Development of China


During the late 19th and almost entire 20th centuries, it was widely believed that China’s development diverged significantly from that of Western Europe and the West in general, including the USA, for many centuries. There were given different explanations of this divergence and the exact dates when it originated differed as well, yet almost no one questioned the well-established fact that this divergence lasted for centuries and started long before the Industrial Revolution in England. Hence, many researchers like Landes believed in the European exceptionalism that played a key role in the rapid development of Western Europe in particular and the West in general during the past centuries. Similarly, Broadberry and Gupta agree that the divergence between Europe and China was evident long before the 19th century and can be dated as far back as about 1500. Nonetheless, this view about the domination of Western Europe over China in terms of development and the broadly discussed issue of great divergence have been discussed from a radically new perspective since 2000. In particular, timing of the divergence has been discussed and debated with a view to proving that China and Europe followed relatively similar paths of development at least until the late 18th century and early 19th century. Thus, Pomeranz claims that the divergence did not start until around 1800 and that China or at least some of its regions like that Yangzi delta showed a similar level of development to that of Western Europe and England in particular. His views have been supported by many researchers like Coclanis as widely as disputed and questioned. In any case, the issue of the timing o has been among the most controversial and widely debated ones in the discussion of the great divergence. The current paper will introduce the issue of the great divergence and then present views of researchers who believe that there was virtually no difference between the development of China and Western Europe before 1800, some of whom even suppose that China was more developed at the time than the West. Afterwards, the paper will present views of some dissenting researchers who claim that the great divergence started long before 1800. When discussing both sides of the argument, the paper will present some personal thoughts as to whether the evidence supporting their views is convincing. Finally, the paper will present a conclusion that will answer the key question of the paper, i.e. how convincing the evidence is that China’s development did not diverge from that of Western Europe until around 1800.


The Great Divergence 

The great divergence is a term used by modern scholars and researchers to refer to a difference in the development between Europe or the West in general and Asian countries, including primarily China and Japan. This difference was mainly studied and emphasized especially during the 20th century when economists and historians became interested in global trends and patterns of the world development. The divergence is based on the premise that once all countries had a more or less similar level of development with many researchers emphasizing that such Asian country as China held even a position of prominence in the past, yet for some reason it started to diverge in terms of its development from European countries that became marked by a rapid economic and associated social and scientific development, especially with the onset of the Industrial Revolution. This difference in the paths and pace of development has been labelled the great divergence that has been in the limelight of scholarly attention for the several decades. 

The debate has intensified at the beginning of the new millennium when Pomeranz suggested an idea that deviated from the conventional view about a long-lasting European dominance by claiming that China’s development did not start to diverge significantly until the late 18th – early 19th centuries. Prior to that, the issue of the great divergence was mostly studied by European researchers rather than by sinologists who mainly accepted the mainstream idea that the developments paths of Europe and Asia started to diverge at least in the 17th century if not even before that. Besides, a conventional assumption before Pomeranz’s contribution to the discussion was based on “the belief in the exceptionalism of Europe”. Moreover, study of the great divergence was also tightly interrelated with a belief that Asia and Europe were fundamentally different even though the exact differences emphasized by researchers differed somewhat. Hence, some claimed that the two continents developed in different ways because of the difference in mentalities and cultures, while others emphasized the impact of differences in political and economic systems on the development. Other differences between Asia and Europe pertaining to the discussion of the great divergence, as well as its causes and timing included environmental and demographic conditions. Nonetheless, prior to Pomeranz and his vocal supporters, researchers studied the great divergence from the premise that all the above mentioned differences to a varying extent contributed to the emergence of “the European breakthrough to self-sustaining growth and industrialization”. It seems that the study of the great divergence has been mostly aimed at providing explanations and justifications for the European development that is taken for granted as superior to the Chinese development in particular and Asian development in general. Pomeranz and other researchers like Pathasarathi place the timing of the great divergence in at least late 18th century and point out similar development levels of China and Western Europe until the start of the era of modernity. Their contribution to the discussion of the issue under consideration has proved to be invaluable as it has made it more multifaceted and less one-sided. At the same time, these dissenting authors have given rise to countless critique papers and studies aimed at disproving their claims about the timing of the great divergence, while also expanding the discourse of studies relating to the research of possible causes of the divergence in development of the two continents. 

