Medieval Economic Revolution
- LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0020
- LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0020
In China’s historical context, the term “medieval” was unmistakably borrowed from European history in as late as the 20th century. It has, however, remained questionable whether this Eurocentric unilinear logic really ever conveniently suited China. Even so, a serious historian may still make do with the term to capture what was going on in China from the Sui until the early Ming, from 581 to c. 1500 across a span close to a millennium, or anything in between. The beginning was marked by the construction of the Grand Canal, over one thousand miles long, during the Sui (581–618), which linked for the first time China’s three major river systems, and hence the three most productive regions, together: the Yellow, Huai, and Yangzi valleys. During the early Ming, China maintained an undisputed first-class sea power in the world. It was a period when private education, secular literature, meritocratic bureaucracy, novel technology and new production, degrees and commercialization, urbanization, and so forth reached an unprecedented height on the East Asian mainland. During this long period, the importance of Tang-Song growth and development loomed large. So much so, the Song period was coined in the 1980s by the world economic historian Eric L. Jones, in his book The European Miracle, as the first recorded intensive growth in Eurasian history. However, the term “revolution” was first used by Shiba Yoshinobu (斯波義信), the Japanese historian of China, to describe commercial growth under the Song, in his 1970 monograph Commerce and Society in Sung China. In reality, what happed was not just economic. It was a wide range of new achievements in institutions, science and technology, production, and market exchanges. Most unfortunately, however, Song growth and development, remarkable as it was, was brutally interrupted by the invading Mongols in the 13th century, who ran sociopolitical and economic systems that were distinctively different from those of the Song. The Mongol rule of China was very short, but the damage was done. Although during the following Ming period (1368–1644) some residual effects of the Song revolution were still detectable, it was marked by a quite different growth trajectory along the line of physiocracy. China’s medieval economic revolution never repeated itself. Such turns and twists in China’s fortunes through history underlie the Great Divergence debate.
Overviews of the Song Economy
The nature, significance, and multitude of the Song growth have been subject of debate. From moribund Eurocentric ideologies, such as the Marxian “Asiatic Mode of Production” and the Weberian “Protestant ethic,” to the hypothesis of “capitalist sprout in the Ming-Qing period” (明清资本主义萌芽), along the official line of the Chinese Communist Party, an intensive growth like that of the Song that led the rest of Eurasia could have never occurred. Evidently, however, not only did growth occur in China (Elvin 1973), but it also continued (Feuerwerker 1982, Maddison 1998). China’s growth engine during the Song was in the South (Pomeranz 2000). Then, there is a question of how Song growth affected the daily lives of the ordinary people (Gernet 1962). In addition, there is the issue of how to view the Song growth performance and why it was not repeated in China until the 19th century (Jones 1990, Jones 2000). A more provocative question, discussed in Hobson 2004, is why all the good things began in the East (where the Song period played a huge part) but fully blossomed only in the West.
Elvin, Mark. The Pattern of the Chinese Past: A Social and Economic Interpretation. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1973.
A reading on China’s growth pattern, of which the Tang-Song era loomed large.
Feuerwerker, Albert, ed. Chinese Social and Economic History from the Song to 1900: Report of the American Delegation to a Sino-American Symposium, Beijing, 26 October–1 November 1980. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 1982.
Also a general reading of Chinese growth and development, which begins with Song growth to give us a sense of continuity.
Gernet, Jacques. Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250–1276. Translated by H. M. Wright. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1962.
Reveals the Song material life of affluence, which was compatible with Song growth before the Song national defense was broken by the invading Mongols.
Hobson, John M. The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
The author takes the Song economic growth as the antithesis of the “British First” hypothesis regarding the Industrial Revolution.
Jones, Eric L. “The Real Question about China: Why Was the Song Economic Achievement Not Repeated?” Australian Economic History Review 30.2 (1990): 5–22.
Tackles the intriguing issue of the one-off nature of the Song economic revolution.
Jones, Eric L. Growth Recurring: Economic Change in World History. 2d ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.
A follow-up to his European Miracle (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981), questioning why economic growth during the Song did not repeat in history, a question that still stands out as one of the toughest for world historians. Originally published in 1988 (Oxford: Clarendon).
Maddison, Angus. Chinese Economic Performance in the Long Run. Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 1998.
Looks at China’s economic performance in the long run, with the Song period being recognized as a peak.
Pomeranz, Kenneth. The Great Divergence: Europe, China, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.
