Total systemic breakdown, then and now

The early 17th century was a tough time in China -- but not as alien to our own lives as you might imagine.

By Andrew Leonard

Published April 24, 2008 11:09PM (EDT)

When not reading blog posts about the bad news on new home sales or immersing myself in the latest commodity price spike, I have been reading, just for kicks, the late China scholar Frederic Wakeman Jr.'s master work: "The Great Enterprise: The Manchu Reconstruction of Imperial Order in Seventeenth-Century China."

But my efforts to distract myself from the many dramas of 2008 have been unsuccessful. Just the first few pages of "The Great Enterprise" sparked so many synaptic connections with the present day that I thought it would be fun to do some annotated excerpting.

Late Ming China's connection with a global monetary system is by now quite clear to historians. Because of a constant deficit of the balance of payments in favor of Chinese goods and industries, silver flowed to China throughout the world ... As much as half of the precious metals mined in the New World may in this way have ended up in China.

Substitute $1.68 trillion worth of U.S. dollars for millions of 16th and 17th century taels of silver, and you will see not much has changed in four centuries. Then, silk and porcelain drained Europe of its silver. Today, socks, sneakers, semiconductors, iPods...

Although at a considerable remove, the Chinese economy could not fail to be badly affected by the severe depression that struck the worldwide trading system centered on Seville between 1620 and 1660.

Too soon to say whether the U.S. slowdown is going to derail the Chinese locomotive ... but it's hard to imagine that the world's economies are any less interdependent than they were in the 17th century.

One of the secular effects of the long-term decline in the importation of [silver as a result of the global depression] may have been a steadily worsening inflation during the late Ming -- an inflation that drove up the price of grain in heavily populated areas like Jiangnan in the Yangzi River delta, causing great hardship to the urban population there.

Inflation: Check. Rising grain prices: Check.

At the same time, climate and disease took their toll. Unusually severe weather struck China during the period 1626-1640, with extreme droughts being followed by major floods. Frequent famines, accompanied by plagues of locusts and smallpox, produced starvation and mass death during this same period.

I'll just let that one go without comment, and pass directly on to a passage that I think may spawn more synchronicities with citizens of the U.S. than China.

From the perspective of many of those actually suffering from the inflationary trends of the late Ming, the economic difficulties of the period were mainly to be attributed to the growing monetarization of the economy. It was quite common during the late 16th and early 17th centuries to bemoan commercialization and exalt the simpler life of a century or two earlier, when people were much more self-sufficient and much less caught up in marketing relationships. One early 17th-century gazetteer, for instance, contrasted the moral and economic tranquility of the Hongzhi reign (1488-1505) -- when arable fields were plentiful, houses were abundant, mountains forested, villages peaceful, and bandits absent -- with the turmoil and social disruption of the Jiajing period -- when property frequently changed hands, prices fluctuated, rich and poor drew socially apart, and market conditions grew complicated. By 1600, the gazetteer stated, the situation was even worse: "One out of a hundred is wealthy, but nine out of ten are impoverished. The impoverished are unable to oppose the wealthy so that, contrary to what should be, the few control the many. ...Silver and copper cash seem to dominate even the Heaven and Earth."

Widening income inequality: Check. Complicated market conditions: Check. The capture of government by wealthy special interests: Check. Monetarization? How about financialization?!

Others attributed the economic difficulties of the late Ming to a systemic breakdown affecting the entire social order.

Substitute "new world order" for "late Ming" and at least one HTWW reader says pretty much the same thing every single day.

The good news is that the Manchus came in, fixed things up, and the Qing Dynasty enjoyed at least a century and a half of great success. The bad news is that the Qing then completely fell apart, much like its predecessor. So there's hope, but no evidence, in history, of a permanent solution.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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China Globalization How The World Works Inflation