This paper is a general sketch of a much longer manuscript in progress, which in some ways modifies and in some ways extends arguments about Chinese development in The Great Divergence – among other things by suggesting ways in which Ming/Qing patterns may have influenced the very long-run of Chinese development. For today’s purposes the main feature of the argument that is more or less new is a focus on certain features of landed property rights: above all the prevalence in China’s most advanced regions of very strong usufruct rights that tenants acquired through various methods. I have another paper that describes those rights in more detail, and I’m happy to talk about those things if people want to. But for an audience of (mostly) non-sinologist economic historians, it seemed more useful to start by laying out big, somewhat speculative claims about the implications of those rights.
Coastal China from Shanghai on south was probably among the richest regions on earth until the Industrial Revolution: in particular, living standards in the Yangzi Delta (population 31,000,000 plus in 1770) were probably comparable to England’s and Holland’s in the mid-18th century. Its agriculture was exceptionally productive– not only per acre, but per labor day; its extensive handicraft industries (especially textiles) yielded incomes comparable to those of textile workers anywhere, and at least its grain markets – the only ones for which we have thorough studies -- were remarkably well integrated.
1, Data Concerning China’s GDP
This generally positive picture is contradicted by two other kinds of data, both of which can be adequately explained by factors related to the landed property system that will play a central role in this paper. First, Angus Maddison’s widely-used historical GNP estimates suggest that China already lagged well behind Europe by 1700. However, Maddison’s estimates of productivity in agriculture – by far the largest sector of... [continues]
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