Economic History of Ming-Qing and Modern China
- Kent DengKent DengDepartment of Economic History, London School of Economics and Political Science
The Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) marked in the long history of China a period of cultural, political, demographic, and economic renaissance, after less than a century (1271–1368) of rule by the alien Mongol conquerors from the steppes. The wealth of the Ming Empire attracted European traders and missionaries with whom foreign silver, crops, and knowledge flowed into the country at unprecedented speed. Meanwhile, the Ming Empire reached out to the Indian Ocean with the largest armada in the world at the time.
The Ming rule was ended by a military takeover by Manchu mercenaries who did not return to Manchuria after helping the Ming authorities crack down on a rebellion, an important factor that ultimately dictated the behavior of the Qing state (1644–1911). The main institutions and policies of the Ming remained intact, and in 1712 the Qing state voluntarily capped its total tax revenue, a Confucian gesture to gain legitimacy, which marked a major step toward a withering state whereby the tax burden became lighter and consequently state control over the population and territory became weaker. At the beginning, the waning state produced some positive outcomes: both farmland and population multiplied, and domestic and foreign trade were prosperous. The Qing economy outperformed that of the Ming and became one of the largest in the world by 1800, with a decent standard of living.
Even so, a withering state was a time bomb. The unintended consequences of the weakening state loomed large. Externally, the empire did not have the ability to prevent the invasion of foreign bullies. From 1840 to 1900, China lost all five wars it fought with foreign forces. Internally, unrest swept the empire from 1860 to 1880. Imperial order and tranquility was replaced by anarchy, a rather logical outcome of a withering state. To a great extent the benefits of growth during the Qing rule had been lost by the second half of the 19th century.
Meanwhile, fully aware of the root cause of the problem, the Qing elite sought solutions to save the empire from within. This led to a more open approach to foreign aid, loans, and technology, known as the “Westernization Movement” (c. 1860–1880). This movement marked the beginning of state-led modernization in China.
The path of modernization in China was, however, rugged. It began with the ideal of “Chinese knowledge as the foundation and Western learning for utility” (until 1949), then proceeded to “Russian (Soviet) ideology as the foundation and Russian (Soviet) learning for utility” (1949–1976), and then to “Russian (Soviet) ideology as the foundation and Western learning for utility” in the post-Mao era (1977–present day). With such a swing, the performance of China’s growth and development fluctuated, sometimes violently.