Quantitative Growth, Qualitative Standstill: China's Economic Situation 1368-1800

by James Graham

In the years between 1368 and 1800 China's economy expanded immensely. Steady compounding growth in China's population was the main driver of this growth. Agriculture, industry and trade thus all increased in absolute terms but stagnated in relative per capita terms. The limits of China's traditional economy, cultural preferences, trade policies and other factors conspired to inhibit any significant improvement in China's qualitative economic situation.


Quantitative growth is in effect growth in a country's gross domestic product (GDP) and qualitative growth an increase in a country's GDP per capita. Quality of life, life expectancy, income distribution and other factors also affect the quality of growth. All are hard to measure and virtually impossible to gauge in a systematic manner for pre- modern China. Thus there are limitations as to how far a qualitative standstill for China can be proved or disproved.

Estimates of China's population increase between 1368 and 1800 vary but there is no doubt that immense but slow growth in the population took place. Ho Ping-ti has calculated China's population in 1398 to be in the vicinity of 65 million people growing to 430 million by 1850. Dwight Perkins in contrast estimates China's population in 1400 at between 65-80 million people growing to 410 million plus or minus 25 million by 1850. Both estimates indicate an approximate five fold increase in China's population for the period 1368-1800. It was this five fold increase in population that fuelled China's quantitative economic growth.

China's economy like most pre-modern economies was agriculturally based with all other sectors either servicing it or drawing materials from it. During the Song dynasty the Chinese developed the world's most productive agricultural system. Mongol domination and the Ming dynasty's rise to power left much of China devastated and parts uninhabited. Economic growth from this low base only required a period of relative stability and semi-competent rule. This rejuvenation would also have improved China's GDP per capita and thus China's standard of living though probably only to levels achieved under the Song dynasty.

The introduction of new crops and new varieties was the major qualitative change in late imperial Chinese agriculture. From Indochina came early ripening rice and Champa varieties that allowed rice to be cultivated in drier fields. The quickest ripening rice took sixty days after transplanting enabling double and even triple cropping of rice providing sufficient labour was available. The fifty and forty day varieties were developed in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries respectively. These extremely quick ripening varieties allowed peasants to survive floods, droughts and failed harvests by planting emergency crops. The development and dissemination of extremely quick ripening rice varieties and their adoption by peasants in marginal areas does however indicate China's rice farming was reaching its saturation point. From the new world China adopted maize, peanuts, sweet and white potatoes and tobacco. The most significant, sweet potatoes had become a staple of the poor in South East and Northern China by 1800. Apart from food crops and tobacco the other foreign crop that had altered Chinese life was cotton. A field planted in cotton could yield up to ten times what China's traditional textile crops of ramie and hemp could yield. New crops improved China's level of output in some cases remarkably but could not change the rate of output growth long term.

Chinese officials spread the most productive of these varieties, crops and the best agricultural techniques around China by publishing numerous nongshu or agricultural manuals. Officials also used taxation breaks, insurance against disaster and other incentives to encourage respected peasants to try new crops. Acceptance of these techniques and crops amongst the peasantry was often rapid once their worth had been demonstrated. Apart from new crops and the spreading of best practice there was no easy way agricultural productivity could be increased.

Aggregate agricultural output was increased by farming existing lands more intensively and by opening up new lands. An increasing population meant more people were available to work a given area. Water control is a good example of this. The more people available the greater the number that can work on and repair dikes and reservoirs. The most beneficial water works are constructed first leading to increasing economies of scale. At a point diminishing returns to scale set in, followed by the achievement of an optimum level of water control with present technology. After this optimum point increased water works results in decreasing levels of agricultural output both per capita and eventually overall as well. This sequence results from increased dike building that eventually leads to an increase in flooding. The same effect also occurs with increased land use within a region. The most productive land is farmed first and as population density increases more marginal farming land is cultivated. This land often consisted of hilltops, swamps and lake reclamations. The farming of these areas leads to increased runoff and the silting up of waterways made smaller by reclamation. Thus floods again increase in their severity and frequency threatening the stability and productivity of the whole region. At this stage people had no choice but to move to relatively sparsely populated and frontier regions where the cycle could reoccur. Consequently a decline in per capita food intake could be avoided only as long as new land was available.

The completion of the Grand Canal in 1411 was an important and impressive event for pre-modern China. At its peak the canal allowed up to 6.2 million piculs of grain per annum to be transported between south China and the North. The Grand Canal however made China's coastal shipping and navy largely redundant. The result was a withering away of China's naval power that coincided with official bans on foreign trade. Impressive inter-regional trade flows did continue and expand within China. Three and a half thousand ships each carrying between 65,000 and 400,000 pounds of cargo made several trips a year between Shanghai and South Manchuria in the late seventeenth century. Southern cotton and tea was exchanged for beans, bean cake fertiliser and wheat in this trade. Significant inter-regional trade allowed different regions to specialise in products they were comparatively good at producing. This specialisation meant production was increasingly produced for the market.

Growth & Standstill in China's Economy 1368-1800

Growth & Standstill in China's Economy 1368-1800 (Part 2)
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