In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Late Imperial Economy, 960–1895

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Chinese Studies Late Imperial Economy, 960–1895
Tim Wright
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 August 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0027


Although for most purposes “late imperial China” refers to the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368–1911), many scholars believe that key aspects of China’s late imperial economy came into existence as a result of a series of changes that began in the late Tang dynasty and culminated during the Song dynasty, known as the “Tang-Song transformation.” While these changes included, for example, the growth of markets, they were by no means limited to—or even mainly related to—economic history but included political changes, such as those in the nature of the elite. Without prejudging the issue, this article covers the whole period from the establishment of the Song dynasty to the first Sino-Japanese War, after which railways and economic modernization began to change the Chinese economy. The old stereotype of premodern China as unchanging and economically stagnant has long been discarded, and scholars recognize that China had a dynamic and successful economy that managed to feed a growing population and developed a range of sophisticated institutions. The stereotype is now being turned on its head, and many are asking whether as late as the eighteenth century at least parts of China were as prosperous and as advanced as western Europe, whether Chinese commercial and legal institutions were as accommodating of economic growth as those in Europe, and, as a result, how one can explain the “great divergence” that took place between Europe and the rest of the world from (in this view) the early nineteenth century. A further underlying issue is to what extent models based on the European experience can be used to understand or explain development patterns in China. The most notable example of trying to force Chinese development into a European framework was of course Marxist stage theory. But more recently “Eurocentric” theories and models of development that are based on the European experience have been more widely rejected, coupled with attempts to develop more distinctively Chinese—or Asian—models.

General Overviews

The places to start, at least in English, are Glahn 2016, a recently published survey that fills a major gap in the literature by providing an overview of China’s economic history up to the end of the nineteenth century, and Ma and Glahn 2022, a collective work that introduces recent scholarship on a range of relevant issues. In addition, the reader can consult general texts on Chinese history or on specific periods. Several such usable texts are available in English, but Hucker 1975 is listed because it has the most easily identified chapters specifically on the economy. Miyazaki 1977–1978 is also a general history that at the same time provides a classic statement of the centrality of the Song period in Chinese history. Ning 1999 is an overall interpretative history of the Chinese economy produced in China.

  • Glahn, Richard von. The Economic History of China: From Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139343848

    Based on an impressive array of Chinese-, Japanese-, and European-language sources, this book surveys Chinese economic history from the Neolithic period to 1900. The last four (very substantial) chapters deal with the period covered by this article. Refutes any idea of an unchanging premodern China and stresses the role of the state.

  • Hucker, Charles O. China’s Imperial Past: An Introduction to Chinese History and Culture. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1975.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781503621190

    Chapter 12 deals with economy and society in the late empire (960–1850); chapters 2 and 7 deal with the economy in earlier periods.

  • Ma, Debin, and Richard von Glahn, eds. The Cambridge Economic History of China. Vol 1, To 1800. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2022.

    Authoritative collection of articles on China’s economic history. Part 2 (pp. 259−709) deals with the late imperial period. Contains chapters on the environment, population, finance, economic thought, law, property rights, agriculture and the rural economy, cities, money, commerce, foreign trade, and living standards. A few of the chapters are cited individually in this bibliography, and all are well worth reading to acquire an up-to-date expert summary of the field.

  • Miyazaki Ichisada 宮崎市定. Chūgoku shi (中国史). 2 vols. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1977–1978.

    Comprehensive history of China that provides an authoritative statement for the view that China’s “modern period” should be dated from the Song dynasty.

  • Ning Ke 宁可, ed. Zhongguo jingji fazhan shi (中国经济发展史). 5 vols. Beijing: Zhongguo jingji chubanshe, 1999.

    A collective work organized mostly along conventional lines but, unusually, taking the story up to 1997 and explicitly aiming to examine the reasons for China’s economic rise, fall, and rise again.

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