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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 Fourteen What If Europeans Had Not Come to China in the Early Modern Period?

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What If Europeans Had Not Come to China in the Early Modern Period?

The collapse of Qing China which began near the end of the 18th century was brought about by overpopulation and the resultant resource shortages and environmental degradation, coupled with the absence of major technological breakthroughs since the Ming period. It was the introduction of modern technologies from the West which enabled China to begin its recovery in the 20th century after a long period of turmoil. As Mark Elvin saw it:

It was the historical contribution of the modern West to ease and then break the high-level equilibrium trap in China. Opening the country to the world market in the middle of the nineteenth century led before long to rapid commercial and industrial growth at the main points of contact, especially Shanghai. Work done with and on foreign machinery trained the Chinese in modern technical skills, and laid the foundations of modern Chinese enterprises.1

But that dependence on Western influences raises the interesting question of what might have happened to China if the Europeans had not come? One possible outcome is, of course, that China would repeat its dynastic cycle—the Qing dynasty would unravel, the ensuing civil war would reduce China’s population, a new dynasty would emerge which brought peace and stability to China for one or two centuries but with no accompanying technological progress, the new dynasty ←383 | 384→would subsequently decline and history would repeat itself. But could...

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