whole of Europe in the 18th century. Hence even if we accept the estimates in the above paper, China and Europe were still broadly comparable in the 18th century. But in a subsequent paper, Pomeranz chose to focus on the dissimilarity in the composition of the Chinese and English workforce in the early modern period.23 Whereas unskilled urban laborers accounted for a significant percentage of the English workforce, such laborers constituted only a tiny portion of the workforce in Ming-Qing China, where over 93% of the population lived in the countryside.24 However, the majorities of China’s rural population either owned a tiny plot of land or were ←9 | 10→tenant farmers.25 Landless rural laborers made up only about 10% of China’s rural population, or probably even lower.26 Their real wages were close to that of unskilled urban laborers,27 but were way below the income of owner and tenant farmers. According to Pomeranz’s estimates, in 18th century Jiangnan the real income of tenant farmers, which often included earnings from non-agricultural work, was two to three times that of landless rural laborers, while the real income of owner farmers was 40–50% higher than that of tenant farmers. The number of owner and tenant farmers in Jiangnan were thought to be roughly the same.28

In other words, comparison of the real wages of unskilled urban laborers in England and China was misleading because unskilled urban laborers were far less representative of the Chinese workforce than of the English. It would be far more appropriate to compare the real income (which frequently included non-farm work earnings) of the owner and tenant farmers of Jiangnan, the main workforce of the wealthiest region in China, with the real income of the urban workforce of England, one of the two richest countries in Europe. And if we accept Pomeranz’s rather complicated estimates, then the two would be quite comparable. Even if we question Pomeranz’s estimates, the point that unskilled urban laborers were far from representative in early modern China remains valid.

But there is an important point regarding urban real wages that is worth highlighting. The economic historian Joel Mokyr had underscored that urban real wage estimates for England did not take into consideration one crucial fact, namely, the working conditions (including sanitary conditions and danger levels) of urban workshops and factories were inferior to those of rural family workshops. Economic historians had estimated that 15‒30% of urban money wages were in fact extra premiums necessary to compensate urban workers for their poor working conditions.29 The living conditions of urban workers were also less attractive than those of rural workers, due mainly to high population density, shortage of clean water, unhygienic food and lack of public facilities. In the 19th century, the life expectancies of English industrial cities were 10–15 years below the national average and could be up to 20 years below the rural average.30 Hence Mokyr believed that urban real wages had overestimated the living standards of English urban workers. If urban money wages are adjusted to account for poor working and living conditions premiums, then the gap between English and non-northwestern Europe urban real wages will be a lot smaller.

A recent study by Chinese historian Bozhong Li and Dutch historian Jan Luiten Van Zanden attempted to estimate the GDP (PPP) per capita of a small region in Jiangnan which had a population of 560,000 and the GDP (PPP) per capita of the Netherlands with two and a half million people, by reconstructing the national accounts of the two with the help of extant data from the 1820s.31 ←10 | 11→Jiangnan was the most prosperous region in China and the Netherlands was one of the two wealthiest countries in Europe in the early 19th century, hence comparison of the two is quite appropriate. Furthermore, surviving data from the Jiangnan region and the Netherlands are more plentiful, making it possible to construct their national accounts two centuries ago. The results of the study indicated that the estimated GDP (PPP) per capita of the Jiangnan region was only 54% of that of the Netherlands in the 1820s. That is remarkably close to Angus Maddison’s estimate that China’s GDP (PPP) per capita in 1820 is about one-half of West Europe’s. However, to generalize Li and Van Zanden’s results and conclude that China’s GDP (PPP) per capita in the 1820s was only slightly bigger than one-half of West Europe’s requires a big leap of faith. It is also unclear what Li and Van Zanden’s early 19th century estimates say about the relative GDP levels of China and West Europe in the 18th century as Qing China appeared to have begun its downward spiral form the mid-18th century on (see below). Furthermore, although Li and Van Zanden’s estimates were based on better data than many other GDP estimates, they were not without their doubters. Another interesting finding of the paper is agricultural productivity of the Jiangnan region and the Netherlands were quite close, but industrial and service productivities of the Netherlands were much higher than Jiangnan’s.

If both GDP estimates and living standards and real wage comparisons based on surviving data are, to various degrees, conjectural, perhaps we could look at the opinions of European visitors to China in the early modern period to find out if they provide any clues on the timing of the great divergence. That will be the focus of the next section.

How Early European Visitors Viewed China

If a huge gap already existed between the living standards and development levels of China and the West in the early modern period, early European visitors to China would have noticed and commented on it. However the huge volume of books, reports and letters summarized in the monumental series Asia in the Making of Europe by Donald Lach and Edward Van Kley did not indicate that that was the case. In fact the opinions of the Portuguese, Spanish and Italian missionaries and Dutch traders who visited China in the later part of the Ming dynasty and the early Qing period were generally positive. China was depicted as a model empire for Europeans to emulate, a view that would survive all the way down to at least the middle of the 18th century. The 16th and 17th century European visitors to China were impressed by the size of the empire, its immense population ←11 | 12→and rich resources, fertile land, magnificent cities, excellent architecture and the absence of beggars.32 The population of Beijing was thought to be bigger than the combined population of any four major European cities and Beijing was admired for its design as the imperial capital of a vast empire.33 The well-travelled Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci arrived in Nanjing in 1595 and was awe-inspired by the city’s grandeur. He believed there were very few cities in the world that could rival Nanjing’s splendor—the city’s palaces, temples, pagodas and bridges were as magnificent as similar constructions in Europe, and in some respects Nanjing was even superior to European cities, according to Ricci.34

Unlike the opinions of later observers, China’s huge population was not viewed as a problem but as a manifestation of strength and prosperity. Seventeenth century European visitors seemed to believe that the empire’s abundant resources were more than sufficient to sustain its immense population—it could produce everything that its people needed, and that was precisely the reason why the Chinese were not overly interested in foreign trade.35 There were, of course, always a few detractors who thought otherwise,36 but all in all, the early European travelers’ views of China were generally favorable. China was regarded as the most impressive empire in Asia and the ultimate destination of most of European voyages to the East—that is, until the Europeans learned that it was easier to enter the markets of India and Southeast Asia than the markets of China.

European perceptions of China only began to turn negative overall in the latter half of the 18th century. Adam Smith had never visited China, but he acquired a lot of information about the country from people who had been there. He assumed that China had always been one of the wealthiest countries on earth, but he also thought that the laborers in China were very poor, and the lowest classes in China were much worse off than the lowest classes in Europe. On the other hand, Smith also thought that the entourages of Chinese dignitaries were larger and grander than the retinues of European dignitaries. Moreover Smith believed that the roads and canals of China were superior in quantity and quality to those in Europe because the Chinese sovereign needed a huge domestic market to increase the value of agricultural produces which would enable him to raise his land taxes, and in order to stimulate market activities his empire must have a well-developed transportation network.37

The Macartney Embassy38 came to China in 1793, a time when China was very different from the China of early Qing. With a population surpassing 300 million—over three times the population at the beginning of the dynasty—the empire was feeling the population pressure and civil unrests and disturbances were re-emerging by then. But even at this late date, John Barrow, a member of the Embassy, was impressed by the number and size of the shops and warehouses in ←12 | 13→Hangzhou and thought that their merchandises could rival those in the best shops and warehouses of London.39 And another member of the Embassy, Henry Ellis, had high praises for the scale and splendor of the merchant guild halls in Fujian.40

It is also noteworthy that the British believed their aggregate wealth had surpassed that of France and Russia and was finally able to rival that of China only after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815.41 That implies that the British still marveled at the riches of China in the early 19th century. Of course that would be a misperception if we are talking about per capita wealth, but it was not unwarranted if we are talking about total wealth. And as late as the middle of the 19th century, Robert Fortune, a Scotsman who visited China in on the eve of the great Taiping Rebellion, thought that the lower class in China was, in relative terms, not as miserable as the lower class in his home country. He noted that with a few pieces of cash, a poor Chinese laborer could buy himself a sumptuous meal with fish, vegetables, rice and tea, while the daily meals of a Scottish peasant worker during harvest time consisted only of porridge, milk, bread and beer.42

In summary, what the European visitors witnessed in Asia during the early modern period changed their perspectives about themselves and the rest of the world and enhanced their respect for the civilizations of Asia, particularly for the Chinese civilization. Their writings in that period gave no indication that they perceived any major divide separating the living standards and development levels of Europe and China before the later part of the 18th century.

Technology Levels of China and Europe before the Industrial Revolution

While the early European travelers had plenty of praises for China’s opulence, they had very little positive things to say about Chinese knowledge of geography, science and mathematics. Since the start of the Age of Discovery near the end of the 15th century, the Europeans had amassed a wealth of information about the different parts of the world which the Chinese lacked, and since the Scientific Revolution in the 16th ‒17th century, European advances in science were unparalleled anywhere in the world. Not surprisingly, European visitors generally held a low opinion of Chinese knowledge of geography and in Chinese achievements in science and mathematics.43 In certain areas of mathematics, that opinion might not be warranted because the European voyagers were unaware of some Chinese developments; but then, most early European travelers in Asia were also not familiar with the latest discoveries of the Scientific Revolution. All things considered, it is indisputable that by the 17th century Europe had moved far ahead of China ←13 | 14→in its accumulation of scientific and geographical knowledge. What is unclear, however, is how much impact the new scientific knowledge had on technological developments and the everyday lives of the masses before the 19th century. We will have more to say about this topic in Chapter Ten.

What is clear is the early Europeans were far more impressed by Chinese handicraft industries and medical knowledge than by Chinese astronomy and mathematics.44 Europeans had mixed views about the quality of Chinese ships, commonly holding river boats in higher esteem than sea-going junks.45 But by the end of the 16th century, European navigational and nautical skills had generally surpassed China, and Europe began to produce better mechanical devices than China even earlier.46

Pomeranz’s book presented a good overview of the technology levels of Europe and China in the early modern period before the Industrial Revolution.47 Europeans were more advanced in war technologies such as the manufacture of guns and cannons, in the making of navigational instruments, clocks, watches and telescopes, and in mining techniques. Europeans also had a huge advantage in the efficiency of their power generating machines from waterwheels to the steam engine. But China remained ahead in many areas of weaving and dyeing, in porcelain manufacturing, and in irrigation, soil conservation and other agricultural technologies. As a case in point, an agricultural society in Wales declared its goal to make Great Britain “as flourishing as China” in 1753, thus implying that it viewed China’s agricultural sector as the model to emulate.48 Furthermore, although China was behind in power generating technologies, Chinese stoves used in cooking and heating were more fuel efficient than European ones.

Chinese cities were far ahead of European cities in sanitation, the provision of clean water and other areas of public health. This, however, may be due in part to the generally lower population density of Chinese cities. Qing period medicine in the area of maternal and infant health remained superior to its European counterpart. Small pox inoculation was developed in China as early as the Song dynasty and was widely practiced by the later part of the Ming dynasty in the 16th century, but it was not performed in Europe until the 18th century.49 Generally speaking, Western medicine’s ability to cure diseases was not clearly superior to Chinese medicine until after the mid-19th century.50

As we have mentioned already, European shipbuilding technologies and navigational skills caught up with China in the 15th century and surpassed it a century or so later. Yet as late as the 18th century there were a few areas, such as the building of ships with watertight compartments, where China remained ahead.51

In 1675, Russian Tsar Peter the Great employed Chinese engineers in his bridge-building projects.52 French King Louis XIV sent six Jesuit priests to China ←14 | 15→to gather information on the metal, porcelain, silk, dyes, tea, paper and glass manufacturing techniques of China, and to learn about Chinese agricultural, military and naval technologies in 1685. And as late as 1765, Louis XVI’s finance minister sent two Christian missionaries to China to collect more information on Chinese technologies.53 These examples indicate that, even in the late 17th century and the 18th century, Europeans believed that there was still some technical knowledge which they could acquire from China, and that knowledge was not limited to handicraft skills. Adam Smith believed that while Europe’s manufacturing industries were generally more developed than China and India’s in the second half of the 18th century, the gap between them was not large.54

Overall speaking, it is difficult and probably impossible to determine whether the West or China was technologically more advanced at the beginning of the 18th century on the eve of the Industrial Revolution.55 China’s technologies only began to fall behind markedly with the eruption of the Revolution in the mid-18th century.

But what is surprising is that almost a full century after the start of the Industrial Revolution, the American inventor William Kelly had to consult Chinese steel experts in 1845 to learn about steel manufacturing practices in China. Seven years later, Kelly would develop a steel production process which was basically the same as the famous Bessemer process.56 And in the case of the technology of deep drilling on land, which was crucial to the development of the petroleum industry, early 19th century European and American brine and oil drilling processes were adaptations of the deep drilling methods used in China.57

Paul Bairoch had estimated the level of industrialization of various countries from the mid-18th to the early 20th century.58 His estimates indicate that in 1750, near the outbreak of the Industrial Revolution, China taken as a whole was only behind Britain, Belgium and France in the degree of industrialization, but it was more industrialized than Austria-Hungary, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States, and was as industrialized as Germany and Italy. But China was huge and the degree of industrialization among its many regions differed considerably. If we take the most industrialized region of China, i.e., Jiangnan, and compare it with European states, then Jiangnan’s level of industrialization in the mid-18th century was probably comparable to that of Britain—Europe’s most industrialized state—except that Jiangnan’s industry sector was heavily dominated by light industries, unlike Britain’s (see Chapter Ten). However as the European countries’ industrialization accelerated in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, China would move in the opposite direction and start to de-industrialize, so that by 1913 it would become one of the least industrialized countries in the world.

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Military Encounters between China and a Western Power in the 16th and 17th Century

Early European visitors tended to be highly dismissive of China’s military prowess,59 to the point of asserting that a small Portuguese force of two to three thousand men plus ten to fifteen ships would be sufficient to capture a major port city like Canton. They believed the Chinese army was formidable only because of its size, but its soldiers were cowardly and disorganized. This view would prevail until after the Dutch were driven from Taiwan by the forces of Zheng Chenggong in 1662.60

Early Europeans also had plenty of derogatory remarks about China’s military technology, although there were a few occasional dissenters.61 These disparaging remarks were more justifiable, as the Europeans were already making better guns and canons than the Chinese by the end of the 15th century. We will discuss the development of China’s firearms technology in the Ming-Qing period in Chapter Nine, but here we will briefly describe the outcomes of three military clashes between Chinese and Western forces in the 16th and 17th centuries, which could give us some indication of the relative military capabilities of China and the West before the 18th century.

After Vasco da Gama discovered a sea route to the East by rounding the Cape of Good Hope, the Portuguese proceeded to establish a permanent settlement in Goa on the west coast of India in 1510. They secured another enclave in Malacca on the west coast of the Malayan peninsular the following year. The next objective was to set up a similar base on the south coast of China to act as a trading post for trade with China. In 1519, the Portuguese occupied an island which they called Tunmen Island that was located just to the west of today’s Hong Kong, without obtaining the permission of the Ming authorities. The Ming government dispatched a force to expel the intruders in 1521. The Portuguese resisted at first, but although their firearms were already more effective than the Ming’s, the gap between Portuguese and Ming firearms was not big at the time, and the Ming force had number on its side while supply was a major headache for the Portuguese. So the Portuguese were forced to retreat in the end. That was the first armed conflict between a Chinese and a European force in history. The Portuguese returned the following year and attempted to seize Tunmen Island again, but were driven away a second time by a better armed Chinese fleet.62 They were not able to establish a foothold in China until 1557, when the Ming government finally allowed them to settle in Macau under the condition that the Portuguese must pay rent and customs duties to the Ming.63 The reason behind the Ming government’s change of mind will be explained in Chapter Three.

←16 | 17→

The Dutch, who had recently gained control of Batavia (today’s Jakarta), tried to wrest control of Macau from the Portuguese in 1622, but they were unsuccessful in their attempt. They then proceeded to occupy the Penghu Islands in the middle of the Taiwan Straits. The governor of Fujian dispatched troops to Penghu to drive them out and succeeded in persuading the Dutch to withdraw to Taiwan without the use of force. Taiwan would remain a Dutch colony over the next four decades. But in 1661, the Ming loyalist Zheng Chenggong (1624–1662) launched an invasion of Taiwan from Fujian and the Dutch were expelled the following year. Zheng’s troops had a tough time fighting the Qing army on the mainland, and Zheng was searching for a new strategy. He decided to seize control of Taiwan and use it as a base to re-conquer the mainland for the Ming. His ships far out-numbered the Dutch ships, even though the European vessels were of better quality. His sailors were experienced, and his troops were well-trained, battle-hardened and armed with cannons. In addition, he had two squadrons of dark-skinned soldiers who had received training on the use of rifles and muskets. The Dutch had two strongholds on the island—Fort Provintia and Fort Zeelandia. Fort Provintia was the first to fall because of the shortage of gunpowder and of food and water. Fort Zeelandia was a strong fortress that could be supplied by sea, and the Dutch got some reinforcements from Batavia later in the year. Nevertheless the fort was still unable to withstand the siege by Zheng’s troops. In the end the Dutch were forced to negotiate a settlement by which they had to surrender Fort Zeelandia, its artillery and ammunitions, and most of its goods and money to Zheng Chenggong. In return, they were allowed to go back to Batavia in their ships.64

The third military encounter between China and a European power took place on the landward frontier of the Chinese empire. Russian Cossacks began to make incursions deep into Siberia in the later part of the 16th century. By the middle of the 17th century they were encroaching on the upper reaches of the Amur River. They were defeated by Qing troops in 1654 and 1658 and were driven back. But a few years later some renegade Cossacks returned and re-occupied a fort at Albazin on the north shore of the Amur River. The fort was besieged and destroyed by Qing forces in the 1685. But after the withdrawal of the Qing troops, the Cossacks came back the following year and rebuilt the fort, and Qing forces laid siege to it a second time. By then both sides had decided that it was better to delineate their borders more clearly and unambiguously in order to facilitate trade and to enhance the security of their frontiers. The negotiation would take place at Nerchinsk, another fort further to the west of Albazin constructed by the Russians in 1654. However, during the negotiation the Qing surrounded the fort with 12,000 soldiers, and they were aided by some 2,000 Mongols—former allies of the Russians who had changed sides. Since Nerchinsk was only defended by about 1,500 men, ←17 | 18→the Russian envoy had to submit to most of the demands of the Qing government. The resulting Treaty of Nerchinsk, signed in 1689, would demarcate the boundary between the Chinese and Russian empires in the Far East for the next 170 years, until it was superseded by the Treaty of Aigun in 1858 which transferred 230,000 square miles of Chinese territory to Russia.65

It is notable that the Russians also suffered setbacks at the hands of the Zunghar Mongols. The Zunghars were the enemies of the Qing, but they also competed with the Russians for the right to exact tribute from native Siberians. In 1710, the Zunghars destroyed a Russian fort in southwestern Siberia to demonstrate that they were the sole hegemon of the region. Then in 1715, Peter the Great dispatched a Russian military expedition to the northeastern region of today’s Kazakhstan which was a part of the Zunghar Khanate at the time to search for gold. The Russian force was two thousand strong and brought with it a team of Swedish artillery and mining experts. But in the following year it was ambushed and routed by the Zunghars. In addition, a fort built by the Russians was destroyed, and the survivors had to scramble back to Omsk.66

China ended up victorious in all three armed conflicts between China and a Western power before the 18th century. But we must look at the context of these military clashes before drawing any conclusions about the relative military capabilities of China and the West. The Chinese forces far outnumbered the Western forces in all three cases. The fighting all took place at the border of the Chinese empire, while the Western forces were far from their home base. Thus supply was a serious problem for the European troops but not for the Chinese. Under such circumstances, unless the Europeans enjoyed a huge advantage in their weaponry (as was the case in the 19th century) the odds would be against them. In the clash between the Portuguese and Ming forces in the early 16th century, the Portuguese did possess better firearms in 1521, but the disparity between their guns and cannons and the Ming’s was not huge, and by the time of the second encounter the following year the gap had virtually disappeared. Although it widened again soon after, by the second half of the 17th century if not earlier Chinese gunpowder technology had caught up with the West once more,67 only to fall behind yet again in the course of the 18th century, as we shall see in Chapter Nine. Hence the Dutch and the Russians did not have an edge in their weapons in their armed conflicts with China in the 17th century, although their fortresses were designed in ways that were unfamiliar to the Chinese and were difficult for Chinese troops to capture, and Dutch warships were superior at open sea combat and more effective at sailing into the wind.68 Furthermore, Peter the Great was only a teenager in the 1680s and his Westernization campaign had yet to begin. Hence Russian military prowess was not on par with the leading European powers at the time.

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Generally speaking, however, the military edge enjoyed by European powers before the middle of the 18th century was not significant enough to enable them to conquer large stretches of territory on land anywhere in Asia, with the exception of some sparsely inhabited islands such as the Philippines and the Moluccas, and underpopulated Siberia. The best that European powers could achieve was gain control of a few enclaves on the coast, such as Goa, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta and Pondicherry in India, Malacca and Batavia in Southeast Asia, and Macau in China, to use as trading posts, and usually with the acquiescence of the Asian power in the neighborhood like the Ming and Indian Mughal Empire. The European warships were able to control the sea lanes however, because the great powers in Asia were primarily land powers that were not interested in developing their navies.69

In the 19th century the situation would be totally different, as the British needed only a few warships in the First Opium War to force the once mighty Qing Empire to capitulate.

China’s Long Decline from the Middle of the 18th Century Onward

Summarizing the discussions so far, China’s living standards, technological levels and military capabilities appear to be roughly on par with Europe’s around 1700. But the beginning of the 18th century was also the early part of a long period of peace and stability in China known as the Kang Yong Qian Shengshi, or the “Splendid Age of the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong reigns,” and it was during this “Splendid Age” that China began to fall decidedly behind the West across the board.

There was no significant technology advancement in China during this century-long period (for reasons to be explored in Chapter Ten) and China’s technologies would lag behind the West after the Industrial Revolution. There was also no growth in China’s military capabilities because there were no major wars in China’s heartland to stimulate development. The consequence was the military prowess of Europe’s warring states would quickly surpass China’s during the 18th century (see Chapter Nine).