It should also be noted that Pomeranz seems to be the first prominent researcher claiming that China’s development did not diverge from that of Western Europe until about 1800 contrary to the mainstream idea about the earlier onset of the great divergence. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of earlier and even later studies, for instance, Landes and Broadberry, have usually accepted the European experience as the norm and the benchmark against which all other countries, including China, should be compared. Hence, comparative economists and historians have been interested in studying why the Industrial Revolution did not occur in China rather than focusing on the actual level of the country’s development that followed its own unique path until the 19th century. The great divergence remains a puzzle with many unanswered questions about its exact timing and cause, which is why historians and economists pay so much attention to its study. The debate surrounding the timing of the divergence is still ongoing and cannot be resolutely completed without more researches and credible evidence. The following sections hereof will focus on the discussion of the two sides of the argument with a view to deciding whose evidence seems to be more convincing.

How Convincing Is the Evidence that China’s Development Did Not Diverge from That of Western Europe until Around 1800?

The current section of the paper will focus on the overview and analysis of the evidence supporting the view that China’s development did not diverge from that of Western Europe until around 1800. As mentioned above, most studies seem to study the issue of the great divergence from the European perspective so that European development is shown as superior and an example that all other countries have diverged from. Pomeranz is the core source of evidence supporting the other view and convincingly proving that China did not lag in terms of development behind Western Europe until the 19th century contrary to a wide-spread assumption that the divergence was already evident at about 1500 as claimed, for instance, by Broadberry and Gupta. Pomeranz’s work entitled “The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy” published in 2000 has given rise to a new turn in the debate on the great divergence and its timing in particular. Contrary to what most critiques claim, Pomeranz did not strive to claim that the divergence started in 1800 and afterwards as he emphasized that it was a slow and gradual process continuing for decades. Under the pressure of subsequent critiques and studies aimed at proving separate sections of his work faulty, Pomeranz has shifted the start of the great divergence to about 1700 even though he still is of the view that China or at least some of its developed regions did not differ drastically from Western Europe at about 1800. Hence, he emphasizes that the divergence is a slow and gradual process lasting for decades and starting to impact economic development of China at the beginning of the 18th century, but the great divergence really was evident only in the 19th century. 

Pomeranz’s contribution to the discussion of the great divergence has been essential as he is among the first researchers to provide credible and rich evidence about the China’s development and to compare it with that relating to Western Europe in general and England in particular. The main thesis of Pomeranz is that differences between the two regions did exist long before 1800, but China’s development did not diverge significantly from that of Western Europe until after 1800. Moreover, these accumulating differences “could only create the great transformation of the nineteenth century in a context also shaped by Europe’s privileged access to overseas resources”, environmental factors like proximity of coal mines to large industrial centres in need of this coal, and luck of England and Western Europe. Peculiar circumstances and availability of capital shaped the capital-intensive development of England, while China remained on a labour-intensive path of development, which also contributed to the emergence of the Industrial Revolution in England and the lack of that in China. Pomeranz’s evidence relating to the high level of overall development of China and its Yangtze delta region in particular is derived from a wide range of credible primary and secondary sources. In fact, his comparative analysis is among the first comprehensive analyses relating to the great divergence that is based on solid evidence about the China’s development. Even though many researchers challenge separate assumptions and sections of the Pomeranz’s work, they all agree that it “is obviously a monumental work” as otherwise it would not have given rise to more than a decade of heated debates. Evidently, it is not perfect and immaculate in its comparative analysis as it often leaps from one region to another and does not focus solely on the comparison of China and Western Europe, but it does provide a broad range of core topics to be discussed when attempting to accomplish such a monumental task as comparison of two huge world regions.

Pomeranz’s evidence about China’s development and the absence of the great divergence until 1800 is supported not only with sources he references in the book, but with earlier and later external and independent studies as well. Hence, even though Lin is aimed at finding out why the Industrial Revolution failed to take place in China, he provides a lot of evidence about the high level of China’s development until 1800. China’s development was primarily dependent on agriculture and its development, but this particular area was more developed than the European agriculture until about late 19th century. For instance, practices implemented in England in the 18th century as a part of the agricultural revolution were well-known to the Chinese already in the 13th century. Moreover, Lin points out a consensus opinion of scholars like Joseph Needham that “except in the past 2 or 3 centuries, China had a considerable lead over the Western world in most of the major areas of science and technology”. Contrary to a popular opinion that China was a highly isolated country, it did engage intensively in international trade, which is considered to be one of the factors that contributed to the rapid development of Western Europe in the 19th century. In fact, the Silk Road associated with the Chinese trade is among the oldest and most important trade routes in the world history. It has existed for thousands of years, promoting trade between world countries, including China that exported furs, silk, iron, ceramics, bronze, and technological inventions, while receiving in exchange gold, precious metals, ivory, and precious stones. Hence, as Lin rightfully notes, in the 19th century China had all elements traditionally considered to be prerequisites of the Industrial Revolution, yet it failed to undergo it. One of the possible explanations is that China merely did not need this revolution as it was content with the level of its development and contrary to Europe did not have a dire need in the capital-intensive growth. It had vast supplies of cheap labour and relied heavily on labour-intensive agriculture, which is perhaps among causes why the divergence started as the two regions chose different paths for their further development. 

