Book Review: Economic History of China

von Glahn, Richard. The Economic History of China: From Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century (2016) Kindle edition.

It is rare that I stumble onto an academic book, start reading, and say, “Where have you been all my life?” This is one of those few books. Richard von Glahn’s magisterial economic history of China ties together land use, the political economy, religion, military history, and trade in a highly readable narrative that will appeal to the Sinologist and interested lay-reader alike. Well-written footnotes, good maps, and useful tables and charts in a very well formatted e-book make this a useful tool for those looking for more detailed information or with access to the wide variety of sources, while the readable style makes it accessible for non specialists.

Von Glahn’s thesis is that Chinese economic history has more continuities than the usual historiography has suggested. Certain practices, patterns, and traditions trace back to the Shang Dynasty, and economics and land-use patterns that took shape in the late Zhou and Han dynasties continued, with some modifications, until the 1800s. The author marshals his arguments and material well, and the book presents a clear narrative of land distribution and use, the growth and shifts of the money economy within China and the effects of bullion imports and exports, internal and external trade, and the differences between Chinese and Western practices. Even things that look similar on the surface, such as joint ownership of businesses, came about for different reasons and was used for different purposes. Contracts, critical to business success, took the place of a corpus of incorporation and business law that developed in western Europe.

Von Glahn draws on Chinese and Japanese language as well as English and French sources. This allows him to present ideas and theories not usually found in English-language literature, and he spends a great deal of time in the Introduction laying out his reasons and the competing historiographies of Chinese economic history. Non-specialists could easily skip this section, but it is intriguing to follow the different schools of thought.

The footnotes are hot-linked, both to the reference in the page and to the bibliography. This is a welcome feature for those (like me) who read footnotes and want to cross-check titles with “maybe I could find this used).” The maps are clear and easy to find, and the tables can be enlarged and shifted around as needed. The footnotes are at the end of each chapter and are easily skip-able.

The Amazon sales matter claimed that this is the first survey history of the economy of China to cover such a broad span of time. Although not a Sinologist (student or specialist in Chinese history), I cannot recall seeing a general history before now. That alone makes this a valuable work for researchers and readers. The enormous variety of sources and the clarity of writing just add to the value.

That said, this is not a book for people without some basic knowledge of Chinese history. And if you are interested in cultural aspects such as art, or the role of women, or the silk industry, this is not your book. I’d recommend at least a passing familiarity with the broad overview of China’s past, such as can be found in a decent textbook or summary history. Without that general mental outline, trying to keep track of some things would be difficult because the book is not strictly chronological. And you might want to have a map on hand for general reference. However, a reader completely new to Chinese history could follow along quite well, just slowly and with some flipping back and forth to keep track of who is where and which dynasty did what.

In short, Von Glahn has written the book I wish I’d had years ago. It is one that I will turn back to frequently for references and economic information about China. It is also a model of what a survey history should be but so rarely is. No, it is not inexpensive, even for the e-version. For my purposes, it is worth the cost, and I may end up getting a print copy as well at some point. It’s not going to be for everyone, but if you are interested in China, in the economic history of Asia, or comparisons between the western economic model and how the Chinese came to similar practices for very different reasons and in a different atmosphere, this is a fantastic book. Highly recommend.

Note: I purchased this book for my own use and received no benefit or consideration from either author or publisher.

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: Economic History of China

  1. Economic history is a fascinating angle on societies, cultures and civilizations. I did it to second-year level in my first University degree, and was struck by how many blanks it filled in on the otherwise confusing canvas of history (which was one of my two major subjects). It explains a great deal that simply isn’t comprehensible from any other perspective.

    It also influences my science fiction to a very large extent. Far too many SF books seem to think that space commerce will trade in things like foods, raw materials like oil or hardwood, and so on. They completely ignore the economic impact of the ‘gravity well’, which makes shipping anything up to or down from orbit prohibitively expensive, unless its market value is so high as to make the additional transportation costs bearable (even negligible). In any space-based economy, raw materials will have to be found, processed and fabricated in space rather than on a planet. There’s no other way to make it work. Similarly, goods shipped up and down the gravity well will have to be premium products (or passengers) that can justify (and pay for) the additional cost involved.

    I’ll give this book a try. Thanks for the review!

    • You’re welcome! This and Robert B. Marks _China: Its Environment and History_ are now my go-to reference books for teaching basic Chinese history, a bit like _God’s Chinese Son_ is still THE history of the Taiping Rebellion.

  2. That book actually sounds very interesting. I’ve never read a national-scale economic history, but for transportation history some of the best works I’ve found in certain areas have been economic histories. The best chronicle I’ve found of several subsections of American railroad history (e.g. electric interurban railways and narrow gauge railroads) and of river steamboats have been economic histories.

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