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  • Economic History in the Decade after The Great Divergence
  • R. Bin Wong (bio)

Until the late 20th century the study of economic history was largely about what happened in American and Europe history. For historians of China, in the West as well as East Asia, economic history was largely about what didn’t happen. The absence of an industrial revolution struck generations of scholars to be a subject worthy of study. During the last two decades of the century, however, a new body of scholarship arose, largely in Chinese and Japanese, that documented a visible and vibrant commercial economy in the early modern era and helped us set a new baseline for explaining what Ken Pomeranz famously has called the great divergence. His book The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy has two major messages. First, the early modern Chinese economy was far more similar to the European economy than non-China specialists had assumed. He crafts new estimates and indicators of prosperity and productivity to suggest far more comparable standards of living than previously imagined. Second, he stresses the importance of the contrasting locations of natural resources in China and Europe as well as European access to windfall gains from production in North America. Coal and cotton became drivers of divergence. Pomeranz’s evaluation of these factors brings in an environmental history component to earlier economic history arguments.

The influence of Pomeranz’s interpretation of the contrasting economic histories of China and Europe at their moment of divergence has been widespread and deep. His empirical advances have inspired economic historians of both China and Europe to pursue new quantitative work on wages, agricultural productivity, and standards of living. His integration of economic history into a world history embracing new subjects like the environment and older themes like the European exploitation of other world regions has won him multiple audiences among and beyond historians. One of the book’s greatest strengths is its artful presentation [End Page 17] of a rich array of phenomena that together form a thick description of major historical antecedents to England’s rise to wealth and power. From his narrative many readers have drawn two main messages: European successes were at least in part dependent upon the fortuitous location of coal in England and its access to new sources of cotton.


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Slaves being taken from one region to another in the American South. From Thomas Bangs Thorpe, The Master’s House: A Tale of Southern Life (New York, 1854).

For his part, Pomeranz has never asserted, let alone believed, that his wide-ranging study of the great divergence is a comprehensive or exhaustive account of all the factors that went into pointing parts of Europe on a path of material transformation. Moreover, his treatments of coal and cotton stress the contingent character of the locations of coal in China and Europe, as well as the different kinds of governments in China and Europe that made European maritime expansions and colonies different from China’s. If coal locations were more similar in these world regions or if China and Europe did not differ in such a basic way regarding their political priorities and territorial aspirations, the divergence may not have occurred and certainly would not have looked the way it did in fact turn out. Those not satisfied by the coal and cotton stories they find in The Great Divergence look elsewhere. One important area to which some work by economists has turned is science and technology, a cluster of factors Pomeranz does not address and that I only mentioned briefly in China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience (Cornell University Press, 1998) as a key feature of the formation of industrial capitalism quite distinct from early modern European ideologies and institutions.

Patrick O’Brien of the London School of Economics and Political Science concludes his essay “Ten Years of Debate on the Origins of the Great Divergence” in the e-journal Reviews in History thusly:

There are missing elements in current explanations for divergence which would be concerned with ‘regimes’ for the production and diffusions of useful and reliable...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6438
Print ISSN
1941-4188
Pages
pp. 17-19
Launched on MUSE
2011-09-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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