Category Archives: China

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.

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

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)

Kent Deng and Patrick O’Brien have done us all a service by taking a step back from the conclusions drawn by different participants in the so-called “great divergence debate” to focus  on the types and quality of our data, and on some conceptual problems with the application of modern measurements such as GDP to economies that were radically different from ours – in part because they were incompletely monetized.  I find myself agreeing with most of their criticisms of both GDP and real wage comparisons, and have some of my own to add. Not surprisingly, then, I share their preference for research on comparative consumption – which was a big part of my approach in The Great Divergence – and agree that this is where we have the best prospects for making further progress on these issues.  But I am not as ready as they seem to be to completely discard approaches based on GDP or real wage estimates; and perhaps more importantly, I would significantly modify their assessment of where our discussion of consumption and popular living standards currently stands.

We are, quite simply, unlikely to find any data that is good enough to lay these disputes  to rest.  I agree that the chances of finding significantly better consumption data are higher than are our chances of finding everything we would need to construct truly persuasive GDP estimates, and that the problems with treating wages as representative of living standards in a society like 18th century China are quite severe,  even if we could resolve the more narrowly empirical problems with the wage data themselves (e.g. unstated but significant in-kind components, differences in the currencies in which Chinese wages and prices are often quoted, uncertainty about the length of the “day” in day wages, and so on).  But at the moment, the consumption data also have significant problems; so while this may well be where we want to concentrate future research efforts, that  does not mean that this is the only metric we should be tracking as we make our best guesses about the current state of this controversy.  (We could, of course, theoretically all agree not to comment on this controversy until we  know more, but that seems unrealistic, given how many other issues it touches upon.)   So I would be inclined to keep the wage data, and even the GDP estimates, in play in this discussion, even though I share Deng and O’Brien’s sense that the consumption data are stronger (and even though those data are more favorable to the position I took in my 2000 book).  Let me briefly review each of these areas.


Comparative GDP Estimates


I would not disagree with Deng and O’Brien’s critique of the GDP approach, or of Maddison’s figures in particular: the latter were based on far too narrow an evidentiary base for much of the world and much of history.  I think, however, it is worth noting that there have been some more recent attempts to estimate GDPs, which have the advantage both of somewhat better data and of attempting to construct GDP figures for the Yangzi Delta, rather than for China. Given the points that some of us have made repeatedly about the vastly different scales of China and any single European nation, and about the advantages of comparing the most developed region of a continent-sized China with the richest regions of Europe rather than insisting on national units, these numbers seem to be worth at least some attention.
For instance, a recent paper by Stephen Broadberry, Hanhui Guan and David Daokui Li suggests that Britain must have overtaken the Yangzi Delta in per capita GDP by the first quarter of the 18th century.[1]  This is, of course, materially different from my claim in The Great Divergence that the Yangzi Delta had not fallen significantly behind until well into the second half of the 18th century, and maybe not until 1800 (though my conclusions were based on estimates of consumption, longevity, and basic human well-being, rather than GDP).  Nor has this paper found a way around all the problems with historical GDP and comparisons between very different societies to which Deng and O’Brien have pointed.(These include the radically different market baskets of these two societies, which had relatively little trade between them, the very different degree to which the government tracked various kinds of production, and others; to which I would add, large differences in the degree to which various goods and services passed through the market.)  Still, I would not want to simply discard such work, given the difficulties that dog other approaches. Moreover, I think it is noteworthy that a debate between an early and a late 18th century divergence represents a considerably different intellectual landscape than the one we would have if we relied on Maddison’s GDP numbers,[2] or on the non-quantitative work of David Landes, Deepak Lal, and various others – or for that matter, on an earlier attempt by Guan and Li to estimate comparative GDPs, which had previously claimed that a huge gap already existed in the 15th century.[3]  An earlier paper by Debin Ma suggested that the per capita GDP of the Lower Yangzi  — which he defines slightly more broadly than I do, so that it includes some poorer areas – probably exceeded that of China in general by about 50% in 1750:[4] such an adjustment, patched onto Maddison’s data, would leave the Delta behind Britain, but by considerably less (in percentage terms) than, say, Germany lags Norway today, or the U.S. lags Luxembourg (when nobody argues that this makes either Germany or the U.S. a “backward” economy fundamentally different from the “advanced” ones, as we used to think China was relative to early modern Europe.). Similarly, a study by Li and Van Zanden, based on data for the 1820s, finds Holland well ahead of two counties in the Delta for which there are particularly good data in those years; but as  they note, the 1820s were a period of both agricultural crisis due to natural disasters and depression in the cloth trade, the second biggest sector of that region.  They suggest that if we had data for 1800, it would show a smaller gap, but still a significant one, with Holland perhaps 50 or even 70% higher in per capita GDP.[5] Admittedly, that is far from the rough parity I had originally suggested at 1800, and would now be inclined to put at somewhere around 1750 instead; there are some plausible adjustments that I think would narrow the gap further, but that is not really the point for now.  Instead I would emphasize that despite continuing disagreements and continuing data problems – the latter of which will probably never be fully solved – we have made some progress in narrowing the range of plausible answers about when and how much divergence occurred in these terms.  Even if GDP is a seriously flawed measure for purposes of this debate, I am not sure we want to throw it out entirely.

