What's the matter with China?

Salon's readers take up "the Needham question" and come up with some provocative explanations as to why China had no Industrial Revolution.


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Andrew Leonard
May 20, 2008 3:51AM (UTC)

The letters thread on my book review of Simon Winchester's biography of Joseph Needham, "The Man Who Loved China," is a testament to the awesome willingness of Salon readers to grapple with tough questions. I salute everyone who takes the time to craft such responses.

I particularly liked dbp1954's contribution. He or she is responding to an earlier commenter who asserted that Jared Diamond had definitively answered the question of why China did not have an industrial revolution.

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What's the Matter With China?

Jared Diamond, not a China scholar (nor does he profess to be), is not particularly well regarded in the field. His thesis of "lack of competition between states as an engine of development" (which he attributes, in turn, to China's less fractal geography and less coastline) lacks explanatory power in that there were numerous times in Chinese history, often lasting a century or more, in which there was no centralized Chinese state and the region was host to conflicts between states. What's more, his thoughts on China are dashed off as an afterthought to the substance of his book, which is really about *Eurasia as a whole* developing more "advanced" cultures than the rest of the world.

Anyway, one of the leading scholars in the field is Kenneth Pommeranz, who in "The Great Divergence" ascribes European ascendancy over Asia to the acquisition of material resources in the New World which enabled the Industrial Revolution. The IR then drove European merchants to seek new markets for their surplus, and said merchants were backed by the willingness of European states to open markets by force. The (not all that overwhelming, but substantive) advantages in military technology -- especially naval technology -- that the Industrial Revolution afforded Europe allowed them to do so. Once the markets were open opium acted as a literal narcotic upon the Chinese working classes, murdering productivity. China was thus forced to attempt to modernize while facing a major drug problem *and* draining its treasury to pay the indemnities it owed from the Opium Wars and other imperialist ventures.

Ironically, Europeans found the New World (which remember gave them the jump, development-wise on Asia in the first place) because they were looking for direct trade routes to Asia. Asians did not seek direct trade routes to Europe because there was nothing in Europe that any Asian governments deemed were worth mounting voyages of exploration for.

In any case, Western Asia (Europe)'s ascendancy over East Asia seems to have lasted all of 250 years, if that, and in my opinion now that China's resources are wedded to capitalist forms of production it is just a matter of time until East Asia is the world's dominant region.


Andrew Leonard

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

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