The Data We Have vs. the Data We Need: A Comment on the State of the “Divergence” Debate (Part II)

How Well Did Facts Travel to Support Protracted Debate on the History of the Great Divergence between Western Europe and Imperial China?

By: Kent Deng (London School of Economics), Patrick O’Brien (London School of Economics)

Abstract: This paper tackles the issue of how reliable the currently circulated ‘facts’ really are regarding the ‘Great Divergence’ debate. Our findings indicate strongly that ‘facts’ of premodern China are often of low quality and fragmented. Consequently, the application of these ‘facts’ can be misleading and harmful.


Distributed by NEP-HIS on: 2017-03-19

Review by: Kenneth Pomeranz (University of Chicago)


Comparative Consumption


This brings us, finally, to consumption.  As noted at the beginning of this comment, I agree that this is the most promising area for future research that might illuminate comparative living standards.  It is hard to know where really definitive data would come from: since the Chinese state did not systematically tax any major consumer goods except salt, and very little that ordinary people used was imported, we are unlikely to find data anywhere near as reliable as what we have for liquor, sugar, tobacco, etc., in various European countries.  Nonetheless, it is not that hard to imagine data that would help us make some progress in this area.[1]  And the area where O’Brien and Deng concentrate here – calories from grain – is, of course, fundamental, and there are various ways to generate estimates.  (It should be noted, however, that in unequal societies, the grain consumption of the poor is likely to be a lagging indicator of overall economic divergence –changes in the lives of the first and second quartiles of the income distribution could produce significant differences in average incomes well before the food intake of the poor in one society began to significantly outpace that of their counterparts in another.)  Thus, I applaud the attempt to see what we can learn by focusing on estimates of poor people’s incomes in kilocalories.  I have strong doubts, however, about the conclusion that Deng and O’Brien reach about this matter.

First, it is worth noting that various estimates have been made, which suggest that at least in this area, Chinese poor people (and perhaps some others elsewhere) were no worse off than their Western European counterparts. I have discussed several of them elsewhere, and little would be served by repeating that effort here.[2] 

O’Brien and Deng disagree, and rely upon a paper they published  in Journal of World History (2015).  That paper takes estimates of the likely income from a typical-sized tenant farm in the 18th-19th century Yangzi Delta, as calculated by Philip Huang, Robert Brenner and Christopher Isett, Robert Allen, and myself, and suggests that they converge upon a range of likely incomes that falls considerably short of the incomes of English laborers at the same time. I do not think that that is the most reasonable inference to be drawn from this data.

As they note in their current publication, I wrote to O’Brien and Deng after their  paper was published, largely agreeing with their methodology but questioning their data.  They apparently do not think the difference over data is important, since quickly continue “Nevertheless, these procedure provided us with figures for levels and changes in the standard of living for peasant households in Jiangnan from circa 1600 to circa 1829.” This, I think, misses the significance of the disagreement on data, which is easily stated.  Allow me to quote from the letter I wrote at the time, adding only some boldfaced type for emphasis, and a few explanations of reference in square brackets::

    “…    The key is Row 3 [of Table 4, pages 248-253]: ‘Area cultivated: mu,’ where you suggest that Huang, Brenner and Isett and I all accept an average farm size of 7.5 mu.  Brenner and Isett, of course, simply accepted Huang’s figure: they were all working together,  Brenner reads no Chinese and Isett (B and H’s student) had never worked on the Yangzi Delta.  So that is really one assertion that the farm size was 7.5 mu.  In your notes to that row you suggest that I also accept that figure; there is no direct citation for that point, but earlier you cite my “Facts Are Stubborn Things” essay.   But here’s what I wrote there, referring back to my essay in the first round of our debate [that is, my debate with Huang] (“Beyond the East-West Binary):

‘  …while I accepted Huang’s average farm size of  7.5 mu for purposes of our initial discussion, this  prevailed (if at all) only in the Delta’s most crowded prefectures, where people mostly grew cotton or mulberries.  The larger Delta I discuss had 59,000,000 registered cultivated mu circa 1770, or 10.5 mu  per 5-member farm family. [1]   This confirms Li Bozhong’s estimate that mid-Qing Jiangnan farms averaged 10 mu…’


And indeed, the 7.5 mu figure seems very unlikely to be right.  Consider, just for starters, that the sources you cite for 1820 give farm sizes of either 9.0 or 10 mu (depending on what definition one uses for Jiangnan);  it is widely agreed that there was no new land cleared in Jiangnan after the mid-18th century (further intensification took the form of more double-cropping), and while population figures are not very reliable, there was almost certainly some increase.  (Cao Shuji’s figures (2000, 5:691-92)  suggest a 38% increase from 1776 to 1850, with the rate of increase faster in the earlier years,  for instance; I think that is probably too high, but you see the point.) It thus seems pretty implausible that farmed acreage per family would have been anywhere from 1/6 to ¼ less in 1750 than it would be 70 years later.