Real Wage Comparisons

The wage data is similarly vexed, and Deng and O’Brien have, I think, explained very convincingly some reasons for skepticism.  But let me add two more, extend the discussion of another, and suggest a possible implication of how we might read this imperfect data in conjunction with the even more imperfect GDP data.

The first additional cause for skepticism in Robert Allen’s own reconstruction of real wages based on prices and wages recorded by the supercargo of an East India Company ship docked in Guangzhou during the trading season of 1704.  Using the same basic approach as he and his co-authors use on the larger data set they compiled a bit later, Allen arrives at the conclusion that the real wages here were roughly equal to those in London at the same time – and Guangzhou, it is generally agreed, was not quite as wealthy as the Yangzi Delta.  (Allen 2004).  Let me make clear that I am not saying that these data give the correct picture,  and the other data a false one: there are certainly reasons why the Guangzhou data could be unrepresentative.[6] But these are at least prices and wages that we know were actually paid by individuals in private markets, and that should be relatively free of unreported in-kind benefits.  (Chinese workers would certainly not have lived on a British ship, and are unlikely to have eaten British food.) By contrast, the Chinese data in the later and better-known 5 author paper on early modern wages around the world are from administrative reports of prevailing wages, with no evidence that the reporters actually made any sort of survey, and no data at all on in-kind compensation.  I would thus not be quick to throw out the Guangzhou material just because it is a smaller database – and that it gives a figure which is so much higher than those derived from the other data seems lke a good reason to doubt the data overall.  There is also something highly suspicious about the lack of difference between the wage rates for different parts of China in the administrative data, when every qualitative source we know of agrees that there were very large regional differences in material living standards.  Again, this is not sufficient reason to discard these data when we have so few; on the contrary, they represent the best large-scale data set that we have, and the authors have used them to make interesting claims.  But I think we need to be very careful about how we use them for this particular debate.

It is crucial that most Chinese did not rely on wages for their income – as O’Brien and Deng note.  But we also know quite a bit about  the likely relationship between these wages and peasant earnings.  All our evidence suggests that tenant farmers earned a great deal more than agricultural laborers, even if the latter were able to find year-round employment. This conclusion is confirmed whether we look at estimates of money earnings, convert wages into cash and compare to farm yields net of rent and other expenses, or consider key social indicators – including the especially lowly status of wage laborers, and the fact that most tenants were able to marry and raise families, and most agricultural laborers could not.[7]  And in a society without strong guilds or unions, there is no reason to think that unskilled wages in town would be much higher than in the countryside.  (This would be particularly true in the Yangzi Delta, where towns were very densely distributed across the map, so that almost any rural resident could bid for an unskilled job in a town without going very far.[8] )  Indeed, in the admittedly limited data we have, the difference between the earnings of a farmer with an average-sized tenancy and a wage laborer are on the order of 2.5 – 3.0:1.  Under the circumstances, wages are a very poor guide to popular living standards: and comparing them to wages in England or Holland, where proletarians made up a large portion of the labor force by the 18th and especially the 19th century, represents a comparison between the bottom of the income distribution in one place and something approaching to middle in the other. [9]