As for standards of living, all scholarly estimates of past GDPs, the surviving 18th and 19th century data on life expectancies and other measures of living standards, and the opinions of early European visitors to Asia could not provide a conclusive answer to the question of when exactly did the West overtook China in wealth per capita. The GDP estimates have to be somewhat speculative. The extant data on life expectancies, etc. from earlier centuries are patchy and it is unclear how ←19 | 20→representative they are, given that there must be huge regional variations within Europe and China. The observations of European travelers did not indicate any significant difference in living standards before the later part of the 18th century at the earliest. What appears to be the case is the gap between China and the West, if any, could not have been large between 1500 and 1750. China could be marginally ahead during certain periods, and the West could be slightly ahead in other periods. The great upheavals of the 17th century—the Thirty Years War and the Ming-Qing Transition Wars—could have altered the living standards and per capita wealth of Europe and China considerably, and it is impossible for us to determine the magnitude and duration of their impacts today. The difference in scientific achievements and technology developments between East and West did not give rise to noticeable disparities in living standards until some years after the start of the Industrial Revolution. So generally speaking, the per capita wealth of China and Europe should be quite comparable up to 1750 if not later.70

There are many indications, however, that Chinese living standards began to decline after the middle of the 18th century. The Chinese American historian Ho Ping-ti believed that the Qing dynasty reached its zenith during 1750‒1775, around the middle of the Qianlong Emperor’s reign, but succumbed to population pressure and resource shortages soon after.71 By the later part of the 18th century, many Chinese shared the feeling that they were not as well-off as before and life was getting harder every day. Social disturbances became more common near the end of the Qianlong era, and the White Lotus Rebellion, the first serious rebellion in China in more than a century, erupted in Hubei and Sichuan province in 1796.72

As early as 1793, the Qing scholar Hong Liangji, who is known as China’s Malthus, called attention to the problems caused by unrestrained population growth when land resources were finite. In 1820, another scholar Gong Zizhen lamented the persistent decline in living standards in China since the later part of the Qianlong reign and warned about the danger of a major rebellion erupting anytime soon. Thus if the estimates of Angus Maddison which showed that China’s GDP (PPP) per capita was only half that of West Europe in 1820 were correct, they reflected a long decline in China which commenced several decades ago.

Pomeranz pointed out that the population growth of China’s backward and poor provinces in the southwest and the north was much faster than the rest of the country after 1750. In the middle of the 18th century, the population of the most prosperous and industrialized regions of China—Jiangnan, Lingnan and the coastal regions of the southeast—made up 40% of the country’s population. One century later their share of the country’s population had dropped to 25%. Hence even if the living standards of the rich areas had not fallen, the average living ←20 | 21→standards of the entire country must have declined. Furthermore, the cooler temperatures in the first half of the 19th century and the droughts in North China in 1876–1879 and 1897‒1899 would have a negative impact on agriculture production in that century.73

In other words, China’s downward spiral commenced around the middle of the 18th century, and by 1839, on the eve of the First Opium War, it had been waning for over three-quarters of a century. In the following decades China’s descent would accelerate because of the Taiping Rebellion and other uprisings and the natural disasters which devastated large parts of the country.74 Modern observers who witnessed the abject poverty in China in the first half of the 20th century often assumed that China had always been that way in the past. It was difficult for them to imagine that the standards of living in 18th century China could be higher than those in the 20th century. But according to Pomeranz, although the living standards of China in the early 20th century had rebounded from their lowest points in the 19th century, they had not yet recovered to the levels attained in the mid-18th century.75

Europe’s population growth rate also accelerated after 1750, and by the end of the 18th century, it was beginning to feel the pressure of overpopulation as well. And yet because of the Industrial Revolution and other factors, not only was Europe able to avoid China’s calamities in the 19th century, it would continue to grow and prosper and proceed to dominate the entire globe.

In short, the second great divergence between China and the West is a relatively recent phenomenon which probably emerged no earlier than the second half of the 18th century. But why did an industrial revolution not occur in China? Why was China not able to escape its tragic fate in the 19th century? And last but not least, what enables it to recover so quickly from the later part of the 20th century onward?

Could Ming-Qing China’s alleged closed door policies be responsible for China’s relative lack of progress from the 15th century onward? If so, then what prompted the Ming-Qing regimes to pursue such insular policies? Could traditional China’s purported anti-merchant and anti-commerce bias be the reason for China’s stagnation? If so, then how do we explain the existence of vibrant markets in late imperial China? Could Confucianism’s purported anti-technology bias and the absence of modern science in China be another crucial factor? If so, then what explains China’s impressive achievements in many technical areas during the Song period? Was China’s decline a consequence of the absence of rule of law and democracy? If so, then what enables China to rebound so quickly in recent decades? Or could China’s cosmological beliefs be the ultimate culprit?

←21 | 22→

In the following chapters we will re-examine the conventional explanations for China’s downfall and come up with a new framework to interpret China’s past and present.


1. See Pomeranz (2000), p. 84.

2. Bairoch (1981); Maddison (2007).

3. Bairoch (1981), p. 3.

4. Ibid., Tables 14, 16 and 17. We will ignore the difference between GDP and GNP in our discussions of past estimates.

5. Maddison (2007), Tables A1 and A7. “Europe as a whole” refers to West Europe, East Europe and the areas under the rule of the former USSR, including the non-European portion of the Soviet Union—Siberia, Central Asia and the Caucasus, but the population and GDP of these three regions were relatively small.

6. Based on 2017 GDP (PPP) per capita estimates of the World Bank.

7. See also the comments on Bairoch and Maddison’s estimates in Alam (2000).

8. World Bank (2008); World Bank (2014). See also The Economist (2014a).

9. See The Economist (2014b).

10. See for example Broadberry, Guan and Li (2017).

11. See Deng and O’Brien (2016) which argued that past data are so inadequate, especially in the Orient, that no meaningful GDP per capita estimates can be derived from them. See also von Glahn’s critique of pre-20th century GDP estimates in von Glahn (2016), pp. 354–59.

12. Pomeranz (2000), pp. 36–38.

13. Wong (1997), pp. 22–27 and Table 1; Elvin and Fox (2009), pp. 68–69; Hoffman et al. (2005), Table 61 and Figure 61; Campbell and Lee (2004), pp. 294–98; Campbell, Lee, and Bengtsson (2004), Table 31.

14. Oris, Derosas, and Breschi (2004), Table 122.

15. Tsuya and Nystedt (2004), pp. 410–13.

16. The analysis of Chinese age data is complicated by the fact that Chinese records often provided information on life expectancies at age one only and female infanticide was a widespread practice. In order to convert life expectancy at age one to life expectancy at birth, assumptions have to be made regarding infant mortality rates in the first year of life. We will have more to say about female infanticide in Chapter Six, but we should mention here that female infanticide was a common practice among both the well-off (including members of the imperial family) and the poor in traditional China, and hence was not necessarily related to destitution.

17. Pomeranz (2000), pp. 35, 39, 116–27, 138–52; Pomeranz (2005), pp. 24–40; Pomeranz (2006), pp. 25–42.

18. See Goldstone (2006), p. 9.

19. Gernet (1996), p. 483.

20. Allen (2009a), Allen (2004), Allen (2005).

21. Allen et al. (2011).

22. See also Allen (2009b), pp. 25–51.

←22 | 23→

23. Pomeranz (2006), pp. 2–17, 22–25. See also Pomeranz (2003), pp. 175–78; Pomeranz (2008), pp. 83–87; Pomeranz (2011), p. 23.

24. Rozman (1973), pp. 281–83.

25. In the Ming-Qing period, tenant rights were quite secure. As long as a tenant farmer paid his rent, his landlord could not evict him. The tenant farmer could also sell his tenant rights or sublease his land to another tenant.

26. Wang (2000), p. 37 estimated that hired labor made up no more than 1–2% of the population in the Ming period.

27. Broadberry and Gupta (2006) also estimated that the real wages of rural laborers in the Lower Chang Jiang valley was about 38% of that of unskilled construction workers in England in the period 1750–1849, which is similar to the real wage estimates for Chinese unskilled urban workers in Allen et al. (2011).

28. North China was somewhat different. The real income of tenant farmers in North China was close to that of landless rural laborers, but tenant farmers constituted only 15% or less of the population of North China, while the real income of owner farmers in North China was double that of tenant farmers, according to Pomeranz.

29. Mokyr (2009), pp. 457–58.

30. Mokyr (2009), pp. 298–99, 455.

31. Li and Van Zanden (2012).

32. Lach (1994a), pp. 741, 765, 767, 769, 775, 803, 825, 835; Lach and Van Kley (1998), pp. 1607–08, 1613–15, 1618, 1690–91, 1904–05.

33. Lach and Van Kley (1998), p. 1744. See also Illustration 304.

34. Mote (1977), p. 152.

35. Lach and Van Kley (1998), pp. 1593,

36. Lach (1994a), pp. 764 (footnote 150), 775, 811; Lach and Van Kley (1998), pp.1599–1600, 1692–94.

37. Smith (1937), pp. 71–72, 189, 205–06, 238, 688 and 789–90.

38. Macartney (1962).

39. Barrow (1806), pp. 527–28.

40. Ellis (1818), pp. 127–29.

41. Bayly (1989), p. 4.

42. Wong (1997), pp. 24–25, quoting two passages cited in Anderson (1988).

43. Lach (1994a), pp. 782–83; Lach and Van Kley (1998), pp. 1642–43, 1720–22, 1750, 1752, 1906.

44. Lach (1994a), pp. 770, 782; Lach and Van Kley (1998), pp. 1720, 1747, 1906–07.

45. Lach (1994a), p. 771; Lach and Van Kley (1998), p. 1615.

46. Lach (1994b), pp. 400, 406, 421, 444.

47. Pomeranz (2000), pp. 43–47, 62, 67.

48. Bayly (1989), pp. 80–81.

49. Temple (1986), pp.135–37.

50. Elman (2006), p. 109; Jacob and Stewart (2004), p. 7.

51. Hobson (2004), pp. 215–16; Deng (1999), pp. 163–71.

52. Hobson (2004), p. 132.

53. Hobson (2004), p. 199.

54. Smith (1937), p. 206.

55. Mokyr (2017), p. 288 also expressed a similar view.

56. Temple (1986), p. 49.

57. Ibid., p. 54.

58. Bairoch (1982), p. 281 (Table 4).

59. Lach (1994a), pp. 736–37, 786–87, 802, 833; Lach and Van Kley (1998), pp. 1587–88, 1598, 1717.

60. Lach and Van Kley (1998), pp. 1752–53.

61. Lach (1994a), pp. 741, 787 (footnote 329).

62. Andrade (2016), pp. 124–31.

63. Hobson (2004), pp. 145–46; Findlay and O’Rourke (2007), pp.152, 169–70; Lin (1987), pp. 162–67; Li (1990), pp. 64–65.

64. Andrade (2011), pp. 13–18, 34–53, 111–297; Andrade (2008), pp. 44, 241–44, 251–52; Lach and Van Kley (1998), pp. 1818–23; Lin (1987), 173–74; Li (1990), pp.197–99; Deng (1999), pp. 190–91.

65. Perdue (2005), pp. 161–73; Andrade (2016), pp. 219–30.

66. Perdue (2005), pp. 211–12.

67. See Huang (1996), p. 65.

68. Andrade (2016), pp. 196–210, 234, 299–300; Andrade (2011), pp. 307–21.

69. Darwin (2008), pp. 96–97, 105, 114.

70. According to another view, the gap between the rich and the rest in West Europe increased substantially in the early modern period because the price of luxury goods declined, while the price of grain, fuel and housing rose in that era. That resulted in the living standards among the upper and middle class rising faster than among the general public. (See Hoffman et al. (2002) and Hoffman et al. (2005)). Furthermore, Hoffman et al. (2005), Table 61 indicated that from 1750 onward, the life expectancies of British peers were significantly higher than the English general public, thus implying that the living standards of British peers were a lot higher than the English public from the mid-18th century onward. However, the late Ming-early Qing scholar Gu Yanwu also observed that “since the Jiajing-Longqing period … the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” (Gu [1995], Section 32), thus indicating that the wealth gap in China was also growing since the second half of the 16th century. Furthermore, the wealthiest man in the world in the beginning of the 19th century was probably a Chinese merchant (see Chapter Four), which suggests that there was a huge divide between the rich and poor in China. Finally, according to some estimates, the wealthiest 2% in China received 24% of national income in the 19th century; these percentages are very close to the percentages in England and Wales, where the wealthiest 2% received 23% of national income in 1801–1803 (Pomeranz [2000], pp. 136–37).

71. Ho (1959), pp. 270–78.

72. See also Bayly (2004), pp. 89–91, 103.

73. Pomeranz (2005), pp. 40–46.

74. See von Glahn (2016), pp. 361–64, 372–74.

75. Pomeranz (2006), pp. 42–51; Pomeranz (2008), pp. 87–91.

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———. 2005. “Standards of Living in Eighteenth-Century China: Regional Differences, Temporal Trends, and Incomplete Evidence.” In Living Standards in the Past: New Perspectives on Well-being in Asia and Europe, edited by Robert C. Allen, Tommy Bengtsson, and Martin Dribe, 23–54. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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———. 2006. “Standards of Living in Rural and Urban China: Mid-18th and Early 20th Centuries.” Paper presented at the XIV International Economic History Congress (Session 77), Helsinki, Finland.

———. 2008. “Chinese Development in Long-Run Perspective.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 152, no. 1 (March): 83–100.

———. 2011. “Ten Years After: Responses and Reconsiderations.” Historically Speaking 12, no. 4 (September): 20–25.

Rozman, Gilbert. 1973. Urban Networks in Ch’ing China and Tokugawa Japan. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Smith, Adam. 1937. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. New York: Modern Library (Cannan) edition.

Temple, Robert. 1986. The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery, and Invention. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Tsuya, Noriko O., and Paul Nystedt, in collaboration with Matteo Manfredini, Muriel Neven, and Cameron Campbell. 2004. “Old Age Mortality.” In Life under Pressure: Mortality and Living Standards in Europe and Asia, 17001900, edited by Tommy Bengtsson, Cameron Campbell, James Z. Lee, et al., 399–429. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

von Glahn, Richard. 2016. The Economic History of China: From Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wang, Shixin. 2000. “Agriculture and the Changing Relations of Production.” In Chinese Capitalism, 15221840, edited by Dixin Xu and Chengming Wu, 23–45. English translation by Zhengde Li, Miaoru Liang, and Siping Li. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Wong, R. Bin. 1997. China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

World Bank. 2008. International Comparison Program, Global Purchasing Power Parities and Real Expenditures. Washington, DC: World Bank.

———. 2014. Purchasing Power Parities and Real Expenditures of World Economies: Summary of Results and Findings of the 2011 International Comparison Program. Washington, DC: World Bank.

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Differences Between the Beliefs and Value Systems of the West and China

There is an influential view that the fundamental reason behind the emergence of the Great Divergence is the differences in the beliefs and value systems of the West and China. Of paramount importance is the Christian belief in the existence of an almighty creator who laid down the laws of nature. This belief is taken by many to be the indispensable prerequisite for the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions which is the sine qua non of the West’s predominance. Another vital notion is the idea of progress, often regarded as a uniquely Western concept that is crucial to the eventual ascendancy of the West. Somewhat less widely accepted nowadays is the view that Protestant—particularly Puritan—work ethics is a precondition for the rise of capitalism and modern economic growth. Lastly, the dissimilarities between the classical Greek and Chinese ways of thinking are thought to have given rise to the divergent development paths of Western and Chinese political systems. We will provide an overview and examination of the above beliefs and value systems in this chapter before we begin our discussion of the other purported reasons for China’s relative stagnation during the early modern period in later chapters.

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The Christian Faith and the Development of Modern Science and Technology

There is a rich literature which expounds the view that it was Christianity—and Protestantism/Puritanism in particular—which gave birth to the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions of the 17th and 18th century.1 According to this view, it was the Christian faith in the existence of a divine and omnipotent God who had created and designed every feature of an orderly and predictable universe, and the conviction that God’s laws which govern how this universe functions can and should be unveiled by mankind in order that mankind may have greater appreciation of God and His will, which eventually gave rise to the discoveries of modern science. As early as the 4th century Saint Augustine (354–430) had propounded the handmaiden theory—the notion that knowledge of the natural world can aid comprehension of the Holy Scriptures. Nonetheless in the view of Augustine and other early church fathers, natural knowledge must play second fiddle to Christian doctrine, and if there is any conflict between the two, the church’s dogma must be the ultimate guide.2 In the second half of the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) advanced a subtle modification to Augustine’s handmaiden thesis. He elevated the status of natural knowledge and argued that if there is any disagreement between science and theology, then either the knowledge of nature is flawed or the interpretation of the Scriptures is incorrect.3 The consequence is: since around the time of Aquinas there has been a constant endeavor in the Christian world to reconcile Christian doctrines with first Greek science and later on with the new discoveries of modern science.4 Moreover, alongside the handmaiden theory was the belief that not only does God want mankind to learn about his creation but also to make good use of the knowledge acquired of the natural world. Therefore since the early Middle Ages Christian monasteries had played a leading role in the recovery of Greek natural knowledge as well as in the development of medieval technologies in order to glorify God’s greatness and to celebrate His wisdom and benevolence. What’s more, from about the 13th century on the medieval church actively supported educational institutions whose curriculums included the study of astronomy, mathematics and optics because many theologians of that period, the most well-known being probably Roger Bacon (1219–1292), believed knowledge of those subjects would enhance the comprehension of the Scriptures.5

Nevertheless the momentous breakthroughs in the natural sciences which will set the Christian world apart from other Eurasian civilizations would not appear until the middle of the 16th century, when the Scientific Revolution made its debut with the publication of Nicolaus Copernicus’ On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres in 1543. But what is striking is many of the important figures ←30 | 31→of the Scientific Revolution attributed their discoveries to their Christian faith.6 A common feature among them is their belief that the universe is orderly and predictable because of the existence of a solo omnipotent Creator who has imposed the timeless and immutable laws of nature upon it. By the 17th century the clock imagery was frequently invoked—the universe was likened to a mechanical clock which functions with regularity and efficiency and the clockmaker is God. Many natural scientists held the view that through the performance of experiments mankind can unlock the secrets of this clock universe which in turn will strengthen their faith in the Almighty.7 Francis Bacon (1561–1626), whom many consider the father of the scientific method (which emphasizes experimentation and careful observations and measurements), was a deeply religious person. Bacon maintained that there should be a harmonious relationship between science and religion because the knowledge acquired by mankind through their study of nature would contribute to the accurate interpretation of the Scriptures. He believed that the performance of experiments to uncover the secrets of the natural world is a religious pursuit and a form of worship, and held that increased knowledge of nature would persuade unbelievers to accept the existence of God. He also stressed the moral uprightness of applying the new knowledge to practical matters and to promote economic growth. Although not a foremost scientist himself, Bacon’s writings would have tremendous impact on the British scientific community, and some historians contended that it was his writings which gave rise to the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions in Britain.8 The fact is Christian theology did appear to be a major driving force behind the work of many of the leading British scientists of the period. Robert Boyle (1627–1691), for instance, underscored the importance of the argument from design—the argument that since the universe is like an intricate clock there must be an omnipotent clockmaker—and maintained that his study of nature and experimental work was a religious undertaking which was meaningful only because of his faith in the existence of an all-wise Creator.9 Isaac Newton (1642–1727) was convinced that his faith and his physics were mutually reinforcing and felt certain that the investigation of natural phenomena would show clearly the presence of an all-powerful Deity and enhance mankind’s knowledge of Him. He believed his Newtonian system provided firm support for the existence of an intelligent Creator who had established the laws of physics which ensure the orderliness and stability of the universe.10

While many of the giants of the British Scientific Revolution were Puritans who saw a powerful connection between their religious convictions and their scientific endeavors, quite a few of the major scientific figures in Continental Europe also shared similar notions. A noteworthy example was Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) whose Lutheran faith had very likely led him to believe that God had created the universe based on mathematical principles which he set out to uncover; ←31 | 32→and after he had constructed an elegant mathematical model of the planetary system, Kepler professed that he felt overawed by the magnificence and harmony of God’s creation.11 Thus the association of the Christian theology with major scientific discoveries was not limited to British Puritans. Even Roman Catholics maintained that the study of nature would promote the understanding of God,12 and both Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) and Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) were Catholics, although we have fewer examples of notable Catholic scientific figures who asserted that their Catholic faith had bolstered their scientific pursuits.

All in all, the robust linkage between as least some forms of Christianity and the Scientific Revolution seems to be beyond doubt, but the question remains whether Christian beliefs is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for the emergence of modern science and technology.

Chinese Cosmology

There are historians who do not subscribe to the view that Christianity is a precondition for the Scientific Revolution’s eruption.13 David Wootton has pointed out that the primary inspiration for the idea of laws of nature, so pivotal to the Scientific Revolution, came from the first century BCE Roman philosopher Lucretius. Lucretius had profound influence on the thinking of leading Scientific Revolution figures like Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, Boyle and Newton, but his principal work, On the Nature of Things, was based on Greek Epicureanism which advances a godless materialistic view of the world.14 The ideas of other Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras, Aristotle and Plato had also played a key role in the development of the groundbreaking theories of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo,15 but none of these Greek sages were believers in the existence of an omnipotent Creator. Of special interest among them is Plato, who introduced the notion of the Demiurge, a wise, benevolent and godlike artisan who fashioned an unruly cosmos into a uniform and orderly universe based on a well thought-out plan which relied on mathematical principles. Unlike the Christian God, however, the Demiurge was not an almighty Deity who created the cosmos out of nothing, for the cosmos was already in existence with resources aplenty. But it was indeterminate until the Demiurge transformed it into a tidy universe with predictable regularities. Not like the Christian God, there are limits to the Demiurge’s power—he could not enable new materials to appear in the universe, nor could he alter the properties of the existing materials. Plato’s concept of the Demiurge had inspired Galen, the second century Greek physician, who maintained that he saw the work of the Demiurge, or that of an intelligent designer, in his study of human and animal bodies. Galen’s ←32 | 33→medical ideas would have tremendous influence in the Middle Ages and even the early modern period. Not surprisingly, some early Christians found the notion of the Demiurge congenial to their religious beliefs.16

The case of Lucretius and Plato suggest that Christianity or other varieties of monotheism is not a necessary condition for the development of the concept of a regular and predictable universe which is governed by immutable laws of nature. With this in mind, we will now turn to the traditional Chinese view of the cosmos.

The concept of monotheism originated in the Middle East and Egypt and spread to the West following the expansion of Christianity. However, it had marginal sway in South Asia and the Far East until the start of Turkic incursion into the Indian subcontinent in the 11th century which brought Islam along with it. But in the Far East, even though Jesuit missionaries began their proselytization in Ming China in the late 16th century, relatively few Chinese were converted to Catholicism and understood its basic tenets in the following two centuries. Hence monotheism remained an alien concept unfamiliar to most people right down to the 19th century. The absence of the notion of an almighty God who had created the universe and established timeless and unchangeable laws of nature which give rise to its regularities has led some historians to conclude that the primary reason why a scientific revolution did not occur in China, despite China’s many technological achievements in the Song-Yuan period, is the lack of faith in a Creator God. Thus Joseph Needham, the foremost authority on Chinese science and technology, believed that the Chinese did not set out to uncover the universal laws of nature because the religious belief in the existence of a divine Creator and Lawgiver was missing in China.17

Since the Western/Middle Eastern concept of monotheism was absent in traditional China, the English word “religion” has no equivalent in the Chinese language, and calling any of the long-established Chinese beliefs, value systems and philosophies such as Confucianism, Daoism or Buddhism a religion is misleading. In fact the Chinese character jiao, which denotes these belief systems, means teaching. Yet although traditional China lacked a monotheistic religion in the Western sense, there is an indigenous Chinese concept of a Supreme Entity who had given birth to the cosmos. In a recent book, Chan Kei Thong had identified various passages from ancient Chinese texts which made reference to this all-powerful Entity.18 This unchangeable, omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent Entity is sometimes known as Shang Di (the Emperor above) or Tian (Heaven),19 and sometimes known simply as Dao (the Way). The Classic of Poetry proclaimed that: “Heaven had given birth to the multitude of peoples, together with a variety of things and the principles and rules which govern them.”20 This proclamation shows that the notion of the principles and rules of a Supreme Entity, i.e., Heaven, ←33 | 34→is present in the belief systems of traditional China from very early on. The Daode Jing, another Chinese classic which is better known in the West today, explained the concept of this Supreme Entity in the following manner:

Before heaven and earth were born there existed an Entity which is a fusion of all things; it was silent and formless but also autonomous and immutable, persistent and relentless. We may regard it as the mother of the cosmos. I do not know what its name is, but if I have to give it a name, I will call it Dao and describe it as the all-inclusive Whole which is continuously in motion, unremittingly expansive and constantly recurring.21

The word Dao has a special connotation, as we shall see later on in this section.