Since I think you [Deng and O’Brien] have accurately reported the other figures in your table, the consequences of this one change would be quite significant.  Using 10 mu per family for 1750 would raise the estimate of caloric income in my data from 2,438 to 3,251; using 10.5 raises it to 3,413.  Thus, instead of more or less agreeing with Brenner and Isett, my numbers come to be 30-40 % above theirs – and over 80% above Huang’s (rather than about 33%). Perhaps more importantly, if you turn to your table 6, making this change would mean that instead of having a rough consensus on Jiangnan caloric intake that had already fallen a bit below English farm laborers (if one assumes they ate wheat) or significantly behind them (if they ate oats), you would be back to two views: one based on Huang’s data, that suggested what I have just said, and one which placed the caloric intake of Jiangnan farmers even with English farm laborers if they consumed oats, and still well ahead of them if they consumed wheat.  Significant divergence on this particular measure (admittedly one that lagged others) would be pushed well into the 19th century.  (In fact, if we accept Li or Allen’s work, as summarized in your column for 1800-1849, it would still not have happened in that period.).The difference is therefore quite significant…”


Moreover, I would add,  the adjustment I suggested in this missive would sharply alter the picture of change over time in the Yangzi Delta, yielding a more likely picture that has different comparative implications.  Without the correction, Deng and O’Brien’s data suggest a fairly sharp decline in living standards between 1600 and 1750, with a recovery to roughly 1600 levels by 1829.[3]   This, however, seems unlikely, since it was widely agreed that 1750 was near the middle of a prosperous era, while 1829 was (as already noted) part of an era of crisis.  (Whether the 1620s were part of a good period or not is less settled.[4] )     If we instead adjust the 1750 farm size figures as I have suggested, we have a probable improvement of living standards between 1620 and 1750 (perhaps even a large improvement), followed by either stasis or decline between 1750 and the 1820s; this would be much more in line both with the testimony of contemporary voices and the views of most historians.  And if that is right, it would also fit the picture of an East/West divergence  that came late but gathered steam quickly: not only because first Britian and then other parts of Northwestern Europe surged, but because the most prosperous parts of China began to fall into crisis.

Obviously, we would like comparisons of living standards, even among the poor, to go beyond caloric intake; and attempts have been made, by a number of us, to look quantitatively at cloth, sugar, tea, and a few other goods, and more impressionistically at tobacco, various forms of entertainment, and so on.   But for the time being, those discussions are nowhere near consensus; and in the world of the late 18th century, basic calories still loomed quite large in any case.  And there, I would respect, correcting the error noted above suggests that the balance of available research still suggests comparability until quite late. (Huang’s numbers have other serious problems, which I have discussed elsewhere.[5])    Until we get beyond basic calories in discussing the poor – and get much better estimates, on the Chinese side, of the distribution of income,[6] so we know more about what comparisons of the poor do and do not tell us, our picture of comparative consumption will remain quite inadequate for settling our debates, even if it remains the most promising area for further research; and as long as our understanding of consumption remains so inadequate, I would be loath to shut the door on the other approaches that Deng and O’Brien encourage us to abandon.


Allen, Robert.  2000. “Economic Structure and Agricultural Productivity in Europe, 1300 – 1800,” European Review of Economic History 4:1 (April, 2000),

Allen, Robert. 2004. “Mr. Lockyer Meets the Index Number Problem: The standard of Living in Canton and London in 1704,”  July 2004, available at http://www., accessed December 7, 2008

Allen, Robert. 2009a. The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Allen, Robert. 2009b. “Agricultural Productivity and Rural Incomes in England and the Yangzi Delta, ca. 1620-1820,” Economic History Review 62:3 (August), pp. 525-550.

Allen, Robert, 2011.  Robert Allen, Jean-Pascal Bassino, Debin Ma, Christine Moll-Murata, and Jan LuitenVan Zanden, “Wages, Prices and Living Standards in China 1738-1925: In Comparison with Europe, Japan, and India,” Economic History Review 64:1 (February), pp. 8-38.

