Quantitative Growth, Qualitatative Standstill

China during the 400 or so years before the 1860’s experienced changes that in many respects transformed the social landscape of the empire and the lives of its people. 1 This transformation included the large scale economic change that took place from the late Ming to the 20th century. 2 Ming and Qing China did not experience the same explosive economic growth as the late Tang and Song times. The late Tang and Song times, compared by some to the Renaissance in Europe,3 were periods of notable changes and improvement in the Chinese economy.

Agriculture was an area that showed particularly remarkable development. The introduction of new farming methods, development of irrigation systems, new seeds, and further crop specialisation increased production and commercialisation of agriculture. Urbanisation was underway, providing much needed commercial centres for the expanding economy. Water transport had progressed, and monetisation, particularly the use of copper coins and credit, had increased markedly.

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China’s economic situation after the Song period, in the Ming and Qing times, certainly saw a slow down from the economic ‘revolution’4 that had been occurring, but there was by no means a standstill. In fact, the Chinese economy continued the tradition of both quantitative and qualitative growth in production, distribution and the development of new industries. Mark Elvin argues that population growth and migration ‘were the chief means whereby the Chinese economy grew in a quantitative terms but with almost no qualitative change’. Although varying figures exist, population increase between 1398 and 1850 is put at around 365 million. 6 This expanded population led to migration, and a roughly fourfold increase in the total cultivated area. 7 Not only was there now more land to cultivate, existing land was cultivated much more intensely. With the introduction of new crops in the fifteenth century (such as the peanut and the sweet potato) that grew in different areas to traditional crops, land that was previously unable to be cultivated became useable.

Agriculture in the 18th century continued to dominate the Chinese economy, but there were other important economic changes taking place in this period. ‘Agrarian China should not be seen as undergoing only quantitative changes under the pressure of population’. 8 Major organisational changes of the economy took place, resources were shifted from the state to the private sector and the income amongst social classes in the private sector was re-distributed. The long term trend towards the privatisation of many sectors of the Chinese economy, which had begun at least as early as the seventeenth century, supports this notion. 10 Changes came about as a move from estate farming to family farming, changes in fiscal relationships between the state and the private sector, shifts from private to state production, a shift from a monetary system based on paper and copper to one of copper and silver, a change from regional marketing systems to an integrated national market.

There were an increasing number of peasants who came to be involved in cash-cropping and product specialisation. The spread of new cash and food crops, the increase in silver and the emergence of new centres of handicraft encouraged inter-provincial trade in cotton cloth, food grains and handicraft products. Unlike the production of hemp cloth during the Song, processing of cotton cloth came to be based on a large, wage earning labour force in cities organised on a putting out, merchant capitalist basis. 1 There seems to have been no Song counterpart for the large scale activities of private firms in tea and sugar production. 12 Demand for new products was stimulated by the unprecedented growth in population and expansion of the empire discussed earlier. A trade in luxuries, an area usually left to the Arabs, emerged in the Fukien province during the 16th century. Sugar, rice, silks, and fine porcelain were the goods chiefly traded, however in 1524 a “pigeon craze” occurred, in much the same way that the Dutch Tulip mania of 1635-1637 would occur.

This reflects the excess capital and speculation fever that had built up in some areas, Part of the change that occurred can be attributed to the improvement in the rights of tenants relative to landlords. 13 Metzger talks of ‘an erosion of class distinctions that weakened the privileged sector of the economy’ and fostered the impressive economic growth that occurred between 1500-1800. 14 The rural manors of the early Ming dynasty, often worked by hundreds and even thousands of serfs, disappeared from the countryside, to be replaced by a system of small peasant freeholders.

While their were managerial landlords during the early Qing who used hired labour to produce crops for market on a relatively large scale, most landlords preferred to let their lands out to others and collect the rent. 15 Evelyn Rawski suggests that the spread of contractual agreements between tenants and landlords was a sign of a long term trend toward the triumph of the market economy. 16 Commercial forces lie behind these historical shifts in tenancy patterns.

Both peasants and elite became progressively oriented to the marketplace, and by the eighteenth century, there existed a national marketplace for raw materials and food products throughout the empire. By the nineteenth century, 20-30% of peasant agriculture was being produced for market. 17 It was in the field of technology that the Chinese economy primarily stagnated. While the Ming and Qing dynasties experienced economic growth, the degree to which it was experienced was restricted by the lack of technology.

