Some alternative Asian history today. This entry tries to answer a common question - why did China unify so early and stay fairly unified culturally while Europe was so divided among different states/peoples.
A new paper by economists Chiu Yu Ko and Tuan-Hwee Sng of the National University of Singapore, and Mark Koyama of George Mason University, says the Mongols have a lot to do with it:
"Historically, China faced a large unidirectional threat from steppe nomads. Europe confronted several less powerful external threats from Scandinavia, Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. We show that if multitasking is inefficient, empires will be unstable in Europe and political fragmentation the norm. On the other hand, empires were more likely to emerge and survive in China because the nomadic threat threatened the survival of small states more than larger ones."How Come China Became One Country but Europe Became Lots of Countries? (Slate)
According to the authors, centralization has allowed China to experience faster population and economic growth during peacetime—we’re clearly in the middle of one of those periods right now—but the presence of multiple states in Europe protects different parts of the continent and makes Europe less vulnerable to economic shocks.
In fact, China's huge population may have hindered the creation of any sort of Industrial Revolution, since it was always pushing up against Malthusian limits. Unlike Western Europe, they did not have the population "release valve" in the form of the Americas. This article points out all the superior agricultural tools that were first invented in China and adopted much later in Europe:
1.) Seed drills are tools that bury seeds at a correct depth in a timely manner. Planting seeds at a good depth increases the chances of an individual seed sprouting without being eaten by birds. The use of seed drills also allows for planting in nice orderly rows with good spacing, so the sprouting plants have enough room to draw nutrients from the soil without mutually starving one another. Not every grain will germinate, but using seed drills to plant crops in rows increases the chances of any individual grain germinating. This allows you to eat more grains because you know only a small quantity is needed to replant fields. Chinese were using metal multitubed seed drills as early as 200 B.C. Seed drills make an appearance in Europe in 1566 A.D., about 1,700 years after their appearance in China.How Did Technology Help Create China's Historically Large Population? (Slate) By coincidence, I found a copy of Medieval Technology and Social Change by Lynn White Jr. in my local used bookstore. That book goes into exhaustive detail about how and when each of the above inventions came to Medieval Europe and the effect each one had. In addition, it talks about the stirrup, three-field crop rotation using legumes, cannons and gunpowder, waterwheels, windmills, and clock-making. All of these were developed earlier in the East of course, with the possible exception of waterwheels, however the book details how the pendulum clock was vastly different than the Chinese water clock, and what that meant for technology and the conception of time.
2.) Iron moldboard plow: The earliest plows in human history were basically a plank of wood that you knifed into the ground. Around 300 B.C., Chinese started using plows that were shaped in a way that they simultaneously cut into the earth and turned it, too. By 100 A.D., they were made entirely out of iron. Turning the earth is important for getting more nutrients out of your land and can even turn "barren" land fertile. So why did Chinese have all of these iron agricultural tools centuries earlier than Europeans? Because their methods of iron (and steel) production were also centuries ahead.
3.) Blast furnace: ...[S]ome time around 600 B.C., Chinese developed a furnace that could create a heat intense enough to melt iron: the blast furnace. Once liquified, iron could be poured into casts already in the shape of tools that were needed. The iron-casting industry was officially supported by dynastic governments, leading to widespread adoption of iron tools made to a standard. Cast iron is very high in carbon content, making it hard but brittle. Steel is iron that has a perfect balance of carbon to retain an edge but also maintain just enough flexibility to avoid brittleness. Around 200 B.C., Chinese learned that if air was blown over iron as it was being cast, the carbon content could be reduced, and what you wound up with was steel. Around 600 A.D., steel tools began to widely replace iron ones.
The earliest evidence of blast furnaces in Europe is 1100, with widespread adoption occuring in 1400. The process of creating steel I described above first appears in the Western world in 1855, and there's some contention that the "inventor" may have actually gotten the idea from Chinese workers in the U.S.As another illustration of the difference in iron production, by 1078 the foundries of northern China could produce 114,000 tons of iron a year. In 1788, England produced about 50,000 tons of iron.
Horse collar: A plow (or any other load) attached by a throat-girth harness means that a horse is basically pulling with a noose around its trachea. Around 300 B.C., someone in China thought, What if the horse pulled with its chest instead of its throat? So the breast-strap harness was born, and horses across China breathed a sigh of relief. This was improved on in 500 A.D. with the horse collar as we know it. The breast-strap harness appears in Russia in 700 A.D., and shows up further west in Norway around 800 A.D., with widespread adoption by 1200.