A similar idea as to the cause of the divergence is expressed by Diamond who claimed that the key reason for the great divergence is that “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves”. This view largely sounds similar to the cause of the great divergence given by Pomeranz. The non-Europocentric view of the great divergence is also supported by Marks who agrees with Pomeranz that the West started dominating in the world in terms of development only after 1800. He claims that this domination was not a result of some European exceptionalism or superiority in terms of culture or technological innovations, but rather resulted from contingencies, accidents, and conjunctures. One of the most important contingencies was opening of the New World and its colonization, which became a source of wealth for Western Europe in the form of available silver. Marks agrees with Pomeranz that coal was another factor that allowed the West to rise. Overall, Marks’s analysis of the world history and development serves as supporting evidence for the Pomeranz’s work as they agree on many issues. 

Review and analysis of Pomeranz’s work and some other researchers who support his position that China’s development did not diverge from that of Western Europe until about 1800 show that the evidence they employ to prove their viewpoint is quite convincing. Hence, they use both primary and secondary sources in a sufficient amount and refer to credible data and evidence. They do not start their analysis from some specific standpoint, but seem to be open-minded and pursue the general topic, developing specific thesis statements and overall themes in the process of analysis. Besides, they are neither Europocentric nor China-oriented, which makes their studies objective and contributes to the credibility of the evidence. Moreover, they refrain from manipulating available evidence to prove either of the views about the great divergence and objectively acknowledge aspects under which China and Europe diverged. However, the most valuable aspect relating to their evidence consists in the fact that they provide solid data for Chinese regions they analyse and particularly the Yangtze delta region, which is frequently absent from discussion employing solid evidence for proving European superiority and conventional assumptions when it concerns China. Nevertheless, it is impossible to decisively conclude whether the evidence that China’s development did not diverge from that of Western Europe until around 1800 is convincing and to what extent without looking at the other side of the argument, which is given in the section below.

How Convincing Is the Evidence that China’s Development Diverged from That of Western Europe Before 1800? 

As mentioned above, the view that China’s development did not diverge from that of Western Europe until about 1800 has been met with severe critique and has given rise to numerous studies aimed at proving otherwise. Besides, the view that China’s development diverged from that of Western Europe long before 1800 was prevalent long before the early 2000s when the debate on the great divergence took a new turn. The current section of the paper will provide a brief overview of the evidence relating to this view in order to conclude whether the evidence that China’s development did not diverge from the Western Europe’s one until the 19th century. 

Landes is a vocal supporter of the view about early great divergence and favours the Eurocentric position and speaks about “European exceptionalism”. This view of European exceptionalism has been negatively accepted by some researchers like Goldstone who simply “cannot begin to accept” this statement as a convincing argument. Peet even calls it “European arrogance” and labels the book “a blunder of epic proportions” that “is deeply, disastrously, and disturbingly wrong”. Landes negates a view that luck, readily available coal, colonialism, or any other environmental factor and accident played a significant role in the rise of Europe. In turn, he supposes that Europe had a unique set of exceptional features developed with time that resulted in its rightful rise and domination in terms of development. Some of these features include political factors, cultural factors, and economic vision. For instance, he supposes that Europeans had a unique culture that favoured individuals and innovation, which encouraged scientific and technological progress, while the Chinese were collectivist by nature and obeyed the emperor and his court, which discouraged innovation and adoption of foreign technologies with a view to their improvement. On the whole, Landes provides a rather captivating story about European exceptionalism, yet it lacks in some credible evidence and solid data. His book seems to be a philosophical narration or a personal argumentative essay instead of being a well-justified and objective world history book as he claims it to be. Besides, Frank who provides a scholarly review of the book notes fallacies in the evidence and contradictions throughout the entire book, as well as manipulation of available data by the author to suit his position. Landes refers to external sources like Smith or Leibnitz that at the first glance seem credible and provide the evidence to support his position, yet he “[mis]cites [them] out of all historical context”. Personally, initially I have been impressed with the Landes’s book, but after thoughtful consideration and analysis of other sources on the topic some discrepancies and logical fallacies, as well as extreme subjectivism in terms of advocating for European exceptionalism become evident. Such Europocentric positions are dangerous in the contemporary world marked by globalizations. Researchers who advocate for European exceptionalism in everything, including the great divergence, give rise to ideas like Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” that he deems to inevitably occur between the West and Asia. 

