How did the introduction and spread of countless new commodities and their consumption shape modern Chinese history? The intersection of commodities and consumption provides the flipside to the better-studied history of production and underlies countless topics at the center of Chinese and world history since the 19th century, such as imperialism, trade, industrialization, revolution, social hierarchies, and the ascendance of China as a global manufacturing and export superpower. Consumption includes the introduction and spread of mass-manufactured consumer commodities, the proliferation of discourse about these goods in new forms of mass media, and an ongoing shift toward creating and communicating hierarchical social identities through the consumption of mass-produced commodities. While consumption is often viewed as an individual matter, one related to creating personal identities, a key theme that emerges throughout modern Chinese history is that the Chinese states and elites have long sought to link commodity consumption with ideas of patriotism and national strength, helping shape what it means to consume commodities right down to the present.
Since the seminal publication of Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence (2000), there has been a continuing upsurge of writings on the possible reasons behind the rise of the West from a “global perspective.” Most of these studies focus on comparisons between Western Europe and China. Yet, in recent years works on India and the great divergence have followed suit, taking up research questions that have not been as prominent since the proliferation of debates on the subcontinent’s pre-colonial potentialities for capitalist development in the 1960s and 1970s. As of now, the paucity of quantitative data complicates endeavors to compare pre-colonial India with Europe and explore the underlying reasons behind the great divergence. Case studies examining the socio-economic history of a number of South Asian regions are still needed in order to conduct systematic comparisons between both advanced and underdeveloped regions of the subcontinent and those of Europe. The existing evidence, however, suggests that some of the "core areas" of 16th- to 18th-century India had more or less comparable levels of agricultural productivity, transport facilities (during the dry season), military capabilities in terms of ground forces (e.g., Mysore and the Marathas), commercial and manufacturing capacities (especially in textile, ship, and metal production), and social mobility of merchants (e.g., in Gujarat). Moreover, Indian rulers and artisans did not shy away from adopting European know-how (e.g., in weapon and ship production) when it redounded to their advantage. On the other hand, South Asia possessed some geo-climatic disadvantages vis-à-vis Western Europe that also impeded investments in infrastructure. India seems to have had a lower degree of consumer demand and lagged behind Western Europe in a number of fields such as mechanical engineering, the level of productive forces, higher education, circulation of useful knowledge, institutional efficiency, upper-class property rights, the nascent bourgeois class consciousness, and inter-communal and proto-national identity formations.