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  • The Economic History of China: From Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century by Richard von Glahn
  • Y. Joy Chen and Avner Greif
The Economic History of China: From Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century by Richard von Glahn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Pp. xiv + 461. $105.00 cloth, $40.99 paper, $32.00 ebook.

The Economic History of China is a survey of the economic outcomes and development in China throughout the past three millennia: from the Bronze Age (1045 bce) to the fall of the Qing dynasty (1912 ce). Richard von Glahn has arguably produced the best such comprehensive survey in English, and it is a must-read for scholars interested in Chinese economic history, the Great Divergence debate, and comparative economic history. This work challenges the false-yet-persistent notion that the Chinese economy was suffocated by an “oriental despot” state and its conservative inhabitants resisted markets. Instead, von Glahn depicts a dynamic market economy in which the state promoted markets and economic agents pursued market opportunities. China’s technology, economic activities, and institutions constantly evolved in response to policy and market prices.

Another goal of this book is to establish the historical continuity of many of China’s economic and political institutions. Von Glahn promotes interpretations of such institutions in light of the historical contexts and circumstances in which they arose and, at times, compares them with contemporary European institutions. He maintains prudent objectivity on issues that are subject to active debate by presenting a wide range of scholarly opinions.

This ambitious volume examines the economic and political history of preimperial China (prior to 222 bce) and of every imperial [End Page 576] dynasty from the Qin (221–206 bce) to the Qing (1644–1912). One of its key strengths lies in its extensive coverage of the preimperial period and the early empires of the Qin and Han. This period receives relatively little attention in the currently fashionable quantitative economic history literature due to the scarcity of numerical data. Von Glahn draws instead on qualitative historical sources and archaeological findings to fill in some missing pieces in our comprehension of early China.

Chapters 1 and 2 of The Economic History of China reconstruct the political and economic landscape of the Zhou dynasty by masterly combining evidence from inscriptions, habitation sites, and classical texts. The chapters then discuss the patrimonial and ritual elements of the Western Zhou administration (1045–771 bce), examine China’s transformation from a patrimonial to a bureaucratic state between 770 bce and 221 bce, and present evidence regarding industrial production, circulation of money, and city structures. The discussion highlights that during the Warring States period, important and persistent components of the Chinese political order emerged. Among these were bureaucratic institutions and the Legalist and Confucian conceptualizations of the ideal state. Similarly, it was then that the conjugal household became the basic unit of production, taxation, corvée labor, and military conscription.

Chapter 3 analyzes the impact of this institutional legacy during the Han empire (202 bce–220 ce), and chapter 4 examines changes in farming techniques that were important for the transition from agricultural production based on family farms to production based on a manor system. In particular, the policies of Emperor Wu of Han 漢武帝 (r. 141–87 bce) favored large estates and promoted agricultural techniques that “required substantial investments in tools, livestock, and water control” (p. 133). The discussion does not mention that at this time regulatory restrictions on households’ land ownership were abolished.1 The rise of wealthy landowners negatively influenced the authority of local state officials and was a main factor causing the period of disunion from 220 to 589 ce. Families holding large estates gained the power to select state officials. Powerful magnate families [End Page 577] became hereditary officeholders through the end of the Tang dynasty (ca. 907 ce).

Chapter 5 focuses on political stabilization and state rebuilding, particularly during the Sui (581–618) and the Tang (618–907) dynasties. It first discusses how the institutional reforms undertaken by the Northern Wei dynasty (386–534) facilitated the reunification of China by the Sui in 589. The most important reforms include the equal-field system and the garrison militias...


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pp. 576-585
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