A History of Wealth and Poverty: Why a Few Nations are Rich and Many Poor, by John P. Powelson.


China: The Puzzles of History


China has puzzled economic historians in three related ways: why it became the world's leading economic power during the Sung dynasty (960-1279 CE); why it traded so vigorously with Japan and southeast Asia and all the way to Africa; and why it turned inward beginning with the Ming dynasty in the fourteenth century, abandoning both international trade and leadership in economic development. This chapter will describe the failure of the power-diffusion process, which may have contributed to an explanation of these puzzles.

Trade and Entrepreneurship

Chinese trade was robust as far back as history records. The state of Ch'i was a trade center in the seventh century BCE. From there, imports of bronze and iron were distributed widely. [1] Merchants were accumulating fortunes as far back as the fifth century BCE and probably earlier. [2] International trade expanded especially in the Early Han dynasty (206 BCE-9 CE). [3] By 110 BCE, when Han armies had secured the Silk Roads, caravans of several hundred persons set out frequently from Chang'an to the West. [4]

In the southern kingdom of Shu Han (221-263 CE), wealthy merchants sold grain, metals, and timber, buying medicaments and other products from Tibet. [5] Trade caravans traveled to and from China through Sinkiang in the third century. In the sixth century CE, the Sui emperor Yang Ti constructed canals to provide grain for the capital, Loyang, and to open new markets in the northeast and south. [6] These were the precursor of the imperial canal system of a few centuries later. Trade with south Asia in the sixth and seventh centuries helped bring Buddhism to China. Monasteries became repositories of capital and centers of production. Caravans were bringing luxury goods from western and central Asia in the seventh century. Foreign colonies became integrated within a Chinese network spreading throughout the country. Inland trading centers mushroomed, with warehouses, counting-houses, and crafts. [7] Trade in tea developed between south China and Chang'an.

Medieval towns in China have the reputation of being administrative centers, not primarily for trading. Geiger characterizes all Asian city states except Hong Kong and Singapore in this way, [8] but this may be a Western bias. If indeed Chinese cities served mainly the imperial court and the army, nevertheless great markets were held next to town walls, especially for trade with nomads of the north. [9] Private workshops and probably foundries were connected with these markets. [10]

By 1100, China had developed "the most advanced form of economic life to be found in all of Eurasia." [11] Agricultural productivity was increasing through imported strains of rice, new reservoirs and dams, more irrigation, and canal construction and improvement. Industry was expanding in the north, with coal consumption increasing faster than it did in England right after the Industrial Revolution.

The Southern Sung dynasty (1127-1279) awakened a new interest in foreign trade by sea. It negotiated treaties on behalf of merchants, [12] much as the English monarchs would do three centuries later. The Mongols (1280-1368) also traded widely.13 The Ming (1368-1644) built a huge fleet that traded abroad for decades before it was suddenly retired. [14]

Although China may have reached its overall economic zenith under the Sung, progress continued in specific fields. An agrarian revolution occurred under the Ming, with improved irrigation technology, new strains of rice and other foreign crops, and crop alternation. Industry expanded, and new markets were opened. During the eighteenth century textile plants and dyeing and calendering factories grew; division of labor became more intricate; and copper and lead mining expanded. "We hear of many men who started out with one loom and later ended up with over forty looms, employing many weavers." [15] And "when the Manila galleon set up its link with New Spain across the Pacific, Chinese junks hurried out to meet it." [16]

Despite these entrepreneurial qualities, and despite centuries of pioneering in agriculture, industry, and trade, hindsight tells us what might not have been seen at the time: that during the Ming and especially the Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, the Chinese economy lost its vigor in all its branches.

Centralization and Power

The Chinese economy stagnated in part because it was subject to a powerful, oppressive imperial office and bureaucracy. The bureaucrats appear to have been motivated mainly by desire for power, for they often did not profit much, materially, from their interventions. Although the following restrictions applied at different eras and places, and although there were exceptions, nevertheless the restrictive spirit pervaded historical time.