Baten, Joerg. et al.  2010.  Joerg Baten, Debin Ma, Stephen Morgan and Qing Wang, “Evolution of Living Standards and Human Capital in China in the 18th – 20th Centuries: Evidences From Real Wages, Age-Heaping, and Anthropometrics,” Explorations in Economic History 47, pp. 347-359.

Benedict, Carol. 2011.  Golden-Silk Smoke: A History of Tobacco in China 1550- 2010. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Brenner, Robert and Christopher Isett. 2002. “England’s Divergence from the Yangzi Delta: Property Relations, Microeconomics, and Patterns of Development,” Journal of Asian Studies 61:2 (May), pp. 609-662.

Broadberry, Stephen, Hanhui Guan and David Daokui Li. 2014. “China, Europe, and the Great Divergence: A Study in Historical National Accounting, 980 – 1850,”


Chang Chung-li (Zhang Zhongli). 1962. The Income of the Chinese Gentry.  Seattle: University of Washington Press.Deng, Kent G., and Patrick K. O’Brien. 2015. “Nutritional Standards of Living in England and the Yangtze Delta (Jiangnan), circa 1644 – circa 1840: Clarifying Data for Reciprocal Comparisons,” Journal of Wor;d History 26:2 (June), pp. 233-267.

Guan Hanhui and David Daokui Li.  2010. “Mingdai GDP ji jiegou shitan,” (A Study of  GDP and its Sturcture in China’s Ming dynasty),” Zhongguo jingji jikan 9:3 (April), pp. 787-829,
Huang, Philip. 1990. The Peasant Family and Rural Development in the Lower Yangzi Region, 1350-1988.  Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Huang, Philip C.C.  2002a. “Development or Involution in Eighteenth Century Britain and China?  A Review of Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy,”  Journal of Asian Studies 61:2 (May), pp. 501-538.

Huang  Philip. C.C.  2003. “Further Thoughts on Eighteenth-Century Britain and China: Rejoinder to Pomeranz’s Response to My Critique,” Journal of Asian Studies 62:1 (February), pp. 157-167.

Lal, Deepak. 1998. Unintended Consequences: The Impact of Factor Endowments, Culture, and Politics on Long-Run Economic Performance.  Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998.
Landes, David. 1998.  The Wealth and Poverty of Nations.  New York: Norton.

Lee, James, Cameron Campbell and Wang Feng. 2002. “Positive Check or Chinese Checks?” Journal of Asian Studies 61:2  (May), pp. 591-607.

Li Bozhong and Jan Luiten Van Zanden. 2012. “Before the Great Divergence? Comparing the Yangzi Delta and the Netherlands at the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century,” Journal of Economic History 72:4 (December), pp. 956-989.

Li Wenzhi and Jiang Taixin, 2005.  Zhongguo dizhu zhi jingji lun (Essays on the Chinese Landlord Economy). Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexue chubanshe,

Liu, William Guanglin. 2015.  The Chinese Market Economy 1000-1500,  Albany: State University of New York Press.

 Ma,Debin. 2004. “Modern Economic Growth in the Lower Yangzi in 1911-1937: a Quantitative, Historical, and Institutional Analysis” (Discussion paper 2004-06-002, Foundation for Advanced Studies on International Development, Tokyo.

Maddison, Angus. 2001.  The World Economy: A Millenmial Perspective.  Paris: OECD.

Maddison, Angus. 2003. The World Economy: Historical Statistics. Paris: OECD.


Moll-Murata, Christine. 200. “Chinese Guilds from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Centuries: An Overview,”  International Review of Social History 53, Supplement, pp. 213-247.


Morgan, Stephen. 2004.  “Economic Growth and the Biological Standard of Living in China 1880-1930,” Economic and Human Biology 2:2

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

Pomeranz, Kenneth. 2002 “Beyond the East-West Binary: Resituating Development Paths in the Eighteenth Century World,”  Journal of Asian Studies 61:2 (May, 2002), pp. 539-590.

Pomeranz, Kenneth.  2003“Facts Are Stubborn Things: A Response to Philip Huang,”  Journal of Asian Studies  62:1 (February, 2003).: 167-181.

Pomeranz, Kenneth. 2006.  “Standards of Living in Rural and Urban China: Preliminary Estimates for the Mid-18th and Early 20th Centuries.”  Paper for Panel 77, World Economic History Congress, Helsinki.

Pomeranz, Kenneth. 2011. “Development with Chinese Characteristics?” Convergence and Divergence in Long-Run and Comparative Perspective.” European University Institute (Florence) Max Weber Programme, Working Paper 2011/06.