Here's another take on why no industrial revolution in China:
The best answer we have is that it [Kiangnan and China] could not surmount the classic constraints of pre-industrial growth. By the late eighteenth century it faced steeply rising costs for food, fuel and raw materials. Increasing population and expanding output competed for the produce of a more or less fixed land area. The demand for food throttled the increase in raw cotton production. Raw cotton prices probably doubled in the Yangtze delta between 1750 and 1800. The demand for fuel (in the form of wood) brought deforestation and a degraded environment. The escape route from this trap existed in theory. Kiangman should have drawn its supplies from further away. It should have cut the costs of production by mechanization, enlarging its market and thus its source of supply. It should have turned to coal to meet the need for fuel. In practice there was little chance for change along such lines. It faced competition from many inland centres where food and raw materials were cheaper, and which could also exploit China’s well-developed system of waterway transport. The very perfection of China’s commercial economy allowed new producers to enter the market with comparative ease at the same technological level. Under these conditions, mechanization — even if technologically practical — might have been stymied at birth. And, though China had coal, it was far from Kiangnan and could not be transported there cheaply. Thus, for China as a whole, both the incentive and the means to take the industrial "high road" were meagre or absent.Why no Industrial Revolution in China? (Marginal Revolution)
And this gives me an opportunity to post this deleted chapter from Brad DeLong's forthcoming economic history book (which was also featured in Progress was invented around 1870)
In the Tang Dynasty years before and the Sung Dynasty years after the year 1000, China had been the most progressive and innovative civilization in the world: innovative technologically, organizationally, and militarily. Its population—-60 million? 80 million? 100 million?—-was one of the most rapidly growing and best-fed populations in the world, thanks to the development of strains of rice that could be wet-planted, irrigated, and produce three crops a year in the fertile soil of China from the Yangtze basin south. China then led the world in non-agricultural technologies as well. At the start of the seventeenth century the British savant, politician, and bureaucrat Francis Bacon had marvelled at three inventions that he said had utterly transformed Europe: gunpowder, printing, and the compass. China had developed all three, and had developed all three before 1000.Where Was China?: Why the Twentieth-Century Was Not a Chinese Century: A Deleted Scene from My "Slouching Towards Utopia?: The Economic History of the Twentieth Century" Ms.
China in the twelfth century at its pre-industrial relative apogee produced more iron and saw a greater share of agricultural production sold on markets than Britain would produce and market in the eighteenth. Zheng He's mid-fifteenth century voyages of exploration sailed four times as far with twenty times as many sailors as Columbus, and could land ten times as many soldiers at Dar es Salaam and Trincomalee as Cortez would land at Vera Cruz. China had long had the capability of launching its own “voyages of discovery.” Its governments had chosen not to, with that one exception. Zheng He’s fleet reached Zanzibar, and touched Africa, bringing back a giraffe. Annoyed at their treatment by a Sri Lankan king, they captured him and brought him back to China to make his apology to the emperor. But the political balance in the Ming court changed, the follow-up expeditions were cancelled, and the exploration program abandoned.
China led the world in political organization as well. No other ruler's writ ran a third as far or has even a third as large a chance of being obeyed as that of China's emperor. Tang Dynasty cavalry skirmished with Persians on the shores of the Aral Sea. The Sung Dynasty river navy was the only military force to even temporarily stymie Chingis Khan's Mongols, before his descendants took to fighting each other rather than expanding the empire. No pre-industrial central government anywhere ever managed to match the reach, extent, and power of the landlord-scholar-bureaucracy mode of domination invented under the Tang and developed under the Sung. The Sung Dynasty capital, Hangzhou, was before the Mongol conquest the largest city in the world—-larger than Baghdad or Constantinople or Cordova or Delhi—-with perhaps half a million inhabitants: the closest thing to an economic, cultural, and political capital the twelfth-century world had.
After 1800 British merchants did discover one commodity besides silver that Indian producers could supply and that Chinese consumers were eager to buy: opium. By the end of the 1830s the Chinese government was beginning to worry about the consequences of opium addiction on the country, and the exchange of European silver for Chinese goods had turned around: the bulk of the China trade was the exchange of Chinese silver for Indian-grown opium. The Chinese government attempted to suppress the opium trade and opium smuggling. The result was the 1839-1842 "Opium War," in which the British fleet intervened on the side of free trade, the sale of opium, and drug addiction. The British Empire acquired the then nearly barren island of Hong Kong as a base, European influence was established in a substantial number of "treaty ports" along the Chinese coast, and the division of China not into European colonies but into regions in the "spheres of influence" of different European powers began.
By the second half of the nineteenth century China’s relative apogee was three-quarters of a millennium past, and the government and the people were in crisis. The people were in crisis because they were more than three times as numerous as their predecessors at the pre-industrial apogee, because they were ruled by a rapacious landed aristocracy, and because progress in agriculture and industry to counterbalance rising population had been nearly absent for most of the second millennium. In 1100 the Chinese people were rich, or at least as rich as pre-industrial peasant societies get. At the start of the second millennium development of new types of crops and new strains of rice had greatly boosted agricultural productivity and triggered the centuries-long spread of China’s heartland from the Yellow River to the Yangtze and further south, to Hunan and Guangzhou. But by the second half of the nineteenth century Malthus was having his revenge. China had filled up, with more than 300 million people, which left average farm size less than third of what they had been three quarters of a millennium before, the bulk of peasant families were close to the edge. It is virtually certain that the average Chinese peasant family in the second half of the nineteenth century had less food than its predecessors in the twelfth: think of 1300 calories per person per day as a rough guess.
