Change and Economy in Modern China
1. Scholars have often questioned why China did not build on its advanced technology, growing commercial sector, and ample labor force to launch its own Industrial Revolution. Describe these features of late Imperial China’s economy. What are some of the reasons and explanations for this failure of the “sprouts” of capitalism?
Many of the scholars who have questioned this aspect of China’s economic history are influenced by a dualistic construct of ethnocentric interpretations in which European powers dealt in a realm of pure action, while the rest of the world (including China) was trapped in a position of reaction or response. Almost invariably it is assumed not only that the Industrial Revolution was necessary, but also that it was good. Outward expansion and aggressive imperialism accompanied the new capitalism of the West every step of the way, and neither elements ever were primary aspects of Chinese culture. This assumed ultimatum, to build or to fail to build towards the launching of an Industrial Revolution, is a sort of ideological imperialism based on an expectation for non-Western countries to fit a mold the West has created and stretched across the globe.
One such mold that did much to establish a concept of step-by-step progress in a given region towards industrialization was pioneered by the theories of Karl Marx. Various progressive stages of development were designated by Marx as the primary way of viewing the history of a given region. These stages began with a form of primitive communism in which there was relatively equal access to all resources. Nation-states follow this rather simple construct in Marx’s progression, extracting labor from one group to another in the form of imperialist structures that were basically slave societies. A feudal society follows next, complete with serfs who are not literally slaves, but not free by any means either. The subsequent step was envisioned as a precursor to the Industrial Revolution, a pattern of early modern capitalism that gives rise to commercialism and long distance trading. From this comes the rise of industrial capitalism, marking a shift from serfdom to the wage labor of free people. This proletariat, or labor force, consists of the majority of the population. According to Marx, the next step is the overthrow of the capitalist elite, culminating in the formation of a communist state.
China, however, does not fit this European mold very neatly. Marx was aware of this discrepancy and sought to justify it with a special view of development that he called the “Asiatic mode of production.” The emergence of a strongly centralized government in this situation is seen as a response to manage environmental aspects such as monsoonal weather patterns, flood and irrigation techniques, and a concentrated agriculture based on limited amounts of arable land. This alternate view of development suited the China of the late Ming quite well; the most effectively centralized bureaucracy in the world at that time, having already been established over the course of the preceding millennium, was the Middle Kingdom (Spence 8).
According to the above schematic framework of Marx’s view of development, China achieved the end of the feudalistic stage when it became unified during the 3rd Century BC under the iron-like but short-lived grip of the Qin Dynasty. What followed was a period of “early modern capitalism” that extended primarily within China’s own borders. As far as perceived “sprouts” of industrial capitalism go, these were undoubtedly nipped in the bud with the sharp knife of 19th century Western imperialism. However, in keeping with the “sprout” analogy, there were grave problems with both the soil involved and the fertilizer used, namely the social and political environment that simply made it hard, if not impossible, for such sprouts to grow.
This assumption that the “sprout” analogy entails sticks very well to an investigation of Ming China’s economy, in which certain aspects can be construed as being a step in the direction of England’s industrial explosion. However, whether these aspects of technology and commercialism were necessarily a means to an end or simply an end is highly debatable. So many aspects of capitalism and industrialization encompass both positivity and negativity that it becomes hard to tell success from failure. The changes that occurred in late Imperial China cannot be described in a deterministic, linear fashion. The unraveling of China’s social structure and the consequential stagnation of its economy must be considered before judgments such as success or failure can be passed.
Aspects of Chinese history that can be seen as capitalist “sprouts” begin during the early Ming Dynasty, which was established in 1368 AD (Spence 9). An agricultural expansion into the northern part of China began with the influx of new crops from beyond China’s borders that were well suited to the dry lands of the north, such as peanuts, sweet potatoes, and corn. This agricultural expansion was followed by a substantial growth in population, which by 1600 was around 190 million, larger than the whole of Europe (Spence 7). Chinese population grew under the Ming as never before, leading to specialization, exploration, and concentrated manufacture of key products.