The Temple of Heaven in Beijing was the place where the Ming and Qing emperors made offerings to Heaven. During the offering ceremony, songs with the following ancient lyrics were performed:

In the distant past there was confusion, disorder, and darkness. The five elements had not begun to rotate and the sun and moon had not begun to emit light. There was neither shape nor sound in the midst. Then the Supreme Entity appeared, separating the pure from the impure and produced heaven, earth and mankind, and all things began to reproduce continually.22

All living creatures are indebted to You for their origins. Mankind and all things are surrounded by Your benevolence. All living creatures are obligated to You for Your kindness, but who knows from Whom his blessings come. You alone, Supreme Lord, are the true Ancestor of billions and trillions of things.23

These lyrics serve as another illustration of the way in which the Supreme Entity, the origin of all things in the cosmos, was conceived in traditional China.

Thong is a Christian, and admittedly the ultimate goal of his work, like that of the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) or the Protestant clergy James Legge (1815–1897),24 is to win converts among the Chinese population by highlighting some of the similarities between Chinese traditional beliefs and Christianity. There are some obvious parallels between their endeavor and the early Christians’ attempt to identify Plato’s Demiurge with the Christian God (see above). But in fact there are two subtle but fundamental differences between the Chinese Supreme Entity and the Christian Deity. In the first place, the Supreme Entity is as much the Mother as He is the Creator of the cosmos, and the metaphor “Heaven gave birth to the cosmos” was frequently employed. This means that Heaven is immanent in everything in the cosmos, or as the Buddhist scriptures put it: “yi qie zhongsheng jie you Foxing (the nature of the Buddha is present in all living things).”25 There is greater similitude among the indigenous Chinese concept of Heaven, the Buddhist idea of ←34 | 35→the nature of the Buddha, and the Greek Stoics’ notion of pneuma, a rational substance which permeates the cosmos and identifiable with the Supreme Being,26 than between them and the anthropomorphic God of the Bible. But there are even more commonalities between Chinese cosmological perspectives and Einstein’s notions about religion. Einstein was heavily influenced by the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677)’s pantheistic views on religion. Pantheists believed that God is identical to the cosmos; but more importantly, pantheists believe that God is also synonymous with the rules and principles which govern the cosmos.27 Therefore the pantheistic God is very different from the Christian God. The Christian God created the cosmos and laid down the laws which govern it. The pantheistic God, in contrast, did not create the cosmos and determine its laws. The pantheistic God is the cosmos and its laws and is indistinguishable from them. While the Christian God has humanlike characteristics, the pantheistic God does not.

That brings us to the second fundamental difference between Chinese cosmological views and Christian religious outlook which is particularly relevant to the question of whether Christian monotheistic beliefs were indispensable to the rise of modern science. There is a striking resemblance between Einstein and Spinoza’s pantheism and Chinese cosmological beliefs. Recall that Dao, which means “the Way,” is another Chinese name for the Supreme Entity. Dao can be understood to denote the way in which the cosmos works, or the rules and principles guiding the cosmos. Hence just like pantheism, Chinese cosmological thinking also conflates the Supreme Entity’s rules and principles with the Supreme Entity Himself. Furthermore, since Dao and Tian, or Heaven, both refer to the Supreme Entity, they are often combined to form the expression Tian Dao, or “the Way of Heaven.” In other words, the Supreme Entity, the cosmos, and the rules and principles of the cosmos are one and the same and cannot be separated. Not surprisingly, such a cosmological outlook would prompt the ancient Chinese to observe and study the cosmos in order to get acquainted with the Way of Heaven and discover the meaning of life. Thus the Classic of Changes admonished the people to: “observe the heavenly bodies’ movements to discern the changes of the times.”28 Initially, observation of the heavens was mainly for the astrological purposes, i.e., to look for omens of future events, just like in other civilizations. But the Chinese also associated the Supreme Entity, the cosmos, and the Way of Heaven with moral righteousness, or Zhengqi,29 particularly since the rise of neo-Confucianism in the Song dynasty which integrated Daoist and Buddhist ideas about the cosmos into Confucianism.30 One way to illustrate the difference between Christian and Chinese way of thinking is: Christians will say “God is righteous,” but the Chinese will say “Righteousness (Zhengqi) is God (Tian Dao).” This identification of moral righteousness with the cosmos is best illustrated by the lyrics in the celebrated ←35 | 36→poem Zhengqi Ge (The Song of Righteousness) written by the Song dynasty patriot Wen Tianxiang (1236–1283):

Righteousness is present in the heavens and on earth.

It pervades a host of liquid and solid matters.

Down below on earth it is manifested in the rivers and the mountains.

High above in the heavens it is manifested in the sun and the stars.31

Just as belief in a divine Creator in the Christian world generated the desire to discover the Creator’s laws of nature, the conviction in the Chinese world that moral righteousness pervades nature produced the urge to investigate nature to look for moral guidance and to learn about the Way of Heaven. Thus leading Song era neo-Confucian philosophers such as Cheng Yi (1033–1107) and Zhu Xi (1130–1200) stressed the importance of gewu qiongli zhizhi (the investigation of things, the exhaustive search for their underlying principles, and the acquisition of knowledge). The word wu (the “thing” in “the investigation of things”) encompassed natural as well as other kinds of objects, phenomena and events in history. The emphasis on the search for underlying principles implied that the neo-Confucian philosophers had presumed the existence of universal principles behind all things, phenomena and events.32

This interest in nature would continue down through the Ming and Qing period. The following passage by the 15th century Ming literati Yan Jing, written as a part of the preface to a Song dynasty work on natural history, underscored the priority placed on discovering the principles behind the matters and things in the universe by at least some Ming scholars:

The countless things which pervade the cosmos have undergone a lot of changes since ancient times. Things have millions of variations; matters have gone through millions of transformations. Every thing and matter has its underlying principles and its origin. If we do not search thoroughly for their underlying principles, then we cannot fully acquire the knowledge which our hearts desire. But if we do not explore their origins, then we cannot fully comprehend their principles. Therefore the sages emphasize the investigation of things and the acquisition of knowledge in their studies, while scholars underscore the value of broad based inquiries and knowledge. A Confucian scholar would feel ashamed even if there is only one matter which he cannot comprehend.33

And when Jesuit missionaries introduced Greek science to China from the late 16th century on, the Chinese literati called it gezhi xue, meaning “studies related to the investigation of things and the acquisition of knowledge.” The choice of this name indicated that Ming and Qing scholars had associated Greek science with their endeavor to gewu qiongli zhizhi (see Chapter Ten).

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Joseph Needham and other historians have generally agreed that the knowledge of the natural world accumulated in China up to the 16th century was comparable to the West.34 Thus Chinese cosmological beliefs did not appear to have handicapped the development of natural science in China up until then. But unlike the earth-shattering advances in natural science in the West since then, there were no similar breakthroughs in China. Was the huge gap that would soon emerge between Western and Chinese science due to some unique attributes of the Christian faith that was lacking in China, as some historians have maintained? If so, why did the gap took more than one thousand years to appear? And why did it appear so suddenly instead of widening progressively over a long period of time? Moreover, as we have pointed out already, other scholars have contested the view that Christianity is indispensable to the Scientific Revolution. David Lindberg, in particular, has boldly asserted that:

One fundamentally important claim that almost all students of the subject would insist upon is that, although seventeenth-century science was shaped by Christian doctrine in many ways, the scientific revolution did not depend on Christian influence for its existence, but only [emphasis in the original] for aspects of its shape and character.35

If not Christianity, then could it be some other occurrence in the 16th century which had radically altered the views and belief systems of the West regarding the natural world? The next section will explore this possibility.

The Idea of Progress

If there is one notion which was truly unique to the West, it had to be the idea of progress. By that we mean the conviction that momentous and wide-ranging advances in natural knowledge and refutation of time-honored orthodox ideas which would lead to major improvements in technologies and the human condition were possible and imminent. That does not mean that Chinese did not believe in progress. For centuries Daoist priests had searched laboriously for an elixir—a drug which would enable a person to live forever. The presence of such an endeavor shows that Chinese believed there was still knowledge to be discovered and there were subjects which the ancient sages were ignorant in. It also displays faith in the prospects for improvement. In addition, the neo-Confucian emphasis on gewu qiongli zhizhi mentioned above demonstrates that Chinese literati were aware that a lot remained to be learned. Moreover, as Joel Mokyr has pointed out, the Song era reformer Wang Anshi (1021–1086) had maintained that economic ←37 | 38→progress was achievable.36 It is true that Chinese revered the ancient sages and classics right down to the 19th century and most people were reluctant to challenge the savants’ viewpoints, but they were always willing to reinterpret them to suit their purposes. It is also true that Chinese, particularly since the Ming dynasty, often looked back to a glorious period in the past during which conditions were assumed to be better than they were in the present, but that was common in the West as well, as David Hume (1711–1776) had noted: “The humour of blaming the present, and admiring the past, is strongly rooted in human nature, and has an influence even on persons endued with the profoundest judgement and extensive knowledge.”37 Furthermore, radical thinkers and revolution or reform leaders—in the East as well as the West—often presented an idealized view of the past which might have never existed in order to inspire and motivate their followers. A case in point is Thomas Jefferson’s A Summary View of the Rights of British America38 written in 1774 on the eve of the American Revolution in which Jefferson argued that the Saxon people were a free people who had migrated from the north of Europe to Britain where they were able to retain their liberties until the Norman Conquest of 1066, therefore the American Revolution was a struggle to bring back the former freedoms lost under the Norman yoke. Ming and Qing literati’s longings for a more perfect imaginary past can be seen in a similar light—as an attempt to persuade others to change the present world for the better. Neither they nor Jefferson should be regarded as having a cyclical view of history without any hope of progress as historians Derk Bodde and Peter Bol had maintained.39

Nevertheless, the huge faith in progress which appeared in the West during the early modern period was unprecedented and unmatched by any belief in advancement that might have been present in China. What we want to underscore is this new confidence had surfaced relatively lately. It is doubtful that Europeans of the Middle Ages had any more faith in science and technology than the Chinese. As Needham noted:

(The) idea of cumulative disinterested cooperative enterprise in amassing scientific information was much more customary in medieval China than anywhere in pre-Renaissance West … no mathematician or astronomer in any Chinese century would have dreamed of denying a continual progress and improvement in the sciences they professed.40

The novel conviction that unparalleled earth-shaking progress was on the horizon only began to emerge in the West during the 17th century. It is very revealing that the word “progress” and the word “discovery” were often found together at the time, for the idea of progress was very much connected to the notion of discovery. In fact the word “discovery” itself was a new word which made ←38 | 39→its first appearance in a European language, namely Portuguese, only around 1486. The Portuguese had coined the neologism to describe a new type of maritime expedition under proposal to sail westward across the ocean, not just to explore but to find new lands.41 After the voyages of Columbus and other explorers, the notion of discovery became entrenched in the West. But the voyages of discovery resulted in more than just the discovery of new lands and sea routes, they also led to the refutation of many long-cherished views. Among them were the notions that the earth was made up of two spheres—a sphere of land masses floating on top of a sphere of water ten times its size, that the tropics were too hot for human beings to live in, that the antipodes were uninhabited, and so on. All were debunked by the discovery of the New World and other wonders. Since those ideas were the ideas of revered Greek philosophers like Aristotle and Ptolemy, the authority of the Greek savants were slowly undermined. That greatly raised the confidence of early Scientific Revolution figures such as Copernicus, Kepler, Gilbert and Galileo to challenge the widely-accepted views of the Greek giants and to re-conceptualize the earth and the universe in a revolutionary way.42 (And perhaps we could also assume that the same kind of confidence had begotten doubts on the authority of the pope and the Roman Catholic Church and aided the spread of the Protestant Reformation, a religious revolution that was more or less contemporaneous with the Scientific Revolution.) That kind of confidence and new thinking was lacking among the Chinese literati of the Ming and Qing era who had much less ground to reject orthodox concepts, and therefore the farthest they were willing to go was to reinterpret the writings of the ancient sages, as we have mentioned already.

But through their voyages of discovery Europeans had also acquired a broad range of novel information about the planet—previously unknown natural phenomena, exotic flora and fauna, foreign produces and artifacts, alien customs, beliefs and institutions, etc., all served to augment the knowledge base of the West and remind Europeans that a lot remained to be learned. The new knowledge gave rise to new and groundbreaking theories and models about nature. A feedback process emerged as new information produced new theories which in turn generated interest to make further discoveries, which then created the need to develop more new theories or to revise old ones.43 The process would bring about paradigm shifts, an expression made popular by the physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn.44 It was the discoveries and the ensuing paradigm shifts which gave rise to a totally new idea of progress in the 17th century,45 a belief that was vital to the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions.46

Francis Bacon was the first to recognize the potential of the discoveries and new ways of thinking to improve the human condition and he championed the use of the new knowledge for practical purposes.47 What is remarkable is the small ←39 | 40→group of scientists and philosophers in the West which Bacon belonged to probably numbered fewer than a thousand in the late 16th and early 17th century, and their number would exceed 10,000 only in the later part of the 18th century.48 The number of genuine scientists was even smaller—no more than a few hundred during most of the 18th century, but expanding rapidly from then on.49 Those numbers were unlikely to be much bigger than the small number of unconventional thinkers in Ming and Qing China such as Yan Jing, mentioned earlier, and Xiang Lin and Zhu Zaiyu (see Chapter Ten). But while Bacon and his ilk were able to ultimately influence and transform a whole society, the small number of nonconformist and innovative thinkers in Ming and Qing China had very little impact and their ideas did not set in motion groundbreaking developments in science and technology.50 The missing factor appears to be the voyages of discovery whose impacts were widely felt across European society and whose far-reaching implications were at least partially grasped by many. In other words, European society was ripe for revolutionary ways of thinking. Therefore the new idea of progress was able to triumph in the West but not in other civilizations.

Chapter Ten will provide more discussions on the reasons why the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions did not happen in late imperial China.

Protestant and Confucian Work Ethics

Max Weber’s thesis set forth in his classic treatise The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism51 that Protestant work ethic was a key factor in the rise of capitalism appears to be less compelling these days than it did one century ago. Weber’s basic argument is the Calvinist doctrine of predestination means that in order for a Calvinist to be certain that he is chosen for salvation, he has to be successful in life. That leads him to pursue a hardworking and frugal lifestyle which is conducive to the development of capitalism. However, the economic rise of the four Asian tigers—South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore—in the 1980s, not to mention the earlier rise of Japan, suggests that Confucianism is just as capable of fostering economic growth as Protestantism or some version of it, since all five Asian economies are under the heavy influence of Confucianism. The resurgence of China in recent years further bolsters this argument. The case that there are striking resemblances between Confucian and Protestant work ethics was neatly laid out recently by the international business professor Charles Rarick:

The philosophical foundations of Confucianism have created a certain work ethic in China and East Asia that is not too far removed from the Protestant ethic proposed by Weber. The Confucian Work Ethic consists of a belief in the value of hard work, ←40 | 41→loyalty to the organization, thrift, dedication, social harmony, a love of education and wisdom, and a concern for social propriety. The elements of the Confucian Work Ethic all have positive aspects for economic development. The elements also have positive aspects for societal development. Confucius recognized that in order to build a nation, certain sacrifices would have to be made by the individual. Personal sacrifice in order to advance the interests of the nation is found in all Confucian societies, including China. When one compares the Protestant Work Ethic with the principles espoused by Confucius, it becomes obvious that there are really more similarities than differences. Both work ethics place an emphasis on hard work and thrift. In both approaches, employees are expected to achieve a form of self-fulfillment, and perhaps spiritual fulfillment as well through dedication and devotion to work. Rather than concentrating on spiritual salvation, adherents are required to focus on achievement in this life. Confucius de-emphasized the importance of paying respect to the spirits and, not unlike Protestantism, preached achievement in this life. The difference between the Confucian and Protestant work ethics is mainly in the focus on individual or group achievement. Whereas the Protestant Work Ethic looks at the individual as the appropriate unit of analysis, the Confucian Work Ethic places a value on group achievement and social harmony. Achievement is more group-focused in Confucian societies and economic failure is seen as having more wide spread societal consequences. The Confucian Work Ethic maintains a social interconnection that is not commonly found in Western cultures. Many times these interconnections are family based, especially in Chinese entrepreneurial culture.52

To be fair, Weber did not claim that it was Protestantism which gave birth to capitalism. He only maintained that the work ethic of Protestantism, or its Puritan/Calvinist variety, was an all-important contributing factor to the emergence of capitalism which was missing in other faiths. But economic performances in various parts of the world since Weber’s days have demonstrated that other faiths or belief systems can help generate economic prosperity just as well. Many Catholic countries in Europe such as France, Italy and the Catholic regions of Germany have growth rates that are comparable to the growth rates of their Protestant neighbors in the 20th century. But it is the spectacular progress of East Asian economies that are truly remarkable, because it is Confucianism, rather than some form of Christianity, which is the dominant belief system of these economies. Weber’s views on Confucianism and its impact on the Chinese economy and society, articulated in his 1915 book The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism53, were based on outdated knowledge about China and had been refuted by sinologists such as Yu Ying-shih, Tu Wei-Ming and King Yeo-chi.54 Furthermore, recent research on the economic history of late imperial China has shown that the markets were vibrant, the status of merchants had risen noticeably and at least one form of capitalism—commercial capitalism—was well developed in the Ming and Qing period. A list of the richest men in China that was compiled in the 16th ←41 | 42→century—probably one of the earliest rich lists in history—contained the names of more than a few enormously wealthy merchants, suggesting that the amassing of wealth via commercial activities was the aspiration of many people in that era. (See Chapters Four and Five.)

In truth Confucian work ethos and Puritan work ethic share many common features which favor wealth accumulation, as Rarick had stressed. The short tract Zhuzi Jiaxun (Master Zhu’s Counsel on How to Manage One’s Family) written by the 17th century neo-Confucian philosopher and educator Zhu Bolu (1627–1698) admonished people to be industrious and frugal, to lead a disciplined and ascetic life, to avoid self-indulgence and extravagance, to value education, to prepare for bad times, not to look down on and take advantage of the deprived, to be kind and compassionate and not to be mean to others. Zhu’s precepts were so well-received throughout Chinese society that many Chinese families kept a copy of Zhuzi Jiaxun at home to remind themselves of the proper way to live their life. The importance of good education and diligence was also highlighted in a widely used primer, Sanzi Jing (Three Character Canon), composed by a Song period scholar to teach young children to read basic Chinese characters. Thus the primacy of learning, hard work and thrift was inculcated in the Chinese people very early on in their lives. A memorable quote from the Classic of Changes: tian xing jian, junzi yi zi qiang bu xi (just like the relentless motions of the heavenly bodies, a gentleman must strive unrelentingly to improve himself and never relax)55 was well-known and often used to exhort people to work harder. Needless to say, such ethos was highly valuable to those engaged in commercial enterprises during the Song and Ming era as it is in the modern age.56

As a matter of fact there is an interesting parallel between late imperial China and early modern Europe. With the growing commercialization of society in both regions from the 16th century onward, Confucian merchants in China (and Japan) would reinterpret the tenets of Confucianism to make their trading activities appear respectable, in the same way that Puritan merchants in the West would adapt Christian doctrines to justify their mercantile pursuits (see Chapter Four).

Nonetheless, there is a striking dissimilarity between Puritan and Confucian work ethics: whereas Puritanism focuses on individual success and salvation, Confucianism gives more priority to collective accomplishment and social accord. This is made clear by the Confucian exhortation: bu huan gua er huan bu jun (the unequal sharing of riches is a more serious concern than inadequacy)57, a view which is not often expressed in the West. Since wealth distribution was becoming quite skewed in late imperial China, this Confucian admonition did prompt the Ming and Qing state to provide more assistance to the needy and to the backward and disadvantaged regions of the empire, as we shall see in Chapter Six. The ←42 | 43→Confucian emphasis on social harmony may be related to a distinctive Chinese way of thinking.

Chinese and Greek Ways of Thinking

The Cambridge historian G.E.R. Lloyd had come up with some fascinating insights on the fundamental differences between classical Chinese and Greek ways of thinking, differences which would have long-lasting consequences for the future development of Chinese and Western society.58 According to Lloyd, classical Chinese thinking stresses the centrality of the correlation and interdependence between dissimilar categories more than the difference in their hierarchies—hence the affinity between yang and yin, male and female, heaven and earth, sovereign and the ministers, ruler and the ruled, etc. Although male may be superior to female, heaven may be above earth, and the ruler may be more powerful than the ministers and the people, the emphasis is on the reciprocity in their relationship. In particular, there is yin in yang and yang in yin. The two interact with each other and are mutually dependent. Greek thinking, in contrast, tends to accent the hierarchical difference and opposition between dissimilar categories rather than their inter-connectivity. Thus the superior is independent of and separate from the inferior, and citizens are independent of and separate from non-citizens and even more from colonial subjects and slaves. This emphasis on independence is fundamental to the Greek concept of freedom. The citizens are free and independent while the slaves are the diametric opposite. The relationship between them is a one-way relationship with the slaves totally dependent on the citizens.

Therefore while Chinese pairings are pairings of interrelated and interdependent categories such as yin and yang, Greek pairings are pairings of opposing and often antagonistic categories such as masters and slaves that are hierarchical and distinct. This difference in Chinese and Greek point of view is illustrated in the area of politics by the famous admonishment pronounced by the third century BCE Confucian philosopher Xunzi and echoed by the seventh century CE Tang dynasty emperor Taizong: shui neng zai zhou, yi neng fu zhou (a boat floats on water but water can capsize the boat too)59, a figure of speech that likens a ruler’s dependence on his subjects to the relation between a boat and the water—just as water can keep a boat afloat as well as sink it, a ruler’s regime is sustained by his subjects but his subjects can also overthrow the regime. Thus unlike the Greek way of thinking which lay emphasis on the gulf separating those who are superior from those who are inferior, Confucianism chooses to call attention to the fact that a ruler depends on his subjects’ support just as his subjects depend on their ruler to maintain order and stability. ←43 | 44→This difference between Chinese and Greek way of thinking will have profound implications for the future evolution of the political and economic systems and institutions of China and the West, as we shall see in Chapters Eleven and Twelve.