The technological dynamism and organizational relative edge that China had possessed in the twelfth century was gone as well. Chinese producers still had substantial technological edges in limited industrial segments: high end silk textiles, high-end porcelain, tea. But there had been little internally-driven technological progress in any industry for more than half a millennium. And the bureaucracy that in 1150 had looked efficient and powerful compared to a Europe—a place where no king would even think of asking an Earl of Pembroke to explain anything—by 1870 looked corrupt and incapable.
Why this 750 year relative stagnation is a great mystery. There are many potential suspects to take the blame as the root cause of China's long, long relative stagnation.
Perhaps the root problem was that emperors, grand secretaries, and landlords feared their own generals more than they feared their neighbors' soldiers. European kings, ministers, and landlords sought a strong military to protect them and theirs against the next William the Conqueror or Friedrich II or Francois I or Napoleon I from across the border. In China there was little to fear from outside the empire (as long as the Mongols were kept divided), but a great deal to be feared inside the empire from your own generals—-men like the ninth-century An Lushan or the seventeenth-century Three Feudatories. Thus the military-industrial-metallurgy-innovation complex that drove so much of pre-industrial and early-industrial European technological progress was absent.
Perhaps the root problem was that with triple-cropping rice strains the wet-rice fields were too fertile, the governmental bureaucracy too effective, and the avenues of establishment-oriented upward mobility to the striving and aggressive too open. After making a little money the logical next step was to buy some land. Because the land was rich, because labor was plentiful and cheap, and because the empire was (most of the time) strong internally, one could live well after turning one's wealth into land. One could also easily make the important social contacts to pave the way for one's children to advance further. And one's children could do the most important thing needed for upward mobility: study the Confucian classics and do well on the examinations: first the local shengyan, then the regional juren, and then the national jinshi. Those who had successfully written their eight-legged essays and made proper allusions to and use of the Confucian classics would then join the landlord-scholar-bureaucrat aristocracy that ruled China and profited from the empire. In the process of preparing for the examinations and mastering the material needed to do well on them, they would acquire the habits of thought and values of a Confucian aristocrat landlord-scholar-bureaucrat. Entrepreneurial drive and talent was thus molded into an orthodox Confucian-aristocratic pattern and harnessed to the service of the regime and of the landlord class: good for the rents of the landlords, good for the stability of the government, but possibly very bad indeed for the long-run development of technology and organization. Carlson (1957) quotes an imperial edict of 1724 condemning mining as a potential source of disorder and treason, for "[M]iners are easy to recruit but hard to disband. If mining is left to the initiative of merchants there wil be danger of crowds assembling and harboring treachery…"
Perhaps the root problem was the absence of a new world rich in resources to exploit and helpless because of technological backwardness.
Perhaps the root problem was the lesser weight attached to instrumental rationality as a mode of thought
Perhaps the root problem was the absence of dissenting hidey-holes for ideological unconformity.
Perhaps the root problem was the fact that the merchants and hand-manufacturers of China's cities were governed by landlords appointed by the central government rather than governing themselves.
Perhaps the root problem was that large-muscled animals like oxen and horses turned out to be powerful productive multipliers for temperate rain-irrigated wheat-based agricultural but not for sub-tropical paddy-irrigated rice-based agriculture
Perhaps the root problem was some combination of these.
Perhaps the root problem was one or a combination of any of a host of other possibilities over which historians will struggle inconclusively (but thoughtfully and fruitfully) for the rest of time.
And as an added bonus: Why Didn't Japan Find the Americas First? (Slate) I've always thought Japan was the most likely contender for an Industrial Revolution outside of England. It was a fairly stable, uniform and peaceful society (in the Tokugawa era), with a high level of economic development. According to Wikipedia:
Economic development during the Edo period included urbanization, increased shipping of commodities, a significant expansion of domestic and, initially, foreign commerce, and a diffusion of trade and handicraft industries. The construction trades flourished, along with banking facilities and merchant associations. Increasingly, han authorities oversaw the rising agricultural production and the spread of rural handicrafts.But perhaps most importantly, they had fairly sophisticated mechanical engineering of automata called Karakuri:
By the mid-eighteenth century, Edo had a population of more than 1 million and Osaka and Kyoto each had more than 400,000 inhabitants. Many other castle towns grew as well. Osaka and Kyoto became busy trading and handicraft production centers, while Edo was the center for the supply of food and essential urban consumer goods.
Rice was the base of the economy, as the daimyo collected the taxes from the peasants in the form of rice. Taxes were high, about 40% of the harvest. The rice was sold at the fudasashi market in Edo. To raise money, the daimyo used forward contracts to sell rice that was not even harvested yet. These contracts were similar to modern futures trading.
Karakuri are incredibly sophisticated mechanized puppets dating from Japan’s Edo period (200 to 300 years ago). The puppets perform astonishingly intricate tasks like writing and shooting arrows, powered by nothing more than handmade clockwork technology.Karakuri, Centuries Old Japanese Clockwork Puppets (Laughing Squid) It's notable that they embarked on a path of conservation and isolation rather than expansion and conquest like the island on the opposite end of the Eurasian landmass.
Bonus: A short introduction to Confucianism (Disinformation)