Pomeranz, Kenneth. 2013. “Skills, Guilds, and Development: Asking Epstein’s Questions to East Asian Institutions,” in Maarten Prak and Jan Luiten van Zanden, eds., Technology, Skills, and the Pre-Modern Economy in the East and West: Essays Dedicated to the Memory of S.R. Epstein  (Leiden: E.J. Brill), pp. 93-127.


Rawski, Evelyn.  1972.  Agrarian Change and the Peasant Economy of South China.  Cambridge: MA: Harvard University Press.


Xue Yong. 2006. . “Agrarian Urbanization: Social and Economic Changes in Jiangnan from the Eighth to the Nineteenth Century” Yale University Ph. D. dissertation.

Yang Guozhen, Ming Qing tudi qiyue yanjiu  (Research on land contracts in the Ming and Qing)  Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1988,

Zhang Peiguo. 2002.   Jindai Jiangnan xiangcun diquan de lishi renleixue yanjiu. (A Historical Anthropology of Rural Village Land Rights in Jiangnan.)  Shanghai: Renmin chubanshe.







[1] See Benedict 2011:49, lending cautious support to my conjecture that tobacco acreage stagnated or declined between the late 18th and early 20th centuries, greatly reducing per capita output (and thus allowing us to use early 20th century figures to conservatively approximate 18th century consumption).  Thomas Rawski has suggested that we could approach this issue more rigorously if we found a long run of tobacco prices to compare with those for grain: something which hasn’t happened yet, but is certainly possible.

[2] See Pomeranz 2000:36-40,Pomeranz 2002, and Pomeranz 2003.. See also Lee, Campbell and Wang 2002. More recent work on height, longevity, etc., is largely restricted to the 19th and 20th centuries, and has little to say about the Yangzi Delta in particular, but tends to suggest that the parts of China that are represented in the data were at or above the middle of a European distribution in the early 19th century.  See for instance Morgan 2004; Baten et. al. 2010..

[3] This effect is partly the result of the choice of data discussed here, but it is also partly the result of the fact that the data for 1600 and 1829 include estimates from Li Bozhong, who tends to be optimistic in his view of Delta conditions, while the section of the table for 1750 does not; at the same time, Philip Huang, the most pessimistic of the scholars in this debate, is cited in the 1750 section of the table, but not in the other two.

[4]For a recent overview that takes a relatively dour view of the late Ming (though it does accept that it represented a very significant recovery from ehat it considers a catastrophic early and mid-Ming), see Liu 2015.

[5] Pomeranz 2002, 2003.

[6] I made an extremely quick and crude attempt in Pomeranz 2003.  An earlier and partial attempt is Chang 1955.

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About Manuel A. Bautista-González

I am a doctoral candidate in United States History at Columbia University in the City of New York. I specialize in American economic, business, entrepreneurial, financial, banking and monetary history. For my dissertation at Columbia, I study the concurrent use of domestic and foreign currencies as means of payment and their relationship with interregional and external trade circuits and financial markets in antebellum New Orleans. I am also interested in Mexican and Latin American history, global history, the history of economic thought, the history of economics as discipline and profession, the methodology of economics and economic history, as well as the broader relationship between history, economics and other social sciences.

One thought on “The Data We Have vs. the Data We Need: A Comment on the State of the “Divergence” Debate (Part II)

  1. bbatiz

    Professor Pomeranz epitomizes that familiar English accolade of a gentleman and scholar who takes historical evidence seriously and is not enticed by the love and aura of numbers. We thank him for courteous reply to our critique of the statistical data utilized to debate divergence. We wish to leave our friends of readers of this blog with some final thoughts that summarize our general view that an engagement with ranges of numbers in print that refer to production, incomes and consumption for the prefectures, counties and regions of Imperial China (let alone to the empire as a whole) lack sufficient semblance of empirical statistical or conceptual validity to become acceptable as plausible and negotiable conjectures for historical analysis. On close examination, too many turn out to be repetitions and refinements of dubious data that appeared in print several generations ago that have mutated over time into foundations for a wave of modern rewritings inspired and stimulated by the protracted and heuristic debate on the Great Divergence. As enthusiastic participants in that heuristic discourse and admirers of theoretical, historical and institutional contributions for the development of metanarratives in global economic as well as other styles of world history, we gradually and reluctantly reached the conclusion that statistical evidence for Imperial China is simply not available to settle on a chronology for divergence that depends on the investigations conducted within the parameters of the Kuznetsian paradigm for modern economic history and empirical economics.