1. See for example Merton (2002); Jaki (1978); Whitehead (1997); Hooykaas (2000); Funkenstein (1985); Stark (2004); White (1986).

2. Lindberg (2010), pp. 14–17; Lindberg (2007), pp. 149–50, 206–14.

3. Lindberg (2007), pp. 241–42; Grant (1996), pp.73–74.

4. The belief in an all-powerful God also allowed some medieval theologians to challenge certain basic tenets of Greek science which could have eased the way for Christian scientists in later periods to discard the classical Greek framework and replace it with a new paradigm. See Grant (1996), pp. 82–83.

5. Mokyr (2017), pp.142–43; Shank (2010), pp. 21–23; Grant (1996), pp. 44–47, 172–76; Lindberg (2007), 234–36. See also Grant (1996), pp. 20–22.

6. But see also the discussion in Lindberg (2007), pp. 252–53.

7. Wootton (2016), pp. 324, 370, 377, 485.

8. Mokyr (2017), pp. 85, 104, 227–33, 246.

9. Wootton (2016), pp. 461; Mokyr (2017), 228–29.

10. Wootton (2016), pp. 447, 466–67; Mokyr (2017), pp. 104, 114, 232; Efron (2010), p. 81; Osler (2010), p. 95; Davis (2010), p. 120.

11. Brooke (2010), pp. 226–27; Osler (2010), p.94; Wootton (2016), pp. 212–13.

12. Principe (2010), p. 105.

13. See for example Efron (2010); Wootton (2016), pp. 575–77, Grant (1996), pp. 205–06.

14. Wootton (2016), pp. 365, 371–73, 378, 576; Lindberg (2007), pp. 76–78, 139, 364–67.

15. Efron (2010), pp. 82–83.

16. Lindberg (2007), pp. 39–43, 129–31, 149.

17. See Mokyr (2017), p. 318. Also see O’Brien (2004), pp. 38–42.

18. Thong (2018).

19. Ibid., pp. 79–93.

20. The Classic of Poetry, Da Ya: Tang zhi Shi, Zhengmin, author’s translation. The author was made aware of this quotation from Thong (2018), p. 94.

21. Daode Jing 25: 1–5, author’s translation. The author was made aware of this quotation from Thong (2018), p. 301.

22. Ming Statutes, Vol.82, p. 28, author’s translation. The author was made aware of this quotation from Thong (2018), pp. 130–31.

23. Ming Statutes, Vol. 82, pp. 29–30, author’s translation. The author was made aware of this quotation from Thong (2018), pp. 140–41.

24. See Thong (2018), pp. 208–09, 214–17.

25. Quotation taken from the Daban Niepan Jing (Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra).

26. See Lindberg (2007), pp. 79–81.

27. Stanley (2010), pp. 191–93.

←44 | 45→

28. The Classic of Changes, Zhuanwen: Tuanci, Bigua, author’s translation. The author was made aware of this quotation from Thong (2018), p. 311.

29. This admittedly is one area where Chinese cosmological beliefs and pantheism may differ, although pantheists can also be “ethical naturalists” (see Levine [2012], Section 10).

30. On the relation between Daoism and neo-Confucianism, see Ronan (1983), pp. 135–41.

31. Author’s translation.

32. See Elman (2005), pp. 4–5.

33. Yan Jing, Shiwu Jiyuan Xu, author’s translation. The author was made aware of this quotation from Elman (2005), pp. 44–45.

34. And perhaps even up to the early part of the 17th century (see Mokyr [2017], p. 316).

35. Lindberg (2007), p. 411 (footnote 36).

36. Mokyr (2017), p. 307.

37. Quoted in Ibid., p. 249, citing Hume (1985), p. 464.

38. Jefferson (1774).

39. See Mokyr (2017), p. 310.

40. Quoted in Ibid., p. 310, citing Needham (1969), p. 277. See also Mokyr (2017), pp. 135–36.

41. Wootton (2016), pp. 57–58, 63.

42. Ibid., pp. 6–12, 39–41, and Chapters 3 and 4; O’Brien (2009), p. 16; Efron (2010), pp. 85–86; Grant (1996), p.167. See also Mokyr (2017), pp. 20–21, 150–53, 159, 162, 254.

43. Wootton (2016), pp. 61, 103–09; Mokyr (2017), pp. 145–48.

44. Kuhn (2012).

45. Wootton (2016), p. 37.

46. Ibid., p. 566.

47. Mokyr (2017), pp. 70–71.

48. Ibid., p.180.

49. Gribbin (2004), p. 360.

50. See the discussion in Mokyr (2017), Chapter 17. See also Chapter 13 of this book.

51. Weber (1992).

52. Rarick (2007), pp. 26–27.

53. Weber (1951).

54. See for example Yu (2004), Tu (1996), King (1983).

55. The Classic of Changes, Zhuanwen: Xiangci, Qiangua, author’s translation.

56. See for example, the Song dynasty retired official Yuan Cai’s advice on how to manage one’s family wealth, mentioned in von Glahn (2016), pp. 274–75.

57. Lunyu: Jishi, author’s translation.

58. See Lloyd (1996), pp. 20, 112–16, 122–39.

59. Xunzi: Aigong; Zhenguan Zhengyao: Lun Zhengti, author’s translation.


Brooke, John Hedley. 2010. “That Modern Science Has Secularized Western Culture.” In Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, edited by Ronald L. Numbers, 224–32. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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Davis, Edward B. 2010. “That Isaac Newton’s Mechanistic Cosmology Eliminated the Need for God.” In Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, edited by Ronald L. Numbers, 115–22. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Efron, Noah J. 2010. “That Christianity Gave Birth to Modern Science.” In Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, edited by Ronald L. Numbers, 79–89. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Elman, Benjamin A. 2005. On Their Own Terms: Science in China, 1550–1900. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Funkenstein, Amos. 1985. Theology and the Scientific Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Grant, Edward. 1996. The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional, and Intellectual Contexts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gribbin, John. 2004. The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of Its Greatest Inventors. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks.

Hooykaas, Reijer. 2000. Religion and the Rise of Modern Science. Vancouver: Regent College Publishing.

Hume, David. 1985. “Of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences.” In Essays: Moral, Political and Literary, edited by David Hume and Eugene F. Miller, 111–37. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Jaki, Stanley L. 1978. The Road of Science and the Ways to God. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jefferson, Thomas. 1774. A Summary View of the Rights of British America. http://www.history.org/almanack/life/politics/sumview.cfm

King, Yeo-chi. 1983. “Rujia Lunli yu Jingji Fazhan: Weibo Xueshuo Chong Tan” (Confucian Ethic and Economic Development: Revisiting Weber’s Scholarhsip). Lianhe Yuekan 25 (August): 70–79.

Kuhn, Thomas S. 2012. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, with an introductory essay by Ian Hacking. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Levine, Michael. 2012. “Pantheism.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta. (Summer 2012 edition). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2012/entries/pantheism/

Lindberg, David C. 2007. The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D.1450. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———. 2010. “That the Rise of Christianity Was Responsible for the Demise of Ancient Science.” In Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, edited by Ronald L. Numbers, 8–18. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lloyd, G.E.R. 1996. Adversaries and Authorities: Investigations into Ancient Greek and Chinese Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Merton, Robert K. 2002. Science, Technology & Society in Seventeenth-Century England. New York: lst Howard Fertig Publication.

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Mokyr, Joel. 2017. Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Needham, Joseph. 1969. The Grand Titration. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

O’Brien, Patrick. 2004. “Regimes for the Production of Useful and Reliable Knowledge in Europe and China from the Accession of the Ming to the First Opium War.” Paper presented at the Global Economic History Network Conference, Konstanz, Germany. June.

———. 2009. “The Needham Question Updated: A Historiographical Survey and Elaboration.” In History of Technology Vol 29: Technology in China, edited by Ian Inkster, 7–28. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Osler, Margaret J. 2010. “That the Scientific Revolution Liberates Science from Religion.” In Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, edited by Ronald L. Numbers, 90–98. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Principe, Lawrence M. 2010. “That Catholics Did Not Contribute to the Scientific Revolution.” In Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, edited by Ronald L. Numbers, 99–106. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rarick, Charles A. 2007. “Confucius on Management: Understanding Chinese Cultural Values and Managerial Practices.” Journal of International Management Studies 2, no. 2 (August): 22–28.

Ronan, Colin A. 1983. The Cambridge Illustrated History of the World’s Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press and Newnes Books.

Shank, Michael H. 2010. “That the Medieval Christian Church Suppressed the Growth of Science.” In Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, edited by Ronald L. Numbers, 19–27. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Stanley, Matthew. 2010. “That Einstein Believed in a Personal God.” In Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, edited by Ronald L. Numbers, 187–95. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Stark, Rodney. 2004. For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Thong, Chan Kei. 2018. Faith of Our Fathers: Finding God in Ancient China. Edited by Charlene L. Fu. Singapore: Cru Asia Limited.

Tu, Wei-Ming, ed. 1996. Confucian Traditions in East Asian Modernity: Moral Education and Economic Culture in Japan and the Four Mini-Dragons. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

von Glahn, Richard. 2016. The Economic History of China: From Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Weber, Max. 1951. The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism. Translated and edited by Hans H. Gerth with an introduction by C. K. Yang. New York: The Free Press.

———. 1992. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parsons with an introduction by Anthony Giddens. New York: Routledge.

White, Lynn. 1986. Medieval Religion and Technology: Collected Essays. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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Whitehead, Alfred North. 1997. Science and the Modern World. New York: Free Press.

Wootton, David. 2016. The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution. New York: Harper Perennial.

Yu, Ying-shih. 2004. Yu Ying-shih Wenji, Di 3 Juan: Rujia Lunli yu Shangren Jingshen (Collected Works of Yu Ying-shih, Volume Three: Confucian Ethics and Mercantile Spirit). Edited by Zhijia Shen. Guilin: Guangxi Shifan Daxue Chubanshe.

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What Closed Door Policy?

One of the most commonly offered explanation for China’s decline in the past few centuries is the so called closed door policies of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The Ming government’s tributary trade system, the rebuilding of the Great Wall of China in the middle of the Ming period to keep out nomads from the north, and the Qing government’s one-port scheme which required some Europeans states to trade with China via Canton only are all taken as evidences of the arrogance, complacency and anti-trade and inward-looking attitude of China. As the argument goes, if only China had opened itself to overseas trade, if Zheng He’s ocean voyages had continued, if the Chinese had shown more interest in foreign products and learnings, then China would not have fallen behind; quite the opposite, it would be able to keep pace with the West and maintain its dominant position in the world.

This chapter will argue that late imperial China’s government was not hostile to foreign trade; neither was that government or the Chinese people indifferent to foreign products, learnings and technologies. If the trade policies of Ming-Qing China differed from those of contemporary European states, it is primarily because of the dissimilarities in their economic needs and the geopolitical challenges which confronted them. To maintain that the Ming-Qing state pursued a closed door policy is to misread the true intentions of the state. Late imperial China had in fact welcomed foreign commodities, ideas and techniques which ←51 | 52→served its needs, and for a host of reasons it is not clear whether further opening of the country to foreign trade would be better for China at the time and even over the long term. Therefore we should not ascribe China’s past backwardness to its purported negative attitude towards foreign trade, nor should we be surprised by China’s opening up in recent decades and the eagerness of the Chinese people to acquire foreign products, skills and knowledge today.

Moreover, if we examine the trade policies of Western nations in the early modern period, or if we survey the international trade strategies of today’s great powers, we will find that genuine free trade is an extremely rare phenomenon in history. All nations, in the West and the East, in the past as well as the present, regulate and restrict their foreign trade to varying degrees and for a host of different reasons. Genuine free trade is a utopian ideal that has seldom transpired in the real world.1

Therefore rather than criticizing the Ming and Qing dynasties’ trade policies, perhaps we should first try to understand the domestic and international environment in which those policies were formulated. This chapter is divided into three sections. The first and longest section explores the rationale behind the foreign trade policies of Ming-Qing China as well as Western states, given the economic background and geopolitical settings of the time. The second section surveys the interests in alien products and imported knowledge displayed by the Chinese of the Ming-Qing era. Finally in the third section, we will take a look at the territorial expansion policies of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Since a nation which pursued a closed door policy would not be interested in extending the territory under its control, if we discover that the Ming and Qing regimes had in fact attempted to conquer new lands, then it calls into question whether the two dynasties were actually carrying out a closed door strategy.

Foreign Trade Policies of Ming-Qing China and Western Nations

This section aims to dispel the common misconception that Ming-Qing China pursued an anti-trade closed door policy. It begins with a review of the factors that all political states have to take into consideration when they devise their foreign trade strategies. That is followed by an overview of the historical context in which the Ming and Qing states framed their trade policies, an exploration of the reasons for the termination of Zheng He’s ocean voyages and a discussion of the limited effectiveness of the trade restrictions. An overview of the restrictive trade policies of contemporary European states is then presented and compared and contrasted with the Ming-Qing policies. The section ends with an attempt to answer the ←52 | 53→counterfactual question of what might have happened if Ming-Qing China had implemented a more open trade policy.

Foreign Trade Policy Considerations

Economists tend to focus solely on the economic benefits of free trade. Yet when a nation formulates its foreign trade policy, it has to take into consideration a multitude of factors, not all of which are related to economics or finance. In fact, in some cases economic factors are not even among the nation’s primary concerns.

The many factors which a nation has to take into consideration when it determines its foreign trade policies include:

Economic and Financial Considerations

Short term considerations—trading for products which the nation cannot produce at home or cannot produce as cost effectively as other countries, thereby seeking comparative advantage;

Strategic and long term considerations—protection of infant domestic industries that are regarded as strategic or otherwise important to the home economy over the long term;

Government finance—dependence on customs revenue as an importance source of government revenue;

Retaliatory customs duties and prohibitions imposed on imports from foreign nations which have established trade barriers.

Geopolitical and National Security Considerations

Winning of allies or gaining of vassals through the establishment of trade linkages;

Isolation of enemy nations or potential rivals through the weakening of their trade ties with their allies/vassals;

Weakening of enemy nations or potential rivals by depriving them of important commodities and crucial markets.

Domestic Stability Considerations

Control of smuggling activities and piracies;

Control of border region power holders.

Domestic Political and Social Considerations

Pressure exerted by domestic vested interest groups;

Prohibition of foreign imports that are considered harmful to society.

←53 |

The first consideration is the one which economists focus on. A nation has no alternative but to import those raw materials and commodities which it cannot produce sufficient quantities of at home to meet domestic needs. But even for those products which it could produce adequate amount of locally, if some foreign countries could produce them more cheaply, then it is preferable for the nation to import those products from abroad while it concentrates on the production of those commodities for which it is more suited because of factor endowments or technological superiority. David Ricardo went one step further and explained that even when a nation is more efficient in the production of all goods relative to other nations, it should still specialize in producing and exporting those goods which it is most cost-effective in producing, and import those goods which its cost advantage over other countries is smaller.2 This means that virtually every nation is better off economically, at least over the short term, when it is involved in free international trade than when it is not.

Yet despite the seemingly flawless logic of the comparative advantage argument, few nations have practiced free trade in history. Almost every nation in the past and present has put restrictions on foreign trade to various extents. The reason is short term economic considerations is but one of the many concerns of a nation. There are some domestic industries that a nation may want to protect and nurture for a variety of reasons even if those industries are inefficient and uncompetitive at the present moment, and therefore some sort of restrictions on foreign imports is necessary. In actual fact England as well as virtually every industrialized nation of the world today had practiced some forms of protectionism in their past in order to nurture the growth of certain infant domestic industries. Those industries were selected because they were expected to yield benefits to the domestic economy over the long run since they were highly profitable, or had the potential to generate a large number of well-paid jobs, or were able to stimulate the development of other industries, and because they were crucial to national defense. The protective measures employed ranged from high import duties to outright prohibition of certain imports in order to reduce foreign competition (see below for examples). Amazingly, one of the first economists to advocate the practice of protectionism is, of all people, Adam Smith. In The Wealth of Nations, Smith argued that since national defense is of paramount importance, industries that are related to defense should be encouraged at home. Smith had high praises for England’s Navigation Acts that were enacted in the 17th century to support England’s burgeoning shipping industry—an industry that was considered vital to the island nation’s defense—and regarded those Acts as “perhaps the wisest of all the commercial regulations of England.”3

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Customs duties have also been imposed on imports and exports for reasons that are not related to protectionism. Nations which depend heavily on such duties as an important source of government revenue will levy higher customs duties on international trade despite the potential negative impact on the trade volume. Another reason for a nation to impose import duties is to retaliate against a foreign country which has established trade barriers. Smith, however, believed that such retaliatory measures would do more harm than good unless there is a good chance they would result in the abolishment of the foreign country’s restrictions on import.4

In some situations, geopolitical and national security considerations that are unrelated to economics and finance will be given more weight than economic and financial considerations. In such cases foreign trade becomes merely a tool of foreign policy. The establishment of trade linkage is frequently employed as an effective mechanism to gain allies or to secure the loyalty of vassals. Moreover, the gaining of new allies and vassals via trade could deprive enemy states and potential rivals of allies and vassals, or weaken their hold on their allies or vassals. On the other hand, the threat of trade restriction or prohibition could be a useful weapon to keep insubordinate satellite states in line. Trade prohibitions could also weaken an enemy state or a potential rival by depriving it of crucial markets and of raw materials and products that are vital to its military and economy. A case in point, one of the goals of the Navigation Acts was to weaken the economy of England’s rival Holland by depriving it of English markets. Thus in spite of the comparative advantage argument that free trade will benefit everyone, in a competitive geopolitical environment it might be wise to curtail trade under certain circumstances.

Trade restrictions, however, often lead to an upsurge in smuggling activities and piracies which many of the power holders and occasionally even government officials of a nation’s border regions are involved in, while the lifting of trade sanctions will result in an increase in customs revenue and the reduction of smuggling and piracies. So a country must weigh carefully the costs and benefits of sanctions versus liberalization to determine what sort of trade policy to adopt.

Another factor which a government must take into account is domestic vested interests. Powerful domestic interest groups have their own agenda and often lobby the government to protect local industries via customs duties or to encourage the import of certain products for their own, but not necessarily the state’s, benefit.

Finally, nations ban the import of products that are considered harmful to society. An obvious example is narcotics. Today, few people would argue for free trade in drugs, although such people do exist.

It is therefore not surprising that Adam Smith the realist believed that genuine free trade is a utopia that he did not expect to ever appear in Britain.5

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Given the multitude of factors which a nation must consider when it determines its trade policies, there is, however, one general rule which always holds true: for large and resource rich countries with huge domestic markets, geopolitical and national security considerations will take precedence over economics; but for small and resource poor countries with tiny local markets, economic considerations will carry more weight than geopolitical and national security concerns.

A mighty empire which controls the entire globe will not have any foreign trade, and it does not need to because it owns all the resources of the world and produces all its goods. A less mighty empire that controls 50% of the globe may or may not need foreign trade, but most if not all of the other states will need to trade with it because the empire has a huge market for their products and plenty of commodities to offer in exchange. Hence the empire will have a lot more bargaining power than smaller states and it is able to leverage its economic advantage into geopolitical advantage. The empire can choose to trade only with those states that are compliant, but the majority of the small states have little choice but to trade with the empire on its terms.

Examples of large empires that possess huge bargaining power include China’s Ming-Qing Empires in the past and today’s United States. Examples of small states that have weak bargaining power include the East Asian states on the peripheral of China in the Ming-Qing period (e.g. Korea, Japan and the states of Southeast Asia), and the majority of today’s nations. Merchandise trade, for example, amounted to only 20% of America’s GDP but it equaled 84% of Switzerland’s GDP in 2017.6 That does not mean that America is less open to trade than Switzerland. It is just that America’s GDP is so large that foreign trade is relatively less important to its economy than to Switzerland’s, and therefore America is in a far better position to use trade as a tool to further its geopolitical interests than Switzerland.

It will help our understanding of Ming-Qing China’s trade policies if we first take a look at the trade policies of the United States in the 20th and 21st century. At the end of the Second World War, the United States emerged as the world’s richest and most powerful nation with an economy that accounted for roughly one-half of the world’s GDP (measured by current prices) before gradually declining to about 24% today. Its domestic economy is so big that virtually every country in the world wants to trade with it. But that gives the United States the opportunity to use its economic might to pursue its geopolitical objectives. The following are a few of the more notable examples:

After the Second World War, the world was divided into two camps—the Western camp under the leadership of the United States, and the Soviet-Chinese camp. To ensure that Japan, the defeated nation, would not be ←56 | 57→enticed to join the Soviet-Chinese camp in the future because of its natural economic ties with China, the United States opened up its huge domestic market to its former enemy. It allowed Japan to peg the Yen to the U.S. dollar at a weak rate so that Japan could flood the United States market with its cheap manufactures, thereby establishing strong economic bonds between Japan and the United States. Trade linkages were soon followed by a defense treaty with the signing of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan in 1952. As a result, Japan became a core member of the Western camp and a close ally of the United States.7

While the United States opened up its domestic market to Japan, it simultaneously prohibited its domestic corporations and citizens from trading with China, a country whose population accounted for over 20% of the world’s population and could provide a huge market for American products. The trade sanctions against China were imposed in1950 and lasted until the 1970s when they were partially relaxed. In addition, the United States used its clout to pressure Japan and other Asian countries to sever or at least reduce their trade ties with China. The goal was to isolate and contain China and to slow down its economic recovery.8

The United States has maintained strict economic sanctions against North Korea since the Korean War. In recent years those sanctions were tightened with the backing of the United Nations in response to North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests.9

The United States enforced a harsh economic embargo against Cuba in 1960 after the overthrow of the United States-friendly Batista government and the establishment of the Castro regime in the previous year. Despite the fact that the United Nations General Assembly has passed a Resolution every year since 1992 criticizing the embargo for its impact on the Cuban populace and declaring it to be in violation of the United Nations Charter, the embargo remained in effect until 2016 when it was partially lifted during President Obama’s second term in office.10 Since then, many of the economic sanctions have been re-imposed under the Trump administration.

Following the 1973 energy crisis, the United States Congress passed the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 197511 which, among other provisions, empowers the President to restrict the exports of energy and related materials from the United States. Since then, the United States had maintained a ban on the export of crude oil until the ban was lifted near the end of 2015.

Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 which overthrew the regime of the Shah of Iran, an ally of the United States, America had championed an ←57 | 58→international campaign to impose trade and other sanctions against Iran. Unlike the sanctions against Cuba, the United States succeeded in winning some support from the United Nations in this case—the United Nations Security Council has passed multiple resolutions since 2006 mandating a series of sanctions against Iran that are mainly related to the country’s nuclear program.12 The United Nations restrictions were partly lifted in 2016 following a nuclear agreement with Iran but under the Trump administration the United States decertified the agreement and re-imposed sanctions on Iran in the following year.

