Reviewed by Kenneth Pomeranz (Department of History, University of California, Irvine)
Published on EH.Net (August, 2000)
This is a translation and abridgment (by about thirty percent) of the first volume of Xu Dixin and Wu Chengming's huge three-volume history of Chinese capitalism. It was originally published in China in the mid-1980s, though much of the work was done quite a bit earlier (Xu died in 1968). It has now been rendered into very readable English, and trimmed in a way that retains the real essentials of the work.
The Chinese version was immediately proclaimed a landmark work, even by people who disagreed with its sometimes rigid Marxist framework. Since the text now reaches English readers through a bit of a time warp -- and what current readers may find most valuable may differ from what the authors emphasized -- a few words about its original context are in order. (Some of this context is provided in the helpful introduction by Peter Nolan and Chris Bramall, who also suggest ways of relating this book to more recent scholarship, and to more recent developments in East Asia. In particular, they argue -- as would I, though for somewhat different reasons -- that contrasts between Qing China, Tokugawa Japan, and much of early modern Europe may have been overstated.)
Official Chinese Communist historiography faced a conundrum. If the four stages of society -- slave, feudal, capitalist, socialist --identified by various authoritative Marxist texts were truly a universal progression, why had China remained in its "feudal" stage so long? If it had still been "stuck" in that stage at the time of the Opium War (thus explaining why it was roundly defeated by relatively small forces from the capitalist world) but had been ready for a proletarian revolution by 1949, did this mean that capitalism had come from abroad, and imperialism needed to be accorded a progressive (if painful) role? To deny that -- and to rescue the universality of the Marxist stages -- it was necessary that China had been incubating its own "sprouts of capitalism." Various scholars found signs of just that in the late Ming and early Qing; the failure of these sprouts to blossom fully were then blamed on either Manchu or British intervention from outside. But there was clearly something ad hoc about such a solution -- if capitalist development had been well underway in the sixteenth century, why had it been so easily derailed, leaving China to enter the twentieth century with a small bourgeoisie, tiny proletariat, and much of what was considered "feudal" society still intact? At least through the 1950s, the majority of PRC scholars preferred to see Chinese "feudalism" as remarkably stable, if not quite stagnant, and capitalism as something that came to China from without.
Xu and Wu sought to cut through the debate by identifying both endogenous Chinese tendencies toward capitalism and endogenous reasons why they were not strong enough to "dissolve feudalism" and create a transformation comparable to what occurred in Northwestern Europe. In a short concluding section, they then argued that despite the limitations of China's pre-1840 "embryonic capitalism," its development is crucial to understanding what they see as an accelerated growth of capitalism after 1840, when the economic stimulus and socio-political disruptions of imperialism were added to endogenous forces. But since we already have a fairly large literature on the post-1840 period (some of which builds on material unavailable to Xu and Wu), most readers will find the material on late Ming and early Qing the most useful part of the book.
Xu and Wu's response to the received wisdom took two separable, though related, paths. First, they painstakingly collected evidence of the scale of commerce in late Ming and early Qing society: how much grain, cloth, iron, liquor, and so on were sold for cash. The results suggested that far too much of the Chinese economy was commoditized in this period for it to be comfortably characterized as "feudal," and that the scale of commercial exchange was continuing to grow in the late-eighteenth/early nineteenth century. (It should be noted here that since Xu and Wu were primarily interested in showing the scale of commodity production in China, they rarely attempted to estimate total output, or the quantities of goods that were consumed by their producers, bartered, provided as in-kind payment for services, or traded locally without the participation of merchants seeking to accumulate capital, rather than peddlers meeting their own subsistence needs. Thus these estimates are of relatively little use in the more recent debate over late imperial Chinese standards of living.) A more recent generation of scholars has since refined many of these estimates with the help of additional data, and has usually found them to be lower than is probably warranted. But many of them are still the state of the art for particular kinds of trade; making them available to those who don't read Chinese is a very important contribution. (An unfortunate limitation of this contribution is that somewhere in the production of the English text, a number of numbers were reproduced incorrectly -- dropping zeros, for instance -- which sometimes makes two calculations [of say, the number of workers involved in an enterprise and the size of its output] inconsistent. As far as I can tell, none of these arithmetic errors are in the original; so while readers who cannot check the original may need help in figuring out which of two conflicting numbers is correct, they should not conclude from this that Xu and Wu were generally unreliable.) For many comparativists --particularly those who do not share the authors' Marxist viewpoint - these estimates will be the most valuable part of the book, and the volume's organization, with many short clearly labeled chapters, makes it easy to zero in on the numbers provided for a particular industry.
