Article

Medieval Economic Revolution

Kent G. Deng

in Chinese Studies

ISBN: 9780199920082
Published online April 2013 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0020
Medieval Economic Revolution

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In China’s historical context, the term “medieval” was unmistakably borrowed from European history in as late as the 20th century. It has, however, remained questionable whether this Eurocentric unilinear logic really ever conveniently suited China. Even so, a serious historian may still make do with the term to capture what was going on in China from the Sui until the early Ming, from 581 to c. 1500 across a span close to a millennium, or anything in between. The beginning was marked by the construction of the Grand Canal, over one thousand miles long, during the Sui (581–618), which linked for the first time China’s three major river systems, and hence the three most productive regions, together: the Yellow, Huai, and Yangzi valleys. During the early Ming, China maintained an undisputed first-class sea power in the world. It was a period when private education, secular literature, meritocratic bureaucracy, novel technology and new production, degrees and commercialization, urbanization, and so forth reached an unprecedented height on the East Asian mainland. During this long period, the importance of Tang-Song growth and development loomed large. So much so, the Song period was coined in the 1980s by the world economic historian Eric L. Jones, in his book The European Miracle, as the first recorded intensive growth in Eurasian history. However, the term “revolution” was first used by Shiba Yoshinobu (斯波義信), the Japanese historian of China, to describe commercial growth under the Song, in his 1970 monograph Commerce and Society in Sung China. In reality, what happed was not just economic. It was a wide range of new achievements in institutions, science and technology, production, and market exchanges. Most unfortunately, however, Song growth and development, remarkable as it was, was brutally interrupted by the invading Mongols in the 13th century, who ran sociopolitical and economic systems that were distinctively different from those of the Song. The Mongol rule of China was very short, but the damage was done. Although during the following Ming period (1368–1644) some residual effects of the Song revolution were still detectable, it was marked by a quite different growth trajectory along the line of physiocracy. China’s medieval economic revolution never repeated itself. Such turns and twists in China’s fortunes through history underlie the Great Divergence debate.

Article.  6342 words. 

Subjects: East Asian Studies ; Asian History ; East Asian Philosophy ; East Asian Religions

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