But even if these wages do not tell us much about comparative living standards, they might nonetheless tell us something about trends in comparative labor productivity. Significantly, estimates of rural incomes and rural labor productivity suggest that the Yangzi Delta was still on a par with England and Holland on these measures even as late as the 1820s.[10] This would place it far above the rest of Europe – including, of course, a number of countries that began mechanized industrialization and sustained per capita growth well before China did.[11]  Delta agriculture was also still well ahead in total factor productivity in agriculture as late as 1820.[12] When taken together with the evidence already discussed which suggests a relatively late divergence, and therefore a fairly sudden widening of the gap once it manifested itself  – since nobody doubts that it was quite large by the mid-19th century – this would at least suggest that we should not probably be looking at agriculture to explain the divergence.  It also suggests, as Robert Allen has argued in his discussion of British industrialization, that it was higher wages in the growing urban sector that pulled up rural wages, necessitating labor-saving innovations in agriculture, rather than agriculture creating an enlarged urban work force by shedding workers on its own.[13]  It does not appear that urban demand exerted a comparably strong effect on rural Chinese wages, even though the barriers to rural-urban migration – whether in the form of exclusionary institutions or urban dis-amenities – were comparatively weak in Qing times;[14] instead, the most likely reason not to leave was that, as noted above, most rural people earned far more than unskilled wage laborers in either city or countryside, and nothing was pushing up urban wages fast enough to overcome this disincentive.  A significant gap in urban real wages – if confirmed by further studies that can more fully overcome the problems described by Deng and O’Brien – might then be significant not as a sign of a difference in living standards that already existed, but as a sign of urban changes in Europe that were beginning to create such differences.

(to be continued…)


[1] Broadberry, Guan and Li 2014..

[2] Maddison 2001: 42, suggesting that Western Europe overtook China ca. 1300.

[3] Guan and Li  had previously argued (2010) that China was far behind by the 15th century, if not earlier, and had fallen even further behind over the succeeding centuries. See also Landes 1998, Lal 1998.

[4] Ma 2004. Compare Maddison 2003: 262.for an interpellated UK figure.

[5] Li and Van Zanden 2012:973,

[6] It is true, for  instance, that not every Chinese worker in Guangzhou was able to offer his services to the  foreigners who docked there, perhaps reducing competition and driving up wages.  Bt quite a few could – numerous memoirs from foreigners who visited Guangzhou in this period speak about foreigners being besieged by crowds of potential porters and other service providers. Nor is it clear why any restrictions would have driven up the price of labor more than it did that of the many kinds of provisions for which Lockyer records prices paid, and which Allen uses to create the denominator of his real wage.

[7] I review some of this data in Pomeranz 2006, and Pomeranz 2011. On the strength of tenant rights, which helped make this income differential durable, see  for instance Rawski 1972 Li Wenzhi and Jiang Taixin 2005;Yang Guozhen 1988; Zhang Peiguo 2002.

[8] On the distribution of towns across space see Xue Yong 206: 319, and 302-346, 432-475 for a discussion of various estimates of urbanization in the Yangzi Delta more generally.

[9] Pomeranz 2011.

[10] Allen 2009b; Li and Van Zanden 2012.

[11] For intra-European comparisons, see Allen 2000..

[12] Li and Van Zanden 2012:975; Allen 2009b.

[13] Allen 2009a.

[14] On Chinese guilds in this period, see Moll-Murata 2009, Pomeranz 2013. Though our data is thus far inconclusive, China does not appear to have had a pronounced “urban graveyard effect” – that is clear evidence of worse health and higher mortality in cities, providing a disincentive to migration that had to be overcome by significant wage differentials, as was the case in early modern and industrializing Europe.

Assessing the Determinants of Economic Growth in South East Asia

The Historical State, Local Collective Action, and Economic Development in Vietnam

By Melissa Dell (Harvard University), Nathaniel Lane (Stockholm University), Pablo Querubin (New York University)

Abstract – This study examines how the historical state conditions long-run development, using Vietnam as a laboratory. Northern Vietnam (Dai Viet) was ruled by a strong centralized state in which the village was the fundamental administrative unit. Southern Vietnam was a peripheral tributary of the Khmer (Cambodian) Empire, which followed a patron-client model with weaker, more personalized power relations and no village intermediation. Using a regression discontinuity design across the Dai Viet-Khmer boundary, the study shows that areas historically under a strong state have higher living standards today and better economic outcomes over the past 150 years. Rich historical data document that in villages with a strong historical state, citizens have been better able to organize for public goods and redistribution through civil society and local government. This suggests that the strong historical state crowded in village-level collective action and that these norms persisted long after the original state disappeared.


