- A Singular Case: Debating China’s Political Economy in the European Enlightenment by Ashley Eva Millar
A Singular Case is a solid piece of work. Interested in early modern European and Chinese economic history, Millar focuses on discussions of Chinese political economy in Europe (mostly France and Britain) in the eighteenth century (specifically, 1696 to 1776). A detailed description of China by Louis Le Comte provides the starting point, and the appearance of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (which discussed the Chinese economy, among others) marks the point of conclusion. Hers, she stresses, “is a study of the construction of knowledge on China’s political economy in eighteenth-century Britain and France”; it is a history of ideas related to economic history (7). Those curious about attitudes to China during the century of the Enlightenment will find in the book a wealth of information. So will students beginning to explore any of the eight influential thinkers of the period—six representing the French (François Quesnay, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Guillaume-Thomas Raynal, and Denis Diderot), and two, the Scottish, Enlightenment (David Hume and Smith). Most introductory texts do not focus on those authors’ views of China.
Millar places her work in the framework of the “Great Divergence” debate in economic history, specifically around the question of the economic ascendancy of Europe over China during the earlymodern period—a debate that has raged since 2000, though, sadly for interdisciplinarity, largely unnoticed outside, and even to some inside, the discipline of history. The recent re-emergence of China as an economic superpower [End Page 185] naturally raises doubts about the truth of such ascendancy, as well as about the validity of the theories that purported to explain it and failed to predict the return of Europe and China to their positions vis-à-vis each other prior to it. Indeed, writes Millar, “more recent scholarship highlights the ambivalence toward China throughout the eighteenth century. A Singular Case makes a similar argument.” But it also makes a distinct contribution: “Although this book builds on this rising body of literature, it also differs from many of these works, which in general follow a deep reading of a select number of important English texts. Instead, this book focuses on a circulation of ideas and knowledge among popular early modern thinkers and travelers in both France and England” (25).
Millar believes that “with the economic return of China beginning in the 1990s, and the concurrent renewed interest in its economic development, we can learn something from the more flexible theories of political economy during the Enlightenment” (32). But what could this something be? It certainly is not anything connected either to the economic return of China or to its economic development. To Millar, the value of her study lies in the importance of drawing attention—again—to the open attitude of the Enlightenment toward Chinese political economy: “It is indeed important to remember the nascent years of political economy, when observers and thinkers were less dogmatic about what constituted good policy and appreciated a unique Chinese path to increase the wealth of its nation” (32).
Why this openness is significant, however, remains a mystery. The only lesson is that today’s economic ideas are more dogmatic. Even so competent a work as Millar’s does not necessarily contribute to the understanding of important aspects of its subject. To advance understanding requires making new connections between phenomena (sometimes subjects of different disciplines). A Singular Case accurately describes European discussions of Chinese political economy during the century of the Enlightenment, but it makes no such connections.