The United States began introducing economic sanctions against Myanmar in 1997, but started to ease those sanctions and improve relation with Myanmar in 2012 in an apparent attempt to weaken that country’s economic ties with China which is Myanmar’s major trading partner and close ally.13

The United States imposed economic sanctions against Russia following the 2014 Ukraine crisis.

President Trump launched a trade war against China in 2018 whose real purpose appears to be to slow down China’s economic and technological progress.

Thus despite all the pontifications about the benefits of free trade, for a superpower like the United States trade policy is oftentimes merely a tool of foreign policy. Depending on the geopolitical environment, the United States would not hesitate to impose tough trade sanctions against a nation or open up its domestic markets to a nation in order to achieve its geopolitical and national security-related objectives. All comparative advantage and other economic considerations are put on the back burner. The example of the United States will enable us to view the trade policies of Ming-Qing China in a new light.

Ming and Qing China’s Foreign Trade Policies14

Just like the United States of the present era, Ming and Qing China were the superpowers in the Far East in their days. The Ming Empire with a population of around 160 million and an area of roughly two and a half million square miles in the 16th century, and the Qing Empire with a population of over 300 million and an area of close to six million square miles in the 18th century, were the world’s largest political units in terms of population by a wide margin, and among the world’s largest political units in terms of area in their days. Their GDP’s were also the biggest in the world.15 Furthermore, the domestic markets of Ming and ←58 | 59→Qing China were comparatively well developed (see Chapter Five). According to Adam Smith, the size of China’s home market was equal to the sum total of all the domestic markets of European nations taken together.16 Hence relatively speaking, foreign trade was much less important to Ming and Qing China’s economy than to contemporary European nations. As the Qianlong Emperor (1735–1799) famously declared at the time of the Macartney Embassy’s visit17: “The heavenly dynasty has an abundant supply of commodities, all sorts of products are found here, there is no need to depend on foreign goods to make up for what is lacking.”18 As we shall see, the emperor was exaggerating since there were actually a number of essential commodities which China lacked and had to rely on foreign imports. But all in all, what he said was not far from the truth since the Chinese state was close to being self-sufficient. Customs duties too were but an insignificant source of government revenue, their share of government income being much smaller than contemporary Britain.19 Hence it is not surprising that when the Ming and Qing governments devised their foreign trade policies, geopolitical and national security considerations were given priority over economic and financial considerations.

Another relevant factor is the low taxation of the Ming and Qing dynasties.20 Low tax revenue meant that the Ming and Qing governments lacked the means to retain a hold over a foreign state by maintaining an occupation army in that state over a long period of time. An alternative and more cost-effective way to ensure that a foreign state remained docile is to use the attraction of trade to gain the allegiance of that state. China’s tributary trade system was designed with this particular purpose in mind. The system was used as early as the Han dynasty but was perfected during the Ming period. Under that system, foreign states were not permitted to trade with China unless they became China’s vassal. As a vassal, they had to acknowledge China’s suzerainty and send tributary missions to China bearing gifts to the emperor at regular intervals, but the missions would in turn be handsomely rewarded by the emperor with lavish presents. In addition, the missions were allowed to bring with them merchandises from their domestic countries for sale to the public in China and use the proceeds to purchase Chinese products for re-sale at home. Furthermore, all travel expenses incurred by the mission within Chinese territory would be borne by the Chinese government. Hence the tributary missions were in fact highly profitable trade missions in disguise.21

Contrary to the popular view that the Ming dynasty was anti-trade, the early Ming emperors actively encouraged foreign nations to send tributary trade missions to China.22 Since, just like today’s United States, Ming China’s huge domestic market was a big attraction to foreign merchants and Chinese products such as silk, porcelain and tea could command exorbitant prices in their home countries, ←59 | 60→many foreign states were happy to be China’s vassal and were eager to send tributary missions to China as frequently as possible.

There is a particular geopolitical rationale behind the early Ming emperors’ active promotion of tributary trade to gain vassals. The Mongols, founders of the preceding Yuan dynasty, had been evicted from China proper, but they remained a threat to the newly established Ming dynasty. So it was prudent for the Ming government to establish client states among its neighbors to ensure that they would be supporters of the Ming dynasty and not of the Mongols.23 Furthermore, a new power, the Tamerlane Empire, was emerging in Central Asia. Tamerlane was a Turkic-Mongol warlord who in the later part of the 14th century controlled territories that extended from the western border of today’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region to the eastern regions of Iraq and Turkey, and from the southern parts of Kazakhstan in the north to the Persian Gulf in the south. The first Ming emperor had attempted to convince Tamerlane to become a vassal of the Ming like many other Central Asian rulers and reap the benefits of tributary trade with China. But Tamerlane considered that as an insult. He had the Ming envoys imprisoned and their guards executed, and formed an alliance with the Mongol khanates instead. His ambition was to conquer China and build an empire that would rival the former Mongol Empire.24 Since the Mongol khanates still dominated a vast area which spanned today’s Outer and Inner Mongolia as well as the northern parts of Xinjiang and Kazakstan and the southern portions of Russian Siberia, a possible Tamerlane-Mongol bloc must have appeared rather formidable to the Ming state. The Ming government’s reaction to this threat was to use the lure of tributary trade to win the allegiance of other Central and West Asian states in order to isolate its potential enemy. In fact one of the likely objectives of Zheng He’s celebrated ocean voyages to India and the Middle East was to secure alliances with the littoral states of South and West Asia against the Tamerlane Empire, as we shall see. The Ming dynasty’s strategy to surround the Tamerlane Empire and the Mongols with client states could be regarded as a 14th–15th century forerunner of George Kennan’s containment strategy25 of the 20th century which called for the establishment of economic and defense partnerships between the United States and the nations on the peripheral of the Soviet-Chinese bloc to prevent its expansion—the case of Japan mentioned earlier being a notable manifestation of this strategy.26

The tributary trade system, however, had two major drawbacks. Firstly, since only tributary trade was allowed, private foreign trade had to be prohibited (with minor exceptions), for otherwise foreign states would be able to trade with China without having to acknowledge its overlordship.27 An upshot of this requirement was the Ming government had to closely regulate Chinese ships that went abroad to make certain that they were not merchant ships disguised as fishing or other ←60 | 61→non-commercial vessels—hence the so called sea-bans. A second drawback was the tributary trade system was very costly to the Ming government. As mentioned earlier, the government had to reward the tributary missions with lavish gifts and to pay for the missions’ travel expenses within China. Furthermore, since the missions were comprised of foreigners who did not speak Chinese and were unfamiliar with Chinese customs and laws, misunderstandings and quarrels between mission members and local officials and population were common as the missions made their way from the Ming Empire’s border to its capital. The tributary missions were often regarded as a burden by the local administrations that were responsible for their safety as well as food and lodgings.28 To put a ceiling on the cost and to minimize local inconvenience and disturbances, the Ming government had to regulate the frequency and size of the missions, including the interval between two missions, the number of ships and personnel per mission, the kind of tributary gifts and foreign merchandises allowed, the Chinese goods which the mission members were permitted to acquire in China, and the particular Chinese port to be used by each tributary state.29

In addition to the need to enforce the tributary trade system, there were two other reasons behind the Ming restriction of sea-going activities.30 When the Yuan dynasty began to unravel in the 1350s, numerous warlords emerged in different parts of China to compete for the throne of China. The eventual victor was Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming dynasty. But some of the supporters of two of his vanquished rivals—Zhang Shicheng, a salt merchant whose power base was Suzhou, and Fang Guozhen, a maritime merchant/pirate based in Ningbo, refused to submit to Zhu. They took their vessels to the East China Sea to escape the advancing Ming armies and continued to harass the coastal regions of China from their bases in the many offshore islands. The Ming government’s response was to tighten up the restriction against coastal shipping to cut off the supply provided by coastal inhabitants to the rebels.31

The second reason was the problem of Japanese piracy. The hostility between China and Japan actually broke out in the Yuan period when the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan attempted two invasions of Japan, one in 1274 and the second one in 1281.32 Both attempts failed, following which Kublai Khan banned all Chinese trade with Japan. Since there was a huge demand for Chinese products in Japan, smuggling and piracy activities arose, usually with the participation of the coastal inhabitants of China. That was the dawn of the wokou (or Japanese pirates) era and there was no diplomatic relation between China and Japan down to almost the end of the Yuan period. After it came to power, the Ming government tried to mend fences with Japan and transform it into a vassal state of the Ming Empire. The Ashikaga Shogun, the power holder of Japan at that time, accepted China’s ←61 | 62→suzerainty at the beginning of the 15th century and agreed to send tributary missions to China at regular intervals under the rules set by the Ming court. But the Ashikaga Shogun was not powerful enough to control Japan’s local magnates, or daimyos, who were dissatisfied with the limited volume of trade allowed under the tributary trade rules; nor could the Shogun control the bands of ronins, or lordless samurais, in the country. The daimyos continued to engage in smuggling and piracy activities just like during the Yuan period, often in consort with the ronins as well as Chinese smugglers and rebels. The upshot was the Ming government saw an increase in illegal trafficking and raiding despite the agreement with the Ashikaga Shogun.33 Matters came to a head in 1523 when two tributary missions arrived in Ningbo simultaneously, the designated port for Japanese missions, each claiming to be the true representative of the shogun and accusing the other group of being imposters. A huge brawl broke out which resulted in the burning down of the guest hall and the destruction of a lot of property in Ningbo. After that incident, the Ming government prohibited Japanese missions for 17 years, and after two more embassies around the middle of the 16th century, Japan’s tributary relation with the Ming Empire terminated when the Ashikaga Shogunate lost all the remaining authority that it held over the local daimyos. The consequence was another upsurge in smuggling activities and piracies with a greater involvement of the coastal population of China, followed by even stricter control of sea-going vessels by the Ming court, which was followed by an even bigger rise in trafficking and wokou harassment.34

Even before that period, some Ming officials were already questioning the wisdom of the sea-bans. They argued that a better way to reduce smuggling and wokou activities was to liberalize overseas trade which would also bring in more customs revenue. Finally in 1567, their advice was heeded and the Ming government opened up Yuegang, a port in Fujian province not far from today’s Xiamen, for overseas trade by private merchants, and customs houses were set up there to collect taxes and fees.35 Although merchants were allowed to use only one port for maritime commerce, the 1567 edict represented a fundamental change in government policy since for the first time in Ming history, private foreign trade was legally permitted.36 Direct trade with Japan was still officially prohibited, but Chinese merchant ships could now depart from Yuegang legally, and after they had left the Chinese coast they could set sail to Japan without the government’s knowledge, or alternatively, they could meet up with Japanese merchants at some Southeast Asian ports to trade.

The 1567 edict, the so-called “Longqing liberalization,” did not signify the commencement of free trade for China. In addition to mandating that merchants must use only one port for overseas trade, many kinds of products were under ←62 | 63→restriction and the number and types of ships permitted to go abroad were also strictly regulated.37 Nevertheless China’s overseas commerce increased noticeably after 1567. Ming customs revenue grew eightfold in 20 years. The annual quota for the number of vessels going abroad was gradually increased from 88 to 210. The volume of Spanish Manila’s trade with China peaked during the first two decades of the 17th century—in 1611–1612, over 91% of Manila’s customs duties were paid by Chinese ships.38

Control of overseas trade began to tighten up again near the end of the Ming dynasty as a response to war with Japan which broke out in Korea during the 1590s (see Chapter Nine), and to Dutch incursions. The Dutch, who were new comers to the Far East in the 17th century, started harassing the coastal regions of China in the 1620s before finally settling down in Taiwan.39

The Qing dynasty which replaced the Ming in 1644 continued the late Ming’s sea-ban and introduced an additional measure—the coastal inhabitants of Fujian and Guangdong province were ordered to move 50 li (15.5 miles) inland.40 The reason behind this severe measure was to sever all links between the coastal population and Zheng Chenggong’s followers. As mentioned in Chapter One, Zheng Chenggong had wrestled control of Taiwan from the Dutch in 1662 in order to use it as a base to re-conquer Mainland China for the Ming dynasty. Not surprisingly, the Manchu Qing dynasty perceived Zheng to be an existential threat, and the sea-ban and harsh population removal measures were designed to economically strangle Zheng’s supporters in Taiwan.

The early Qing’s prohibition of trade and forceful removal of the coastal population are often taken to be a prime example of China’s closed door policy. However, several observations need to be made. Firstly, the real aim of the Qing sea-ban and coastal clearing policies was to subjugate Taiwan. Those policies were merely economic warfare measures intended to starve out Zheng’s followers. As we shall see, the Qing government immediately set out to liberalize overseas trade after Taiwan’s submission. Secondly, there is an interesting parallel between the Qing/Taiwan relation in the 17th century and the United States/Cuba relation in the present era. The Qing Empire and the United States were the superpowers of their era. Yet there was a tiny island to the southeast of both superpowers whose government refused to acknowledge their dominance. That of course was not acceptable. Both powers chose to employ economic warfare to force the recalcitrant island to capitulate. In the Qing case, the sea-ban and population removal policies were extremely harsh measures that had devastating effects on the livelihood of the coastal populace of Fujian and Guangdong. Nonetheless they were effective and Taiwan finally submitted to Qing rule in 1683 after enduring 23 years of economic embargo. In the United States case, the economic sanctions against ←63 | 64→Cuba had minimal impact on the livelihood of United States citizens, but they failed to accomplish their objective and after more than half a century of economic boycotts Cuba remained intransigent.41 Thirdly, despite the severity of the Qing measures, they were not rigidly enforced. Macau, being a Portuguese enclave, was exempted from the sea-ban, and the prohibition was not carried out strictly in Canton either.42 During the sea-ban years, a significant number of Chinese vessels continued to set sail to Manila, Batavia and Nagasaki.43 Furthermore, foreign merchant vessels and tributary ships were still allowed to call at Fujian and Guangdong ports during the ban.44

The Qing court was very aware of the distresses of the coastal inhabitants during the sea-ban period, and one year after Taiwan’s capitulation the prohibition against overseas trade was annulled. Unlike the Ming dynasty which allowed only one port for maritime commerce, the Qing government opened up multiple ports in the coastal provinces of Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang and Jiangsu to facilitate trade. Foreign traders were also allowed to use those ports soon afterwards and the Qing even reduced the tariffs on foreign vessels. Overseas trade volume rose to record heights after these liberalization measures. According to one estimate, the trade volume of the four major ports in 1745 was 36 times the highest trade volume attained in the Ming dynasty in 1594. Chinese vessels vastly outnumbered Portuguese vessels at Batavia and Manila and exceeded Dutch ships by a wide margin at Nagasaki in the three decades following the opening of the ports. Trade with Japan was no longer banned, but ironically the volume of trade was later restricted by Japan’s Tokugawa government which lowered the number of Chinese ships that were permitted to enter Nagasaki each year from 70 to 30 in 1715.45

By the 18th century, as a response to the growing domestic demand for rice which resulted from population increase, the Qing government also began to use tax exemptions and the award of honorary degrees and ranks to encourage merchants to import rice from Southeast Asia.46 This is one case where economic considerations played an important role in the making of Qing trade policies.

Trade liberalization was interrupted briefly during 1717–1727 when the Qing authorities imposed a highly ineffective ban against trade with Southeast Asia. The Manchu court was happy to see the rise in overseas trade after 1684, but was also getting apprehensive over a phenomenon which accompanied the growth in commerce, that is, the increase in the number of Chinese staying abroad in Southeast Asia. As a foreign dynasty, the Qing government was understandably worried that another anti-Manchu base similar to Zheng Chenggong’s Taiwan might appear in Southeast Asia. That was what prompted the Kangxi Emperor (1661–1722), near the end of his long reign, to issue a decree prohibiting Chinese from trading in Southeast Asia. The ban was difficult to enforce, however, because ←64 | 65→of the strong commercial linkages between China and Southeast Asia that were established in the previous decades. Furthermore, since Japan was exempted from the ban, Southeast Asia bound vessels could always claim that their intended destination was Japan when they applied for their overseas trading permits. The prohibition was rescinded by the Yongzheng Emperor (1722–1735), the son of Kangxi, 10 years after its introduction.47 Nonetheless, the Manchu court remained suspicious of Chinese residing abroad and limited the length of stay of Chinese merchants overseas to a maximum of two years. The limit was later raised to three years and finally abolished in 1754 during the Qianlong reign.48

It is worth noting that mistrust of subjects who chose to reside abroad was not a unique characteristic of the Ming-Qing regime. After the American Revolution in 1776, Britain’s faith in the loyalty of its overseas subjects was shaken, and in the next century it attempted to tighten its control over European settlements and discourage (rather unsuccessfully) further European settler colonization in Canada, India and elsewhere.49 There were differences between Beijing and London’s unease over overseas settlers, however. The Chinese sojourners were residing in foreign territories, not in the colonies of the Ming-Qing Empire, and the Ming-Qing government feared that these overseas subjects were rebels who might return to China in the future to create havoc. The European settlers, on the other hand, were residing in the British Empire’s overseas colonies, and the London authorities worried that they would declare their independence from the metropole following the example of the 13 colonies in North America.

Barring the 1717–1727 interlude, the trade liberalization period50 lasted from 1684 until 1757, the year the famous Canton System51 was instituted. It was perhaps a mere coincidence that this system was introduced in the same year as the year of the Battle of Plassey which heralded the beginning of British colonization of India, but the establishment of the Canton System did appear to be related to the Qing government’s apprehension over the transgressions of the Europeans. By the middle of the 18th century, the Qing court had become aware of the predatory behavior of Westerners in the Philippines, Java and the Moluccas from the reports of the embassies, missionaries and Chinese who returned from Southeast Asia. Furthermore, the 1603 Spanish massacre of Chinese sojourners in Manila and the more recent Dutch slaughter of Chinese residents at Batavia in 1740 must have triggered some alarm among the Qing authorities, despite the fact that the Qing court generally viewed Chinese overseas subjects with suspicion. It is therefore understandable that the growing presence of aggressive European merchants in China following the liberalization of trade in 1684 became a cause for concern to the Qing state. The discovery of firearms, forbidden by government regulations, on board a British merchant vessel which called at Ningbo in 1757 was probably the ←65 | 66→last straw, and the Qing court resolved to prohibit British and other Western ships from using ports other than Canton for their trade with China from then on. In other words, the primary consideration behind the establishment of the Canton System appears to be national security.52

Under the system, a special group of Chinese merchants in Canton, the so-called Thirteen Hongs (or Companies) were granted monopoly rights by the Qing court to trade with the Europeans.53 In return, the Hongs were responsible for collecting customs duties and other levies on behalf of the government and for monitoring the activities of the Europeans to make sure that they were law-abiding. The foreign traders were only allowed to trade at Canton and were required to leave China after the trading season. They were not permitted to wander far away from their factory homes during their stay in Canton and were also forbidden to learn Chinese and to acquire Chinese books. Furthermore, and very importantly, the Hong merchants were not allowed to borrow capital from the Europeans or to work for them.

There have been a lot of misunderstandings about the exact nature of this Canton System. First of all, it only targeted ships from a number of Western states, in particular, British, Dutch and American vessels. Under the system, British, American, Dutch and some other Western ships were restricted to Canton and were permitted to trade with the Hong merchants only. However, ships of European nations that had a long trading relationship with China such as Spain and Portugal were exempted from these requirements. Spanish ships from Manila were allowed to continue to trade at Xiamen, the port traditionally used by them, and Portuguese ships could use Macau in addition to Canton.54 Russian merchants, on the other hand, were allowed to trade with China at Kiakhta, a town on the Russian/Chinese border, but were barred from trading at Canton.55 Secondly, Chinese merchants could continue to use other ports on the Chinese coast for maritime trade as before, and ships from Southeast Asian nations such as Siam, Sulu and the principalities of Java were permitted to call at ports in Fujian, Zhejiang and Jiangsu. During the Canton System era, the total tonnage of Chinese ships that were involved in intra-Asian trade was estimated to be around 85,000 tons annually, while the total tonnage of British East India Company vessels that called at Canton was never more than 30,000 tons per year. In 1833, East India Company officials noted that the value of China’s junk trade with Southeast Asia and Japan could be almost twice as high as the value of Britain and India’s trade with China. These estimates indicate that a considerable portion of Qing China’s overseas trade lay outside the Canton System.56

As expected, the British complained bitterly about the Canton System’s restrictions, in particular about the Thirteen Hongs’ monopoly. It is important to ←66 | 67→remember, however, that the English/British East India Company itself was also granted the monopoly right on Asian trade by the English/British government. The Company owned the monopoly on English/British trade with India from 1600 to 1813, and the monopoly on trade with China from 1600 until as late as1833. Thus in 76 out of the 85 years (1757–1842) during which the Canton System was in operation, legal trade between China and Britain was in fact trade between two monopolies.57 Moreover, during the preceding 73-year long trade liberalization era (1684–1757), Chinese traders who enjoyed no monopoly privileges had to deal with a monopolistic East India Company.

Ironically, despite all the Qing regulations, an 1830 survey by the British Parliament indicated that the majority of the British merchants at Canton actually felt that it was easier to do business in Canton than in any other place in the world.58 The reason was probably because many of the regulations were difficult to enforce strictly. Smuggling and other illegal or semi-legal activities were widespread on both sides. Chinese non-Hong merchants and British private traders59, who were not a part of the monopolies, were actively involved in Chinese-European trade.60 Chinese Hong/non-Hong merchants and British East India Company/private traders frequently rendezvoused at one of the many islands off the coast of Guangdong province to do transactions, thereby by-passing the government regulations of both countries. A lot of opium undoubtedly entered China this way before the First Opium War. The East India Company’s taipan, or top local executive, began to reside permanently in Canton from the 1760s onwards, in clear violation of government orders. British merchants enjoyed considerably more freedom of movement in Canton than permitted by law. British ships could also call at Macau or Xiamen by simply hoisting a Portuguese or Spanish flag, thereby circumventing the one-port restriction.61 Thus the Canton System was not a fully enforced system in a multitude of ways.

After China’s defeat in the First Opium War (1839–1942), the Canton System and the Hong monopoly were abolished. Under the Treaty of Nanking, the Qing government had to open up four treaty ports in addition to Canton—namely, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo and Shanghai—where all foreign merchants were allowed to trade, thus marking the commencement of the Five Port System era.

