Author Archives: joymanlee

The Enigma of Chinese Business Records

Discovering Economic History in Footnotes: The Story of the Tong Taisheng Merchant Archive (1790-1850)

By Debin Ma (London School of Economics) and Weipeng Yuan (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences)

 Abstract: The Tong Taisheng (统泰升) merchant account books in Ningjin county of northern China in 1800-1850 constitute the most complete and integrated surviving archive of a family business for pre-modern China. They contain unusually detailed and high-quality statistics on exchange rates, commodity prices and other information. Utilized once in the 1950s, the archive has been left largely untouched until our recent, almost accidental rediscovery. This article introduces this unique set of archives and traces the personal history of the original owner and donor. Our story of an archive encapsulates the history of modern China and how the preservation and interpretation of evidence and records of Chinese economic statistics were profoundly impacted by the development of political ideology and in modern and contemporary China. We briefly discuss the historiographical and epistemological implication of our finding in the current Great Divergence debate.


Distributed by NEP-HIS on 2016-9-11

Reviewed by Joyman Lee


Cover page of the Tong Taisheng account book


This paper is the first stage in a four-part project to set out the history of the Tong Taisheng archive, the history of the firm, the history of Ningin county, and the larger North China economy in the mid-nineteenth century on the eve of the Opium War. Tong Taisheng was a medium-sized family-owned local grocery store that sold a large variety of dry goods, and the discovery of a genealogy (1903) allows the family’s history to be traced back for 16 generations, or 491 years to 1404, when the family migrated to Ningjin and started life there as farmers. Through diligence and thrift, the family business expanded, and it came to own 300 mu of land (48 acres) before a temporary setback in the 7th and 8th generation. Afterwards, the family made a comeback through commerce, invested heavily in education (as one would expect for local elites), with the result that family wealth and business stabilized to between 300-800 m. As a sign of their social status, the family was frequently entrusted with mediating and resolving village disputes at the point the archive ended in the mid-nineteenth century.

This is an impressive and ambitious project that aims to uncover the history of an extraordinary business archive in Ningjin county, Shandong province in North China. Although the data from the archive was briefly utilized by the leading Chinese economic historian at the time, Yan Zhongping, in 1955, the archive has disappeared from view until its rediscovery by the authors. Surprisingly, most of the documents were donated by a member of the lineage operating the archive (and the business) in 1935, and were simply sitting untouched in the National Library and the Institute of Economic Research of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, both in Beijing. According to the authors, the data amounts to ‘over 11 thousand data points of copper-silver exchange rates with transaction dates and quantities, five and six different types of silver used, loans and interest rates of clients, all in daily frequency’ (p7), as well as detailed prices of about 40 or 50 types of commodities. Moreover, it offers the opportunity to undertake an in-depth study of the Chinese accounting system, of the traditional monetary system and the impact of nineteenth-century opium trade and silver outflow, and to quantify China’s traditional marketing structure that forms the core of William Skinner’s landmark study on China’s macroeconomic regions (1964).

The authors offer a detailed description of the four categories of information available: firstly, original account books,  or journals or daily books (流水账) to record daily transactions of cash and goods in copper cash and silver, which constitute the bulk of the archive; secondly, postal account books, or general trade ledgers (交易总账), which were sorted by the name of the business house or customer; thirdly, summary account books, with information on strung coins account, profits and dividend account; and fourthly, miscellaneous account books, with details of temporary dealings and transactions, and accounts of loans, land purchases, and income from interest on loans. The entire archive was in traditional Chinese format with string-bound Chinese paper, was hand-written in classical Chinese, and requires specialized learning and expertise to decipher.


General trader ledger account from 1846, reflecting the ‘four columns’ (四柱法) system in traditional Chinese accounting


The richness of the archive should be self-evident, and it is all the more extraordinary in light of the paucity of detailed economic information on pre-imperial China. As the authors highlight, much of Robert Allen’s (2011) critique of the eighteenth-century Chinese data used by Kenneth Pomeranz (2000), centers on the data’s alleged imprecision in relation to Europe. As the authors put it, the paucity of Chinese historical data is in itself an intriguing historical question, as it invites us to question whether it is the result of poor record keeping, or whether it is more a reflection of the poor state of archival collection given China’s tumultuous modern history. Similarly, it will be valuable for scholars to consider whether China’s alleged lack of rich historical data is indeed suggestive of the lack of a high level of economic development or rationality compared to Europe.