As the eunuch Zheng He explored trading options with Africa and India, countrywide markets began to emerge within the mainland. Regional specialization played an intrinsic role in the factory level handicraft production of items such as silk, tea, and porcelain in guild-controlled workshops (Spence 10). In addition to massive production systems in the Yangzi Delta area including the city of Suzhou for growing mulberry trees and boiling cocoons down, huge groups of weavers in the area concentrated on producing the finished product of silk. In Zhejiang Province, guild-houses of porcelain manufacturers met quotas for the Ming government, whose imperial monopoly fostered the prosperity of the porcelain industry (Spence 15). When viewing the overall strength of the handicraft production that took place during the Ming Dynasty, it seemed that Marx’s vision of “industrial capitalism” would soon follow.
In reality, an interlocking set of causes and relationships brought this whole industrial process to a near standstill. From province to province and city to city, a whole range of variations in everything from climate to administration, from architecture to commerce, simultaneously nullified any generalization that could be made in regards to where China was heading and seriously called into question the effectiveness of the vast Ming bureaucracy (Spence 13). Riots and strikes occurred at the silk and porcelain manufacturing level, further indicating that any such industry was either overtaxed or ignored by the Ming rulers, or even both (Spence 15).
In Mark Elvin’s book, Pattern of the Chinese Past, there is a so-called “high-equilibrium trap” that helped contribute to China’s situational condition in comparison to England’s. Elvin explains that England’s rapid industrial expansion was based on available consumption of its primary product of cotton textiles. Hypothetically, if the production supporting England’s Industrial Revolution was matched by China, due to the immense size of the latter nation there simply would not be enough consumption of those goods to make such an economic move viable, even on a worldwide scale.
Neither China’s population demographics nor its natural resources lend much support. While 320 million people lived in a country where only about 12% of the land was arable, there was also a shortage of raw materials such as timber and metals that significantly hindered industrial expansion. The majority of China’s massive labor force at the time was tied up in the process of maintaining subsistence levels of agriculture in regions that required extensive manipulation of water resources. Irrigation equipment was reduced to a manual level, involving the exhaustive foot pumping “dragon’s tooth” waterwheel, and as there was a limited animal population, much of the plowing was done by hand.
However convincing Elvin’s explanation is of the material situation in China, of natural resources, agriculture, and distribution, there were aspects of a nonmaterial nature that also must be considered in exploring China’s “failure” to progress in a Marxist context into full-fledged industrial capitalism. A fundamental uniqueness in the Chinese view of the time was that of Confucian values, which looked down on the motivation to make a profit in the commercial sector (Sources 3). A high emphasis was placed on the societal importance of the scholar-official, while any merchant class was thought of as rather selfish or opportunistic (Spence 8). The motivation of the majority of the Chinese at the onset of England’s Industrial Revolution did not involve expansion outward in matters of trade and commerce; in fact, their “only ideology was survival” (Spence 3). The Chinese minority during the late Ming and early Qing of the elite scholar-officials and the ruling Emperor also had very different motivations and priorities at the time. Internal bickering, army dissention and desertion, intense corruption on a local level, and high inflation all detracted from any sort of economic growth that China could’ve utilized at the time of the Industrial Revolution; it was a cumbersome, sluggish, and ineffective economy that had little skill at adaptation (Spence 5). Portuguese silver, traded for silk at the port of Macao, triggered a crushing wave of inflation to fall on the shoulders of the Chinese peasant, which further hindered economic stability (Spence 20).
All of these factors contributed to the vast Chinese economy being rendered at a virtual standstill, if not a steady decline, at a time when Europe began to industrialize. Not only did China lack the material resources to launch an Industrial Revolution, the motives and justification for such a move simply weren’t prevalent. From Marx’s patterns of development to the logic of England’s economy at the time, the mold of Western capitalism falls short of the many issues and aspects that faced late Imperial China.