Although China’s overseas trade tends to attract more attention in the West, China’s overland trade with the nomadic peoples to the north and west and with the Russians during the Qing era was also an important part of Ming-Qing China’s foreign trade. During the Ming period, overland trade was arguably even more vital than overseas trade to China because of the need to placate the nomadic tribes and to import horses which was always in short supply in China. After the disintegration of the Tamerlane Empire in the 15th century, acquiring vassals ←67 | 68→among Central Asian states was no longer as crucial to the Ming Empire’s security as before, but incursions by the fragmented Mongol tribes and other nomadic peoples were still creating problems at the northern frontier. To pacify those tribes and to obtain horses from them, the Ming authorities tolerated both tributary trade and non-tributary government and private trade between China and the nomads. The famed tea-horse trade between the Chinese and the Tibetans was an example of such trade.62 Commerce between the Ming dynasty and the Mongol tribes, however, was seldom able to proceed smoothly because of the absence of trust between them. The Ming court was concerned that trade might provide the Mongols with the opportunity to spy on China in preparation for a new raid, and was also afraid that the Mongols could use the provisions and knowhow they acquired via commerce to enhance the capabilities of their forces. The Mongols often considered the prices offered by the Ming government for their horses too low, while the Ming government constantly complained about the quality of the horses it purchased from the Mongols. Thus commercial relation between the Ming dynasty and the Mongols was highly volatile, with periods of trade liberalization interrupted by periods of prohibition and Mongol raids. The situation only calmed down by the later part of the Ming dynasty, when the two sides finally settled on a modus operandi for their trade.63

Matters made a turn for the better during the Qing period. One reason was the Manchus had much better understanding of nomadic peoples than the Ming court. Furthermore, Mongolia and Xinjiang, both horse producing regions, had been incorporated into the Empire, although the need to import horses still persisted. Owing to the fact that Xinjiang was short of provisions, and supplies coming from China proper were costly because of the distance involved, the Qing government opened a number of frontier towns in Xinjiang to foreign traders. The nomadic Kazaks were allowed to trade at Ili and Tacheng, two towns close to the northwest border of Xinjiang.64 The Russians were also allowed to trade at Kiakhta, a town on the Russia/Mongolia border as mentioned earlier, but this was more for political than for economic reasons—while the Qing state was at war with the Zunghars, a Western Mongol tribal confederation which refused to submit to the Manchus, it needed to be on friendly terms with the Russians in order to prevent them from supporting its enemy. Trade at Kiakhta was sometimes interrupted because of disputes between the Qing and Russian governments, but the Russians could always rely on the Kazaks to act as middlemen for their trade with the Qing Empire via Xinjiang.65

In summary, to use the expression “closed door policy” to describe the Ming and Qing regimes’ trade policy is rather misleading. The Ming dynasty had always encouraged foreign trade in the form of tributary trade from its very beginning. ←68 | 69→Inasmuch as trade was employed as a tool for achieving national security objectives, the Ming Empire was no different from other big empires in history and in the modern era. To the Ming government, Japan was a rogue state and the early Ming rebels were rogue elements in today’s parlance. Similarly, in the eyes of the Qing government Zheng Chenggong’s regime in Taiwan was a rogue regime. Just as the United States and United Kingdom make it unlawful to trade with enemies of the state via their Trading with the Enemy Acts today,66 the Ming government outlawed trade with Japan and the Chinese offshore rebels and the Qing government prohibited trade with Taiwan during China’s late imperial period. The much maligned sea-bans were carried out to help enforce those prohibitions. In the 18th century, the Canton one-port system was again introduced for national security purposes—to facilitate the government’s monitoring of European traders who had a history of imposing themselves upon the states of Southeast Asia and soon upon India too.

Big empires with huge domestic economies do not depend on foreign trade as much as small states, and their trade policies are frequently dictated by non-economic factors. The Ming and Qing Empires did not and could not shut themselves off completely from the outside world because there were a number of essential commodities which they had to import from abroad, namely horses, silver, and by the 18th century rice and cotton too, but they were certainly in better position to shape their foreign trade in ways designed to help them address their geopolitical and national security concerns.

As for whether by restricting trade and imposing sea-bans China had limited its exposure to Western science and technology and forgone the opportunity to discover the New World, thereby unwittingly retarding its own development in the long run, we will examine these questions later in this chapter and in Chapters Eight and Ten.

Termination of Zheng He’s Ocean Voyages67

Any discussion of the Ming dynasty’s closed door policy will be incomplete without an inquiry into the motives behind Zheng He (1371–1433)’s seven ocean voyages between 1405 and 1433 to South Asia, the Middle East and the east coast of Africa, and the reasons for their termination. Zheng He’s expeditions took place more than half a century before the commencement of the European voyages of discovery. His armada consisted of over 200 ships manned by close to 30,000 personnel. Among the vessels were a few dozen treasure ships which were the largest vessels of their era. The size of Zheng He’s fleet dwarfed that of Christopher Columbus and Vasco Da Gama. Many people believed that had the ←69 | 70→Ming expeditions continued China would be able to establish colonies overseas, discover the New World and reap the benefits of foreign trade which were so vital to the rise of the West in the following centuries. Proclamations of a missed opportunity, however, fail to take into account the different challenges faced by the Ming state which, unlike contemporary European states, was a largely self-sufficient universal empire that had to deal with the difficult problem of imperial overstretch.

The true objectives of the expensive voyages have been much debated. The traditional view was the Yongle Emperor, who had initiated the expeditions, dispatched his fleet to search for his predecessor and nephew, the Jianwen Emperor. Yongle had usurped the throne from his nephew in 1402, but the deposed emperor had vanished and there were rumors that he had escaped to Southeast Asia. So the expeditions were launched to find the dethroned monarch. Much doubt has been cast on this theory because it is extremely cost-ineffective to use a large and expensive fleet to find one person, and Jianwen could well be hiding in the interior rather than in a coastal region of Southeast Asia. Furthermore, if Jianwen had indeed escaped from Nanjing, the imperial capital at the time, and was hiding in a foreign nation, that nation would more likely be the Ryukyus, Japan or Korea because of their proximity rather than a state in Southeast Asia. But Zheng He’s fleet did not visit any of these East Asian states.

A second plausible reason was to search for trade opportunities. That was certainly the primary motive behind the European voyages of discovery, but for the Ming dynasty that was not the case. As previously mentioned, the Ming Empire was mostly self-sufficient and the only form of trade it was interested in pursuing was tributary trade, the primary purpose of which was geopolitical in nature. In any case, during the early part of the dynasty the only essential commodity which the Empire could not produce adequate quantities of domestically was horses, which it had to obtain via trade with the nomadic peoples to the north and west, but not via overseas trade with the states of Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Silver would become another essential commodity which the Empire had to import from abroad by the middle of the dynasty, but at the time of Zheng He’s voyages, the Ming government was still promoting the use of paper money and silver was not yet an important medium of exchange and tax payment in China. And even when the Ming dynasty began to import silver from overseas in the mid-16th century, most of that silver came from Japan.68 It was only in the later part of the 16th century that the Spanish began to bring New World silver to China via Manila. Before that, there were very few vital commodities which Southeast Asia, India or the Middle East could offer China, which also meant that these regions could not afford to purchase a lot of goods from the Ming Empire. The name “treasure ship” given to Zheng He’s vessels and the products which those vessels brought ←70 | 71→back to China were revealing—precious stones, pearls, spices, sandalwood, mastic, coral, myrrh, aloe vera etc.69 were luxurious goods which found markets primarily among the upper class. But the upper class made up only a small percentage of the Ming Empire’s population, hence the demand for these products in China must be relatively insignificant, and that would limit the volume of trade between China and Southeast Asia, India and the Middle East.

Pomeranz correctly pointed out that Southeast Asia and India provided only a small market for China’s products,70 and in the early Ming, before the coming of silver-bearing Europeans to Asia, and before the need to import cotton and rice from overseas emerged in China as a consequence of population growth, the Southeast Asian and Indian markets were even less significant. In other words, if trade were in fact an important consideration behind Zheng He’s costly expeditions, it would have to be geopolitically-motivated tributary trade.

That brings us to the third possible reason for the ocean voyages, namely, to address strategic and national security concerns. The fact that for the first time in Chinese history, foreign barbarians were able to conquer all of China during the Mongol Yuan era must be extremely shocking to the psychic of the Chinese in the Ming period, and the fact that Tamerlane’s regime had rejected Ming suzerainty and allied itself with the dreaded Mongols would have amplified the Ming court’s apprehension. The insecurity of the early Ming state was probably the primary driving force behind the invigorated tributary trade system, a system designed to form a protective ring of satellite states around the Chinese Empire and to deprive potential enemies of allies, and the launch of Zheng He’s expensive expeditions could be seen in this light. Zheng He’s primary mission was to demonstrate China’s wealth and military prowess to the maritime states of Southeast Asia, India and the Middle East, and to convince them to accept China’s overlordship and reap the benefits of tributary trade. If successful, Ming China would establish itself as the dominant hegemon in maritime Asia. Zheng He’s expeditions could be viewed in conjunction with the Yongle Emperor’s concurrent military campaigns against the Mongols (see below) in the north, which if victorious, would confirm Ming China’s position as the foremost power in North Asia.

Another likely motive behind the ocean voyages which was related to the above concern was to outflank the Tamerlane Empire, the great power in Central and West Asia at the time, by turning the states located to the south of that empire into Ming vassals.71 It is true that Tamerlane had died unexpectedly in 1405 (while leading an expedition to conquer Ming China) shortly before the commencement of Zheng He’s first voyage, but Ming Chinese remembered well that it was a grandson of Genghis Khan who conquered Song China several decades after the death of Genghis. Since the Ming regime could not know whether the successors of Tamerlane were as bellicose and capable as the sons and grandsons of Genghis, ←71 | 72→it had to remain on guard and take precautionary measures. It is also true that Tamerlane’s son and successor, Shahrukh Bahadur, unlike his father, maintained diplomatic and trade relations with Ming China.72 However Shahruhk, like his father, refused to be the Ming Emperor’s vassal and trade between his empire and Ming China was trade between two equal partners, in clear violation of the Ming rule that all foreign trade must be tributary trade. The Ming court must have reluctantly agreed to that arrangement because it wanted to be on friendly terms with Shahrukh while it was fighting the Mongols to prevent the establishment of a Shahrukh-Mongol alliance against China. Furthermore, the Ming state lacked the means to force Shahrukh to submit, and it was in need of war horses for its Mongol campaigns which Shahrukh’s empire could provide. That is why the Ming Empire exchanged embassies and products with Shahrukh’s empire on an equal basis, but in all likelihood it remained wary of Tamerlane’s heir. The two empires were the mightiest powers of the world in the early part of the 15th century and their borders were not that far away from one another. As the Chinese saying goes, yi shan nan cang er hu (one mountain cannot accommodate two tigers), it is hard to believe that the two empires’ rulers did not harbor some suspicions about each other’s intentions, despite the outwardly amicable relationship between them. Was Shahrukh merely buying time for his empire to recover from the civil war which followed the death of Tamerlane, before resuming hostile activities towards China? The Ming emperor could not be sure.73

If the primary purpose of Zheng He’s voyages was geopolitical, they had achieved their objectives. The expeditions acquired many vassals for the Ming emperor and brought a huge number of tributary missions to China. However, as we have previously mentioned, the tributary trade system was very costly to the Ming government and placed a heavy burden on the local administrations, to the extent that the government needed to limit the number of missions and their scale. Moreover, the cost of each ocean expedition was enormous and the manpower loss was extremely high.74 Although recent research showed that the revenues generated by the voyages could be higher than previously thought, they still would not justify the exorbitant cost of the voyages as there were other ways to generate those revenues that were much more cost-effective than launching a colossal armada, so long as profit was the deciding criterion. Furthermore, the Yongle Emperor had embarked upon other costly ventures, including six military campaigns against the Mongols and the relocation of the imperial capital from Nanjing to Beijing, all of which were a huge drain on the treasury. Finally, after seven expeditions Zheng He must have more or less exhausted the list of potential vassals, and after more than 20 years of generally peaceful co-existence with Shahrukh’s empire and the apparent absence of hostility displayed by Tamerlane’s heir, the Ming regime must have relaxed and felt that it was less vital to maintain vassal states in faraway West Asia ←72 | 73→and India to contain Shahrukh. All these factors help to explain why after Zheng He’s seventh ocean voyage in 1433, the Xuande Emperor, grandson of Yongle, decided to terminate those expensive expeditions in order to preserve the empire’s resources for the far more urgent task of defending its northern borders against Mongol incursions.75 As for the Tamerlane Empire, it unraveled following the death of Shahrukh in 1447 and its threat to the Ming Empire never materialized, a development which the early Ming rulers could not have foreseen.

Contrary to what is commonly believed, China’s overseas commerce with Southeast Asia, India and West Asia did not decline after the cessation of Zheng He’s expeditions. Trade continued via legal tributary trade and through semi-legal and illicit channels.76 A case in point is the price of pepper, imported mainly from India and Southeast Asia. By the early 17th century pepper price in Ming China had dropped to below one-tenth of its level around the time of Zheng He’s last voyage in the 1430s, implying that the quantity of pepper imported from overseas had increased enormously in the two centuries following the cessation of the voyages. While pepper was a luxurious product in early Ming, by the mid-Ming it had been transformed into a mass consumption commodity and was used by the government to pay its soldiers and officials in lieu of paper money or silver.77

But the crux of the matter is China’s domestic economy was so huge that the volume of overseas trade with the rest of Asia, with or without government intervention, could never account for more than a tiny fraction of the volume of domestic trade, and hence it would be very difficult for overseas trade to become an important stimulus for groundbreaking changes in the structure of China’s economy and society the way it did in England or other West European nations.78 One development that could have made a significant difference in China, however, is the discovery of the New World with its immense wealth of resources. As Chapter Thirteen will explain, New World resources played a crucial role in the rise of the West, and they could have played a similar role in China. But as we will make clear in Chapter Eight, the prevailing winds and ocean current patterns of the Pacific Ocean and the distance involved made it very difficult for any Chinese fleet, or Japanese or Korean fleet for that matter, to cross the Pacific Ocean and discover the New World in the early modern period. Even if Zheng He’s expeditions had continued, the odds that his vessels would venture across the Pacific Ocean and successfully reach the New World someday were rather low.79

Limitations of Sea-bans and the Tributary Trade System

When the Qing authorities attempted to root out opium smuggling in the decades before the First Opium War, they faced a daunting task. The narcotics trade was so profitable that Hong merchants and small Chinese traders were all involved, and ←73 | 74→even some local officials were complicit. There were many offshore islands in the Pearl River delta where British vessels from India could unload their opium cargo and transfer them to Chinese junks for delivery to the numerous docks along the Guangdong coast. The Qing government simply lacked the resources to curtail such activities.

The situation was not that different for other types of restrictions on overseas trade imposed by the Ming and Qing regime. In virtually all such cases, the bans were routinely circumvented. As the Chinese scholar Wang Rigen has pointed out:

ships with two masts were banned, but people could add a mast on some offshore island, or simply build a ship overseas;

weapons were prohibited on board a ship, but most of the time government agents were unable to search a vessel thoroughly;

vessels might be required to set sail along a certain route, but the ship captain could always claim that the winds and weather were unpredictable and he was forced to change course;

the regulations might state that merchant ships must carry a merchant license and fishing vessels must possess a fishing license, but many ships were engaged in trading one day and in fishing the next day, the reality was trading and fishing were often seasonal occupations;

the government might decree that the number of personnel on board a ship that was returning to China must be the same as the number of personnel on board when the ship left China, but that did not take into account the loss of lives abroad and other chance happenings;

the government might decree that the type of vessel returning to China must be identical to the type that left China, but the ship’s captain could claim that the previous ship was lost in a storm, or had to be overhauled before returning;

because of these miscellaneous reasons, coastal officials found it impossible to effectively enforce state regulations, therefore a merchant could go overseas to trade and return without his ship, or a large ship would leave China and a small vessel would return, or a ship would come back with fewer crews on board, or some people would leave China with unknown intentions and deliberately disappeared overseas, or a ship’s crew might claim that Japan was their intended destination but the winds carried their ship to Southeast Asia, and then there was the problem of corruption …80

Those who were involved in these illegal activities included maritime traders who were either in cohorts with powerful officials and wealthy clans or were independent small-time traffickers, coastal residents who provided logistic support to the smugglers, local officials and militias of maritime regions who knowingly ←74 | 75→disregarded the law, and the wokou who combined unlawful commercial activities with piracies.81 Even though the wokou were assumed to be Japanese pirates originally, they became dominated by Chinese outlaws by the 16th century. According to some estimates, over 70% of them were actually subjects of the Ming Empire, 83% of their leaders were Chinese and most of their ships were constructed in China around the time of the Jiajing reign (1522–1566).82

A good example of the clout of unlawful commercial interests in the Ming government is the case of the incorruptible official Zhu Wan who served as governor of Zhejiang during the Jiajing period. Zhu was one of the few high-ranking officials who genuinely tried to put an end to illegal commercial activities. In addition to banning two-mast ships and strengthening the patrol of the coast, he encouraged the common people to reveal the identities of prominent families and government bureaucrats who were complicit in the unlawful businesses. The result was the alienation of many powerful interest groups which set about to malign Zhu Wan in the Ming court and succeeded in having him removed from office. The principled official committed suicide in the end.83

The many difficulties encountered by the Ming regime in carrying out its sea-ban edicts was the chief reason why the newly established Qing regime resorted to the far more drastic measure of forceful depopulation of the Fujian and Guangdong coast. The Qing government gathered from the Ming dynasty’s experience that traditional sanctions were impossible to enforce effectively, and a more radical approach was necessary if it truly intended to halt all trade between the maritime provinces and Taiwan.

Just like today’s governments whose officials are frequently divided into a conservative faction and a liberal faction, there were also conservative and liberal elements within the Ming and Qing governments which differed in their opinion on how to handle the illegal trade problem. The conservative camp, to which Zhu Wan belonged, would argue for an increase in regulations, prohibitions and patrols, but the liberal camp would advocate the deregulation of overseas trade and the establishments of customs stations to collect taxes and levies. They contended that that was the only effective way to reduce illegal trafficking and would also have the additional benefit of raising the government’s revenues.84 In the Ming dynasty, the liberal camp won out following the death of the Jiajing Emperor in 1566 and the liberalization during the subsequent Longqing reign heralded a new era in Ming history with the formal annulment of the requirement that all foreign trade must be tributary trade.

But even before the Longqing period, the official rule that all foreign trade must be tributary trade was never strictly adhered to. We have already mentioned that Shahrukh’s empire was permitted to trade with Ming China on an equal basis ←75 | 76→in the early 15th century. In the beginning of the 16th century, Canton also began to allow non-tributary foreign merchant vessels to call at its harbor, and that policy was later affirmed by the central government.85 In addition, the horse-tea trade in the northwest between the Ming and the nomads was also a combination of tributary trade, government monopoly trade and private trade.86

But it is trade with Japan that provided the most fascinating example of the Ming court’s pragmatism in the implementation of its overseas trade sanctions. As we have mentioned earlier, tributary trade with Japan ceased after the middle of the 16th century. From then on all Japanese commercial exchanges with China became unlawful and the prohibition remained in place even after the Longqing liberalization. Nevertheless trade with Japan was vital to the Ming economy because by the 16th century Ming China had evolved into a silver economy with silver (and copper) being used as a medium of exchange, and after 1581 silver was even used as the principal medium of tax payment throughout the empire. But China was an insignificant silver producer, and in the 16th century the majority of its silver was imported from Japan. So the Chinese economy could not function without Japanese trade, and yet the Ming regime could not allow Japanese tributary trade to continue because of Japan’s frequent violation of tributary trade rules and the wokou raids. The solution was to find a third party to act as the middleman for trade with Japan. That was where the Portuguese and Macau entered the picture. Chapter One mentioned that the Portuguese attempted to establish a trading post on Tunmen Island in the Pearl River Delta but were driven away by Ming forces in the 1520s. But in 1557, almost immediately following the termination of Japan’s tributary relation with China, the Ming government allowed the Portuguese to establish an outpost in Macau. From then on down to near the end of the Ming dynasty, the Portuguese would act as the middleman for trade between Japan and China, bringing Japanese silver and other products to China in exchange for Chinese merchandises for re-sale in Japan, often stopping over at Manila along the way. And trade in Macau between the Portuguese and the Chinese in the Ming period, just like trade in Canton between the foreign merchants and local Chinese in the Qing period, was non-tributary trade. The Portuguese’s middleman role only ended in 1639, when following a Catholic riot in Japan, the Tokugawa government barred the Portuguese from entering their country.87

The Ryukyu Islands, situated between Japan and Taiwan, served as another intermediary for Chinese-Japanese trade. These islands became a vassal of the Ming Empire near the beginning of the Ming dynasty and had been sending tributary trade missions to China at regular intervals ever since. Since the islands also traded with Japan frequently, they could serve as a conduit for trade between the two countries after the termination of Japan-China tributary relations. But in ←76 | 77→1609 the Ryukyu Islands accepted the suzerainty of the Satsuma daimyo of Kyushu which was itself under the overlordship of Japan’s Tokugawa Shogunate. So strictly speaking, Ming China should no longer receive tributary delegations from the Ryukyu’s. However the Ming court turned a blind eye to the new development and continued to allow Ryukyu missions as before, for the practical reason that the Ming economy needed Japanese silver.88

A third legal way to conduct Chinese-Japanese trade appeared after the Longqing liberalization. Under the new regulations, Chinese merchants were permitted to travel overseas to trade. Although it was unlawful for them to go to Japan, they could rendezvous with Japanese merchants at a port city in Southeast Asia to exchange their merchandises, and that provided another channel for silver and other Japanese commodities to enter Ming China. However, this channel was no longer available after 1636 when the Tokugawa regime forbade Japanese to go abroad.89

We could get a glimpse of the volume of legal, semi-legal and illicit overseas trade conducted in the Ming-Qing era by looking at the amount of foreign silver which entered China during that period. As we have mentioned, by the 16th century silver had become China’s major currency and chief medium for tax payment, and that would be the case all the way down to the end of the Qing dynasty in the 20th century. That is the reason why the Chinese name for banks is yinhang, or silver warehouse. However, since China’s domestic supply of silver was very limited, most of its silver must have originated from abroad and obtained through overseas trade. By some estimates, in the early modern period 85% of the world’s silver came from the New World and most of the remainder were produced in Japan. In the 16th century and the first half of the 17th century Japan was China’s major supplier of silver. But Japanese exports dwindled in the second half of the century as mines were exhausted and the Tokugawa Shogunate banned the export of silver in 1668 to preserve the metal for domestic commercial use. New World silver began to arrive in China via Spanish Manila in the 1570s, and in the following two centuries other Western nations would export ever greater quantities of American silver to China from Europe. By the beginning of the 18th century, if not earlier, the New World had overtaken Japan as China’s major supplier of silver. According to some estimates, during the 250 years between the mid-16th century and the end of the 18th century, roughly 1/4 to ½ of the total amount of silver produced in the world eventually ended up in China via trade.90 China’s silver price had approached international levels twice, once in the early Qing (mid-17th century) and again in the later part of the Qianlong reign (late 18th century),91 an indication of the plentiful supply of silver in China in those periods, and several Qing officials had commented on the abundance of silver in Chinese society ←77 | 78→at the beginning of the dynasty.92 We may quibble over the actual quantity of silver imported, but all estimates show that, despite the numerous trade prohibitions, restrictions and sea-bans, China’s trading volume with Japan and European nations remained considerable during the Ming and Qing period. This is not to say that the prohibitions did not reduce commercial activities, as the big increase in trade volume following the Longqing liberalization indicated that the previous restrictions did curtail a significant amount of commercial undertakings, but to depict the Ming-Qing trade policies as closed door is a huge exaggeration.