As the authors point out, part of the need for uncovering and developing the Tong Taisheng archive is epistemological. Because of the invisibility of the type of sources that the archive represents – due partly to political manipulation – academic researchers in China have become unfamiliar with the bookkeeping and accounting methods in the documents. The disappearance from view of these documents meant that researchers came to be predisposed towards source materials that were more familiar to Western eyes. The unenviable consequence was an interpretation of the past through a “European” or colonial framework (p17).

Owing to the originality of the sources, Ma and Yuan’s ongoing study of the Tong Taisheng business archive is likely to be highly important not only for Chinese business history, but also for the business history of other non-Western regions plagued by similar problems of the paucity of data, as well as the lack of awareness among researchers of types of documents that are very different from the ones familiar to Western researchers.

Additional References

Allen, R, Bassino, J, Ma, D, Moll-Murata, C, Van Zanden, J. 2011. “Wages, Prices, and Living Standards in China, 1738-1925: In Comparison with Europe, Japan, and India”. Economic History Review 64, S1: 8-38.

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

Skinner, W. 1964. “Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China”. Journal of Asian Studies 24: 3-43.

Whither Labor-Intensive Industrialization?

How Did Japan Catch-up On The West? A Sectoral Analysis Of Anglo-Japanese Productivity Differences, 1885-2000

By Stephen Broadberry (London School of Economics), Kyoji Fukao (Hitotsubashi University), and Nick Zammit (University of Warwick)

Abstract: Although Japanese economic growth after the Meiji Restoration is often characterised as a gradual process of trend acceleration, comparison with the United States suggests that catching-up only really started after 1950, due to the unusually dynamic performance of the US economy before 1950. A comparison with the United Kingdom, still the world productivity leader in 1868, reveals an earlier period of Japanese catching up between the 1890s and the 1920s, with a pause between the 1920s and the 1940s. Furthermore, this earlier process of catching up was driven by the dynamic productivity performance of Japanese manufacturing, which is also obscured by a comparison with the United States. Japan overtook the UK as a major exporter of manufactured goods not simply by catching-up in labour productivity terms, but by holding the growth of real wages below the growth of labour productivity so as to enjoy a unit labour cost advantage. Accounting for levels differences in labour productivity between Japan and the United Kingdom reveals an important role for capital in the catching-up process, casting doubt on the characterisation of Japan as following a distinctive Asian path of labour intensive industrialisation.


Distributed by NEP-HIS on 2015-5-30

Reviewed by Joyman Lee

Broadberry, Fukao, and Zammit focus our attention on productivity comparisons between the UK and Japan, departing from existing works on U.S.-Japan comparisons.

Broadberry, Fukao, and Zammit focus our attention on productivity comparisons between the UK and Japan, departing from existing works on U.S.-Japan comparisons.


Broadberry, Fukao, and Zammit argue that previous authors such as Pilat’s reliance on a U.S.-Japan comparison to measure Japan’s productivity has greatly distorted our periodization of Japan’s economic growth (Pilat 1994). This was partly because like Japan, the U.S. grew very quickly between 1870 and 1950, and the effects of the Great Depression in the U.S. also blunted our perception of the relative stagnation of the Japanese economy between 1920 and 1950. By comparing the Japanese data with that of the UK, Broadberry, Fukao, and Zammit show that Japanese catch-up began in the late nineteenth century during the Meiji period, and stagnated in the interwar period before resuming again after the Second World War.

In contrast to Pilat, the authors find that manufacturing played an important role in Japanese growth not only after but also before the Second World War. Whereas strong U.S. improvements in manufacturing (the U.S. itself was undergoing catch-up growth vis-à-vis the UK) might have obscured our view of Japanese performance in these areas, comparison with the UK reveals that Japanese manufacturing performed strongly until 1920. In terms of methodology, Broadberry, Fukao, and Zammit emphasize their use of more than one benchmark for time series projections to provide cross checks, and they selected 1935 and 1997 as benchmarks.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the paper is the suggestion that capital played a crucial role in Japan’s experience of catch-up growth. The authors challenge the growing view among economic historians that Asia pursued a distinctive path of economic growth, based on a pre-modern “industrious revolution” (Hayami 1967) and labor intensive industrialization (Austin & Sugihara 2013) in the modern period. Broadberry, Fukao, and Zammit’s data (table 12) shows that across our period, Japan caught up with the UK not only in terms of labor productivity but also capital intensity. Crucially, “by 1979, capital per employee was higher in Japan than in the United Kingdom” (p17). The authors explain this phenomenon by observing that “capital deepening played an important role in explaining labour productivity growth in both countries, but in Japan, the contribution of capital deepening exceeded the contribution of improving efficiency in three of the five periods” (p18). Contrary to the view put forward by those in favor of labor-intensive industrialization, the authors argue, “Japan would not have caught up without increasing [capital] intensity to western levels” (p19).