Circulated by nep-his on 2017/03/19

Review by Fernando Arteaga (George Mason University)

What was the impact of the ancient Vietnamese Dai Viet empire in promoting long-term economic development? That is the main question the authors try to assess. Their inquiry is embedded within the now large literature on the importance of culture and institutions, as deep determinants of growth. The contribution the paper makes is, however, not restricted to adding one more piece of evidence in favor of it, but, more importantly, in providing empirical support for a specific transmission channel: how state capacity can be built through time via the fostering of local self-organization capabilities.

The paper’s main story builds on the idea that two distinct meta-societies existed within East Asia, and idea around which, by the way, there is general agreement. One of these societies based on Chinese precepts, prevalent in the Northeastern region; and other spread in the Southeast throughout the Indian Ocean.  Societies of the former category were historically constituted around a sort of Weberian professional bureaucracy that consolidated the working of a central state. The latter depended more on informal networking mechanisms among local elites to survive, and hence, tended to promote hierarchical patriarchal relationships.

Today’s Socialist Republic of Vietnam (henceforth Vietnam) is an interesting case study precisely because it arose out of the union of those two distinct cultures. The northern part, the Dai Viet, is an example of a Sino-style state, while the southern part of Vietnam (initially part of the Champa State and later as part of the larger Khmer Empire) resulted from a Indo-style society.  Figure 1 below offers map of present day Vietnam aligned with the size of the historical Dai Viet empire. Figure 1 suggests the Dai Viet expanded southwards through time but ended up establishing its final frontier in 1698 (orange color). It is this border the authors think provides a natural experiment that allows a clean regression discontinuity (RD) strategy that permits the disentanglement of the effect of being part of a bureaucratized state vis a vis a patriarchal state.


Figure 1: Dai Viet Historical Boundaries (Dell et al., 2017)

The use of the RD design is appropriate, the authors argue, because the chosen border resulted from exogenous contingencies that do not reflect any difference in future economic potential. The 1698 demarcation was settled on the ridges of a river, but there was nothing else particular to it that made that boundary preferable to other potential borders. The Dai Viet stopped its expansion because of constrains imposed by a local civil war (something that has nothing to do with the river itself). Moreover, the environmental characteristics of both sides of the river are almost identical (or vary smoothly), so there is no important geographical difference either. The only thing that changes abruptly is that on the east shore of the 1698 border, Dai Viet settlers occupied and controlled the land, while Khmer villagers occupied and controlled the land to the west of the river. Another possible counterargument to the use of the 1698 border as a natural experiment is the relevance of migration: if settlers moved across villages (at any time after the establishment of the original border), then the boundary becomes inconsequential. The authors argue that, even though they do not have historical data to control for it, there is qualitative evidence that refers to negative attitudes towards outsiders within the villages, which constitutes an important constraint to any major migratory flow. Today, both sides are part of Vietnam. It is then possible to assess if Die Viet institutions still exert some type of effect in current economic outcomes.

Figure 2 portraits the main outcome of the paper. Using household expenditure data from recent censuses (2002-2012), the authors find that today, villages situated along the historical Die Viet side of the border earn a third more than those communities that are situated on the historical Khmer side (Within the figure, the darker the zone depict lower earnings).


Figure 2a: Household Consumption, RD Graph (Dell et al., 2017)

The authors, however, not content with establishing the effects on current outcomes, look for historical evidence too. They collect data from different periods of Vietnamese history: 1878-1921 for the French Colonization, 1969-1973 for the South Vietnam State, and 1975-1985 for the early Communist Period; and find that the pattern is persistent through time: The Diet Viet zone is, in general, more developed than the Khmer side.

How can these results be interpreted?  The income differences must be due to the Die Viet heritage of greater state capacity that acted through local community self-organization that made them more co-operative and facilitated the resolution of local collective action problems. To test whether this transmission channel matters, the authors looked for data on social capital. Their main sources were the surveys and census of the South Vietnamese period. What they find corroborates their story: villagers on the Diet Viet side were more prone to participate in community activities, to collect more taxes (that at the time were local responsibility, not provincial), to have greater access to public goods (health, school and law enforcement), to be skeptical of central government in favor of local, and to give more to charity.


All in all, the authors do a thorough job in assessing the robustness of their main story. They control for several of potential alternative stories and/or possible variables that could affect the results and mechanisms.  Any critique of it may sound redundant or unreachable.  Yet, I would point to three different aspects that may be important.

