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"In your opinion, was China capable of nurturing its indigenous Industrial Revolution?"

Shared master's students economics essays for LSE (London School of Economics and Political Science) MSc. 

EH446 Economic Development in East and Southeast Asia series 

This essay aims to evaluate whether or not China was capable of nurturing its indigenous Industrial Revolution. In order to answer this question, it is important to first clarify the question by defining ‘indigenous Industrial Revolution’ and explaining what is meant by ‘capable.’ This essay will treat China’s ‘indigenous Industrial Revolution’ as the great achievements in science and technology during the Northern Song period.  ‘Capable’ is considered to mean China’s inherent ability to maintain and invigorate its technological momentum in the absence of outside forces (most notably, the pressure from Tatars and the Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century).
This analysis begins with a summary of the product and process innovations leading up to the thirteenth century, followed by the shift towards extensive-type growth in agriculture, transportation, and economics. An explanation of the role of the state will follow, highlighting the differing roles of ideology, competition, and science in order to compare the Chinese and British cases. Using the structure defined above, this essay finds that China possessed both inherent strengths and weaknesses for cultivating its indigenous Industrial Revolution. The positive factors that led to significant technological advancements in the Northern Song period persisted, as did economic (extensive) growth in the years that followed. China lost its ‘edge’ when intensive growth slowed due to government (dis)incentives and a lack of competition. By considering the debilitating impacts of these internal factors , this essay concludes that it would have been difficult for China to foster its own Industrial Revolution, even in the absence of foreign struggles.

Intensive Growth during the Northern Song
China’s great achievements during the Northern Song period did not happen overnight. Song success was the result of a long period in which a “well-functioning” system developed; by 300 B.C., China “had many characteristics of a market economy.”  From that point through the early twelfth century, an industrial revolution was in the making. Scholars point to China’s early arrival on the scene, predating the British Industrial Revolution by centuries. 
The Northern Song period witnessed the invention of many products including massive ships, the compass, and military tools.  As John Hobson points out in his critique of Eurocentric writers, objects designed for large-scale conflict and exploration were not the only innovations during this time period. While useful for military technology, iron was also used to produce commonplace items such as shovels, stoves, and nails.  Iron was not alone in its versatility; paper was also used widely in China before reaching the West, for such disparate functions as wallpaper, money, shoes, and even military armour. 
In addition to the various new products that surfaced during the incubation of China’s Song Revolution, many process innovations also occurred. Metal treatment technologies such as smelting, confusion, oxidisation, and decarbonisation were mastered during this period, rendering Chinese cast iron production and metallurgy practices less expensive and more diverse.  In the textile industry, the introduction of spinning wheels using hemp and silk marked a great procedural improvement in this field.  It was these technological innovations in products and methods that stimulated China’s economic growth through the Northern Song period.

Extensive Growth during the Southern Song and Later
During the transition from the Northern Song to Southern Song period (in the early twelfth century), economic growth continued but its foundation shifted; society was no longer propelled by the innovative vigour of the preceding years. By the time the Ming Dynasty came to power in 1368, a new trend had emerged. In The Lever of Riches, Joel Mokyr identifies the sources of this new kind of growth as the “expansion of internal commerce, monetization, and the colonization of the southern provinces,” also noting the growing population and agricultural “intensification” that continued through the nineteenth century.  
Agricultural “intensification” efforts differed from the agricultural inventions of the Northern Song period in that they were not unique, novel creations. In most cases, such efforts were manifested in the form of small improvements to existing products or practices.  In his article, ‘The Needham Puzzle: Why the Industrial Revolution did not Originate in China’, Justin Yifu Lin cites some examples, including the share plow for creating furrows in soil and the introduction of Champa rice to be grown in the southern provinces.  Seed drills, weeding tools, fertilizers, and pest control also emerged during this time. 
As the population shifted southwards and agriculture adapted to gain the most from this territory, transportation capabilities were also bolstered. The Chinese used internal waterways to send coal, iron, and steel south to meet the demand from these provinces.  In addition to the physical infrastructure, fiscal systems were also created to tax and regulate internal and international commercial activity.  The change from China’s intensive economic growth during the Song technology boom to the more extensive pattern in the years that followed was not simply a function of northern aggression and natural conditions. Institutions, ideologies, and methods of innovation also played a role in determining why China’s Song Revolution did not follow the same trajectory as the later British Industrial Revolution.

Institutions, Ideologies, and Incentives
The Chinese government played an integral part in the state’s economic development. Agriculture flourished in part because of government incentives and advantageous loan conditions.  The close alignment of the state apparatus with the economy created a kind of symbiotic relationship between the Chinese government and science and technology: when the state was strong, innovation thrived. In their essay, ‘The Evolution of Chinese Science and Technology’, Jin Guantao, Fan Dainian, Fan Hongye and Liu Qingfeng cite an example of this in the textile industry – noting that textile technology blossomed during the successful Song period, but then “degenerated as the dynasty collapsed and upheaval and destruction set in.” 
Scholars who attribute the stagnation of the Chinese Industrial Revolution to restrictive state action have been criticized for exhibiting a Eurocentric bias.  While this may be a valid contention, it is important to note the shift in ideology when the Ming Dynasty came to power. “Obedience” and “conformism” have been used to describe key values that prevailed during their rule.  John Hobson attributes the 1434 Ming ban on foreign trade to a return to Confucian principles; he asserts that it was more important for the Ming rulers to maintain the ban in theory in order to retain regime legitimacy, while the ban was loosely enforced in practice.  
One critical difference between the political climate of the technology revolutions in China and Britain was the lack of competition in the Chinese case.  The absence of public debate and a competitive market during the Ming slowed the type of accelerated growth that had been achieved during the Song and that was later seen in the British case. The strong state and its roots in Confucianism also stifled the kinds of scientific experiments that led to significant discoveries later in Europe. Confucianism valued knowledge learned from direct experiences over experiments, going so far as to deem the latter to be “witchcraft.”  The benefits of a system that intertwined science and technology were realized in Britain during the Scientific Revolution. In China, these remained discrete concepts and thus lacked the benefits of this kind of synergetic “feedback” mechanism. 

To answer the original question, was China capable of nurturing its indigenous Industrial Revolution, this essay has raised several points. First, although economic growth remained positive, there was a shift from intensive to extensive growth after the fall of the Song Dynasty, which was significant for the future of technological innovation. When this shift is considered in conjunction with state Confucian ideology, a lack of competition and the limited interaction between scientific methods and technology, China’s ability to maintain the technological strength of the Song Revolution even in the absence of external threats seems relatively weak. 

JC Economics Essays - This short series on JC Economics Essays is a set of shared economics essays on economic development, shared by my former economic history classmates KVL and TZ with me when we were reading our MSc. (Masters of Science) at the London School of Economics (LSE), London, United Kingdom. We shared our economic history essays so that we could gain additional perspectives on how to craft good essays to get a high grade for the Master's degree at LSE, and that was a good way of sharing information and material. All the economic history essays were graded highly by Dr Kent Deng, a very excellent and inspirational tutor and lecturer at the LSE when I was studying there. I hope you find the essays on economic development interesting or useful. Special thanks to KVL and TZ (both from the United States of America) for their kind sharing. Thank you for reading and cheers. 

EH446 Economic Development of East and Southeast Asia

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