A cycle of Cathay

The innovations which make their appearance in East Asia round about the year 1000 … form such a coherent and extensive whole that we have to yield to the evidence: at this period, the Chinese world experienced a real transformation. … The analogies [with the European Renaissance] are numerous – the return to the classical tradition, the diffusion of knowledge, the upsurge of science and technology (printing, explosives, advance in seafaring techniques, the clock with escapement …), a new philosophy, and a new view of the world. … There is not a single sector of political, social or economic life in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries which does not show evidence of radical changes in comparison with earlier ages. It is not simply a matter of a change of scale (increase in population, general expansion of production, development of internal and external trade) but of a change of character. Political habits, society, the relations between town and country, and economic patterns are quite different from what they had been. … A new world had been born.

Jacques Gernet. A History of Chinese Civilization, pp. 298-300

Scholars contemplating the sweeping economic, social, and political transformation of China under the Song dynasty (960-1279) seem compelled to draw analogies with later dramatic occurrences in Europe – with the Renaissance (as in the quote above) or with the Economic Revolution in England on the eve of the Industrial Revolution.

The changes are dramatic. Population roughly doubles, from about 50 million to about 100 million. Cities grow. Both internal and external trade boom. The division of labor advances, with different households and different parts of the country specializing in “goods such as rice, wheat, lighting oil, candles, dyes, oranges, litchi nuts, vegetables, sugar and sugarcane, lumber, cattle, fish, sheep, paper, lacquer, textiles and iron.” In a number of fields of technology – iron production, shipbuilding – China reaches heights which the West will not attain for many centuries.

With changes in the economy come changes in the relation between society and state. Taxes come to be mostly collected in cash rather than kind, Eventually revenues from taxes on commerce, including excise taxes and state monopolies, will greatly exceed those from land tax. A Council of State will put constitutional checks on the power of the emperor.

Yet Imperial China will ultimately follow a different, less dramatic developmental pathway than Europe. Some reasons why:

The nomad brake. By 1000, Western Europe has largely tamed its barbarians, folding them into a settled, stratified, Christian society. But the civilized folk bordering the Eurasian steppe, in Eastern Europe and continental Asia, are in for a rougher ride. During the whole Song period, China faces a threat from nomads to the north. In the Northern Song period (960-1126), the Khitan empire, founded by steppe nomads, occupies Mongolia, Manchuria, and part of northern China. In the Southern Song period (1127-1279), the Song lose all of northern China to a new barbarian dynasty, the Jin. Finally, the Song dynasty ends when all of China is conquered by the Mongols under Genghis Khan and his heirs, with the loss of about a third of the population. For all the wealth and sophistication of the Song, the succeeding native Chinese dynasty, the Ming, does not regard them as a model to be emulated.

Rice economics. Rice is the main food crop in southern China, the most populous and developed part of the country. Here’s a basic fact about rice versus wheat production (hat-tip pseudoerasmus): diminishing marginal returns to labor are less pronounced with rice than wheat. In other words, with rice, you can produce a lot more if you’re willing to put in a lot more work. With wheat, you more quickly reach a point where additional labor yields little additional production. This simple fact has far-reaching implications. Imagine an economy with two sectors, agriculture and manufacturing. And imagine that population expands up to a Malthusian limit. Under these assumptions, and given standard economic reasoning, it makes a big difference whether the principal crop is rice or wheat. With rice (diminishing marginal returns less pronounced), equilibrium population density is greater, output per capita is less, and more of the labor force is in agriculture, less in manufacturing.

So an economic model incorporating information about labor productivity of rice and wheat seems to account for some basic differences between China and the West. But rice cultivation may have more subtle implications.

Rice psychology. An older generation of humanist scholars was willing to generalize about Chinese thinking.

It is quite clear to all those who have been in contact with this world that it is quite different from the one in which we ourselves have been moulded. … China does not know the transcendent truths, the idea of good in itself, the notion of property in the strict sense of the term. She does not like the exclusion of opposition, the idea of the absolute, the positive distinction of mind and matter; she prefers the notions of complementarity, or circulation, influx, action at a distance, of a model, and the idea of order as an organic totality. … Chinese thought does not proceed from an analysis of language. It is based on the handling of signs with opposing and complementary values.

Gernet p. 29

Within the social sciences, sweeping pronouncements like this are suspect. To hard-headed materialists and quants they look hopelessly impressionistic and unscientific. To post-colonialist critical theorists, they reek of old-fashioned, condescending Orientalism. But there is now a substantial body of research demonstrating real differences in cognitive style across cultures, and between the West and China (and other East Asian societies), in line with the quotation above.

Of note here: there is also regional variation within China. Rice paddy farming requires high levels of cooperation, including joint work keeping up irrigation systems, and reciprocal labor exchanges. And research shows that there are differences in psychology as well between wheat and rice growing regions in China. Chinese from rice growing regions are more inclined to holistic, context dependent thinking. Chinese from wheat growing regions have a more independent, individualizing cognitive style. In other words, the expansion of rice cultivation in China may have reinforced some of its characteristic cognitive inclinations.

In conclusion: the history of the Song period poses in particularly clear form the “Needham puzzle” of why the Industrial Revolution did not originate in China. The answer, it seems, is complicated, combining (at least) political and social responses to external threat, the nature of agricultural economies, and more intangible (but still measurable) differences in cognitive style.

2 thoughts on “A cycle of Cathay

  1. Pingback: After the plague | Logarithmic History

  2. Pingback: Fairly Recently: Must- and Should-Reads, and Writings… (October 31, 2019) | Share Market Pro

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