This link between technological advancement and economic improvement is well established. 18 At one point (14th Century) China was technologically superior to the rest of the world. 19 It is often debated why the Chinese in the 14th century failed to consolidate their position, and take advantage of the inherent potential of its prosperity and high level of its economic organisation to develop a system capable of producing a more rapid sustained growth rate per capita product similar to that achieved by modern western nations after the 18th century.

Some economic historians have further argued that China was in a position ready for an industrial revolution as early as the fourteenth century. Water driven hammers to husk rice, as well as paddle wheels fixed to the side of anchored boats in fast flowing streams used to turn hammers for the manufacture of paper, were both in use. 20 Out of so widespread a mastery of pre-modern mechanical arts, it seems strange that no further technological progress should come.

The moderate technological advances in the cotton industry in Shanghai during the thirteenth century, account for much of the cities later prosperity. 21 This demonstrates how technological superiority, though slight, can make vast differences. Technology (with the exception of agriculture) remained essentially unchanged before the latter half of the nineteenth century. 22 This technological backwardness was to have far reaching effects on the continued economic growth of the nation. In the short run, China was able to avoid diminishing returns.

However, they failed to make those technological improvements which would have allowed them to increase their rate of output significantly later, and so maintain the growing population on sufficiently high levels of material satisfaction. Elvin contends that none of the conventional explanations tell us in a convincing fashion why technical progress was absent in the Chinese economy during a period that was, on the whole, one of prosperity and expansion. 23 He argues that a new intellectual orientation in the fourteenth century discouraged technological development.

A refinement of traditional technology and modest improvements to markets and transportation prevented the appearance of sharp price disparities, which might have stimulated new inventive activity. Similarly, cotton industries (among others) operated so effectively that urban mercantile capital was prevented from moving into villages to reorganise cotton cloth. 24 Another explanation of why the Chinese economy did not undergo capitalist development stems from underdevelopment caused by population pressure.

This occurred in two ways; population pressure eroded the surplus above subsistence level of the peasant farm, thereby preventing significant capital formation by peasant farmers; secondly, it also powered the development of traditional agriculture to a very high level, and this became a disincentive to innovative investment. 25 Again and again in Chinese historical analysis one must come back to population, and just as a large fighting force became a substitute for the invention of new weapons in the military,26 the massive labour pool became a substitute for invention in industry.

A further reflection on issues such as the cultural emphasis on progress, elite interest in commerce and technology, and nationalistic mercantilism increasingly complicate one’s conclusion. The slowdown in the development of science and technology during Ming-Qing times can likely be contributed to a combination of all of these factors, and undoubtedly, many more. To make general statements about a geographical area as large as China, over a period of time spanning just over 400 years is a difficult task. Clearly not all places and time periods can be entirely consistent.

Mark Elvin highlights this point, ‘The high degree of regional variation between different parts of China is a major complicating factor’. He goes further to say that one must be careful not to use regional differences over enthusiastically as evidence for, or against an argument. 27 And yet, despite this, I think it can be argued with some certainty, that it is wrong to describe the economic situation in Ming and Qing China as ‘quantitative growth, qualitative standstill’. The interpretation of the word ‘qualitative’ will obviously be crucial in any sound examination of such a question.

However, the interpretation must go further than simply the literal meaning (‘concerned with or depending on quality’28), because the notion of ‘quality’ is open to all sorts of ambiguities. I take the idea of ‘qualitative growth’ to mean improvement in production, means of distribution, and the development of new industries. It is clear that the period 1368-1800 experienced qualitative growth as well as the quantitative growth that was made unavoidable by the expanding population and continued migration.

Changes in the commercialisation of agriculture, the expansion of markets, the monetisation of the economy, the relaxation of government control and the development of new industries all occurred. These are not the markers of a stagnating economy. It is true that the economic developments that were made were not backed up by the formation of new technology, and an industrial revolution. However, to use that as evidence of a lack of improvement in the economic situation of China is to fall prey to an idea of economics that is entirely Euro-centred.

Economic interpretations (or any other interpretations for that matter) of China, must be made without the constant and often obstructing comparisons with Europe. Admittedly, comparative analysis can often be very useful, but to try and fit very different social conditions and structures into pre-existing European models can only be damaging. When looked at in isolation, there is no doubt that Ming and Qing China experienced very real growth in qualitative as well as quantitative terms.