Argues that China’s traditional economy since the Song was very efficient for its own purpose of supporting a decent living standard in rice-farming regions of South China.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
- 1989 People's Movement
- Agriculture, Origins of
- Anti-Japanese War
- Architecture, Chinese
- Assertive Nationalism and China's Core Interests
- Buddhist Monasticism
- Central-Local Relations
- Chiang Kai-shek
- Children's Culture and Social Studies
- China and Africa
- China and the World, 1900-1949
- China's Agricultural Regions
- China’s Soft Power
- China’s West
- Chinese Communist Party Since 1949, The
- Chinese Communist Party to 1949, The
- Chinese Diaspora, The
- Chinese Nationalism
- Chinese Script, The
- Christianity in China
- Classical Confucianism
- Confucius Institutes
- Consumer Society
- Contemporary Chinese Art Since 1976
- Criticism, Traditional
- Cross-Straits Relations
- Cultural Revolution
- Deng Xiaoping
- Dialect Groups of the Chinese Language
- Disability Studies
- Drama (Xiqu 戏曲) Performance Arts, Traditional Chinese
- Dream of the Red Chamber
- Economic Reforms, 1978-Present
- Economy, 1949-1978
- Economy, 1895-1949
- Emergence of Modern Banks
- Environmental Issues in Contemporary China
- Environmental Issues in Pre-Modern China
- Establishment Intellectuals
- Ethnicity and Minority Nationalities Since 1949
- Ethnicity and the Han
- Examination System, The
- Fall of the Qing, 1840-1912, The
- Falun Gong, The
- Family Relations in Contemporary China
- Fiction and Prose, Modern Chinese
- Film, Chinese Language
- Film in Taiwan
- Financial Sector, The
- Folk Religion in Contemporary China
- Folklore and Popular Culture
- Foreign Direct Investment in China
- Gender Issues in Traditional China
- Great Leap Forward and the Famine, The
- Guomindang (1912-1949)
- Health Care System, The
- Heritage Management
- Heterodox Sects in Premodern China
- Historical Archaeology (Qin and Han)
- Hukou (Household Registration) System, The
- Human Origins in China
- Human Rights in China
- Imperialism and China, c. 1800-1949
- Intellectual Trends in Late Imperial China
- Islam in China
- Journalism and the Press
- Landscape Painting
- Language, The Ancient Chinese
- Language Variation in China
- Late Imperial Economy, 960-1895
- Law, Traditional Chinese
- Li Bai and Du Fu
- Liang Qichao
- Literature Post-Mao, Chinese
- Literature, Pre-Ming Narrative
- Local Elites in Ming-Qing China
- Management Style in "Chinese Capitalism"
- Mao Zedong
- Marketing System in Pre-Modern China, The
- Material Culture
- May Fourth Movement
- Media Representation of Contemporary China, International
- Medicine, Traditional Chinese
- Medieval Economic Revolution
- Middle Period China
- Migration Under Economic Reform
- Ming Dynasty
- Ming-Qing Fiction
- Modern Chinese Drama
- Music in China
- Needham Question, The
- Neolithic Cultures in China
- New Social Classes, 1895-1949
- One Country, Two Systems
- Opium Trade
- Orientalism, China and
- Poetics, Chinese-Western Comparative
- Poetry, Early Medieval
- Poetry, Traditional Chinese
- Political Art and Posters
- Political Dissent
- Political Thought, Modern Chinese
- Population Dynamics in Pre-Modern China
- Population Structure and Dynamics since 1949
- Poverty and Living Standards since 1949
- Printing and Book Culture
- Prose, Traditional
- Qi Baishi
- Qing Dynasty up to 1840
- Regional and Global Security, China and
- Religion, Ancient Chinese
- Renminbi, The
- Republican China, 1911-1949
- Revolutionary Literature under Mao
- Rural Society in Contemporary China
- School of Names
- Sino-Japanese Relations Since 1945
- Social Welfare in China
- Su Shi (Su Dongpo)
- Sun Yat-sen and the 1911 Revolution
- Taiping Civil War
- Taiwanese Democracy
- Television, Chinese
- Terracotta Warriors, The
- Texts in Pre-Modern East and South-East Asia, Chinese
- Township and Village Enterprises
- Traditional Historiography
- Tribute System, The
- Unequal Treaties and the Treaty Ports, The
- United States-China Relations, 1949-present
- Urban Change and Modernity
- Warlords, The
- Yan'an and the Revolutionary Base Areas
- Yuan Dynasty