First, and perhaps most importantly, I would stress that although the argument makes sense, the narrative is unclear as to how specifically the Dai Viet, which supposedly was a centralized bureaucratized state, fostered local governance. As the authors mention in the introduction, the literature on social capital is ambivalent on its effects on economic outcomes. As it is, the paper’s contribution is the finding of empirical evidence on the presence of a particular transmission channel (from state to local governance), but without a clear model and/or an analytical narrative, we are left in the dark about how explicitly this mechanism worked its way throughout society.

Second, and pushing the level of pickiness even further, one can always speak of a potential omitted variable bias. I must ask then: what about genes? The authors minimize ethnic fragmentation as a problem because they find the studied area is cataloged as being almost entirely composed of homogeneously ethnic Vietnamese. The problem is that censuses and surveys may under-report true ethnicity, and cannot capture genetic differences at all. By the authors’ own account, we are told the Diet Viet State originated as, and remained for a long time, Chinese. Moreover, as Tran (1993) attests, Chinese ethnicity may conflate the results of the paper in other several ways:

  • the largest Chinese migration occurred between the late 17th century and early 19th century, just at the time that the Dai Viet-Khmer border was being established;
  • The Chinese settled mostly in southern Vietnam, the part that the authors use as study case;
  • Chinese early importance resided precisely in that they helped establish new villages and trade outposts. They (not merely the Diet Viet heritage) helped to build local governance structures.

If ethnicity has been underreported and/or Chinese genetics matter in fostering economic development in any way (as suggested by Ashraf-Galor, 20013a, 2013b) then the interpretation of the paper could dramatically change: the importance of the Dai Viet state would be downplayed in favor of just being more ethnic/genetic Chinese. After all, it is known that there is a correlation between having larger ethnic Chinese minority and larger economic growth (Priebe and Rudulf, 2015).

Third, related to the last point: one would expect that given the importance of the result – the long-term reach of Diet Viet institutions–, its impact would feel more broadly across all the territory, not only in the immediate zones of the frontier which were the last to be incorporated into the state.  Figure 3, for example, shows the level of poverty in Vietnam (Epprecht-Heinmann,2004). It is visible that the area under study (along the last border of the historical Diet Viet) has the lowest share of poverty in the whole country. The immediate area to the left (which coincides with the area that historically belonged to the Khmer Empire) is poorer indeed. But the differences are minor if we compare them to the rest of current Vietnam, which belonged almost entirely to the Diet Viet, and has the largest poorer areas.  The RD design may be identifying a non-observable variable that is concentrated in the southern part (like ethnicity or/and genes) and is not broadly distributed across the rest of Vietnam.


Figure 3: Incidence of Poverty in Vietnam (Epprecht-Heinmann, 2004: 155).

Additional References

Ashraf, Q., Galor, O., 2013a. Genetic Diversity and the Origins of Cultural Fragmentation. The American Economic Review: Papers on Proceedings 103, 528–533.

Ashraf, Q., Galor, O., 2013b. The “Out of Africa” Hypothesis, Human Genetic Diversity, and Comparative Economic Development. American Economic Review 103, 1–46.

Epprecht, M., Heinemann, A., 2004. Socioeconomic Atlas of Vietnam: A depiction of the 1999 Population and Housing Census. Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research, Bern.

Priebe, J., Rudolf, R., 2015. Does the Chinese Diaspora Speed Up Growth in Host Countries? World Development 76, 249–262.

Trần, K., 1993. The Ethnic Chinese and Economic Development in Vietnam. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.

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.

Coming back to @PostOffice #Savings? The #east-west comparative.

Postal financial services, development and inclusion: Building on the past and looking to the future


Gonzales d’Alcantara ( Emeritus Professor of Econometrics at the University of Antwerp and d’Alcantara Economic Consulting

Paul H. Dembinski ( ) University of Fribourg, Switzerland

Odile Pilley, ( International Consultant, formerly with International Bureau of the Universal Postal Union

Abstract: Post offices, inherited from the Industrial Revolution, were monolithic telephone and postal administrations. They were intimately linked to the fabric of nations and made significant contributions to state finances. From the 1960s onwards, integrators, such as UPS and FEDEX, started offering end-to-end express services, thus challenging the postal monopoly in new high added value services. Gradually, the liberalization paradigm gained ground. Telecommunications and sometimes financial services were spun off from postal operations. More recently, new policies and priorities started to emerge especially on the development agenda where financial inclusion has become a top priority in the developing world. The question to be addressed is which role, if any, the posts play or could play in ensuring inclusion. Despite an exceptionally scarce research in the field, this paper provides an overview of how these shifts in paradigm have affected postal policy, the postal financial services regulatory framework, the status of the organizations delivering those services and the offerings themselves in developing as well as in developed countries. After a research review, including the regulatory dimension, the paper focuses on how postal financial services institutions in their legal framework have developed bringing to the fore a panorama of a dozen of promising transformations of financial postal services in developing countries.


