Journey to the West...
...or a Slow Boat to China


The Open Empire
Epilogue to the First Edition
Until 1600, China’s economy was more developed than Europe’s. Any European visiting China during the long time span covered by this book would have been impressed by China’s large cities, high-quality textiles, extensive libraries, and sophisticated technology. In his Travels, Marco Polo (or his unnamed informants) describes China’s capital at Hangzhou (which he calls Kinsai) as “without doubt the finest and most splendid city in the world.” In the sixteenth century, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) credited three inventions with transforming the world: printing, gunpowder, and the compass. All had come to Europe from China. ...

A Slow Start to the Industrial Revolution
Starting in 1600, European perceptions of Chinese superiority began to erode. ... In the centuries after 1600 the gap between Europe and China widened, always at China’s expense. By the nineteenth century the European nations commanded military forces far more powerful than Chinese armies, and only China’s size and a series of historical contingencies prevented her from being conquered and colonized. Instead, the European powers — and Japan — carved China up into spheres of influence governed indirectly by foreign powers. (The Open Empire, First Edition, 409)
Why was China so slow to modernize?
The simplest answer is that Europe achieved first a scientific revolution and then an industrial revolution that powered its development to unprecedented levels. So, while China experienced both intensification of agriculture and expansion of commercial networks, its growth paled in comparison to Europe’s. (The Open Empire, First Edition, 409)
Then why did it take China so long to have scientific and industrial revolutions?
I. Population Growth
China’s population began to increase steadily after 1380 when the burden of feeding the population began to weigh more heavily than it ever had in the centuries before the Ming dynasty. ... In China, large family size and continued population growth after 1380 produced an excess of labor. Accordingly, demand for labor-saving devices remained weak. ... In an era of population increase, there was simply no demand for a machine that could save labor. ...
A Surplus of Labor
A Lack of Raw Materials

China had labor — lots of it. What China lacked was a surplus of raw materials that could be processed into manufactured goods. Given the increasing pressure of population, less and less land could be devoted to nonagricultural crops like cotton, and any surplus that might have financed technological innovation was consumed by the growing population. Conditions simply were not ripe for the introduction of labor-saving machinery. (The Open Empire, First Edition, 412)

II. Merchants and Middlemen
In industrializing Europe, merchant-entrepreneurs supplied weavers with machinery and thread that they wove into cloth in their own homes; the merchants returned to collect the woven goods and deliver more supplies. The merchant-entrepreneurs controlled the production process throughout and they could introduce technological innovations at any time.

In China, however, middlemen came between the entrepreneurs and the peasant producers. The middlemen sold the weavers thread and then bought the output of the household. Each household determined the production process. Many layers of middlemen stood between the producers of handicrafts and the entrepreneurs who sold the goods at market. The middlemen made it difficult to transmit innovations between the entrepreneurs and the peasant producers. (The Open Empire, First Edition, 413)

III. Chaos & Order
The Europe that underwent both the scientific and industrial revolutions comprised a number of competing states, which some analysts see as crucial to both revolutions. Military competition among the European states was one spur to innovation. And inventors or scholars who encountered repression in one country could seek refuge in another.
China, on the other hand, was reunified in 1368 and remained so until 1911. ... During the Warring States period, several large kingdoms contested each other for control of the empire. During the first centuries of contact with Buddhist missionaries, the empire was divided into north and south, and it was the non-Chinese rulers of the north who gave Buddhist missionaries their start. And during the crucial centuries of commercial growth, China was divided into two: first a tiny northern section controlled by the Khitans and the huge southern empire of the Song, and then the much larger northern kingdom of the Jurchens and the smaller kingdom of the Southern Song. The enormous tribute payments the Song agreed to pay first the Khitans and then the Jurchen provided a spur to the developing economy and contributed to the dramatic economic growth of the period.
All the observers who lived during these ages of innovation bemoaned the lack of unity and wished for a ruler strong enough to unite the empire. They do not seem to have realized how much vitality resulted from the disunity, from the fighting, and from the ensuing chaos. (The Open Empire, First Edition, 413-4)
The Open Empire
Epilogue to the Second Edition
Why study a country’s history? The usual reason — to understand the present better — verges on the cliché. After all, in most places the past and the present are not that tightly linked. But in the case of China, the past informs everything. ... The point is this: China’s booming economy and dramatic growth today are not at all surprising. They are the logical outcome of the past, a past in which the Chinese were remarkably accepting of innovations, inventions, and ideas coming from outside. The open empire, indeed. (The Open Empire, Second Edition, 419-30)