The great divergence

It has been ten years since Ken Pomeranz published The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy., a book that forced some real rethinking about the economic history in Europe and China. Along with Bin Wong in China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience, he called for a deep questioning of many of the basic premises of much twentieth century economic history, which was premised on the backwardness and stagnation of China and the dynamism of Western Europe. Industrial revolution and sustained economic growth were unique products of the west, and China was incapable of these transformations at the beginning of the modern epoch — 1600, let us say. 

So the central problematic for “European exceptionalism” was to identify some set of features of western society lacking in China that could account for takeoff. Was it merchant culture? Perhaps Newtonian science? Was it European family and reproductive behavior? Or perhaps it was some feature of Christianity?

Pomeranz doesn’t like these theories. More basically, he doesn’t accept the premise of European economic superiority in 1600, whether in institutions or ideology. He considers agriculture first and holds that Chinese agriculture was as productive in terms of land and labor as English farming; it was not undergoing involution through population increase; and it supported a rural standard of living that was competitive with that of Europe and England, his primary focus. 

Pomeranz doesn’t doubt that there were sharp differences in European and Chinese economic development in the 18th century. This is the “great divergence” to which he refers. But he doubts that there are grand socio-cultural explanations for this fact; instead he focuses on contingent conjunctival circumstances that gave England a lead that it maintained for 200 years. These include the fortuitous location of coal in Britain, the fact of New World wealth, and the returns if slave labor in North America. None of these is a deep systemic factor but rather a lucky break for Britain. 

Bin Wong adds a different theme to the debate. He recognizes that Europe and China possessed complex political-economic systems that were different from each other. And he agrees that these systems had consequences for development. But he agrees with Pomeranz that neither system is inherently superior. And he calls for an economic history that pays attention to the differences as well as similarities. Each process of development can be illuminated by comparison to the other. 

So where is the debate today? This was the focus of a productive conference at Tsinghua University in Beijing last week. Some of the primary contributors to economic history participated, including Robert Allen, Bozhong Li, and James Lee. It isn’t possible to summarize the papers, but several themes emerged. The most basic is the need to bring substantially more factual detail to the debate. What we need at this point isn’t more theorizing about large causes; it is more fine grained factual discovery across both Europe and China.

Three areas in particular have gotten much more factual in the debate in ten years. the first is agricultural productivity. Historians like Robert Allen and Bozhong Li have substantially sharpened our knowledge of the farm economies of England and China. 

Second is the question of the historical standard of living in various places. Essentially this depends on price data, wage data, and a system for comparing consumption across countries. Here too there has been a great refinement of our knowledge. Robert Allen has contributed much of this. 

Third is population behavior. The Malthusian theory of the difference between China and Europe is a stumbling block, and of course this theory was created in a fact-free universe. Now comparative historical demography has advanced a long way thanks to researchers like James Lee. The Eurasian Population and Family History Project has now refuted the Malthusian view. 

A key idea in the Pomeranz debate is Philip Huang’s idea that Chinese agriculture was “involutionary”. The work provided by Bozhong Li demonstrates that this theory is simply incorrect when applied to the lower Yangzi River delta. Moreover, China’s development after 1970 makes the theory implausible in any case. As Li pointed out at the conference, “It is inconceivable China’s modern development could have occurred in the conditions of involution described in the debate.” China was clearly not caught in an inescapable involutionary trap. 

So there is work to be done still on the origins of the great transformation. And it is valuable for this work to take place with a global and comparative perspective. But most valuable will be detailed factual research that adds significantly to what we know about the past. 


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