Craftsmen, a hereditary caste, were held in low esteem, were required to work for the emperor, and they were placed in humiliating circumstances with their clothing, hairstyle, and housing carefully monitored and ridiculed; [17] they could change occupations only with imperial permission. City markets were controlled by the government, [18] with crippling restrictions on traders. Foreign trade was monopolized by the bureaucracy and placed on a tributary basis. [19] The Tang and Sung rulers restricted trade to a few ports chosen for ease in collecting duties. [20] Industry above a small-factory level was mostly controlled by government officials, for whose benefit it was directed. The Ming dynasty intervened to the extent that it could in the personal as well as economic lives of its subjects. Although land was held privately and peasants could determine what to grow and how to grow it, nevertheless they were burdened by rents and taxes so heavy as to consume the investable surplus. Their land was subject to impulsive confiscation. [21] Wars and rebellions frequently despoiled their efforts. These conditions lasted until the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949.

The greatest, most capricious, and most continuous interference in the market process has been through price and production controls, which were often carried out by government officials to whom the supervision of local markets had been entrusted. Close state intervention — down to the individual factory level and into the details of everyday operation — is a commonplace throughout Chinese history, even to the present day. I have found hundreds of references to it in various history books, of which the following, chosen because they span centuries, are only a few:

  • [Shang Yang , 361 BCE] instituted a strict system of rewards and punishments, forced all persons into "productive" occupations, set up a system of mutual responsibility and spying among the people [in an] effort to bring all the territory of the state under the direct control of the central government. [22]
  • [In the third century BCE] an archaic and murderous bureaucratic state that destroys the individual in its search for an impossible precision where all deviance from the state's norms will be obliterated. [23]
  • The law did not protect any individual member from arbitrary action by his gild [during the Sung dynasty, 960-1279]; so the ruling authority was able to control the gild by controlling its leading members. . . . All the conditions and assumptions that led to gild power in Japanese and European society were absent in Chinese society, where powerful and independent gilds could not operate. [24]
  • Government itself [under the Sung dynasty] could now become more thoroughly centralized than before and both its domestic commerce and its foreign trade much better organized. [25]
  • [During the Ming dynasty, 1368-1644] each province was under a collegial group of officers who represented the same threefold administrative, military, and supervisory functions as in the capital. A governor was eventually added as a coordinator at the top of each province. The administrative hierarchy was also watched . . . by censors on tour. [26]
  • The gathering of power into the emperor's hands was a continuing tendency during the Yüan, Ming, and Qing periods (1279-1911). [27]
  • A statute of 1699 had given the rights of copper purchasing to the merchants from the Imperial Household, instead of leaving those rights in the hands of private merchants . . . . [T]hese rights were granted also to the textile commissioner of Nanking who was one of the emperor's trusted bondservants. This means that the textile factories were not only a case of direct state control in their specific field of activity, but that, at least during the Ch'ing period, the state could control other sectors of the economy through them. [28]
  • Under the [Qing] empire [1644-1911], state intervention in the economic field was determined by different motivations, depending on the sector, such as the control of those activities considered particularly dangerous for social order, the control of certain products of particular importance, the possibility of obtaining considerable fiscal income, and the importance of certain interventions in terms of "public" affairs. [29]

Further references to centralization and state power in China are found in Appendix 11.1.

Absolutism had its exceptions, however. At all times it was subject to the incomplete ability of the emperor to control his people. This was the case especially before the Sung dynasty. The Confucian tradition counseled the emperor not to intervene below the level of the hsien (county). (He did not always keep this counsel.) In the third century BCE, "the emperor was a completely powerless figurehead," [30] while warring feudal lords possessed power as imperious as that of an emperor but in their own territories. In a debate reminiscent of ideological splits today, the first century BCE squared off "modernists," who favored both absolutism and government control of the economy, against "reformists," who found it "improper for the government to compete with members of the public for monetary profit." [31] After the An Lu-shan rebellion of 750 CE, territorial lords tended to eclipse the emperor. [32] In the Republic of China, 1912-49, the president frequently could not control outlying areas.

In principle, absolutism won out in the tenth century. But it was always subject to what the emperor could enforce. "[T]he Sung dynasty was marked by the growth of despotism, which culminated in the Ming dynasty." [33] Under the Mongols, "China was so large and complex a society that the lower-ranking civil servants had to be allowed to continue with their jobs if government was to function at all. In fact, the Mongols do not appear to have set up a rigidly centralized government in China, as was once thought." [34] Under the Ming, "administration was now more authoritarian than in the Sung period, but the small bureaucracy . . . continued to rely on considerable self-government within the society." [35]

Still, central management of the economy was the dominant theme, and if there was a discrepancy between official law and what could be enforced, the uncertainty of that alone would weigh upon the economic actors. The contrast with Japan and northwestern Europe is enormous.