Review by Mark Crowley

This paper by d’Alcantara, Dembinski and Pilley was circulated byNEP-HIS on 2014-09-12. The approach is unique in the sense that it seeks to compare the nature of Post Offices in Europe and the developing world, focusing primarily on their role in the savings movement. Its historical approach shows how the western Post Offices developed as a movement that sought to encourage thrift among a profligate working class, whereas in the developing world, the development of a Postal Savings movement was more in line with the growing financial markets across these nations, and the desire for individual customers to express choice in their banking processes. Moreover, it effectively shows how, following a crisis in trust experienced in the banking industry, more people across both the developed and developing world are turning to the government-backed Post Office as a safe haven for their savings in response to the perceived dangers of investing in private banks.


Citing the latter nineteenth century as the beginning of the Post Office savings movement, with British Prime Minister William Gladstone’s initiative to open a Post Office Savings Bank, this paper demonstrates that the influence of the government over consumer spending has long roots. The authors deftly show that certainly in its embryonic stages, the Post Office savings movement in developed countries focused on the provision of a secure place for working-class savings, while also encouraging thrift. Building on the lack of trust displayed by the working-class towards other alternatives, such as friendly societies, and their exclusion from private sector banks, the savings option offered by Post Offices had fertile ground on which it could flourish.              
gladstone 2

The paper also documents the differences between the supervisory natures of the Post Office Savings activities in developing countries, comparing them to that in the developed world. Citing the Asian and Latin American examples, the authors show that the levels of government control over the activities of postal savings banks were significantly more than that in the developed world, with the respective central banks exerting a supervisory role over postal and financial affairs. In the developed world, following with the liberalisation of financial services, the level of central government control over deposits made in postal savings banks has significantly diminished, with initiatives to delegate the administration of post office banking activity to private banks. Although responsibility is still being underwritten by central government (with Bank of Ireland UK as the example for postal savings in the UK) the level of micro-management previously present has now diminished.

d’Alcantara, Dembinski and Pilley also document the necessity of a world legal framework and understanding to evolve with the growing influence of the postal savings movement, especially in the developed world. Citing the aim for legal and financial autonomy to be awarded to postal savings institutions as part of the United Nations millennium goals, it effectively demonstrates the challenges that both the developed and the developing world face in terms of striking the right balance to facilitate the effective supervision of the financial system at a time when the role of private investment banks have been criticised for their excessive risk taking. While many countries in the west still pride themselves on liberal nature of their governments and markets, the definition of this is likely to change in the name of ensuring proportionality and responsibility concerning financial affairs in an age when consumer confidence in private banks is at an all-time low.


While seeking to emphasise the differences between the postal savings movement in the developed and developing world, this paper also draws on examples of convergence. In the period after the 2008 world financial crisis, there has been evidence that consumers, once more, have come back to the government-backed Post Office savings banks in response to not only their anger about the actions of private banks, but also the perception that government-backed savings institutions are safer in terms of securing deposits during periods of financial crisis. For example, in 2008, much resentment was created in the UK when the government bailed out banks deemed “too big to fail”, costing the taxpayer billions of pounds. While such action ensured that the deposits of savers were guaranteed, many responded angrily that taxpayer’s money was being used to save banks that had shown financial irresponsibility on such a grand scale.

post office uk

The paper ends on an optimistic note for the savings movement in Asia, with particular reference to China. In noting that the Chinese Postal Savings Bank is the fourth largest in China, with its customer base expanding beyond the traditional labouring classes to include students and businesspeople, the authors argue that this has been a triumph for the postal savings movement in the world’s most populous country. While it is worth noting that the level of central government control over all banks in China is possibly significantly more than in any other developed nation, it is a point well made that in a country with a flourishing middle class population, it is the postal savings movement that seems to be gaining the biggest traction.