The authors contend that capital played as important a role as labor in shaping Japan's productivity growth.

The authors contend that capital played as important a role as labor in shaping Japan’s productivity growth.


This paper provides a valuable quantitative contribution to our knowledge of labor productivity in two countries that are highly important in studies on global economic history. The greater intensity of Japan’s external relations with the U.S. in the period after the Second World War has led to scholars’ greater interest in comparisons with the U.S., whereas as Broadberry, Fukao, and Zammit point out, the UK remains one of the main yardsticks in terms of productivity before the Second World War. In this respect, a comparison with the European experience is valuable, and offers a good quantitative basis for illustrating the character of Japan’s industrialization efforts in the period before the Second World War. The conclusion that manufacturing played a key role in Japan’s catch-up growth vis-à-vis the UK is consistent with the historical literature that has foregrounded manufacturing, and in particular exports to Asia, as the main driver of pre-WW2 Japanese economic growth.

What is more surprising in this paper, however, is the authors’ contention that capital was the primary factor in Japan’s productivity growth. The authors note that until 1970 Japan enjoyed lower unit labor costs vis-à-vis Britain largely because real wages were artificially repressed beneath the level of labor productivity. It was in the 1970s when Japan started seeing increases in real wages, and as a result its labor cost advantage disappeared until faster real wage growth in the UK in the 1990s (p15). In other words, the authors suggest that Japan’s export success was due not so much to improvements in labor productivity as it was to artificially low labor costs. While Japanese labor productivity growth was not exceptional except between 1950 and 1973, the contribution of capital deepening in Japan (2.29% and 1.32% for 1950-73 and 1973-90, as opposed to 0.67% and 0.58% for the UK; table 13) was on the whole greater or at least as much as that of the UK.

While few commentators would dispute the importance of capital in driving economic growth, it is unclear whether the data presented here sustains the conclusion that Japan did not follow a distinctive path of labor-intensive industrialization. The authors cite Allen’s paper on technology and global economic development (Allen 2012) to support their claim that western levels of capital intensity were necessary for productivity-driven growth that is characteristic of advanced industrial economies. While that latter point is well taken, aggregate measures of “capital intensity” do not on their own reflect the types of industries where capital (and other resources) is invested, or the manner in which labor is deployed either to create growth or to generate employment for reasons of political choice or social stability. In fact, proponents of the labor-intensive industrialization argument acknowledge that post-WW2 Japan witnessed a step-change in its synthesis of the labor and capital-intensive paths of industrialization, at the same time that Japanese industries often opted for relatively labor-intensive sectors within the spectrum of capital-intensive industries, such as consumer electronics as opposed to military, aerospace, and petro-chemical sectors (e.g. Austin & Sugihara 2013, p43-46).

Labor-intensive industrialization does not itself preclude high levels of capital investment, e.g. consumer electronics, which employs a great number of individual workers.

Labor-intensive industrialization does not itself preclude high levels of capital investment, for example consumer electronics, which employs great numbers of individual workers.

The key arguments in labor-intensive industrialization are not the role of capital per se, but the constraints imposed by initial factor endowments (e.g. large populations) and the transferability of the model through national industrial policies and intra-Asian flows of ideas and institutions. Broadberry, Fukao, and Zammit do not challenge these core ideas in the model, and confine their critiques to labeling Japan’s technological policy breakthroughs as changes in “flexible production technology” (p. 19). Doing so ignores the basic fact that the balance between population and resources in Japan has little similarity to that in the West, either at the eve of the Industrial Revolution or in the present day. In other words, there is little inherent contradiction between the need for capital accumulation and the selection of industries that make better use of the capital and technology (e.g. “appropriate technology”, Atkinson & Stiglitz 1969 and Basu & Weil 1998).

Finally, it seems to me that basing a critique primarily on a comparative study of the advanced economies of the UK and Japan misses a broader point that labor-intensive industrialization is as much about exploring paths that have been overlooked or inadequately theorized because of our simplistic insistence on “convergence” in economic growth. From this angle, foregrounding the subtle but profound differences between successful models of economic development, e.g. the experience of Japan in East Asia, and dominant Western models seems to be at least as valuable as attempts to reproduce the “convergence” argument.

