In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Medieval Economic Revolution

  • Introduction
  • Overviews of the Song Economy
  • Source Materials
  • Values
  • Institutions
  • Technology
  • Agriculture
  • Industry
  • Communication
  • Commerce and Monetization
  • Urbanization
  • Regional Economy
  • National Economy Estimates (GDP)
  • Population
  • Material Life
  • Legacy of the Revolution

Chinese Studies Medieval Economic Revolution
Kent G. Deng
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2023
  • 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 twentieth 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 thirteenth 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 nineteenth 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.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781503620742

    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.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511489013

    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.

    DOI: 10.1111/aehr.302002

    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.

    DOI: 10.3998/mpub.11659

    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.

    DOI: 10.1787/9789264163553-en

    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.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400823499

    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.

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