Land and Labor

For long periods peasants were on the move. Sometimes they migrated to escape war, at other times to flee excessive taxes or rents, massacres, or physical abuse by their landlords. At still other times they were impressed into military or other settlements. Lords had their lands pulled out from under them with changes in their overlords — the emperor, provincial aristocracy, or bureaucracy — so that peasants were frequently faced with new masters. Whatever the circumstances, long-term relationships based on vertical alliances and trust among classes, such as developed in Japan after the sixteenth century and in northwestern Europe earlier, may have been difficult or impossible at all times in China.

The number of historical references to land abundance and "escape" by different classes is legion. Twenty-six citations, extracted from a much larger literature, appear in Appendix 11.2. They include also references to the migratory nature of labor and small amount of communication among social classes.

Except for the directed immigration into Sinkiang under the People's Republic, the references to large movements of people and sudden changes in overlords taper off in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Wars and rebellions, of which the most serious was the Taiping Rebellion of the nineteenth century, did displace people. Peasants in Henan province migrated to escape drought, landlordism, and taxes as late as the 1920s. [36] But population increase was making land less available. Farm sizes decreased, so that by the twentieth century China was a country of peasant farms of only a few acres, without great extremes in size. I have expanded on the evolution of Chinese land tenure in a previous publication. [37]

In sum, the history of Chinese land and peasantry approximates more the histories of Africa and India than those of northwestern Europe and Japan in the following ways. First, the availability of land made great migrations possible. Second, since the third century BCE, Chinese lower classes lived directly under the purview of the emperor, theoretically with no feudal lords "protecting" them as in Europe and Japan. In practice, however, the peasants often — even usually — had gentry patrons. Third, frequent changes in these patrons, through either conquest or slavery, typified China, Africa, and India more than they did northwestern Europe and Japan. For all these reasons, vertical alliances with leverage, and the institutional arrangements of northwestern Europe and Japan — such as rules delineating the rights of peasants, craft guilds, towns, lord-peasant contracts, and manorial courts with peasant participation — did not take shape so strongly in China.

In several ways, however, the distinctions between China on the one hand and Japan and northwestern Europe on the other are neither simple nor clear-cut. First, Japanese and Chinese cultures intersected, in land law, religion, and Confucian concepts of authority. Second, difficulties in communication over great distances diminished imperial power in China and increased that of local warlords, whose rule sometimes approximated the daimyo of Japan or the manorial lords of Europe. Third, local initiative in making contracts, promoting crafts and industry, and developing market and legal systems is found in both China and Japan. Sometimes it was encouraged by the imperial office, and sometimes it could not be suppressed. Fourth, crafts and industry were held in low esteem in both China and Japan, and to a lesser extent in Europe. Fifth, wars, which created impossible conditions for trust and contract, were common in all the areas mentioned and were devastating in Japan in the sixteenth century and in large parts of Europe in the seventeenth century.

However, these are all minor exceptions to the overwhelming generality, that vertical communication and bargaining, through which the rights of lower groups might have become stronger and more clearly defined over the centuries, occurred far less in China than in northwestern Europe and Japan.


Interest groups that created pluralist societies in Japan and northwestern Europe usually had their counterparts in China: peasant and village societies, guilds, clans, corporations, and student associations. Unlike those of northwestern Europe and Japan, however, the Chinese groups normally did not become foci of independent power. The gap between them and the imperial bureaucracy and military was so great and communication across it so scarce that vertical alliances and leverage were rare.

Corporate groups in China centered mainly in the family or clan. These were sometimes fluid organizations, which could be molded through adoptions or liaisons. But clans and families served more the common purpose of a rigidly hierarchical society than they acted as bargaining entities.

Chinese peasant organizations approximating the village associations to which Hilton and Berman referred in Europe do not crop up in the literature. The European associations negotiated with the lords over rights and obligations; they even sued the lords in court and sometimes won. [38] Perhaps Chinese peasant associations such as the White Lotus and the Taiping come closer to the Japanese ikki, with their warrior caste. But Chinese peasant rebellions were more often all-out violent war than the intermittent fighting and mutual concessions characteristic of Japanese peasants and lords. The crucial difference seems to lie in whether groups are deemed to be generically hostile or are seen as presenting opportunities to cooperate. [39] Eberhard concludes that "at all times, down to the present, Chinese governments looked with suspicion at any organization other than the family (the basis of Chinese society to 1949), because such an organization could become a centre of power and hence a threat." [40]

