Category Archives: China

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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