In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Economy, 1895–1949

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Collections of Source Materials
  • Journals
  • Population, Living Standards, and Economic Growth
  • Economic and Noneconomic Shocks
  • Currency and Banking
  • Trade and Transportation
  • The Role of the State
  • Economic Thought

Chinese Studies Economy, 1895–1949
Tim Wright
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0018


The nature of the pre-Communist Chinese economy and the degree of its success, if any, at least up to the outbreak of war in 1937, are matters of some controversy, and these issues are closely linked to much broader debates on the relative merits of the market economy and economic planning. For a long time a “pessimistic” view held sway both in the West and, more particularly, in China, where it both fed into and was used as justification for the adoption of economic planning. Beginning in the 1980s a number of scholars, of whom Thomas G. Rawski has been the most influential, questioned many aspects of this perception. There was substantial if not rapid growth, even in agriculture, and some improvement in living standards, while the market served China and its population well. To an increasing extent, scholars both within and outside China have come to see the post–Mao Zedong economy as picking up many of the features of China’s market economy in the 1930s (e.g., family farms, family-based entrepreneurship, urban consumerism), while the planned economy between 1949 and 1978 is seen as at best an interlude and at worst an aberration. Although parts of this more “optimistic” position are now widely accepted, there are still major differences in emphasis among scholars. Intersecting with overall judgments on the success of the economy are a number of other controversies. Insofar as the economy is perceived as a failure, and growth, especially in agriculture, is seen to have been slower than it might have been, scholars differ on whether the main impediments were social and political (e.g., the role of the state, the impact of imperialism, the structure of rural society) or material and technological (population pressure and the slow take-up of modern technology). The foreign impact has been controversial in terms of both its magnitude and its nature (beneficial or harmful). Chinese entrepreneurship has been variously criticized for falling behind the ideal mandated by modernization theory and upheld as an example for contemporary Chinese managers seeking to escape the dictates of the planned economy. The Nationalist regime of 1927–1937 is seen variously as a predatory state whose activities were a major barrier to development or as a precursor to the planned economy under the Chinese Communist Party.

General Overviews

Feuerwerker 1995, though outdated, has still not been superseded as a concise and comprehensive treatment of China’s economy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ma and von Glahn 2022 is a collection of overviews of particular topics based on the most up-to-date scholarship. Also in English, the prewar work Tawney 1977 is a well-written and often quoted pessimistic analysis of the Chinese rural economy by a leading British socialist. Deng 2012 is a longer-term view arguing against the prevailing orthodox pessimist view. There are numerous overview volumes in Chinese with titles such as Zhongguo jindai jingji shi (中国近代经济史) (Economic history of modern China). The most authoritative are the collaborative works embodied in Wang 2000 and Liu and Wu 2010, though the former is somewhat dated. Xu and Wu 2003 is to some extent a survey but of the specifically capitalist elements of the economy. Wang 2007 offers one of the most influential interpretations of the direction of modern Chinese economic history, whereas Wang 2009 provides detailed chronological information on economic developments. Wu 2015 is part of a major series on economic geography.

  • Deng, Kent. China’s Political Economy in Modern Times: Changes and Economic Consequences, 1800–2000. Routledge Studies in the Modern History of Asia 70. London: Routledge, 2012.

    Argues against the Chinese Nationalist/Maoist orthodoxy (which can also be seen, to some extent, in Western works) concerning China’s economic history and development since the early nineteenth century.

  • Feuerwerker, Albert. The Chinese Economy, 1870–1949. Michigan Monographs in Chinese Studies 71. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 1995.

    The section of this work on republican China was originally published in 1983 as a chapter in the Cambridge History of China, Volume 12, edited by John K. Fairbank (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press), pp. 28–127, and in the Michigan Papers in Chinese Studies series in 1977. Despite its age, however, this work remains as good and balanced a survey of the period as exists.

  • Liu Kexiang 刘克祥, and Wu Taichang 吴太昌, eds. Zhongguo jindai jingji shi, 1927–1937 (中国近代经济史, 1927–1937). 3 vols. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2010.

    Economic history of China during the Nanjing decade. Organized according to the main economic sectors (agriculture, industry, handicrafts, commerce, and so on). Little coverage of macroeconomic aggregates.

  • Ma, Debin, and Richard von Glahn, eds. The Cambridge Economic History of China. Vol. 2, 1800 to the Present. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2022.

    Series of excellent overviews of aspects of the economy from 1800 to the early twenty-first century. Part 1 (pp. 15−528) deals with the Republican period. Individual chapters cover ideology, transition to a modern economy, agriculture, industry, state enterprises, money, finance, business organization, the impact of the West, foreign trade, transport, and education. A few chapters are cited individually in this article, and all provide an ideal entry to their particular topic.

  • Tawney, Richard H. Land and Labour in China. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1977.

    A classic study, originally published in 1932, especially of the Chinese rural economy in the 1920s. Famous for its metaphor of the Chinese peasant up to his or her neck in water, vulnerable to the smallest ripple. Although this is not written by a specialist, Tawney’s analysis is always intelligent and is a good example of how China’s economy was perceived in the 1930s.

  • Wang Jingyu 汪敬虞, ed. Zhongguo jindai jingji shi, 1895–1927 (中国近代经济史, 1895–1927). 3 vols. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2000.

    Economic history of China, 1895–1927, compiled during the 1990s by scholars in Beijing and Shanghai. Rich in material and using Western as well as Chinese sources, this work is nevertheless organized in fairly traditional (Chinese Marxist) fashion, covering the expansion of imperialism in China, changes in the traditional feudal economy, and the development of capitalism in different economic sectors.

  • Wang Jingyu 汪敬虞. Zhongguo zibenzhuyi de fazhan he bufazhan: Zhongguo jindai jingji shi zhongxin xiansuo wenti yanjiu (中国资本主义的发展和不发展: 中国近代经济史中心线索问题研究). Beijing: Zhongguo guanli chubanshe, 2007.

    Wang’s idea of the “development and nondevelopment of Chinese capitalism” has been very influential, underlying, for example, Liu and Wu 2010. The book examines the historical conditions for the emergence of Chinese capitalism, the external environment, and the internal structure, along with a final evaluation.

  • Wang Fangzhong 王方中. Zhongguo jingji shi biannian jishi, 1842–1949 nian (中国经济史编年记事, 1842–1949年). Beijing: Zhongguo renmin daxue chubanshe, 2009.

    Detailed chronology of events in modern Chinese economic history. Discusses governmental and private sectors. The information is referenced, which is important, though as is usual with such works, there is no index, greatly reducing the text’s utility.

  • Wu Songdi 吴松弟, ed. Zhongguo jindai jingji dili: xulun he quanguo gaikuang (中国近代经济地理:绪论和全国概况). Shanghai: Huadong shifan daxue chubanshe, 2015.

    Overview of modern China’s economic geography. Fairly conventional approach, but includes a lot of information. This is the volume for the whole country; other volumes are regionally based, covering the lower Yangzi, central China, the southwest, south China, Fujian and Taiwan, north China and the Mongolian plateau, the northwest and the northeast (Manchuria).

  • Xu Dixin 许涤新, and Wu Chengming 吴承明, eds. Zhongguo zibenzhuyi fazhan shi (中国资本主义发展史). 3 vols. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2003.

    The last two volumes are relevant to the subject of this article and provide the most authoritative analysis of the Chinese economy in terms of the development of capitalism in industry and commerce as well as agriculture. The authors present some pioneering attempts at quantifying key variables in the Chinese economy.

back to top

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.