posb china


d’Alcantara, Dembinski and Pilley covered a huge chronological and geographical period in their analysis, and have effectively compared the nature of the postal savings movement in the developed and developing world. Perhaps an area that could be explored further is the western government’s ideas of financial liberalisation as a principle that stops short of a full-scale privatisation of Post Office counters (which include financial services)? For example, Margaret Thatcher, despite pursuing a very ambitious privatisation programme in the 1980s, stopped short of privatising Post Office counters, despite taking steps to remove the ‘Giro’ from government control. Deeming the issue to be too much of a political hot potato, Thatcher left financial services at the Post Office largely untouched, encouraging only the intervention of private banks to compete for the option of underwriting (with the support of government) Post Office financial services. Today, both in the US and the UK, Post Office counters, and individual postmasters complain vehemently about their struggle for survival in the face of growing competition from private banks that now include the offers of financial services by supermarkets, and initiatives that have reduced the numerous functions of Post Office counters, including direct debit payments. Perhaps the question the authors could explore is why do western governments, while taking efforts to remove services from the Post Offices (such as bill payments) do not embark on a full scale privatisation, whereas in developing countries, where the extent of government control over the savings movement, including postal savings, is significantly stronger, the movement appears to be going from strength to strength?

Further Reading

Booth, Alan and Mark Billings, ‘Techno-nationalism, the Post Office and the creation of Britain’s National Giro’ in B Bátiz-Lazo, J.C. Maixé-Altés and P. Thomes Technological Innovation in Retail Finance: International Historical Perspectives (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011).

Campbell-Kelly, Martin, ‘Data Processing and Technological Change’ Technology and Culture, 39, 1 (Jan. 1998), pp. 1-32.

Campbell Smith, Duncan, Masters of the Post: The Authorized History of Royal Mail (London: Penguin, 2011).

Crowley, Mark J. Saving for the Nation: The Post Office and National Consumerism, c1860-1945’ in Erika Rappaport, Sandra Dawson and Mark J Crowley (eds.), Consuming Behaviours: Identity, Politics and Pleasure in Twentieth Century Britain (forthcoming Bloomsbury, 2015).

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.

“Amalgam of currencies.” A Framework to Understand Chinese Monetary History, 1800-1949

Money and Monetary System in China in the 19th-20th Century: An Overview
Debin Ma (, Department of Economic History, London School of Economics (Great Britain)


Abstract: This article provides an historical overview on the development of Chinese money and monetary regimes between about 1800 and 1950. It develops a simple conceptual framework based on the relative costs of assessing the inherent value of the currencies of different denomination. Based on this framework, I develop a historical narrative that ties important political and institutional changes with the evolving structural changes in the Chinese monetary regime marked by the vicissitudes in the use of copper, silver currencies and paper money in both the private and public financial sectors from the Opium War in mid-19th century to the end of the Civil War in the 1950s.

Review by Manuel Bautista González

Silver 8-reales of the Mexican Republic with Chinese chopmarks, made in Mexico and circulated in China. British Museum, CM 1920-9-7-343, Room 68: Money.

China was the first country to have coins, or the first along with Lydia in Asia Minor; the first to have paper currency, free banking (competitive issue of notes), and a government monopoly of paper currency; perhaps the first to have a kind of currency board (circa 1270); and a pioneer in some fairly sophisticated forms of exchange control. – Schuler (2012).

This paper, distributed by NEP-HIS on 2012-02-27, offers both a conceptual framework (based on politics and geography) and a historical overview of monies/money and the monetary system of China. As was the case in most of the world, diversity and concurrence of several monies prevailed in the Chinese monetary system well until the 20th century. A bimetallic, commodity standard prevailed, with silver bars named tael (or liang) as the main reference unit, convertible with a “fixed” price in official copper money, and copper cash coins strung together named tiao (or chuan), whose value fluctuated across regions, time and trades. Spanish American silver dollars also circulated widely (with chops of local assayers) since the 16th century (see an example above).

Imaginary units of account, denominated in either silver bars, copper cash or silver dollars were the effectual anchors of the system. The most successful units of account, the Kuping tael and the Haikwan tael, were used for the payment of direct and custom taxes across the empire, but even those standards were challenged across the territory. Currencies were traded with a “nearly infinite set of cross exchange rates” (Ma 2012, 5).

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