Whereas European guilds dominated many a city government by the fourteenth century, and whereas Japanese guilds were the prime force in organizing production in the Tokugawa era, in China guilds were insignificant until the nineteenth century. Then craftsmen "began to organize in guilds of an essentially religious character. . . . No guild, however, connected people of the same craft living in different cities. . . . Thus, guilds failed to achieve political influence even within individual cities." [41] "The Chinese gild (hui) was predominantly a local association, intent on monopolizing the handicraft activity of one community. [42]

Only in the eighteenth century, when the Chinese government needed some vehicle for negotiating with British traders in Canton, did it authorize merchant organizations. Only then were the restrictions that had humiliated craftsmen and artisans gradually lifted. From their Chinese name kung-hang ("officially authorized merchants"), the British called these guilds the Cohong. [43]

Perhaps the closest the Chinese came to wider merchant confederations were regional associations (hui-kuan), also of the eighteenth century. "Such associations united people from one city or one area who lived in another city. People of different trades, but mainly businessmen, came together under elected chiefs and councillors." [44]

In sum, the guilds existed only when authorized by government; they did not grow into independent political foci, able to negotiate with government or other corporate groups besides foreign merchants; and they did not serve as prototypes for further corporate entities capable of bargaining with each other. In medieval Europe and Japan, the creation of new corporate categories became the vehicle for social mobility. In China, by contrast, "it was impossible to change one's status by creating new corporate categories. There was only one standard way to achieve privileged status: to become a member of the corporate intellectual elite (whether Confucian, Nationalist, or Communist) or submit to it." [45]


Many instances of potential leverage are found throughout Chinese history, but none (that I could find) so functioned as to enhance the power of lower classes.

During the "Spring and Autumn" period (722-481 BCE), when the emperor was "first among equals" of many lords, the nobility frequently called for peasant support in their struggles with the emperor or other nobles. [46] While the peasants received material goods in exchange for support, they did not achieve an increase in status or power. Instead, by crushing the aristocratic class totally in the fourth century BCE, [47] Shang Yang, principal minister of the Qin state, removed all possibility of leverage by weaker groups. There was no rival of the emperor with whom to form a vertical alliance. In the third century BCE the nobility used their peasants as soldiers, to fight their rivals. They even induced peasants to immigrate into their domains, to increase both their armies and their taxes. [48] But again we have no indication of peasants demanding increased privileges or power in exchange for military help.

Fairbank, Reischauer and Craig tell us of "menaces" to the Han emperor, such as families of empresses or pastoral peoples of the north, [49] but peasants did not lever their power by allying with these, probably because "society seems to have been made up of [only] two main groups: taxpaying peasants and rich landowners." [50] The communication gaps were too great for vertical alliances and leverage.

The Tang rulers (618-906) used imperial servants to counteract the power of the nobility. [51] Rivalries among cliques in the emperor's court were conditions that might elsewhere have led to vertical alliances and leverage. [52] Under the Hongzhi emperor (1487-1505) rivalries occurred between the gentry-bureaucrats and the eunuch-bureaucrats, but they were resolved in favor of the former. [53]

As the Mongols were destroying the Sung, many gentry — fearful of peasant rebellions — made common cause with the invaders. [54] As objects of hostility by each group, however, the peasants could hardly have allied with either one.

Disputes among landlords and communities over water rights and financial responsibilities in Ming hydraulic systems might have enabled peasants to swing their weight to one or the other of the disputants. But this did not happen, possibly out of fear, or possibly because as newly arrived outsiders they had no status with the alternative groups. Instead, tenants supported their own landlords. "Common peasants and tenant farmers seem to have been used as rank and file for purposes of intimidation or when it was intended to create a fait accompli." [55]

In none of these situations did peasants increase their power or status in exchange for support for a stronger group, as was the case in northwestern Europe and Japan. We can only surmise a reason: Not only the vastness of the cultural and communications gaps but also the embryonic, unorganized nature of the corporate groups always prevented vertical alliances. The geographical shifting among both gentry and peasant farmers would have interfered with one-on-one relationships. Thus weak and stronger groups did not learn to negotiate and compromise vertically.

The same conditions have applied during the People's Republic. Before 1989, foreign observers had noted, with some wonderment, that the Chinese government at least three times turned criticism on, and when it became excessive turned it off, like water from a spigot. Such were the cases of Mao's Hundred Flowers speech of 1956, [56] of Democracy Wall in 1979, [57] and of a four-week flurry of protests in November-December 1986. In all these cases, by encouragement or at least tolerance on the part of the authorities, protest groups mounted posters, made speeches in public places, and were featured on television. But the authorities and the protest groups did not sit down to serious talk.

