China in Early Modern Times

One of the great controversies of the last decade or two concerns the European conquest of most of the world in the period 1500 to 1900. How is it that this civilization accomplished what was essentially world conquest, especially when 500 years earlier it lagged well behind Islamic, Sinic, and Hindu civilization? The point is often made that Chinese civilization was well in advance of Western civilization as late as 1700. So what happened? Why the difference?

First, I think it important to frame the problem precisely. Some books address the question “Why did China fall behind Europe?” I think that frames the problem improperly. Instead, I think the problem is best put as “Why did Europe suddenly leap so far ahead of everybody else?” All the civilizations of that time were progressing at a rate concomitant with the size of their populations and economies. China had always led the pack because it had the largest population and economy. But consider this graph of GDP per capita beginning 2000 years ago:


This clearly shows two important points: first, that China, Islam, and India were all maintaining constant GDP per capita. In terms of overall advance, they were stuck: their lives just weren’t getting any better. In China’s case, population continued to rise, but opposing forces kept their per capita GDP constant. First, Chinese technology was indeed advancing due to the tinkering of its large population. Those technological improvements were indeed leading to a better life for Chinese people — except for the fact that the population was rising, forcing more and more people into marginal lands where their productivity was lessened. In other words, the average Chinese farmer was getting technologically more productive and less productive in terms of the arability of his land. 

The same thing was going on in both India and Islam. We can clearly see that the overall progress of all three civilizations was flat. Europe is the odd man out with a steadily rising per capita GDP. Europe is the abnormal case here. Moreover, Europe appears to have passed the other civilizations sometime around the Renaissance. This is considerably earlier than what most historians think; they tend to put the crossover point somewhere around 1700. 

You’re probably considering some critical arguments. For example, how do we know the GDPs of all these regions as far back as two thousand years? I got that data here: The Maddison Project. While their results are necessarily estimates, I think that while the numbers might be off, the general trend shown here corresponds to my own impression of living conditions in the various countries at those times (Here’s where reading tons of history books over the years pays off.)

Here’s another objection: why is GDP per capita the “true” measure of a civilization’s progress? Why not total GDP, total population, land area, military power, trade volume, or any of a hundred other measures?

My answer is simple: GDP per capita is what people as a group most desire. The basic drive of every human for all of time (well, OK, excepting a few oddballs like Buddha and Christ) has been to have a materially better life: more food, better food, nice housing, good clothes, and so forth. If you think of a civilization as an organism consisting of millions of humans, all those humans as a group are pushing in the same direction: higher personal income. Sure, lots of people accomplish that goal by various negative sum strategies (“Your loss provides some lesser gain for me!”). But putting all those efforts together, the positive efforts exceed the negative efforts, or the civilization would die off.  That’s why I use this measure. 

All the other civilizations on the planet showed normal rates of progress. For some strange reason, Europe leapt ahead. I believe that this leap was due to the technological improvements derived from rationalism.

Other Hypotheses
Many scholars have attempted to address the matter. Among them:

The Great Divergence, by Kenneth Pomeranz, argues that Europe leapt ahead by shifting to a system in which they imported raw materials and used them in an industrial economy. He applies a great many economic details to make the case that the West never had a technological advantage until quite late. I disagree. European science had completely surpassed Chinese science by 1500, by reason of the simple fact that China never had any science in the first place. Their investigations of nature were never organized enough to constitute science. Their greatest successes were in medicine and astronomy. In medicine, they never understood anything about anatomy; they simply amassed a vast compendium of anecdotes about what works and what doesn’t. The theories underlying their methods were nonsensical. 

In like fashion, Chinese astronomy was quite successful in a number of ways, but not as a science. The Chinese never developed any rational hypothesis regarding the nature of the universe. Instead, they merely compiled masses of data on the motions of the sun, the moon, and the planets. They then scoured those data and found patterns that they used to predict future motions. They never attempted to understand the causes of those patterns. They were excellent technologists, but they were never scientists. 

The Europeans enjoyed a great many benefits from rationalism: better technology, better maps, better navigational techniques, better financial structuers, better laws, better government… as rationalism penetrated deeper into society, it helped Europeans clean up their acts, reduce inefficiencies, and increase overall productivity.

Consider, for example, the Dutch fluyt ship of the 1600s. This ship design was unquestionably superior to the Chinese junk. It wasn’t as big, nor as fast. Instead, it was designed to deliver the maximum amount of cargo for the minimum cost of construction and cost of labor. It needed just 12 to 15 men to operate, which in turn reduced the amount of food and fresh water required on board, which in turn increased cargo space. The fluyt was the most rational ship design of the times. 

And while Mr. Pomeranz assembles a great mass of incidental evidence to support his claims, the evidence above regarding per capita GDP is the most direct assessment of economic success.

How the West Grew Rich, by Rosenberg and Birdzell, puts its emphasis on the notion that Western institutions gave the West the critical edge. The joint stock corporation and insurance companies provide two good examples. China never developed the detailed legal system required to police these complex financial schemes. They also mention other factors that played a role.

A Farewell to Alms, by Gregory Clark, offers an interesting economic analysis. It’s based mostly on documents from England in the period 1500 − 1900. Clark explains the phenomenon I explained earlier, that increasing populations merely drove farmers onto less arable land, so that overall GDP per capita remained constant — just as the graph above shows. Clark then establishes that England began to break out of this pattern around 1800, just as the Industrial Revolution was starting. He then asks what triggered the Industrial Revolution. He considers and rejects a number of hypotheses. He seems, however, to support the notion that there was some sort of genetic selection effect at work, in which hard-working, intelligent people had more kids. I find absurd the suggestion that a significantly smarter population can arise from a few hundred years of low-intensity selection effects.

Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution, by Toby E. Huff, offers a suggestion that I find compelling. He shows that the invention of the telescope triggered much excitement in Europe, but evinced only yawns in Islamic, Hindu, and Sinic civilizations. This “excess” of scientific curiosity on the part of Europe is what led to its vast technological achievements which in turn led to its conquest of the world. And that “excess” is fundamentally due to the belief that the world can be understood by human cognition. This last is truly the key to the success of the West.