But Xu and Wu probably felt that their second line of inquiry -- a reconstruction of the forces and relations of production in various sectors -- was even more important. One need not share their assumption that those sectors in which workers were fully proletarianized (earning a cash wage, owning none of the tools of production, enjoying full legal equality, etc.) necessarily represent the cutting edge of historical change (and were most the likely to experience technological breakthroughs) to profit from their clear and detailed reconstructions of how particular industries financed production, paid and monitored laborers, marketed their products, and so on, and of who was involved in various lines of production at various times. For most industries, the technological material offered is less detailed than in the enormous volumes by Joseph Needham and his collaborators, but quite sufficient for an introduction, and more attentive to describing average (as opposed to best) practices. The discussion of the social organization of production is skewed toward enterprises closely tied to the state (a small portion of the economy, but by far the best documented part), but exemplary in its careful attention to what the sources actually do (and don't) say about payment, supervision, productivity, and various other topics.
In explaining why what they call "embryonic capitalism" was "retarded" in China -- such that it was a real phenomenon, but not one that would radically remake Chinese society anytime soon -- Xu and Wu emphasize two phenomena: 1) the role of the Chinese state and 2 )the "unity of agriculture and industry": i.e. the fact that much handicraft production was carried out by rural people whose families continued to own or rent some land.
On the first point, they stake out a rather moderate position, arguing that the Ming and Qing did not encourage commerce, but were not hostile to it except in certain specific areas and at certain specific times: they single out frequent restrictions on foreign trade, mining (which it was felt collected too many unruly young males in a single place) and in certain frontier zones (where it was feared that rapid commercialization might undermine local customs and lead to violence that would be expensive to suppress). They also note that in general, policies were liberalizing during the first half of the Qing, though they note that they did not approximate true free trade. (Did they anywhere?) Given the huge size of China's domestic economy and long-range internal trade, the intermittent restrictions on foreign trade seem to me probably not crucial, except insofar as they inhibited access to foreign science and technology; and both the Japanese example (where quite a bit of "Dutch learning" was absorbed through a trade window much narrower than China's) and the speed with which certain Western crafts were reproduced on the southeast coast of China suggest to me that freer foreign trade would not have made a crucial difference here, either. The arguments about mining seem to me more promising, given the ways that energy problems and shortages of certain metals may have shaped the Qing economy. Perhaps most impressive in a book written in pre-reform China is the simple fact that the authors break down the question "Was the Qing state good for commerce?" into more specific and verifiable pieces, not insisting on a blanket answer that covers all kinds of trade and industry; in this way, they remain ahead of what one still encounters in many of the polemics about Chinese development, European exceptionalism, and so on.
On the second point, Xu and Wu simply take it as axiomatic that a society in which the same households produce handicrafts and agricultural goods must be more "backward" than one in which these functions are separated, and that households of workers with no way to secure any of their subsistence except by selling their labor will be more ruthlessly driven to do only those things that create the highest marginal return than those that still have some access to subsistence not mediated by the market. These both seem to me questionable assumptions, not only in the light of late imperial Chinese experience, but that of Tokugawa Japan, various parts of continental Europe, and the booming economy of contemporary rural China. But if the persistent combination of farming and handicrafts, and of market-oriented and subsistence activities in a highly commercialized economy (perhaps one might call it the failure of proletarianization rather than the failure of capitalism) was not necessarily the impediment to growth that Xu and Wu suggest, it is nonetheless a phenomenon worth careful study; and, for anyone who is interested but does not read Chinese, the mass of material that Xu and Wu have assembled is now available as an excellent point of departure. By thus widening the range of scholars who can help us sort this out, this translation renders an important service.
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Kenneth Pomeranz. Review of Dixin, Xu; Chengming, Wu, Chinese Capitalism, 1522-1840.
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