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Today's Economic History: Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850

The extremely-sharp Kenneth Pomeranz reviews Li Bozhang. It is another point for the coal-empire-metalworking view of the causes of the British Industrial Revolution, and against mentalité- or political institutions-based interpretations...

Ken Pomeranz:

Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850: "Chinese... economic history suffered badly during the 1960s and 1970s...

...In the generation that began rebuilding... probably the single most productive scholar has been Li Bozhong.... Yet only a fraction of Li's massive scholarly output is available to those who do not read Chinese....

The economy of the Yangzi Delta (or Jiangnan)... the richest region in China... among the richest regions in the world from roughly 1000 until the mid-nineteenth century.... Li argues forcefully against two basic views of the Delta's agriculture in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) periods: 1) the claims of some Chinese Marxist scholars that the Delta remained a subsistence-oriented "feudal" economy in which most peasants had very limited contact with the market until the nineteenth century; 2) the claim of some Western scholars that Malthusian pressures and very limited technological change produced a slow but steady trend of immiseration... from roughly 1250 (when the rate of technological progress seems to have slowed considerably) until at least the mid-nineteenth century.... Li argues instead that: a) positive technological change continued in Jiangnan... particularly in... fertilizer use and water control; b) local factor markets continued to become more efficient... c) long distance trade in various products expanded dramatically... d) the gradual decline in farm size as population increased did not lead to under-employment. On the contrary, increased double-cropping and other measures meant that the labor year for peasant males stayed about the same, while output per labor day actually rose... women increasingly exited agriculture... and earned more per day by moving into rapidly-growing textile trades; e) deliberate fertility control became fairly widespread by the eighteenth century... and; f) because of all these factors, both aggregate and per capita income increased slowly but steadily during this period.... He sees these positive trends coming to an end--and even then, only a temporary end--with the coming of the Opium War (1839-42) and the Taiping Rebellion (1851-64)....

Handicraft production for the market by Delta households grew enormously between the mid-Ming and mid-Qing... increasing levels of specialization.... Li... assembles evidence that the average size of production units was growing.... In the case of spinning and weaving, where most production continued to be done in households, he makes a generally convincing case that an increasing share of output was controlled by merchants operating on a large scale, who controlled access to often distant markets, imposed increasingly exacting quality standards in order to maintain those markets, and thus had an increasing influence on the production process.... Li's surveys of specific industries other than textiles make a strong case showing slow but continuing technological development, expansion of markets, and an increasingly complex division of labor... in contrast to an older version of Chinese economic history... which saw an enormous spurt of technological change during the Song dynasty (960-1279), followed by stagnation or even regression thereafter.... Li argues that the combination of proto-industrialization and rising yields in agriculture (discussed above) propelled a significant improvement in per capita income and standard of living between 1550 and 1850... disagree[ing] with the still-regnant Chinese Marxist orthodoxy, which insists that China remained essentially a subsistence economy until the Opium War... [and] with American partisans of "involution," who maintain that the late imperial period was characterized by miniscule gains in income achieved at the expense of very large increases in labor inputs....

Why [did not] the highly productive agriculture, commerce and handicrafts he describes... spawn something more like classical English industrialization[?]... He argues that institutional structure, surplus available for investment, and the educational level of the workforce were all quite adequate, and that there was widespread interest in productivity-enhancing technological change.... [He] finds his answers in geography and the supply of natural resources. In particular, he emphasizes a dearth of energy sources that he says gave Jiangnan production a marked bias away from anything energy-intensive, creating what he calls "a super light industrial" economy... few trees... not very many large work animals... no coal or peat, and, being at sea level, relatively little water power. Conditions were even unfavorable for the large-scale use of wind.... Thus, Jiangnan did what it was best at: sustaining a very productive agriculture (especially in rice: cotton yields do not seem to have been outstanding), mobilizing the large numbers of people it could feed to produce handicrafts, and taking advantage of its location at the mouth of a river system draining roughly a third of China, plus the coastline and the one thousand mile Grand Canal....

While Li makes a good case for enough literacy, availability of various manuals, and so on to perpetuate continued diffusion of best practices, we need to know considerably more than we currently do about the rate at which new innovations were being introduced, and about such matters as patterns of association among artisans, the extent to which they were aware of elite science, and what was happening in that science, among other things. But this is only to say that no one scholar can do everything.... Li's re-interpretations of Chinese economic history have generated new hypotheses considerably faster than we have been able to find material that will satisfy skeptics.... We can thank Li, along with his other contributions, for keeping ourselves and our students employed for quite some time to come...

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