On China's Economic Stagnancy in the Early Modern Period: A Call for a More Responsible, Careful Historical Investigation

Historical assessments on China's economic stagnancy in the early modern have been generally overly simplistic and unfair. This calls for a more responsible, careful investigation of this point of China's history that should shed more light to her streng

There is no doubt about it. China occupies today the center stage of the world’s socio-economic history in the making. The Dragon of the East is now awake. She is now probably at the height of her strength, fully energized, now ready to conquer uncharted regions of the economic map of the world and make them her own. In fact, she is everywhere (or should we say, omnipresent) in this 21st century hi-tech world, competing with the rest of the economic giants of Asia, Europe and North America for her rightful share in the global market.

Who in the world would think back in the early modern period that China would become a major player in global economics as she is today? The stereotypes common among historians (especially those who represent the West) of that point of history betray a rather hopeless, pessimistic outlook. It was all bleak and dark for China. She had no future, no hope, no hint of socio-economic progress whatsoever. At best, it was kind of a “10 steps forward, nine steps back” route within a relatively long period of time. At worst, it was a downward spiral story.

China's Economic Stagnancy in the Early Modern Period

China used to be a world leader in economic dynamism and technological innovations up to the 13th century. But how come that such a world economic leader missed the Industrial Revolution that paved the way for a gigantic economic leap of the West just a few centuries thereafter? At the very least, a couple of answers to this rather intriguing question have been offered.

First, some suggest that it was all due to China’s geographical location and intellectual sluggishness. Equipped with advanced and still advancing scientific knowledge, the West, they say, was then engaged in explorations after explorations of the world’s natural resources, eager to fulfill the Enlightenment project in modernity. China and the rest of the East were then locked into intellectual stagnancy, animated by rampant superstitions and folk religiosity, which, for the West, was characteristic of backward mentality. The best that China could offer then, it is said, was the Confucian classics of moral philosophy, which, according to some Western scholars, is too agrarian in orientation and therefore pays little interest, if any, in a market-driven society.

Second, there those who are more inclined to put the blame on China’s imperial hostility to commerce and trade. Driven by the so-called “Oriental Despotism” (as proposed by the Wittfogel thesis), the Chinese imperial state, for instance, took control of crucial supplies of water irrigation to serve its ends at the expense of the country’s economy. Far from what the West had already achieved, China found herself caged by her own government’s dictatorial socio-economic policies. This proved to be a sure recipe towards economic stagnancy.

A Call for a More Responsible, Careful Historical Investigation

This historical assessment is, of course, overly simplistic and unfair. At the end of the day, such a broad stroke of China’s early modern socio-economic historical account would turn out to be really narrow-minded, too superficial if not prejudicial. Indeed, it does no justice to the whole story.

Nonetheless, it carries with it an enigma that calls for a more responsible, careful investigation. This must go beyond the cheap binary contrast between the East and the West purported by those who claim to be scholars in this field of academic inquiry. These so-called scholars, mind you, are in the habit of parroting the European colonialists’ accounts of China’s history by dressing them up with a contemporary twist so as to make it appear as their own. This approach is lazy and must be avoided.

Something must have been hidden beneath China’s early modern socio-economic history, a yet to be unearthed thought-pattern, maybe, that locked this nation into a long period of economic stagnancy. The European colonialists and many of their followers may have overlooked it. But once uncovered, this would shed more light to China’s strengths and weaknesses and bring more insight to help her get rid of the latter and enhance the former.


  • Naughton, Barry (2007). The Chinese Economy: Transitions and Growth. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • Perdue, Peter (1998). "The Shape of the World: Asian Continents and the Scraggy Isthmus of Europe" in Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars.


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