Some might suggest that the Confucian ethic of loyalty and authority enabled the government both to turn the protests on with confidence and to turn them off with obedience. Perhaps. But I see another twist. After centuries of little communication between "inferiors" and "superiors" in the traditional hierarchy, no expectation exists on either side for down-to-earth diplomacy. Goldman has suggested that the officials used student protests to make their own points of disagreement in their inner circles: While students put up posters, officials debated similar themes behind their walls. [58] Chinese of different classes were accustomed to talking "past" each other, with communication rubbing off indirectly, to the extent that it did at all.

In April 1989, Beijing students began street protests not authorized by the government. By May, they had occupied Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing, next to government offices. Millions were marching in many Chinese cities, defying martial law and calling for "democracy." In Beijing, they were organized into their own "mini-government: a secretariat, a printing office, a financial affairs ministry, a propaganda ministry, a liaison ministry, a picket squad, a special action squad, a small loud-speaker broadcast station, a pharmacy and three clinics." [59] But they had neither a program nor a definition of democracy nor ambassadors to the government. No reports of even secret talks leaked out. Protesters and government officials were "escaping" communication with each other. On June 4, soldiers shot their way into the square, killing an unknown number of students and taking others into custody. The protests ceased abruptly.

Over centuries, powerful and weak had "escaped" each other in similar ways, carrying on their transactions by power or force, speaking broad generalities and millennial ideas but with few vertical alliances and little negotiation, compromise, or leverage on concrete issues. They had failed to create the social structures by which Chinese people might bargain with one another to convert to a "modern" society in the twenty-first century.

War and Violence

As in virtually the entire world, warfare dominated China's early history. Unlike Europe and Japan, but like Africa and India, endemic warfare has not materially decreased in recent centuries. Violence continues to be a legitimate means of resolving disputes.

Peasant Rebellions

As in Europe and Japan, peasant rebellions dotted the centuries. But the Chinese rebellions tended to differ from those of Europe and Japan in four ways:

First, some European rebellions occurred under improved conditions for the peasantry, such as the English Peasant Revolt of 1381. The plague of 1348 and ensuing years had increased the bargaining power of the reduced number of peasants, whose strength incited them to redress long-standing grievances. By contrast, Chinese rebellions grew out of excruciating hardship. For example, the Yellow Turban Revolt of 184 CE arose from the great struggles of the cliques against each other. Peasants had been drafted into the fighting, and their houses and crops were destroyed. [60] Likewise, "the continual warfare of the military governors, the sanguinary struggles between the cliques, and the universal impoverishment which all this fighting produced" [61] led to famine in Chekiang in 860 and in Hopei in 874, which in turn unleashed rebellions. Other peasant armies joined in uncoordinated violence. The war devastation of the tenth century led to a number of popular uprisings in the north. [62] When the dikes of the Yellow River burst in 1351, peasants drafted to repair them revolted at the ensuing hardships. [63] Early in the sixteenth century, oppressive taxation led to revolts in Sichuan. [64]

Second, European and Japanese rebellions often arose with specific demands: the status of the peasants as villein or free; recognition of freedom of religion; or work terms and schedules on feudal manors. In China, peasants usually did not voice specific demands or sit down with rulers or bureaucracy to negotiate terms. Rather, their revolts were general explosions arising from frustrations. There was no Wat Tyler who could approach the Chinese equivalent of Richard II close enough to grab the reins of his horse.

Third, Chinese rebellions often expressed deeply religious or millennial principles, more akin to Islamic jihads or purification movements, such as the Wahabbi or Almoravid, than to European wars of religion. Best known among these is the formidable Taiping rebellion, started in 1851, "influenced by Christian ideas but more so by Chinese traditional thought." [65]

Where Chinese rebellions did have political aims, they were frequently grandiose, such as the restoration of the Sung dynasty, the intention of some in 1351. [66] The White Lotus society wanted the abdication of the Manchus and restoration of the Ming. Two centuries later, the same society looked for a return of the Buddha to end the suffering. The Taiping also fought for a radical restructuring of the social order into a Christian kingdom. All these rebellions did not reach down to earthy issues between lords and peasants, such as land tenure and labor terms, which were common to the northwest European and Japanese rebellions.