In turn, Huang’s critique of the Pomeranz’s book is more grounded and supported with solid evidence. Huang reviews in detail comparative analysis of England and the Yangtze delta region and notes discrepancies and omissions in the Pomeranz’s analysis. He does not agree that China had a high level of development in the 19th century that would be comparable with that of Western Europe because of the lack of technological innovations, demographic increase, promotion of labour-intensive practices, absence of extensive coal mining and profitable steel production, and some other factors like the lack of international trade. Therefore, he concludes that in China “what was present were not the roots of a nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution but rather the roots of a massive nineteenth-century social crisis”. Nonetheless, Huang’s critique and analysis of the two regions are disputed and largely challenges by Pomeranz. Hence, Pomeranz claims that Huang misinterpreted his intention of the comparative analysis and largely reduced his points. Besides, Pomeranz defends the evidence he provides by pointing out at miscalculations made by Huang who measures data “in inappropriate or mistaken ways”. He also emphasizes that his previous idea did not negate presence of some differences between the regions, but mostly was aimed at showing similarities that displayed relatively the same overall level of development in the two regions. 

The view about the start of the great divergence long before 1800 is also supported by Broadberry and Gupta. Their calculations of wages and prices on the basis of available data for Europe and China show that China was similar to “stagnating southern, central, and eastern parts of Europe rather than the developing north-western parts”. However, their analysis employs mostly evidence relating to silver wages of Europeans and the Chinese, which does not seem to provide an all-encompassing picture of the economic development of the regions as it ignores many other aspects. Besides, they do not take into consideration that silver was in abundance in Western Europe because of colonies, as well as ignoring agriculture-based nature of the Chinese economy. In turn, Broadberry employs national accounting methods to compare living standards of China and Europe in order to establish time of the great divergence start. His analysis shows that the great divergence started in about 1500, while there existed also European and Asian little divergences between more and less developed countries. However, his analysis uses evidence mostly for Japan, England, and Holland, while extrapolating the results to China by default, assuming that Japan was more developed than China, which means that it was less developed than Europe. Such analysis fails to provide convincing findings. Another national accounting study by Broadberry et al. acknowledges the lack of credible and solid data for China for many years and merely assumes them to be at the level below the European, which shows the Europocentric orientation of the authors. Furthermore, it should be mentioned that many contemporary studies are aimed at studying the recent Asian economic miracle and study it with account for the great divergence. Nonetheless, they fail to tackle the issue of the great divergence objectively and merely take one side of the argument. For instance, Popov merely notes that the great divergence started to become apparent in the 16th century, but fails to provide solid evidence to back up this statement. He also offers his own interpretation of the cause and consequence of the great divergence, at least, for Western countries that “exited the Malthusian trap by destroying traditional institutions, which was associated with the increase in income inequalities and even decrease in life expectancy, but allowed to redistribute income in favour of savings and investment at the expense of consumption”. Nonetheless, he does not provide the evidence to prove his view of the timing of the divergence. 


The current paper has been aimed at determining whether the evidence that China’s development did not diverge from that of Western Europe until around 1800 is convincing. With a view to accomplishing this objective, the discussion has reviewed the two sides of the argument relating to the timing of the great divergence. Based on this discussion, it may be concluded even though not exhaustively that the evidence in support of the timing of the great divergence in the 19th century and not earlier is more convincing that the evidence of those who date it much earlier. The matter is that Pomeranz and his supporters provide an objective analysis of the issue and do not try to overtly manipulate evidence to suit their goals. In turn, supporters of the early start of the great divergence seem to be Eurocentric and favour the claim about European exceptionalism that allowed Europe to develop more rapidly and much earlier than China and other Asian nations. However, the evidence that supports the position of the China’s development being similar to that of Western Europe until 1800 is solid and credible, as well as being rightfully questioned and proved. Supporters of this view do not negate differences and divergences existing between the two regions throughout their history, but they provide a well-justified comparative analysis showing that China’s and Western Europe’s overall development levels were similar until the 19th century. They realize that “China is not like the West and it will not become like the West. It will remain in fundamental respects very different” as rightfully noted by Jacques. This view should become the governing principle of future studies of the great divergence that are required to provide more evidence about its timing and causes that remain largely under researched nowadays despite availability of many sources.


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