Additional References

Allen, R 2012. “Technology and the Great Divergence: Global Economic Development since 1820,” Explorations in Economic History, vol. 49, pp. 1-16.

Atkinson, A & Stiglitz, J 1969. “A New View of Technological Change,” Economic Journal, vol. 79, no. 315, pp. 573-78.

Austin, G. & Sugihara, K (eds.) 2013. Labour-Intensive Industrialization in Global History. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge.

Basu, S & Weil, D, 1998, “Appropriate Technology and Growth,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. 113, no. 4, p. 1025-54.

Hayami, A, 1967. “Keizai shakai no seiretsu to sono tokushitsu” (The formation of economic society and its characteristics”) in Atarashii Edo Jidai shizō o motomete, ed. Shakai Keizaishi Gakkai. Tokyo: Tōyō Keizai Shinpōsha.

Pilat, D 1994. The Economics of Rapid Growth: The Experience of Japan and Korea. Cheltenham, Glos.: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Failed by #EconomicGrowth?

Asia’s Little Divergence: State Capacity in China and Japan before 1850

by Tuan-Hwee Sng (National University of Singapore) and Chiaki Moriguchi (Hitotsubashi University)

Abstract: This paper explores the role of state capacity in the comparative economic development of China and Japan. Before 1850, both nations were ruled by stable dictators who relied on bureaucrats to govern their domains. We hypothesize that agency problems increase with the geographical size of a domain. In a large domain, the ruler’s inability to closely monitor bureaucrats creates opportunities for the bureaucrats to exploit taxpayers. To prevent overexploitation, the ruler has to keep taxes low and government small. Our dynamic model shows that while economic expansion improves the ruler’s finances in a small domain, it could lead to lower tax revenues in a large domain as it exacerbates bureaucratic expropriation. To test these implications, we assemble comparable quantitative data from primary and secondary sources. We find that the state taxed less and provided fewer local public goods per capita in China than in Japan. Furthermore, while the Tokugawa shogunate’s tax revenue grew in tandem with demographic trends, Qing China underwent fiscal contraction after 1750 despite demographic expansion. We conjecture that a greater state capacity might have prepared Japan better for the transition from stagnation to growth.


Reviewed by Joyman Lee


This paper was distributed by NEP-HIS on 2014-09-25 and 2014-10-03. In it Sng and Moriguchi ask why China – with its large population and high levels of technological prowess – was not the first country to industrialize. Existing studies of “divergence” have not explained differences in economic performance between China and Japan. Despite the similarities between the two economies in levels of proto-industrialization, political and legal structures, and living standards. Sng and Moriguchi argue that differences in public finance accounted for important differences in the two countries’ ability to promote economic growth.

In this paper Sng and Moriguchi focus on the important question of size and geography as the central explanatory variable. In particular, the authors develop a context-specific model which suggests that rulers’ need to rely on agents to govern (principal-agent problem) in a pre-modern dictatorship meant that “agency problems increase with its geographical size and heterogeneity” (p5), owing to information challenges which precluded close supervision by rulers of their agents. The model predicts that the larger the polity, the higher the corruption rate, and the lower the tax rate out of fear that subjects will revolt, as expropriation reduces the ruler’s ability to provide social goods commensurate to the tax levied. The higher level of corruption also reduces rulers’ incentives to invest, and hence the provision of public goods per capita. Graft and inefficiencies mean that population and economic growth actually reduces the proportion of the economic surplus available to the ruler. As a result, the size of the polity lowers the tipping point where the negative effects of growth outweigh the positive effects.

Qing military officials. Qing China had a chronic corruption problem.

Qing military officials. Qing China had a chronic corruption problem.

Sng and Moriguchi test their hypothesis against a pool of primary and secondary data, which confirms that tax rates were higher in Japan than China, averaging around 34% in Japan (rising to 50-55% in some domains, p29): more than twice of China’s level in 1700 and approximately six times by 1850. Population growth was far greater in China than Japan, where the population stagnated after 1700. Compared to the Qing, Tokugawa Japan enjoyed a higher level of public services in terms of coinage, transportation, urban management, and environmental management (forestry), and in famine relief the Qing’s strengths were cancelled out by 1850. The authors conclude that the large size of China “imposed increasingly insurmountable constraints on the regime’s capacity to collect taxes and provide essential local public goods as its economy expanded,” and that “this factor alone might have been sufficient in holding back China’s transition from stagnation to growth even in the absence of Western imperialism” (p38). In line with the existing scholarship, Sng and Moriguchi contend that Japan’s healthier tax system provided the Westernizing Meiji regime (1868-1912) with revenues to conduct far-reaching reforms.