Fourth, Chinese rebellions possessed an element of continuity over time and/or space. The secret White Lotus society, dating to the thirteenth century, sponsored numerous rebellions. A serious one at the turn of the nineteenth century "consisted of uncoordinated roving bands using hit-and-run guerrilla tactics." [67] The Society itself lasted into the twentieth century. The Taiping Rebellion continued for fourteen years, despoiled seventeen provinces, and took about 20 million lives. [68] Some European rebellions, such as the German Peasants' War of 1525, did range over wide territories, but with more limited and more specific goals.

Wars for Land and Power

In more ways than the peasant rebellions, with a few exceptions Chinese have lived most of their history under threat of violence and war. War did not occur at all times and all places, but always violence threatened to erupt for land or power.

Periods of peace occurred at the beginning of every major dynasty since the Tang (618 CE). But these periods — which helped define the dynastic cycle as prosperous in its early years — always came to an end within one to two centuries. Unlike Europe and Japan, no tendency can be seen toward diminution of war or war-related instability in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The Shang dynasty (1766 to about 1122 BCE) existed "in a more or less continuous state of war." [69] The succeeding dynasty, Zhou (1122-221 BCE) "had to hold in check the subjugated but warlike tribes of Turks and Mongols who lived quite close to their capital," [70] while other feudal lords were continually rising against them. Around 750 BCE any internal cohesion had broken down. In the period of the warring states (481-221 BCE) feudal lords eliminated each other until only the Qin remained. The Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE) is considered the first Chinese empire; the country is named after it. The Qin period was characterized by unremitting threats by nomad tribes from the north. Succession struggles and rebellions by nobles culminated in the murder of the second Qin emperor in 206 BCE, bringing an end to the dynasty.

During the Early Han dynasty (206 BCE – 9 CE) some degree of political stability was achieved. Nevertheless, uprisings by feudal princes and kings continued; quixotic alliances against the emperor were common. The Han invaded western Korea in 108 BCE, and under Wu Ti (reigned 140-87 BCE) they moved into southern China. The drain on resources from maintaining occupation forces so far from home base devastated the imperial finances. The northern empire of Hsiung-nu was a constant threat until it collapsed in 58 BCE. Rivalries in court cliques and palace intrigues during the first century BCE led to the usurpation of the throne by Wang Mang in 9 CE. Wang Mang's brief "empire" (9-23 CE) — characterized by "reforms" that did not last — was punctuated by a great popular uprising by the "Red Eyebrows," which was put down. Harassment of the Hsiung-nu, now Chinese vassals, goaded these northern tribes into rebellions. Vast armies were concentrated in the north, at great expense and at the cost of territories lost.

During the Later Han dynasty (23-220 CE), intrigues by palace cliques brought steady disintegration of the government from 80 CE onward. Provincial generals fought bloodily with each other, and the peasant rebellion of the Yellow Turbans took place. At the same time, the northern threat continued.

When the Han dynasty crumbled in 220, China became divided into a number of kingdoms and dynasties until it was unified again by the Sui dynasty in 580. During this "first division," constant struggles occurred among Chinese cliques and between Chinese gentry and alien nobility in the north. This was a period of around the year 400, was bloodily suppressed. Incessant fighting continued on the borders. "For nearly three hundred years the southern empire had witnessed unceasing struggles between powerful cliques, making impossible any peaceful development within the country." [71]

Attempts by the first Sui emperor to resettle population in his home area in the north brought rebellions in the south. Continuous wars were waged against the Turks, who defeated the Chinese in 615. Expeditions were undertaken into Nam Viet (Vietnam), Tonking, and Taiwan, along with costly and futile campaigns in Korea (612-14). These foreign wars led to risings against the second Sui emperor, which in turn led to his murder in 618 and the beginning of the Tang dynasty.

Internal fighting continued until the Tang were firmly established in 623. The Turks invaded all the way to the Tang capital in 624, but thereafter peace was established. This, however, was balanced by war with the Tibetans, during which China lost Sinkiang. The internal stability and military strength of the early Tang marked two centuries of increased prosperity, but armies on the frontier and campaigns against Islam were expensive. Korea was conquered in 640. The Uighurs dissolved from 832 onward, as did the Tibetan Empire from 842. [72] A series of revolts rocked the dynasty from 755 until its fall in 906.

In the "second division" of China (906-960), ten southern kingdoms fought with each other; any one might ally with a northern power against the northern dynasty. Threats continued from the Turks and the northern empire of Khitan. The northwest became depopulated from ruinous external wars.

