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Song China: The First Modern Economy?  

Billy So and Sufumi So

Often considered one of the most prosperous dynasties in China’s two-thousand-year imperial history, the Song dynasty lasted for about three hundred years (960–1276 ce). The dynasty is sometimes credited with having developed the world’s first modern economy. While the Song economy lacked such essential characteristics of modern economic growth as science-based ways of improving industrial output and law-based capital markets, there was an undeniable presence of market forces that depended on a combination of product specialization, industrialization, urbanization, commercialization, monetization, and the widespread use of credit instruments. Such are the modern tendencies that many scholars have seen in Song China. The Song’s commercial growth predated the development of trade and commerce in late medieval Europe that began in the 11th century. None of the European cities of this period could compare in population size or trade volume to those in Song China. Neither the use of paper currency nor the burgeoning growth in agricultural production and commercialization existed in Europe’s commercializing economy. From this angle, Song China deserves to be recognized as the world’s first modern economy.