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The Economic History of China (Review)

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Richard von Glahn. 2016.
The Economic History of China: From Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century
Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press
ISBN 9781107615700

This is a pioneering book as it offers the first overview of the economic history of China in a western language whereas hitherto only partial aspects or periods have been investigated. The author deserves a lot of credit because he presents not only the results his own research (mostly on monetary history) but provides access to the results of Chinese and Japanese research that otherwise might have been ignored.

This is a book on how the political system, especially the central government, worked on the economy from the Bronze Age up to 1900. Beginning with the Zhou period (c. 1046 BC – 256 BC) Richard von Glahn uses the term of a ‘patrimonial state’ coined by Max Weber (p. 12) to show how the state stimulated economic growth while it secured internal and external peace, invested in public goods (education, welfare, transport, and water control), controlled and standardized the markets, and generated an institutional infrastructure for the promotion of agriculture and commerce. According to von Glahn the state withdrew from economic life in the late imperial period. While reducing taxes, this produced positive results for economic growth either way whereas the decline of state investments in the infrastructure set limits on economic development. Von Glahn therefore rejects the notion of the market as the driving force of economic growth but holds that the economic growth was stimulated by technological and knowledge innovations promoted by institutions other than the market and especially by the state. It is here that von Glahn adopts the dynamic approach of Joseph Alois Schumpeter (pp. 7-10).

To the opinion of the reviewer this concept, however, does not hold true for innovations in private finance as they were instigated by Buddhist monasteries (pp. 202-203). It does not hold true either for credit and brokerage services evolving in the Southern Song as the author himself concedes (pp. 267-268).

With the underlying hypothesis that politics influenced the economy, the main focus of the book is on state fiscal policy regarding questions of land allocation, taxation, labor service obligation, and currency to which generous space is devoted. Over long stretches of his book the author describes the political events and the administrational system, even in cases when there is no evidence that they affected the economy (e.g. pp. 50-52, 58, 182, 184-185). There is also some detail overload (e.g. pp. 199, 257, 272, 303-304, 306-307). In favor of structural stringency detail documentary as case studies could have been put into an appendix.

The author’s bias on the form of government as the main factor responsible for the economic development implies that almost half of the chapters of his book are arranged according to political formations (Chapter 2 ‘city state’ and ‘autocratic monarchy’, Chapter 3 ‘universal empire’, Chapter 5 ‘reunification of the empire’). The same is true of many of the chapters’ subdivisions that deal with the governmental form: ‘patrimonial state’ (pp. 14-21), ‘city state’ (pp. 46-52), ‘autocratic state’ (pp. 52-60), ‘city transformed’ (66-74), ‘recovery and stabilization’ (170-181), ‘state building’ (pp. 181-191), ‘institutional heritage’ (pp. 204-206).

Although the chapters are arranged in chronological order, the author does not keep to this order in an inconsistent way, e.g. he includes information on the economy of the Late Warring States period (c. 475 BC – 221 BC) (pp. 154-155, 164-147) or the reign of the Former Han emperors Wen (c. 179 BC – 157 BC) and Wu (c. 140 BC – 87 BC) in the chapter that deals with the period of 81 BC to 485 CE (pp. 131; 132; 133; 142; 153; 155) or elsewhere he gives information on the economy of the Song period in the chapter discussing the period preceding the Song (p. 202). There are also some redundancies (e.g. pp. 52, 188).

It is only the other half of the book which is divided according to economic criteria distinguishing certain forms of the economy that had developed at a certain period of time (Chapter 1 ‘Bronze Age economy’, Chapter 4 ‘estate economy’, Chapter 7 ‘Jiangnan economy’, Chapter 8 ‘market economy’, Chapter 9 ‘imperial economy’). With regard to Bronze Age economy he does not write expressly about the overall importance of bronze. He could have given some piece of information about the mining and smelting processes as well as their implications. The term ‘Jiangnan economy’ is not really commonplace and he could have chosen a different term that characterizes this specific form of economy. The term ‘imperial economy’ is not very distinct either. That the term Jiangnan economy is inadequate for what von Glahn subsumes under ‘The heyday of the Jiangnan economy (1127-1550)’ is demonstrated by the fact that this period was not homogeneous at all. Mongol rule and the beginning of Ming rule marked incisive turning points in the economic development. Since even von Glahn himself describes them as ‘departing sharply’ from political traditions, resp. as ‘a sharp rupture’ in economic evolution especially in Jiangnan (p. 278, resp. p. 285) the reader is left puzzled.

Surprisingly, too, von Glahn’s economic history does not start before Zhou rule in 1045 since he thinks the oracle bones of the Shang do not tell much on the economy and its resources (p. 12). On the contrary, other authors have shown that archeological excavations allow revealing insights into the Shang economy (cf. e.g. Dieter Kuhn on weaving).

Climatic changes as external factors that might have influenced the economy (and politics) are mostly left aside. Mere hints to pastoral nomadism on the northern frontier because of increasing aridity (p. 154) or to the so-called Little Ice Age (p. 284) do not suffice. More satisfactory is the author’s reference to climatic disturbances in relation to the disruption of Ming rule (pp. 310-311). Other environmental implications, however, as e.g. the exploitation of natural resources and its effects on the development of the economy are not broached. In this respect the author could have taken a more multifactorial approach although it might have been more complex.

A minor shortcoming of the book is that characters for Chinese technical terms are given only at their first appearance in the text. A major default, however, is the complete lack of characters for names of persons or places and for some technical terms (e.g. Banliang on p. 62, Shangfang Bureau on p. 145), too. Besides that, titles of Chinese writings are given only in English translation without indicating their Chinese title (pp. 86, 139, 140, 269). The worst is that the index at the end of the book does not contain any Chinese characters at all. An index with Chinese characters would have been a chance to present an added value for otherwise poorly accessible special terms.

The many thematic maps are instructive, yet in some of them the author refrains from giving his sources (e.g. pp. 63, 115, 188, 195, 197, 305). Furthermore, numerical figures in absolute terms are meaningless to the reader unless a benchmark or reference figure is given for comparison (e.g. p. 132 ‘over 100.000 metric tons of grain’, p. 186 ‘23.8 million liters’).

The use of such terms as ‘wine monopoly’ (p. 125) or ‘taxes on wine and tea’ (p. 212) is misleading as in an economic context jiu (酒) comprises alcoholic beverages of any kind and not just wine. The term suanmin (算緡) is insufficiently explained as a ‘new policy’ (p. 114). The use of uncommon terms such as ‘satrapies’ (pp. 100, 257) from other cultural contexts urgently requires explanation. The comparison drawn to European ‘mercantilism’ does not fit either, especially not for the Han period and the author does not explain why there were similarities, except for a short reference to Gustav Schmoller (pp. 9,118, 124). To the opinion of the reviewer the economic policy of the Han period and of later periods can at best be described as dirigiste.

After reading this book in class for university students the reviewer considers it as highly specialized and written for experts. It is not in any way suitable for students or lay persons although in the earlier chapters it looks like as if it had sprung partly from a lecture manuscript. It is the earlier chapters of the book that need revision with regard to recurrent and unnecessary repetitions and unsystematic follow-up mix of information. At this the author should make a clear and consistent decision whether he chooses a primarily genetic narrative or a primarily systematic approach by themes.

In spite of these shortcomings, the book is a masterwork because of its broad layout and synopsis of material as well as discussion of controversial interpretations in the evaluation of previous research.

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