2. What were the internal and external pressures for change facing China in the first half of the 19th century? How successful was the Qing government in dealing with those pressures?
The pressures on China during this complex and difficult time were manifold, including widespread opium addiction, anti-Qing insurgencies, corrupt and ineffectual leadership, the Opium Wars, and the resulting treaties. In determining whether or not the Qing government was successful or not in dealing with these various difficulties, it is necessary to precisely define what is entailed by the word “successful.” If success is survival, then the Qing did indeed deal successfully. However, in defense of the Qing leadership of the time, this is perhaps the full extent of the credit that can be given.
The legacy of the problems that China faced at the forefront of these long decades of turmoil can be represented through a symbol of the intense and significant corruption of the Qing government at the time. This symbol consists of the entrenchment of influence by a young Manchu officer named Heshen, who became the personal favorite of Emperor Qianlong between the years of 1775 and 1799 (Spence 114-115). A certain scholar-official named Hong Liangji preserved the concept of Heshen being the quintessential symbol of lack of reform, corruption and abuse of Imperial power, stagnant communication with the throne, and a crumbling administration on the local level; problems that Heshen did not create, but exacerbated (Sources 173). By the time that Qianlong passed away in 1799 and his son Jiaqing took over, these situations coupled with rampant and outrageous greed on the part of local officials had already spawned rebellious White Lotus movements in several provinces (Sources 178).
These various internal pressures were not dealt with effectively by the new Emperor Jiaqing, despite the deep concern that inspired many scholars, such as He Changling and Gong Zizhen, to offer much helpful advice and criticism through eloquent essays (Spence 144-145). However, China enjoyed a brief respite from external pressures due to both the reclusive Tokugawa years in Japan and the Napoleonic Wars that kept the European powers sufficiently distracted until the defeat at Waterloo in 1815 (Spence 147).
During Jiaqing’s reign he issued two strict edicts, one in 1800 and another in 1813, in an attempt to combat an issue that was to grow into monstrous proportions for the Chinese people; that of rampant opium addiction, and all that it entailed (Spence 149). The opium trade grew in part because of England’s aggressive search for a product to sell the Chinese in return for the tea, silk, and porcelain that by that time were being paid for primarily in silver (Spence 129). Another aspect of its growth must lie with the individual responsibility and accountability of the Chinese people themselves. Many theories exist on how drug addiction grows or what motivates such social trends, but all are to some extent limited to the realm of mere speculation.
At any rate, for whatever reason, by the time Jiaqing’s successor Daoguang took the throne in 1821, enough opium from English plantations in India to sustain a million addicts was being imported through the seaports run by the Cohong merchants (Spence 129). The Cohong (a mistranslation of the Chinese word for “combined merchant companies”) were a guild that formed as an attempt at monopoly of government-limited foreign trade known as the “Canton System,” set up back in 1720 (Spence 120). This system was part of an old mentality of the Chinese government to keep the “foreign barbarians” at bay, and to limit direct involvement with them to indirect officials. This mentality tainted China’s relations with England, perhaps further enabling the coming conflict of the Opium Wars. In this sense, the greatest failure of the Qing in response to the opium epidemic was its own ethnocentricity and arrogance.
Daoguang was alarmed at reports dealing with the growing scarcity of silver due to its outflow towards the foreign opium pushers, which raised taxes for the Chinese peasants considerably (Spence 149). Certainly familiar with the dangers of civil unrest, Daoguang proceeded to brainstorm with his officials to come up with an effective way to deal with the now catastrophic problem.
From the bribery of local officials to smuggle opium in illegally to the ending of the British East India Company’s Asian monopoly on opium sales (opening up the floodgates for all foreign powers who were able to participate), repeated bans on its import and sale seemed futile and overpowered (Sources 200). Daoguang’s desperation to fight the opium scourge led him to appoint an Imperial Commissioner named Lin Zexu to Guangzhou (Canton) to face the problem head-on beginning in 1839 (Sources 201).