    As Sinologists who have grappled with the primary and official sources available for China know, this is broadly the case because the central and local authorities of the Ming and Qing Empire engaged only sporadically and inefficiently in endeavour to gather statistical information that referred, however, accurately to the populations, workforces, resources, production, income, consumption, trade of geographically defined parts of the empire. Wherever and whenever and for whatever reason data were gathered and calibrated, it was almost invariably recorded in weights, volumes, measures, prices, and monetary units of account that were not standardized across Imperial China. This remained the case until 1911. To examine the average number of ‘mu’ of land cultivated or cropped per household in Jiangnan or the Lower Yangzi River as a whole (as Ken has recognized, and is a critical fact for the ‘dispute’ between Ken and his critics) was neither systematically measured nor updated regularly by cadastral surveys based upon standardized areas of farmed land by the local, regional or central authorities of Ming-Qing China.

    Thus, as we must now acknowledge, there is simply no secure way of settling upon a plausible conjecture for the modal area of land available for the production of crops, raw materials and animal products to households of a modal size (another unmeasured and unknown number) for the mid-18th century. Our figure of 7.5 mu per farm relies on citations of evidence from the publications of Huang, Isett and Brenner. Ken prefers to rely on 10.5 mu as a more plausible number which he derived from Bozhong Li who cited two contemporary manuals on agronomy. For his doctoral dissertations, Kent Deng critically examined all available such manuals across China’s long-term history. He suggests that Li’s chosen manuals are too optimistic in output levels compared with their counterparts and compared with China’s first credible survey by John Buck in the 1920s.

    Our reconsidered response to Ken’s critique of our selection of 7.5 mu per modal farm in the article we published in the Journal of World History is to admit that our endeavour to construct a chronology for divergence based upon the measurement of nutritional standards of living (kilocalories per capita) for households farming in the Yangzi Delta compared to the families of labourers working in the construction industry in English towns has not solved the problem of disputed data principally because prospects for finding and calculating data for the size of families (5 to 7 persons per family depending on regions) and more seriously the actual area unit (‘mu’) of cultivated/cropped land at farmers’ disposal in different parts of the delta seems to be entirely remote. With characteristic courtesy and rigour Ken continues to cite with qualified approval comparable endeavoring by colleagues to construct benchmarked estimates for the GDP of Imperial China, Jiangnan region, and Songjiang Prefecture. We too remain loath to give up on the measurement of local, regional and national levels of production for purposes of comparative economic histories.

    Nevertheless, we set out to remind ourselves and others of the range and quality of the data required to construct plausible conjectures for such aggregates and the inferences for both economic efficiencies and social welfare they convey. Almost all the macro-economic data required to measure production and/or incomes at national and local level including populations, cultivated land, crop yields, mineral and manufactured outputs, outputs/incomes from services are either not available or reproduce the guesses of contemporaries and historians with pretensions to quantification. Comparisons of GDP indices of material welfare for countries and societies with demarcated frontiers have allowed historians to take account of the contribution of foreign trade to standards of living. For geographically defined and relatively small units of production such as the tiny and ostensibly wealthy prefecture of Songjiang or even the much larger and advanced region of Jiangnan embedded politically and economically into a vast and heterogeneous Qing Empire, the meaning of figures that refer to virtually unmeasurable levels of production without reference to exports and imports cannot be accepted as a conceptually valid index for comparisons with the Netherlands and/or England. And as a reconsideration, undergraduate texts in welfare economics, a perusal of the theoretical assumptions behind Laspeyres and Paasche Index numbers and a reading of recent debates among our colleagues in economics will reveal deflations and extrapolations based upon the 1990 International Dollars will not simultaneously generate the index and numeraire that allows historians to compare levels of production, per capita incomes and standards of living, consumption per head across space and time.

    Of course the stance we have taken against the application of concepts and statistics (derived from the Kuznetsian paradigm to premodern global economic history and the Great Divergence Debate) can be and have been replicated in similar comparisons across western economies. All available data should be collected, calibrated and examined to extract the maximum range of plausible inferences from it for the purposes of constructing metanarratives that one global in scope, scale and method. In Western Europe, for reasons we all understand, there happens to be a longer and more acceptable volume of statistical evidence than in the Mughal, Ming-Qing, Ottoman and Russian empires. Is it not time to quantify the quantifiable, to search for indicators and to compare cultures, institutions and wellbeing of civilisations that are not depended on Euro-centred frameworks of poorly measured outcomes exposed in ambiguous numerical form as more or less benign and conducive to human welfare by national accounts, tabulations of income per capita, comparisons of real wages, etc.? Or, is it the “game” as some say “Any number is better than no number”?

    Patrick O’Brien and Kent Deng
    (London School of Economics)


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