Tag Archives: Great divergence

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.

URL: http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/pramprapa/77276.htm

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

Review by: Kenneth Pomeranz (University of Chicago)

(continued)

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.

Bibliography


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. iisg.nl/hpw/papers/allen.pdf, 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 et.al., 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,” http://eh.net/eha/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Broadberry.pdf.

 

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,   http://en.cnki.com.cn/Article_en/CJFDTotal-JJXU201003003.htm
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.

URL: http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/pramprapa/77276.htm

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…)

Notes

[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.

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.

URL: http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/ehllserod/67552.htm

Distributed by NEP-HIS on 2016-9-11

Reviewed by Joyman Lee

tongtaisheng-coverpage

Cover page of the Tong Taisheng account book

Summary

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.

tongtaisheng

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

Comment

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.

The challenges of updating the contours of the world economy (1AD – today)

The First Update of the Maddison Project: Re-estimating Growth Before 1820

by Jutta Bolt (University of Groningen) and Jan Luiten van Zanden (Utrecht University)

Abstract: The Maddison Project, initiated in March 2010 by a group of close colleagues of Angus Maddison, aims to develop an effective way of cooperation between scholars to continue Maddison’s work on measuring economic performance in the world economy. This paper is a first product of the project. Its goal is to inventory recent research on historical national accounts, to briefly discuss some of the problems related to these historical statistics and to extend and where necessary revise the estimates published by Maddison in his recent overviews (2001; 2003; 2007) (also made available on his website at http://www.ggdc.net/MADDISON/oriindex.htm).

URL http://www.ggdc.net/maddison/publications/wp.htm

Review by Emanuele Felice

Angus Maddison (1926-2010) left an impressive heritage in the form of his GDP estimates. These consider almost all of the world, from Roman times until our days, and are regularly cited by both specialists and non-specialists for long-run comparisons of economic performance. The Maddison project was launched in March 2010 with the aim of expanding and improving Maddison’s work. One of the first products is the paper by Jutta Bolt and Jan Luiten van Zanden, which aims to provide an inventory while also critically review the available research on historical national accounts. It also aims “to extend and where necessary revise” Maddison’s estimates. This paper was circulated by NEP-HIS on 2014-01-26.

The paper starts by presenting, in a concise but clear way, the reasons that motivated the Maddison’s project and its main goals. It also tells that some issues are left to be the subject of future work, particularly thorny issues left out include the use of 2005 purchasing power parities rather than Maddison’s (1990) ones; and the consistency of benchmarks and time series estimates over countries and ages.

Jutta Bolt

Firstly (and fairly enough, from a ontological perspective) Bolt  and van Zanden deal with the possibility of providing greater transparency in the estimates. Instead of presenting the margins of errors of each estimate (which in turn would be based “on rather subjective estimates of the possible margins of error of the underlying data”), the authors, following an advice by Steve Broadberry, choose to declare explicitly the provenance of the estimates and the ways in which they have been produced. This leads to classifying Maddison’s estimates in four groups: a) official estimates of GDP, released by national statistical offices or by international agencies; b) historical estimates (that is, estimates produced by economic historians) which roughly follow the same method as the official ones and are based on a broad range of data and information; c) historical estimates based on indirect proxies for GDP (such as wages, the share of urban population, etc.); d) “guess estimates”.

Jan Luiten van Zanden

Then the article moves on to review and discuss new estimates: although revisions for the nineteenth and twentieth century (mostly falling under the “b” category) are also incorporated, the most important changes come from the pre-industrial era (“c” kind estimates). For Europe, we now have a considerable amount of new work, for several countries including England, Holland, Italy, Spain and Germany (but not for France). The main result is that, from 1000 to 1800 AD, growth was probably more gradual than what proposed by Maddison; that is, European GDP was significantly higher in the Renaissance (above 1000 PPP 1990 dollars in 1500, against 771 proposed by Maddison); hence, growth was slower in the following three centuries (1500-1800), while faster in the late middle ages (1000-1500). For Asia, the new (and in some cases very detailed) estimates available for some regions of India (Bengal) and China (the Yangzi Delta), for Indonesia and Java, and for Japan, confirm Maddison’s view of the great divergence, against Pomeranz revisionist approach: in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, a significant gap between Europe and Asia was already present (for instance GDP per capita in the whole of China was 600 PPP 1990 dollars in 1820, as in Maddison; against 1455 of Western Europe, instead of 1194 proposed by Maddison).