Lin launched a series of blockades, forced seizures of opium, and announced inspiring pleas to Canton Chinese to prepare themselves for defense of their country (Spence 154-155). It could be said that Commissioner Lin achieved more in a matter of months than all of the earlier Imperial edicts and exhortations combined. However, he was far from perfect, and huge misunderstandings between the British and himself soon grew into a state of war. Not only was the British East India Company now represented directly by a deputy of the British crown; the foreign merchants who he dealt with actually had a glut of the drug due to rumors that it was soon to be legalized by the Qing government (Spence 153). These and other factors led to the deployment of a full British fleet in 1840, under the command of George Eliot (Spence 156).
Eliot quickly blockaded both Canton and Ningbo ports, and then proceeded to seize the main town on the island of Zhoushan, eventually reaching up to the mouth of the Bei He, or North River, near the Dagu Forts that protected the city of Tianjin (Spence 156). It was here that the first of a scourge of humiliating treaties was forced upon the Chinese, involving a huge indemnity, the passing of ownership of Hong Kong to Britain, and a promise to establish direct official contact between England and the Qing government, accompanied by a reopening of the Canton trade within a matter of ten days (Spence 156).
Sir Henry Pottinger was Eliot’s successor at plenipotentiary, and he arrived at Canton only to find renewed violence on the part of local Chinese militia (Spence 157). He proceeded to take control of several ports, eventually reaching all the way to Nanjing, assuming attack positions there, when the Qing finally sued for peace and signed the notorious Treaty of Nanjing (Spence 157). This treaty was the culmination of the Qing’s failure to adequately respond to the nuances of foreign trade, its arrogant handling of English opium merchants that was awash with misunderstandings and lack of communication, and uncompromising truth that indeed China must deal with the “foreign barbarians.”
The impact of the Treaty of Nanjing was far-reaching and devastating. In addition to a huge indemnity, the establishment of five treaty ports, abolition of the Canton System of trade, and fixed tariffs, the Treaty took away the Qing’s control over its own country, and led to other treaties from America and France (Spence 161). As alarming as this may sound, however, it amounted to little concern from the Qing at the time. This was because of a grave and dangerous pattern of domestic protest, uprising, and rebellion, that would prove to challenge the very survival of the Qing Dynasty itself (Spence 167).
The century in question brought with it some of the most significant rebellions in Chinese history, including the Nian to the north, the Taiping to the south, and a Muslim revolt to the northwest (Spence 170-191). Although both the Nian and the Muslim revolts consisted of loosely scattered groups of largely unaligned, disaffected groups, the Taiping Rebellion was backed ideologically and led to an eleven-year reign over the city of Nanjing (Spence 174). What eventually saved the Qing from the Taiping and led to the defeat of the Rebellion was not just the delusional ineptitude of the rebel leaders, but also the dedication of a Hunanese official named Zeng Guofan who formed a local army to combat the Taipings called the Xiang Army (Spence 177). Yet, this victory could not be claimed by the Qing, whose bannermen seemed unable to defeat the Taiping rebels. The victory was at the hands of various militias such as the Xiang Army, and even partially at the hands of the foreigners who helped under the name of the Ever-Victorious Army, which was even led into battle by foreign soldiers (Spence 179).
So the pressures of the opium epidemic, the Opium Wars and their subsequent treaties of humiliation, the seemingly endless array of popular discontent manifesting in militias, rebellions, and uprising, all signify a situation beyond the control of the Qing. To continue to survive as a dynasty became the highest aspiration that the Qing could hope for. Even this hope, however, seemed destined not to last.
Bary, Wm. Theodore de, and Richard Lufrano, comps. Sources of Chinese Tradition. 2nd ed. Vol. 2. New York: Columbia UP, 2000.
Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. New York: Norton, 1990.
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