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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 Five Free Markets Without Capitalism?


Free Markets Without Capitalism?

While traditional China’s domestic markets were once thought to be underdeveloped because of government overcontrol and the low status of merchants, today most historians agree that from the Song period onwards China’s domestic markets became more free and open and the status of merchants rose (see Chapter Four), and by the Ming-Qing period the level of government interference in China was no more, if not less, than that in European states. The key issue, however, is whether free markets would lead to the emergence of capitalism, since the development of capitalism was an important aspect of the rise of the West.

Another relevant issue is there are several varieties of capitalism, the two main ones being commercial capitalism and industrial capitalism.1 When merchants accumulate capital by reinvesting their profits primarily in trade rather than in production, we call that commercial capitalism. When merchants accumulate capital by reinvesting a significant portion of their profits in production to make the manufacturing process more efficient and to produce new and better products, we call that industrial capitalism. It is beyond dispute that commercial capitalism existed in late imperial China, as the many examples of ultra-rich Hui, Jin and Canton Hong merchant families attest. The question is whether industrial capitalism also existed in the Ming and Qing period, and if yes, to what extent, since the appearance of industrial capitalism was crucial to the outbreak of the Industrial Revolution?

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