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New Perspectives on China’s Late Imperial Period

Why China Slept

Patrick Leung

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.

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Chapter One When Did China Fall Behind?

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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...

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