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)
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. 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.
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.  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. 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. ) 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.) Until we get beyond basic calories in discussing the poor – and get much better estimates, on the Chinese side, of the distribution of income, 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.
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 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.
 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..
 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.
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.
 Pomeranz 2002, 2003.
 I made an extremely quick and crude attempt in Pomeranz 2003. An earlier and partial attempt is Chang 1955.