China was again reunited by the Northern Sung dynasty (960-1127). From 960 to 979 "in northern China there was constant warfare, and everywhere it was a period of insecurity and sweeping social change." [73] Thereafter, a great period of prosperity began, along with an unusual period of peace. "But there was constant and bitter factional strife between those who wished to rationalize government. . . and this weakened the Sung state." [74] Sporadic wars with the Khitan ended with the payment of an annual tribute to them after 1004. The independence of the Juchen from the Khitan in 1114 released the former to fight the Sung, whom they subdued quickly, bringing an end to the northern dynasty. The Sung retreated to the south, where they set up a new capital.

The Southern Sung dynasty (1127 to 1279) again launched a period of internal stability, though sporadic fighting occurred against the Juchen. But in 1233 the Sung allied with the Mongols to defeat the Juchen. However, the Mongols attacked the Sung and ended the dynasty.

The Mongol (Yüan) dynasty (1280 to 1368) marked another period of relative external peace, with wars confined to the frontiers of Burma, Annam, Cambodia, and Java. Two attempts to invade Japan were defeated by typhoons. However, the great internal suffering that the Mongols inflicted on the Chinese led to internal revolts beginning in 1325, which destabilized the dynasty and ultimately ended it.

The early Ming dynasty also ushered in a period of relative internal stability and — once the Mongols had definitely been defeated in 1425 — external peace. Coastal piracy by the Japanese, one campaign against the western Mongols in 1449, and a rebellion to secure the independence of Annam punctuated this peace. Misrule and extravagance by the emperors led again to uprisings from 1512 on, which became more serious in the seventeenth century. In 1517, Portuguese traders built a fortress on an island off Canton. "Hindering trade and flouting Chinese law, these semipirates were accused of robbery, blackmail, and buying Chinese children from Chinese kidnappers." [75] Intrigues by court cliques and murders threatened the dynasty from within. Border threats increased after 1521, with incursions by the Mongols and, later on, the Manchu. Wars with Annam, Burma, and Thailand continued from 1544 to 1604. Insurrection broke out in every part of China. [76] The Manchus and Mongols united to take Korea in 1637, and the Manchus drove on into Peking in 1644, ending the Ming dynasty.

After some mopping up of recalcitrant Ming, the Qing dynasty of the Manchus ushered in another period of internal peace and stability, which lasted until late in the eighteenth century. Some wars occurred on the northern border in the late seventeenth century, leading to the Treaty of Nerchinsk with Russia in 1689, China's first modern treaty with a Western power. A few disturbances with the Mongols occurred from about 1690 to 1720. Aside from these, plus some border skirmishes, the eighteenth century until 1774 was an unusual period of peace.

Popular risings began in Shantung in 1774, followed by the White Lotus rebellion (1775-1804). Rebellions broke out with greater frequency during the nineteenth century: Taiping (1850-64), which nearly overthrew the dynasty; Nien (1856-68); and several Muslim risings (1855-73). The intrusion of Europeans, with the Opium War (1840-42), Russian intervention (1858), Anglo-French attack on North China (1860), and war with Japan and the loss of Taiwan (1894) revealed Chinese weakness vis-à-vis Western technology and military strength. The Qing dynasty was overthrown by Hupei army troops in 1911.

The Republic of China (1911-1949, but still existing on Taiwan) led quickly into civil war between the northern and southern governments, until 1927. Even as that war was raging, China was fragmented into spheres of warlord influence. "The typical warlord army had no roots among the local people but was a scourge among them, exacting taxes, living off the villages, feared and despised." [77]

Chiang Kai-shek's campaign against warlords had scarcely ended when the Communist revolution began, to last from 1927 to 1949, with an intermission to fight the Japanese. In 1931, the Japanese invaded Manchuria and went on to occupy major seaports and some internal centers in China. This war mixed into World War II, and the Japanese were defeated only in 1945. The Communist revolution resumed, with the Nationalist Government driven to Taiwan in 1949. In the People's Republic (1949 to date) peace was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution of 1968. Mao's concept of "continuous revolution" [78] — a struggle against capitalism for twenty-five years (if not forever) — smacks of endemic warfare being considered a legitimate means of conducting economic relations. Chinese reforms begun after the death of Mao in 1976 may have been delayed by the tensions arising out of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

Over the centuries, those not directly participating in wars were disastrously affected, through loss of livelihood and the push to migrate. Right down to the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre and on into today, no Chinese has been safe from the violence of government or its challengers. Military solutions have always been, and still are, considered a legitimate way to resolve disputes, at least among the powerful. Furthermore, they tend to be implemented through the confrontation of extreme but vaguely worded positions and to conclude with total victory or defeat, not compromise.