The Ming and Qing regimes were very suspicious of overseas sojourners, the Ming because of the wokou problem and the Qing because of the fear that offshore Chinese might establish an anti-Manchu base on foreign soil that resembled Zheng Chenggong’s Taiwan. Hence both regimes had made it unlawful to reside abroad longer than some maximum duration allowed. However, such restrictions were just as difficult to enforce as the other prohibitions because there were so many unpredictable factors, such as delays caused by bad weather, which made it impossible to control the length of overseas stay. Some Ming and Qing officials understood these complications and allowed Chinese subjects who had overstayed abroad to return unpunished. As we have seen already, the Qing initially set the maximum time period allowed overseas at two years, later extended it to three years, and finally—following the advice of the mandarin Chen Hongmou in the Qianlong era—completely abolished the restriction in 1754 and permitted Chinese to reside abroad for as long as necessary, provided that they were not engaged in unlawful activities.93

Despite the restrictions, the number of Chinese sojourners in Southeast Asia and Japan kept rising. As early as 1603, there were 25,000 to 30,000 Chinese residing in Manila when the Spanish population there was only 1000. Two centuries later, the Chinese population at Batavia and its hinterland numbered close to 100,000, greater than the combined population of Boston, New York and Philadelphia in 1770. Although Chinese travel to Japan was prohibited by the Ming government, there were 20,000 to 30,000 Chinese living in Japan by 1618, and the city of Nagasaki had a “Chinatown,” probably among the first of its kind in history.94

The limits on the length of overseas stay apparently did not apply to sojourns in Europe. Joanna Waley-Cohen, in her book The Sextants of Beijing, mentioned the names of a number of Chinese who had resided in Europe for long periods of time during the 17th and 18th centuries. The most famous among them was probably Jacob Li, who returned to China in 1793 with the Macartney Embassy and served as the mission’s interpreter. Li had earlier accompanied a Jesuit missionary back to Italy and had studied in the Jesuit College at Naples.95 It was perhaps unfortunate that he and other 17th–18th century Chinese visitors in Europe were ←78 | 79→associated with the Catholic Jesuits, because that would very likely have limited their exposure to the new ideas of Galileo and Newton (as we will see later in this chapter and in Chapter Ten), and hence they could not serve as the conduit for transmitting modern science to China.

Trade Restrictions Imposed by England and Other Western States

Concurrent with the Ming-Qing trade prohibitions, European states also imposed their own fetters on foreign trade, although for different reasons and in different ways. Here we will provide a brief overview of the trade restrictions imposed by England/Britain, the country which would position itself as the champion of free trade later on in the 19th century, and some of the trade restraints imposed by a number of other Western states.

In the late Middle Ages England was pretty much a provider of raw materials, in particular wool, to other manufacturing centers of Europe such as the Low Countries and the Italian city states. In order to nurture its native textile industry, England started to levy heavy duties on its wool exports in the 14th century.96 In the following century, the Tudor King Henry VII raised those taxes further and also relied on subsidies, the hiring of foreign experts and industrial espionage to promote the development of wool manufacturing in England. He went so far as to temporarily ban the export of raw wool and unfinished woolen products in order to safeguard the supply of raw materials for the domestic industry and to weaken the Dutch wool industry, England’s principal rival. His successors Henry VIII and Elizabeth I carried on his policies in the 16th century and eventually succeeded in destroying the wool manufacturers of the Low Countries.97 In the late 17th century, England also prohibited its colonies from exporting woolen textiles and effectively ruined the wool industry of Ireland and nipped in the bud the fledgling textile industry of North America.

In the early 18th century, the Calico Acts were passed in Britain to protect the country’s domestic textile industry from competition from cheap Indian cotton textiles. The Acts banned the domestic sale of imported cotton products by the East India Company but allowed their importation to England for re-export to Continental Europe. The Acts were repealed in 1774 following the advice of Richard Arkwright, the inventor of the water frame, one of the early inventions of the Industrial Revolution which made British textile products much more competitive.98 However, Britain continued to protect its domestic industries by raising customs duties on Indian imports to prohibitively high levels.99

But the most prominent example of England’s protectionism was the Navigation Acts of the 17th century which we have already talked about. At the time the shipping industry of the Dutch Republic was Europe’s most advanced, ←79 | 80→and a considerable portion of European overseas trade was conducted in Dutch vessels. In order to foster the growth of its own maritime industry and reduce the dominance of the Dutch, England enacted a series of Navigation Acts which required all cargoes bound for England to be transported in English vessels or in the ships of the country of origin of those cargoes. The Acts also decreed that goods bound for English colonies and many exports from those colonies regardless of their final destination must be shipped through England first, and therefore must use English ships. Moreover, three-quarters of the ships’ crew must be Englishmen. These laws were damaging to the Dutch marine industry but were extremely advantageous to the English maritime industry. As we have mentioned, Adam Smith was highly supportive of the Navigation Acts, notwithstanding his belief in the benefits of free trade. The laws remained in effect for two centuries and were not abolished until the middle of the 19th century.100

Another way to restrict trade is through the granting of monopoly powers. The East India Company, as we have pointed out, was the sole legal entity for English/British trade with India and China for more than two centuries.101 But the English/British government had also accorded monopoly rights to over 20 other overseas trading companies, including, among others, the Muscovy Company, which possessed the monopoly on trade between England and Russia; the Eastland Company, which enjoyed the monopoly on trade with the Baltic region; the Hudson’s Bay Company, which controlled the fur trade in Canada; and the South Sea Company, which was accorded the monopoly on trade with Latin America but was made famous by the South Sea Bubble, an 18th century financial bubble which involved the Company’s stocks.102

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the English/British government repeatedly raised the export duties on coal and the import duties on foreign iron to secure the domestic supply of coal and to protect the native iron industry.103 After the Germans discovered how to make porcelain in 1708 there was a ban on the import of European porcelain until 1775, after which import duties were imposed. There were also heavy tariffs on Chinese and Japanese lacquer goods to protect domestic producers, and import duties on French wines were prohibitively high from the latter part of the 17th century onwards.104

Furthermore, numerous legislations made it illegal to recruit skilled domestic artisans for employment in a foreign country and severe penalties awaited artisans who remained abroad for more than six months after having received government notification to return home. Following the onset of the Industrial Revolution, new laws were passed to prohibit the export of tools, utensils and machines in the textile and other industries in a failed attempt to prevent the spread of Britain’s new technologies to its competitors. The ban on artisan emigration was finally revoked ←80 | 81→in 1825 and the prohibition on tools and machines export was abolished in 1842 when it became clear that the principles behind the new tools and machines had become general knowledge and the laws were ineffectual.105

Britain only began to preach free trade in the 19th century after the Industrial Revolution had made its industries more competitive than those of its rivals and it needed a justification for its penetration of the protected markets of weaker states.106 But nonetheless, the greater part of the 19th century was not a free trade era even for Britain. As we have seen, the Navigation Acts and the prohibition on the export of tools and machinery were not rescinded until the 1840s. And there was also a new series of legislation, the Corn Laws, which were introduced in 1815 to protect the interest of the landowning class of Britain by imposing steep import duties on foreign grain. The Laws were only repealed in 1846 after the manufacturing class, which opposed the Laws because they resulted in high food prices and hence high wages, gained enough influence in government to overcome the resistance of the landed interests, and because the Irish potato famine which began a year ago threatened a big reduction in the food supply of Britain.107 Nevertheless, average British customs rates remained high throughout much of the 19th century, declining slowly from over 50% of net import value in the 1820s to below 10% only around 1870. In comparison, French rates dropped from about 20% to under 5% of net import value over the same period. British duties finally fell below French levels in the 1870s by a small amount when French rates began to rise again.108 But some hurdles to trade remained even in that late period. While the British government had earlier forced the Qing Empire to open up its domestic markets to opium and other imports in the name of free trade, opium imports to Britain was made illegal in 1856 on the eve of the Second Opium War.109 And near the end of the century, in the midst of the “Scramble for Africa,” two new monopolistic overseas trading companies were chartered: the Royal Niger Company110 and the British South Africa Company111.

The Spanish and the Dutch who traded with the Ming and Qing Empire were no free traders either. Here we will only highlight some of their restrictions on trade between their colonies and China. In 1589, the Spanish decreed that all goods brought by Chinese maritime merchants to Manila must allow Spanish authorities to assess their value first before they were distributed to Spanish traders, private transactions were forbidden and native inhabitants were not permitted to wear clothing made of Chinese textile. The purpose of the legislation was to control the quantity and value of Chinese imports to the Philippines. Moreover, in addition to the regular customs duties, Chinese merchants were required to pay a host of other levies, charges and fees, and there were strict restrictions on their business and other activities in Manila. In 1602, the Spanish limited the number ←81 | 82→of Chinese sojourners in the Philippines to 2000 and the number of Japanese residents to 3000, and there were also regulations that barred the Spanish from travelling to China.

In order to protect the market for Spanish products in the New World colonies and to control the export of silver, the import of Chinese raw silk and silk products was banned in Latin America. In 1591, China and the Philippines were not permitted to trade directly with Peru. In 1593, strict regulations were imposed on the trade between the Philippines and Mexico: Manila was allowed to send only two vessels to Mexico annually each weighing no more than 300 tons, and the total value of its cargoes was also controlled by the government.112

After the Dutch seized control of the Moluccas Islands in the early 17th century, they barred Chinese merchant ships from the islands and forced the several hundred Chinese sojourners on the islands to switch from trade to agriculture or lumbering. Later on, similar policies were also enforced in Java and neighboring islands.113 The Dutch East India Company was, of course, a monopoly like its English counterpart and its goal was to control the lucrative spice trade that was centered on the Moluccas.

The United States was another major practitioner of protectionism up to the First World War. America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, was of the opinion that the United States should reduce the import of foreign manufactures via protective tariffs or ban them outright, curtail the export of vital raw materials, and cut the tariff on industrial inputs to encourage the development of infant domestic industries. President Madison was of similar mind and during his presidency customs duties on cheap textile imports were set at prohibitively high levels. In 1817, America passed its own Navigation Act which decreed that all goods shipped from one domestic port to another must be carried in American or West Indian vessels.114 Following a lull of about 15 years the Morrill Tariff of 1861 restored tariff rates back to their previous high levels and marked the beginning of half-a-century of heavy trade protection in America. During the Civil War (1861–1865), President Lincoln raised tariff rates on dutiable imports further to almost 50% of import value by the end of the War, using the cost of the War as justification. In actual fact, the industrializing North had long been supportive of high protective tariffs whereas the agrarian South preferred free trade. The North’s victory ensured that the nation’s protectionist policies would carry the day. From then on all the way down to the First World War, America’s tariffs on dutiable imports would stay around the 40% to 50% range, amongst the highest in the world during that period.115

In addition, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Sweden, Austria, Russia, Finland, Norway, Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, almost every one ←82 | 83→of the developed nations today, with the possible exception of small economies like Switzerland and Holland, had made use of high tariffs, restrictions on the import of manufactured products and other trade interventionist mechanisms to safeguard their domestic industries, to protect the interest of their agricultural sectors, or to curb the outflow of precious metals, all the way down to the middle of the 20th century.116 Thus virtually no major Western state practiced free trade in the Ming-Qing period. And just like Ming and Qing China, Western states had to deal with smuggling problems that were almost insurmountable and frequently had to restrict foreign trade to select ports.117

In the remainder of this section we will compare and contrast the trade policies of Ming-Qing China and Western states and identify the reasons for their differences. We will also ask the counterfactual question of what could have happened if Ming-Qing China had adopted an approach that is closer to that of Western states.

Differences between the Trade Policies of Ming-Qing China and Western States

As we have underscored, the Ming and Qing Empires were universal empires with huge domestic economies that could competitively produce most, if not all, of what the Empires needed. Foreign trade was of secondary importance to the functioning of their economies and customs duty was an insignificant source of government revenue.118 Hence in the formulation of trade policies, geopolitical and national security factors would take precedence. The tributary trade system, the sea-bans of the Ming and Qing period, the Canton one-port system were all designed with political and national security objectives in mind. On the other hand, the contemporary Western states were small nations that had to struggle to survive in a competitive states era119. They were under constant pressure to upgrade their national strength and competitiveness or risked being subjugated by a more powerful neighbor. Foreign trade was an important means through which they could obtain vital commodities which their countries lacked, enrich their economies and generate much needed government revenue to finance their incessant warfare. Judicious management of foreign trade could also allow them to protect and nurture their infant domestic industries and weaken the industries and economies of their rivals. The above was particularly true in the case of England/Britain. That is the fundamental difference between Ming-Qing China and Western states and the basic reason behind the dissimilarities in their trade policies.

In the early modern period, the textile industry was the most important manufacturing industry throughout most of Eurasia. China’s cotton and silk products ←83 | 84→were amongst the most competitive in the world at the time, and there was no urgency to employ any protectionist measures. The same can be said about other Chinese products such as porcelain and processed tea. However the opposite was true for the contemporary European states. Their textiles could not compete with those from China and India, or from rival European countries in some cases. Miscellaneous other industries also faced serious competition from abroad. That was the reason why England and other Western states had to rely on protectionist measures.

When private commerce was underdeveloped, government controlled tributary trade was frequently used by imperial states to maintain their dominance over smaller neighbors and underpin their hegemonic position. That was the case with the earlier Han and Tang dynasties, and the Ming dynasty was merely following the footsteps of its predecessors. However with the eruption of the Second Commercial Revolution in China during mid-Ming (see Chapter Five), private commerce, both domestic and overseas, began to carry the day and it was increasingly obvious that the tributary trade system was becoming obsolescent. The Longqing liberalization of 1567 which legalized non-tributary trade and the Qing regime’s opening up of multiple ports for overseas trade after 1684 simply demonstrated the Ming and Qing regime’s recognition of this reality. They were also a manifestation of the Ming and Qing state’s pragmatism and flexibility. The question remains, however, whether the trade liberalization measures of the Ming and Qing regime were too little too late?

What If?

What if Ming or Qing China had gone one step further and adopted an approach similar to the ones taken by England and Holland, that is, if they had granted monopoly powers to private organizations and permitted them to use force to expand their overseas markets, seize territories abroad and establish colonies, and relied on customs revenue to cover the expenses of overseas expansion? If China had taken this path, could it have acquired raw materials from Southeast Asia early on and avoided or at least alleviated the overpopulation and resource shortage problem which would plague the country by the beginning of the 19th century, if not earlier?

Unfortunately for China, it would encounter a number of difficult problems if it chose this approach. Along with the rapid development of legal and illegal private overseas commerce during the Ming dynasty, China’s imports from Southeast Asia and India had morphed from being dominated by luxurious goods in Zheng He’s days to consisting largely of merchandises for the general public by ←84 | 85→the middle of the dynasty.120 In addition, some expensive upper class consumables in early Ming had been transformed into cheap mass consumption products a century or so later121—a notable example being pepper whose value in late Ming had declined to less than one-tenth of its price at the beginning of the dynasty as we have mentioned earlier. By the 18th century, Qing China also began to import staple commodities such as rice, cotton and sugar from Southeast Asia and India. But there was an important difference between China and Europe, as Pomeranz had stressed.122 China itself, unlike Europe, was also a major producer of many of the products it imported from Southeast and South Asia, such as cotton, sugar as well as domestic varieties of pepper, cinnamon and other spices.123 This means that Chinese maritime merchants, unlike the European East India Companies, could not monopolize the supply of these products, which in turn implied that there was a ceiling on the price the overseas traders could charge for these commodities in China. However, overseas colonial projects were extremely costly undertakings because of the military and administrative expenses involved, and the European monopolies were created so that the overseas trading companies could afford those expenditures. The monopolies generated huge profits for the trading companies plus customs revenue for the governments to finance further colonial expansion and increased military enforcement of monopolistic trade. Without such monopolies, Chinese colonial ventures would not be economically viable.

Another problem faced by China in expanding southward was Southeast Asian states, unlike the New World peoples, were capable of resisting colonization. (For that matter, it is worth pointing out that European powers were not able to colonize North Africa either, despite its proximity to Europe, until the 19th century.) In the early Yuan when Mongol power was at its zenith, Kublai Khan had dispatched a naval expedition to subjugate the Singhasari kingdom in East Java. Although the Yuan forces were able to achieve some early victories they could not hold on to their gains and had to retreat back to China after suffering substantial losses.124 Other Yuan military incursions into the mainland states in Vietnam and Burma also encountered stiff resistances and failed to achieve the goal of converting them into Chinese provinces.125 Among the reasons why these states could not be subjugated even by the invincible Mongol army were the inhospitable climate and the prevalence of malaria in Southeast Asia. Yuan forces frequently lost more soldiers to sickness than in battle. Northern Vietnam did become a province of Ming China in the early part of Yongle reign, but it soon rebelled and the Ming forces dispatched to quell the uprising were unsuccessful. In the end the Ming government had to recognize Northern Vietnam’s independence under the condition that it would be a vassal of the Ming Empire.126 In the 18th century, the Qianlong Emperor launched several wasteful military campaigns ←85 | 86→against Burma127 and Vietnam128. But just like the Southeast Asia campaigns of the previous two dynasties, the Qing armies suffered major setbacks at the hands of the local forces and had to retreat. The fact of the matter is, after securing control of China, the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties had to face the challenge of imperial overstretch—the dynasties had already acquired a huge and populous empire which was extremely difficult to maintain and all three encountered difficulties when they attempted to extend their empire further to the south.129 (See Chapter Thirteen for further elaboration of this thesis.)

Besides, even European powers were only capable of securing tiny outposts on the coast of India and Southeast Asia, such as Bombay, Calcutta, Goa, Madras and Pondicherry in India and Malacca on the Malayan Peninsular, before the middle of the18th century. These enclaves served mainly as trading and transshipment posts for European traders and in the case of the Indian outposts they were acquired only with the acquiescence of India’s Mughal Empire. The exceptions to this were Dutch Batavia which was able to exert considerable influence over the leading indigenous power in Java, the Mataram Sultanate, because that Muslim kingdom happened to be a fragile regime; and sparsely populated islands like the Philippines and the Moluccas whose native inhabitants were incapable of fending off the European intruders.130

Western powers had to wait until the second half of the 18th century when their ever-increasing military prowess aided by the disintegration of Asian states finally enabled them to gain effective control over large stretches of land territories first in India and later in Indonesia. Prior to that, Portugal, Holland, England and other European powers could only make use of their naval forces to dominate the sea lanes of Asia and create monopolies for their Asian goods.131 Since the military capabilities of Ming and Qing China were generally inferior to that of the European states (see Chapter Nine), it is not hard to understand why the Chinese forces did not have much success in Southeast Asia.

If the Ming Empire did in fact attempt to colonize the islands of Southeast Asia, the most likely candidate for success was the Philippine archipelago before the arrival of the Spanish because of its proximity to China and its vulnerability. But the economic value of the Philippines was limited. The Spanish frequently expressed their dissatisfaction with their Southeast Asian colony because it produced neither spices nor pepper, possessed no precious metals and establishing a plantation on the islands was difficult.132 Manila was used primarily as a trading post and transshipment base for trade between the New World, China, Japan, Southeast Asia and India. The rest of the Philippine archipelago had little use for the Spanish. Likewise the primary economic value of Taiwan to the Dutch was the island’s role as a trading and transshipment hub for trade between Japan and China/Southeast Asia during the period when Ming China prohibited trade with ←86 | 87→Japan and after the Tokugawa Shogunate barred Japanese merchants from going abroad near the end of the Ming dynasty. But such an offshore hub would have little use for the Chinese other than Chinese smugglers, and it is doubtful whether the Qing regime would have spent the effort to subjugate the island were it not for the threat posed by Zheng Chenggong.133

But the Ming court was not entirely uninterested in the Philippines. During the Wanli reign (1572–1620) there were rumors that there were gold deposits in Luzon and the emperor dispatched two officials to the island to investigate. After discovering that the rumors were groundless they returned to China and informed the emperor who thereby lost interest.134 But if Luzon was indeed a producer of gold like the New World, it is conceivable that the Ming regime would have contemplated overseas colonization because there would be economic rationale for the venture.

As a matter of fact the economic value of Southeast Asia to China was limited before the later part of the 18th century (that was why 16th–18th century European traders had to use mainly silver rather than re-exported Southeast and South Asian products to exchange for Chinese porcelain, silk and tea), and what China could obtain from Southeast Asia it could obtain more cost-effectively through normal trade rather than through colonization. It is true that the trade volume between China and Southeast Asia would have been higher if Ming China—and Qing China to a lesser degree—had reduced its trade restrictions further and sooner, but the impact on China’s economy would still be insignificant. Once again China’s colossal size means that overseas trade played a minor role in the functioning of its economy except for the import of silver and horses, and Southeast Asia was not an important producer of either.135

However, the economics would change near the end of the 18th century when China’s population exceeded 300 million and the empire had clearly reached a resource bottleneck.136 The value of Southeast Asia’s agricultural products to China would have risen greatly by that time. Normal trade probably could not supply enough rice, sugar, cotton, etc. to satisfy China’s enormous appetite because of the small market problem mentioned earlier, i.e., Southeast Asia did not have enough demand for China’s manufactures which would limit China’s ability to buy farm products from Southeast Asia. By that time it would make economic sense for China to adopt the European approach and attempt to incorporate Southeast Asia into its empire, except that Qing China lacked the military capabilities and much of Archipelagic Southeast Asia had already been colonized by the Europeans by the early part of the 19th century.137

Finally we will take a second look at the Canton one-port system which had been subjected to much criticisms by both Chinese and Western historians in the past, although recently there has been some reevaluation of the system’s efficacy.138 ←87 | 88→Perhaps a comparison of the Canton System with the overseas trade policies and the restrictions placed on foreign merchants in neighboring India and Japan and in the Ottoman Empire will shed some light on the merits and demerits of the one-port system.

The Mughal Empire of India regulated overseas trade to a much less degree than the Ming and Qing Empire and the restrictions it imposed on the activities of European merchants were almost non-existent. British merchants did not have to deal with a centralized government bureaucracy in India that was highly mistrustful of European merchants, their movements were not confined to certain areas within a port city, and their transactions with local merchants were not under strict control and monitoring by the Mughal authorities. The British were thus able to learn a lot more about the Mughal Empire and gain a good understanding of its strengths and vulnerabilities. Moreover, the relatively sophisticated indigenous financial institutions and credit systems of India which the British were allowed to access provided them with a means to leverage their trading profits and slowly increase their power and influence within the subcontinent. Gradually, Indian merchants and local power holders who owed the British money or were beholden to them for other reasons came under their sway.139 As historian John Darwin noted in his book After Tamerlane: “the key to British power (in India) could be found not in India’s backwardness and indolence, but in its openness and accessibility, and in the sophistication of its financial and commercial life.”140 In comparison, British merchants in China were required to remain in the vicinity of their factories in Canton and were not permitted to learn Chinese or buy Chinese books, their interactions with local Chinese were strictly monitored, and it was unlawful for Chinese Hong merchants and government officials to borrow money from Europeans, even if these rules and prohibitions were not fully enforceable.141

When the Mughal Empire started to unravel following the death of the emperor Aurangzeb in 1707, the opportunity which the British had been waiting for finally arrived. Now they only had to deal with de facto independent regional power holders who often had to rely on overseas trade as their principal source of revenue. The British used economic and trade embargos to compel uncooperative regional rulers to submit, employed local aristocracies or officials who were indebted to them to subvert polities that were hostile to East India Company interest, and formed opportunistic alliances with regional powers to subjugate other unfriendly power holders. By relying on these strategies, the British were able to progressively enlarge the areas under their effective control on the Indian subcontinent from the middle of the 18th century onwards.