New estimates are also included for some parts of Africa and for the Americas, with marginal changes on the overall picture (for the whole of Latin America, per capita GDP in 1820 is set to 628 PPP 1990 dollars, instead of 691). For Africa, however, there are competing estimates for the years 1870 to 1950, by Leandro Prados de la Escosura (based on the theoretical relationship between income terms of trade per head and GDP per capita) on the one side, and Van Leeuwen, Van Leeuwen-Li and Foldvari (mostly based on real wage data, deflated with indigenous’ crops prices) on the other. The general trends of these differ substantially: the authors admit that they “are still working on ways to integrate this new research into the Maddison framework” and thus at the present no choice is made between the two, although both are included in the data appendix.

New long-run estimates are presented also for the Near East, as well as for the Roman world, in this latter case with some differences (smaller imbalances between Italy and the rest of the empire) as compared to Maddison’s picture. The authors also signal the presence of estimates for ancient Mesopotamia, produced by Foldvari and Van Leeuwen, which set the level of average GDP a bit below that of the Roman empire (600 PPP 1990 dollars per year, versus 700), but they are not included in the dataset.

Per capita GDP in Roman times, according to Maddison (1990 PPP dollars)

Per capita GDP in Roman times, according to Maddison (1990 PPP dollars)

What can we say about this impressive work? First, that it is truly impressive and daring. But then come the problems. Needless to say Maddison’s guessed estimates is one of the main issues or limitations, and this looks kind of downplayed by Bolt and van Zanden. As pointed out by Gregory Clark, in his 2009 Review of Maddison’s famous Contours of the World Economy:

“All the numbers Maddison estimates for the years before 1820 are fictions, as real as the relics peddled around Europe in the Middle Ages (…) Just as in the Middle Ages, there was a ready market for holy relics to lend prestige to the cathedrals and shrines of Europe (…), so among modern economists there is a hunger by the credulous for numbers, any numbers however dubious their provenance, to lend support to the model of the moment. Maddison supplies that market” (Clark 2009, pp. 1156-1157).

The working paper by Bolt and Van Zanden makes significant progress in substituting some fictitious numbers (d), with indirect estimates of GDP (c), but then in discussing the results it leaves unclear which numbers are reliable, which not, thus still leaving some ground for the “market for holy relics”.

Image

This is all the more problematic if we think that nominally all the estimates have been produced at 1990 international dollars. It is true that there is another part of the Maddison project specifically aiming at substituting 1990 purchasing power parities with 2005 ones. But this is not the point. The real point is that even 2005 PPPs would not change the fact that we are comparing economies of distant times under the assumption that differences in the cost of living remained unchanged over centuries, or even over millennia. This problem, not at all a minor neither a new one − e.g. Prados de la Escosura (2000) − is here practically ignored. One indeed may have the feeling that the authors (and Maddison before them) simply don’t care about the parities they use, de facto treating them as if they were at current prices. For example, they discuss the evidence emerging from real wages, saying that they confirm the gaps in per capita GDP: but the gaps in real wages are usually at the current parities of the time, historical parities, while those in GDP are at constant 1990 parities. If we assume, as reasonably should be, that differences in the cost of living changed over the centuries, following the different timing of economic growth, then the evidence from real wages (at current prices) may actually not confirm the GDP figures (at constant 1990 PPPs). Let’s take, for instance, China. It could be argued that differences in the cost of living, as compared to Europe, were before the industrial revolution, say in 1820, lower than in 1990, given that also the differences in per capita GDP were lower in 1820 than in 1990; hence, prices in 1820 China were relatively higher. The same is true for China when compared to Renaissance or Roman Italy (since prices in 1990 China were arguably significantly lower than prices in 1990 Italy, in comparison with the differences in the sixteenth century or in ancient times). This would mean that real GDP at current PPPs would be in 1820 even lower, as compared to Europe; or that 1820 China would have a per capita GDP remarkably lower than that of the Roman empire, maybe even lower than that of ancient Mesopotamia. Is this plausible?

References

Clark, G. (2009). Review essay: Angus Maddison, Contours of the world economy, 1-2030 AD: essays in macro-economic history. Journal of Economic History 69(4): 1156−1161.

Prados de la Escosura, L. (2000). International comparisons of real product, 1820–1990: an alternative data set. Explorations in Economic History 37(1):1–41.