Despite its significance in global history, the comparative history of China and Japan is surprisingly overlooked. The “California school,” for instance, has focused largely on the economic “divergence” between China and the West, whereas Japanese economic historians have labored over Japan-Europe differences (Saito 2010). Sng and Moriguchi’s focus on the comparative history of China and Japan is thus relatively new. The authors join political scientist Wenkai He, whose recent book Paths toward the Modern Fiscal State also explores China’s failure to develop a modern fiscal state in the nineteenth century, in comparison with early modern England and Meiji Japan (He 2013). China’s “failure” is especially puzzling in view of the Qing’s overall success in raising revenue in the late nineteenth century (Wong 1997, 155-56).

Sng and Moriguchi’s argument that a state’s ability to increase revenue is inversely affected by size is persuasive. In the absence of institutions to monitor graft, China had seldom been able to pursue rational fiscal strategies – especially at the county level – since the Tang-Song transition (Hartwell 1982, 395-96). In contrast, Japan’s decentralized polity in the early modern period bore close resemblance to Europe. Perhaps unsurprisingly, early modern Japan’s experiences of proto-industrialization and industrious revolution had clear parallels both in England and in the Netherlands.

A magistrate's office in Jiangxi province. Arguments on the Qing's inadequacies hinge partly on the Qing's ideological goals.

A magistrate’s office in Jiangxi province. Arguments on the Qing’s inadequacies hinge partly on the Qing’s ideological goals.

What this narrative does not explain, however, is why China pursued such an inefficient mode of fiscal management. Given the challenges of graft and the fear of revolt, Sng and Moriguchi assume that it was the most rational or “optimal” course. The authors point to but dismiss lightly the question posed by Qing historians that the goals of the late imperial Confucian state might not have been compatible with “rational” state expansion. In other words, rather than fearing peasant revolt, the choice of tax rate might have to do with ideological reasons. Similarly, the idea that the Japanese state shared a “Confucian” outlook (p4) is overly simplistic, especially as consistently high levels of taxation in Tokugawa Japan undermine the idea that Tokugawa Japan was a “benevolent” state.

While size might have been a key variable in China’s state “weakness,” this does not in itself explain the strengths or weaknesses of China’s overall economy. The large size of China’s internal market, for example, allowed differentiation and specialization which appear to have sustained economic growth even in the absence of an active state. This was true both in the Qing and more recently in China’s informal and private sectors since 1978. Thus there is no reason to assume that the adoption of a “modern” fiscal apparatus was a natural goal for the Qing before 1850. Similarly, by focusing on the state’s fiscal abilities to the exclusion of other factors, Sng and Moriguchi also sidestep an important Japan-centered literature that considers how similarities in economic structures between China and Japan enabled the results of Westernizing experiments in Japan after 1850 to be transferred to China. This point is important because revenues from Japan’s trade with Asia propelled Meiji Japan’s economic growth, no less than the revenues collected by Japan’s indigenous tax structures. Moreover, this was a form of self-sustaining growth built upon constant competitive pressures from below, i.e. from China which was rapidly reproducing strategies developed in Japan (ed. Sugihara 2005).

Despite these criticisms, Sng and Moriguchi’s model offers clear quantitative analysis on an important aspect of a greatly understudied topic, and is recommended for anyone interested in the longue durée economic development of the two countries.

Additional References

Hartwell, R. 1982. “Demographic, Political, and Social Transformations of China, 750-1550,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 42, no. 2, pp. 365-442 [Dec, 1982].

He, W 2013. The Paths toward the Modern Fiscal State: Early Modern England, Meiji Japan, and Qing China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Saito, O. 2010. “An Industrious Revolution in an East Asian Market Economy? Tokugawa Japan and Implications for the Great Divergence,” Australian Economic History Review, vol. 2010, vol. 50, issue 3, pp. 240-261.

Sugihara, K. (ed.) 2005. Japan, China, and the Growth of the Asian International Economy, 1850-1949. New York: Oxford University Press.

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