In 1756, the young and impulsive governor of Bengal, one of the richest provinces of India, was hostile to the British and briefly captured Calcutta. In ←88 | 89→response, the British supported a disgruntled Bengal army official who came under their sway, defeated the governor’s army in the Battle of Plassey the following year and established a puppet regime in Bengal. In this fashion the immense wealth of Bengal came under the control of the British. That marked the beginning of British dominance in India.142 In the south, the ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, was a formidable warrior and a major obstacle to British supremacy in the later part of the 18th century. But the British were able to ally themselves with or control nearby rulers, the most well-known of whom was the Nawab of Arcot, the ostensible ruler of a province of the Mughal Empire who came under the sway of the British and allowed them to dictate his policies and military alliances.143 After several decades of war the British succeeded in annihilating Tipu’s forces and gained effective control of South India by the end of the 18th century.144 In a similar fashion, other power holders in the central and northern parts of India were subjugated one after another, and in less than a century the British were able to establish their hegemony over the entire subcontinent.145 Thus free trade ended up hastening India’s demise. If the Mughal Empire in its heydays had confined foreign merchants to a small number of port cities and strictly curtailed their activities, it is unlikely that the British could have subjugated India in such a short period of time.146

Darwin also pointed to the Ottoman Empire as another example of the negative side of unrestrained trade. Unlike its European rivals, the Turkish Empire left foreign trade virtually unregulated. The consequence was the profits of overseas trade fell almost entirely into the hands of European merchants, so that when the Ottomans needed to rebuild their declining empire’s economy and military strength in the 18th century, they found capital in short supply and were unable to bolster state power to resist Western encroachment.147 Moreover, because of the absence of protectionist measures their domestic manufacturing industries could not compete with Western imports after the onset of the Industrial Revolution and were ultimately ruined, as the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli astutely observed.148

The Japanese, on the other hand, restricted overseas trade to a much greater extent than Ming and Qing China. From 1635 until 1853 when its economy was forced open by the Black Ships of United States Commodore Mathew Perry, the Tokugawa Shogunate permitted the merchant ships of only two foreign nations—China and the Dutch Republic—to call at Nagasaki to trade, and Dutch merchants were confined to a small island called Dejima in Nagasaki bay. Although the Dutch did transmit some Western geographic, scientific and technological knowledge to Japan, and arguably that knowledge was more up-to-date than the knowledge which the Jesuits conveyed to China, they made no noticeable impact ←89 | 90→on Tokugawa society up to the opening of Japan in the middle of the 19th century—Rangaku, or Dutch Learning, belonged to a small group of specialists, very little of it was disseminated among the general populace and much of that went unnoticed.149 Commerce with Korea was allowed but was strictly supervised by the clan which controlled Tsushima Island, a subdivision of today’s Nagasaki Prefecture.150 Trade with other foreign countries was prohibited (except for the Ryukyus which fell under the control of another Japanese clan as mentioned earlier) and Japanese merchants were not allowed to go abroad. Thus the Japanese one-port system was far more restrictive than its counterpart in Canton.151 And yet history tells us that Japan was the only Asian nation that was able to successfully modernize and stand up to the Western powers in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century. Furthermore, some scholars even concluded that Japan’s “closed door” policy was one of the key factors behind the success of the Meiji Reform in the second half of the 19th century which led to Japan’s quick emergence as a modern nation.152

Therefore even if the Ming and Qing Empire had practiced free trade, it is doubtful that they could have done any better than the Mughal and Ottoman Empire. And as we will see in the next section, it is unclear if China could have acquired the leading edge technologies of the West even if it had liberalized trade further, since Britain prohibited the export of new machines and tools at the time of the Industrial Revolution. On the contrary, as the Qing Empire commenced its long decline from around the middle of the 18th century, the fact that it was able to avoid the fate of India and escape complete European colonization in the 19th century could be attributed in part to the Canton System’s preoccupation with national security and the threat posed by the Europeans—particularly if we take into consideration the fact that the European continent was generally at peace between 1815 and 1914153 which would have freed up a bigger portion of European great powers’ formidable military and other resources for overseas colonial expansion.

Ming-Qing Interest in Foreign Products and Imported Knowledge

It has often been said that another reason for Ming-Qing China’s closed door policy was the Chinese in the late imperial period were so complacent, arrogant, and self-centered that they displayed no interest in foreign products and knowledge. That was frequently used as the explanation for the absence of Chinese demand for Western manufactured goods. But the reality was very different.

←90 | 91→

Ming and Qing connoisseur guides included among their recommendations numerous collectible items which were of foreign origins, and other books and publications of the same period also frequently mentioned the demand for exotic products in China. Among such products were Western clocks (a favorite collectible among the upper class), watches, eyeglasses, snuff bottles, Russian and American furs, and Western gowns and jackets.154 Palace workshops of the early Qing employed Jesuit missionaries to manufacture European clocks and glassware and to pass on their skills to Chinese artisans.155 Other exotic products that were popular in the Ming-Qing period came from Southeast Asia, Pacific Islands, India, and the Middle East. They included black pepper, spices, pearls, incense and fragrant wood etc., all of which had big markets in China. Two gourmet dishes of choice in China relied on ingredients that had to be acquired from overseas, namely, shark fins and bird nests. On the other hand, European textiles which the Western merchants were most eager to sell to China were not competitive enough to attract much interest among Chinese consumers.

European knowledge of astronomy and of calendrical techniques, however, did find demand in the Ming and Qing dynasty at a time when calendar reform was an important issue in China. When Jesuit missionaries such as Matteo Ricci, Nicholas Longobardi, Nicholas Trigault, Johann Adam Schall von Bell and Ferdinand Verbiest came to China to spread Roman Catholicism during the late Ming and early Qing, they quickly recognized that their knowledge of science and mathematics could help them increase their influence in the imperial court because such skills were in need at the time. The missionaries translated a huge volume of Western books on astronomy, calendrical techniques and other scientific subjects into Chinese and constructed a number of astronomical instruments in China, including a celestial globe, a sextant and a quadrant. Their more accurate predictions of eclipses and mathematical models of planetary motion demonstrated the superiority of their techniques over those used by Moslem and native Chinese astronomers.

But calendar reform was not the only area where the knowledge of the Jesuits was appreciated by the Chinese. When war broke out between the Ming dynasty and the Manchus in the 17th century, there was an urgent need to upgrade the Ming army’s gunpowder weapons. The Ming government started to import Western cannons as early as the Wanli period and soon Chinese artisans were constructing cannons in Macau under the guidance of the Jesuits there. After the fall of Beijing in 1644, Schall and Verbiest continued to help the new Qing regime manufacture cannons for use in the ensuing wars (see Chapter Nine).

In addition, Ming and Qing Chinese expressed interest in Western mathematics, mechanical engineering and ship design. Multiple volumes of Western ←91 | 92→work in mathematics and mechanical engineering were translated into Chinese and influenced Chinese developments in those fields. But in the area of shipbuilding Western techniques had less impact on China mainly because Western vessels were only marginally superior at that time and the opportunity cost of adapting a new design was quite high.156

In the areas of geography and cartography the world map produced by Matteo Ricci in 1584 was the first of its kind in China and greatly enhanced Chinese knowledge of the rest of the globe. In the 18th century the Kangxi Emperor ordered a team of Jesuits and Chinese scholars to produce an atlas of the Qing Empire. The project took ten years to complete and the final product was a collection of maps whose quality was equal to the best produced in Europe in that era. As the empire expanded to include Xinjiang and Tibet during the Qianlong reign new maps were created with the help of Jesuit Michel Benoist to cover the newly incorporated areas.

The Qing court also employed European architects in the design of palaces and gardens. The most well-known example was Yuan Ming Yuan, also known as the Old Summer Palace, a complex of splendidly built pavilions, gazebos, kiosks and gardens in Beijing. Among those who participated in its planning were the Italian Jesuit court painter Giuseppe Castiglione who was in charge of designing the European-style structures in the complex and Michel Benoist who designed the fountains in the gardens. Unfortunately the entire Yuan Ming Yuan complex was destroyed during the Second Opium War in 1860.157

The above examples demonstrated that the Chinese in the Ming and Qing period were not indifferent to foreign learnings and products, particularly if the alien skills had practical uses. When it became obvious that European expertise would assist them in the reform of their calendar and in the construction of more effective cannons, they had no problem with the adoption of imported techniques. Nor did they balk at embracing foreign styles and fashion, as the design of the Old Summer Palace demonstrated. If there is one area where the Chinese appeared to be hesitant in accepting Western learning, it was in the purported new scientific theories, and that was mainly because the Catholic Jesuits did not pass on genuine Galilean and Newtonian science to China, but rather some half-truths and conflicting theories which planted doubts in the minds of Chinese literati about the accuracy of the new ideas (see Chapter Ten).158

As for the new technologies that were invented in the early part of the Industrial Revolution, Qing China would have to wait until the 19th century before it was able to acquire them, but that was not because of the Canton System. The purpose of the 1793 Macartney Embassy to China was to market British products in China and increase the volume of trade between the two countries. However ←92 | 93→if we examine the list of merchandises presented by the mission,159 we will find that it contained daily utensils, apparatuses and gadgets, a number of firearms, and astronomical, scientific and mathematical instruments some of which were already familiar to the Chinese because Jesuit missionaries had previously introduced them to China, with the exception of a planetarium which was perhaps a little more advanced than the one built by the Jesuits in the 17th century, plus a small number of other contrivances.160 But what was conspicuously missing in the list was Hargreaves’ Spinning Jenny (1764), Arkwright’s Water Frame (1769), Watt’s Steam Engine (1769), Crompton’s Spinning Mule (1779) and other new machines and devices that were invented since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. While the scientific instruments might appeal to a small number of elites, these Industrial Revolution inventions which represented the leading edge technologies of the age had important practical usages and should be able to attract a lot of interest among the wider public in China. So why were they absent from the list? There was in fact a model of a steam engine on board one of the mission’s ships. It is unclear whether it was a model of Watt’s engine or of the older Newcomen engine, but regardless, there was no demonstration of the model in China, nor were there any demonstration of other more sophisticated mechanical and chemical devices which the mission might have brought along. So why did the embassy fail to present those machines?

The answer appears to be the British rules and regulations mentioned in the previous section which prohibited the export of new machines and tools at the time of the Industrial Revolution. Just like the United States which protests its trade deficit with China yet simultaneously bars the sale of high technology products to that country in the late 20th and early 21st century, Britain in the late 18th and early 19th century also complained about its trade deficit with the Qing Empire but at the same time it prohibited the export of Industrial Revolution technologies to the Middle Kingdom.161

Finally, it is worth mentioning that although the Macartney Embassy did not accomplish its mission, Lord Macartney himself made a remarkable observation about the nature of the Chinese populace of that era: “in general I have found no people more curious, more greedy after novelty, or more eager to increase their personal convenience than the subjects of this country.”162

Territorial Expansion in the Ming-Qing Era

A state which pursued a closed door strategy would be defensive in nature and would avoid expansionist ventures. But both the Ming and Qing regime had made ←93 | 94→attempts to enlarge their empire. In particular, the area controlled by the Qing Empire at its zenith was close to six million square miles, more than double the size of the Ming Empire at its height. Hence the Qing regime must be pursuing an expansionary strategy rather than a closed door policy, at least during the first half of its rule.163

Nonetheless there was one unusual feature about the Qing expansion—the new territories acquired were almost all in the north and west and represented landward expansion. There was no seaward expansion with the notable exception of Taiwan. To understand why that was the case, we have to go back to the Mongol period. The Yuan Dynasty at the peak of its power attempted two invasions of Japan and one of Java, as we have mentioned earlier. All three attempts ended in dismal failures with huge losses of ships and soldiers. These negative experiences in maritime expansion influenced the strategic thinking of Chinese policy makers in the next 500 years. Since island states were difficult for a land power to conquer and their economic values were limited (as we have argued), and because no serious foreign menace had ever come from the seaward frontier in Chinese history before the 19th century, there was neither economic nor strategic justification for an overseas expansion project. That was why the first Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang (reigned 1368–1398), shortly after ascending his throne, decreed that his dynasty must refrain from invading 15 states to the east and the south. The 15 states were Korea, Japan, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, Annan (Northern Vietnam), Cambodia, Siam, Champa (Southern Vietnam), Sumatra (Northwest Sumatra), Xiyang (Southern India), Java, Pahang (Malayan Peninsular), Baihua (a Buddhist island state either in Southeast Asia or in the Indian Ocean), Srivijaya (Southeast Sumatra), and Boni (Northern Borneo).164 That was one of the reasons why the aim of Zheng He’s ocean voyages was to gain allies and vassals in Southeast, South and West Asia and not to conquer the states in these regions. However Zhu Yuanzhang’s son, the Yongle Emperor (1402–1424), did not follow his father’s orders to the letter. He tried to incorporate Northern Vietnam into the Ming Empire, but the attempt was unsuccessful and Northern Vietnam eventually won its independence after agreeing to be a tributary state of the Ming Empire.

The Qing Empire basically followed the Ming’s maritime policy and did not attempt any conquest of the island nations of Southeast Asia. The one and only exception was Taiwan, and that was due to the Zheng Chenggong menace as we have pointed out earlier. Zheng claimed to be the champion of a descendant of the last Ming emperor and intended to re-conquer Mainland China for a Ming scion from his base in Taiwan. Zheng’s rallying cry for the revival of the Ming dynasty posed an existential threat to Manchu rule in China, which was why the Qing regime was determined to subjugate the island. If it had been otherwise, it ←94 | 95→is very likely that Taiwan would be left alone like other island states in Southeast Asia as we have argued. In the 18th century the Qianlong Emperor did launch several uncalled-for and expensive campaigns against Burma and Vietnam, two states in mainland Southeast Asia. They were included among the so-called “Ten Great Military Campaigns” of the emperor. But as we have already noted, the Qing armies in fact suffered setbacks at the hands of the Burmese and Vietnamese forces, and the costly expeditions did not bring any visible gains to the Qing Empire.

The situation in China’s northern and western land frontier was totally different. For the past 2000 years China’s foreign invaders had come from the north and west. They were mainly nomadic peoples from Northern and Central Asia, but from the Song period onwards they would also include the Tungusic tribes from the northeast that were non-nomadic. These people posed a mortal threat to the Chinese Empires and that was the reason why they had to be conquered or pacified. This was particularly true in the case of the Ming dynasty, which was preceded by almost one century of Mongol rule in China, and the Ming rulers wanted to make certain that this would not happen again. The determined Yongle Emperor launched six military campaigns against the Mongols during his reign, and he personally commanded five of them. However, for reasons which we will elaborate in Chapter Nine, except for the first two campaigns led by the emperor which secured a number of minor victories, the military expeditions were largely ineffective and failed to destroy the main Mongol forces. The emperor himself fell ill and died during the last expedition. In 1449, the Zhengtong Emperor (reigned 1435–1449, 1457–1464), great grandson of Yongle, led the Ming dynasty’s final offensive against the Mongols but the campaign ended in absolute disaster. In the famous Battle of Tumu, the Ming army was routed and the emperor was taken captive by the Mongols.165 After this catastrophe, the Ming dynasty went on the defensive in the north all the way down to the end of the dynasty. It began to reconstruct and fortify the Great Wall166 and attempted to use trade and other means to placate the Mongols, as we have mentioned earlier. Thus the Ming dynasty lacked the military (and diplomatic) capabilities to extend its control over nomadic territories but did not lack the aspiration to conquer those territories.

The Qing dynasty’s capabilities, on the other hand, were vastly superior to its predecessor. The Manchus originated from north of the Great Wall and had already subdued numerous Eastern Mongol tribes before their capture of Beijing. They also formed marriage and military alliances with these tribes after forcing them into submission. (It is worth pointing out that the grandmother of the Kangxi Emperor, the famous Xiaozhuang Empress, was of Mongol origin.) And the Qing dynasty’s Eight Banner System under which all Manchu households were organized was later expanded to include a Mongol Eight Banner (as well as ←95 | 96→a Han Eight Banner), under which the Mongol and Han forces that had joined the Manchu army were organized.167 Thus the Manchus were much more familiar with Mongol society and had a far better understanding of the strategies, tactics and complexities of nomadic warfare than the Ming. In addition, they could rely on a far more commercialized economy than the one available in the early Ming which made the acquisition of war provisions less problematic.168 After over half a century of warfare during the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong reign, the Qing dynasty finally succeeded in annihilating the Zunghars, the Western Mongol tribal confederation which refused to submit to the Manchus, and incorporated Xinjiang and Tibet into the Qing Empire. Thus the nomadic menace that had plagued Chinese dynasties for two millennia was finally eliminated.

All the military campaigns mentioned above, irrespective of whether they were successful or futile, call attention to the aggressive and expansionist side of the Ming and Qing dynasties and serve to dispel the myth that these regimes were inward looking regimes which pursued a closed door policy. But unlike European states whose colonial ventures were aimed at acquiring more resources and capturing new markets, the Chinese empires’ attempts at territorial expansion were primarily strategic in nature and oriented towards the enhancement of national security.169 Economic considerations played an insignificant role because the empires were already vast and richly endowed with the resources needed by their subjects (at least before the later part of the 18th century)—Xinjiang was in actual fact a financial burden on the Qing government because the defense and administrative expenditures of the province exceeded the additional tax revenue generated by its incorporation into the empire.170


1. Arrighi (2007); Reinert (2007); Chang (2008); Perdue (2003), pp. 57–60.

2. Ricardo (1996), Chapter VII.

3. Smith (1937), pp. 429–31.

4. Ibid., p. 435.

5. Ibid, pp. 437–39.

6. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/TG.VAL.TOTL.GD.ZS?end=2017&name_desc=false&start=2016

7. Peck (2006), pp. 102–04, 134–39.

8. Ibid., pp. 142–45, 150–53, 155–62.

9. https://www.globalpolicy.org/security-council/index-of-countries-on-the-security-council-agenda/north-korea.html

10. Lamrani (2013).

11. The Energy Policy and Conservation Act (P.L. 94–163, 42 U.S.C. 6201), 1 Wm. and Mary Envtl. L. and Pol’y Rev. 2 (1976), http://scholarship.law.wm.edu/wmelpr/vol1/iss2/3

←96 | 97→

12. http://edition.cnn.com/2012/01/23/world/meast/iran-sanctions-facts/

13. Lintner (2015), pp. 237–38.

14. See Arrighi (2007), pp. 321–29 and Rowe (2009), pp. 133–38 for further discussions of Ming-Qing China’s trade policies.

15. Maddison (2007), p. 376 (Table A.1), p. 379 (Table A.4). Although we may question Maddison’s estimates, the relative size of the economies are beyond dispute.

16. Smith (1937), p. 645; Darwin (2008), p. 130; Findlay and O’Rourke (2007), p. 359.

17. Macartney (1962).

18. Wang and Zhu (2008), Qianlong Section 118, author’s translation.

19. Huang (1974), pp. 46, 174–75, 216 (Table 14), 263 (Table 18); Wang (1973), p. 80 (Table 4.8); Pomeranz (2000), p. 282.

20. The Ming and Qing government’s tax revenues equaled 4%–8% of GDP only (see Chapter Five).

21. Andornino (2006); Li (1990), pp. 28–34; Wang (2006), pp. 246–47.

22. Deng (1999), p. 125; Li (1990), pp. 35–42; Wang (2006), pp. 241–45.

23. Lin and Wang (1991), p. 17.

24. Tsai (2001), p. 188; Lipman (1997), p. 42.

25. Kennan (1984), pp. 107–28.

26. See Arrighi (2007), pp. 345–46 for a discussion of the similarities and differences between the present U.S.-centered system and the Ming tributary trade system.

27. Li (1990), p. 37.

28. Li (1990), pp. 54–57.

29. Lin (1987), pp. 274–77; Li (1990), pp. 11–28; Deng (1999), p. 126.

30. A fourth reason for the prohibition of private overseas trade during early Ming had been suggested: to check the fight of precious metals and copper coins to foreign nations when the Ming state was trying to establish a paper money regime (see von Glahn [2016], p. 287 [footnote 96]).

31. Li (1990), pp. 6, 80; Wang (2006), 37–40.

32. Turnbull (2010).

33. Li (1990), pp. 6–10, 80–99; Wang (2006), 40–41.

34. Li (1990), pp. 66–67, 99–102; Wang (2006), pp. 265–67; Lin (1987), pp. 70–71.

35. Li (1990), pp. 60–62, 109–10; Wang (2006), pp. 263–64, 267–69, 310–11, 315–16; Andrade (2008), p. 5.

36. That is not strictly true since even before 1567, some exceptions to the requirement that all foreign trade must be tributary trade were permitted (see the discussion regarding the limitations of sea-bans and the tributary trade system below).

37. Wang (2006), pp. 276–80; Lin (1987), pp. 287–303.

38. Wang (2006), pp. 316–17; von Glahn (1996), p. 123.

39. von Glahn (1996), pp. 123–25; Li (1990), p. 162.

40. Lin (1987), pp. 429–30; Wang (2006), pp. 324–27.

41. Cuba, of course, has other large trading partners like Russia, China and the European Union. That was not the case with Taiwan. The United States sanctions were partially lifted in 2016 but many were reintroduced again shortly after by President Trump.

42. Hsu (1990), p. 139.

43. Mazumdar (1998), pp. 92–95. Unlike the Ming government, trade with Japan was not banned by the Qing court.

44. Huang (1986), pp. 151, 156–57.

←97 | 98→

45. Mazumdar (1998), pp. 95–99; Huang (1986), pp. 151–52, 155–57, 163–64, 166; Wang (2006), pp. 360–61. There were, of courses, some products that were still banned, such as the export of rice and gunpowder.

46. Mazumdar (1998), p. 110; Deng (1999), p. 129; Huang (1986), p. 166.

47. Wang (2006), pp. 155–56, 334, 361, 430, 435, 498; Rowe (2001), p. 165; Findlay and O’Rourke (2007), p. 294. Foreign ships were, however, allowed to call at Chinese ports during the ban.

48. Wang (2006), pp. 425–29; Rowe (2009), p. 138; Reid (1997a), pp. 11–14.

49. Dirks (2006), pp. 144, 205.

50. This period is sometimes called the “Four Port System period” because supposedly four ports in the coastal provinces of Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang and Jiangsu were opened for trade during that period. However, there is no consensus on which four ports were opened up, and it appears that merchants were allowed to use more than four ports for maritime trade (see Huang (1986), pp. 155–56). That is why we choose to call the period the “trade liberalization period” instead.

51. Hsu (1990), pp. 140–54; Deng (1999), pp. 130–32; Rowe (2009), pp. 141–44; Wang (2006), pp. 381–83.


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