Such endemic violence is not consistent with commitments to intergroup cooperation, saving and investment, and long-term ventures. The fact that such commitments were widely made in earlier history is a testimony to the natural vigor of trade and entrepreneurship everywhere, but only up to a certain point. That these commitments did not pass the threshold of sustained economic development is attributable to Chinese circumstance.


  1. Eberhard 1977:60.
  2. Loewe 1985:258.
  3. Eberhard 1977:85, 89.
  4. Loewe 1985:265.
  5. Eberhard 1977:112ff.
  6. Eberhard 1977:172.
  7. Eberhard 1977:183.
  8. Geiger 1973.
  9. Eberhard 1977:54.
  10. Hulsewe 1985:231.
  11. Lewis 1988:107.
  12. Lewis 1988:13.
  13. Lewis 1988:178.
  14. Lewis 1988:199.
  15. Eberhard 1977:256.
  16. Braudel 1981:454.
  17. Eberhard 1977:193.
  18. Fairbank, Reischauer and Craig 1978:105.
  19. Jacobs 1958:34.
  20. Fairbank, Reischauer and Craig 1978:136.
  21. I have supplied many examples of this in Powelson 1988: chapter 14.
  22. Fairbank, Reischauer and Craig 1978:55-56.
  23. Spence 1987:1.
  24. Jacobs 1958:107.
  25. Lewis 1988:9.
  26. Fairbank, Reischauer and Craig 1978:185.
  27. Fairbank, Reischauer and Craig 1978:227.
  28. Santangelo 1985:283.
  29. Santangelo 1985:287.
  30. Eberhard 1977:48.
  31. Loewe 1985:255.
  32. Eberhard 1977:191.
  33. Li 1977:xlviii.
  34. Morgan 1986:110.
  35. Rozman 1973:41.
  36. Thaxton 1982:375.
  37. Powelson 1988: chapter 14.
  38. Berman 1983:555-6; Hilton 1773:70-71, 74-75.
  39. Karl Marx, for example, would find them generically hostile; to Alexis de Tocqueville, cooperation was a possibility.
  40. Eberhard 1977:192.
  41. Eberhard 1977:207-8.
  42. Jacobs 1958:38.
  43. Fairbank, Reischauer and Craig 1978:255-56.
  44. Eberhard 1977:208.
  45. Jacobs 1958:142.
  46. Hsu 1965:90.
  47. Li 1977:lx.
  48. Eberhard 1977:49.
  49. Fairbank, Reischauer and Craig 1978:60.
  50. Fairbank, Reischauer and Craig 1978:61-62.
  51. Wolf 1982:53-4.
  52. Eberhard (1977:266) writes of the Ming, but the same must have been so for other dynasties.
  53. Grimm 1985:42.
  54. Eberhard 1977:247.
  55. Will 1985:321.
  56. MacFarquhar 1974:51-6.
  57. Reported in sporadic newspaper articles during 1979. In the New York Times, these culminated with James P. Sterba, "Peking Closes Democracy Wall, Banishes Posters to Remote Park,"12/7/79
  58. Goldman, Merle, "How China's Leaders Use Student Protests," New York Times, 1/1/87.
  59. WuDunn, Sheryl, "In Quest for Democracy, Mini-Government is Born," New York Times 5/31/89.
  60. Eberhard 1977:99-100.
  61. Eberhard 1977:193.
  62. Eberhard 1977:215.
  63. Eberhard 1977:247.
  64. Eberhard 1977:271.
  65. Eberhard 1977:302.
  66. Eberhard 1977:247.
  67. EBMi 1974:10:656.
  68. EBMi 1974:9:774.
  69. Eberhard 1977:17.
  70. Eberhard 1977:29.
  71. Eberhard 1977:166.
  72. Eberhard 1977:192.
  73. Barraclough 1984:126.
  74. Barraclough 1984:126.
  75. Fairbank, Reischauer and Craig 1978:244.
  76. Eberhard 1977:278.
  77. Fairbank, Reischauer and Craig 1978:758.
  78. MacFarquhar 1983:29.


Copyright © 1994 by the University of Michigan. First published in the USA by the University of Michigan Press, 1994.

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