The first emperor and after: analysing Imperial China

Issue: 118

Simon Gilbert

Will Hutton, in his book on China, The Writing on the Wall, writes, “To understand today’s China we need to understand how and why Imperial China succeeded and failed and how it illuminates economic development in the past and present.” Hutton may be overstating the case, but the emergence of China as a global power has increased interest in its earlier history, as evidenced by the crowds flocking to the recent First Emperor exhibition at the British Museum. Unfortunately Hutton doesn’t do a very good job of it. His history is idealist in that he sees historical progress as being essentially caused by the development of ideas—”It’s the Enlightenment, stupid”.1 But is it possible to develop a convincing materialist account taking in both the tremendous cultural and technological developments of Chinese civilisation and its ultimate subordination to Western capitalist interests?

Marxist characterisations of pre-modern Chinese society have tended to oscillate between Marx’s “Asiatic mode of production” and attempts to fit Chinese history into the mould of European feudalism. Others have applied the label “tributary” in an attempt to avoid the inadequacies of both interpretations. But there seems to be no consensus on the nature of the “tributary mode of production”. Samir Amin used it essentially as an alternative name for the Asiatic mode of production, while Chris Wickham used to hold that the tributary mode and feudalism coexisted.2 In neither case does the tributary mode really offer an alternative to the dichotomy between an Asiatic mode and feudalism.

Understanding China’s past is not just about understanding its more recent development, but also serves to better explain how and why capitalism emerged in Europe. But if this is done in terms of a single mode of production, spanning both Europe and China, this must inevitably be very broadly defined, weakening whatever explanatory power the concept may have. By describing Chinese and European history in terms of two distinct modes of production, while avoiding the excessive generalisation of the Asiatic mode of production, a clearer picture of both can be drawn.

The History of Chinese History

Perry Anderson effectively wrote the obituary of Marx’s Asiatic mode in 1974.3 In Marx’s day, as now, an understanding of ancient Chinese history was not the most pressing concern, and Marx’s writings on the Asiatic mode are fragmentary and ill informed. As Anderson notes, the two central phenomena of the Asiatic mode, state ownership of land and large scale hydraulic works, seldom occurred together. In China, for instance, contrary to Marx’s assumptions, most land was privately owned. In Marx’s view Asiatic societies were stagnant relics of the past and the Asiatic mode could encompass societies as diverse as ancient Egypt and 19th century China.

It is hard to disagree with Anderson’s conclusion that the Asiatic mode “be given the decent burial that it deserves”. However, the corpse periodically comes back to life because the alternative view of China’s past, as a variant of European feudalism, is equally unpalatable.

This view arose out of the 1920s and 1930s “social history controversy” in China.4 This was a period of intense social and political struggle, and historians entered the fray on behalf of the various political parties. Unfortunately their conclusions owed more to contemporary political requirements than to historical reality.

The Communists’ position—that China followed the pattern of European history, changing from a slave society to a feudal one in the 3rd century BC—justified limiting the revolution to the overthrow of a “feudal” ruling class in alliance with “progressive” sections of the bourgeoisie. With the Communist victory in 1949, this position inevitably became the dominant dogma.

However, it does not withstand even the most cursory examination. Slavery undoubtedly existed in ancient China, and was only formally abolished with the overthrow of the last emperor in 1911. But it was never the dominant form of production in the sense that Geoffrey de Ste Croix has persuasively argued that it was in ancient Greece and Rome.5 Chinese slaves were far fewer in number, generally performed household duties for the wealthy and were seldom involved in agricultural production.

The feudal label does not fit the social structure of Imperial China either. Land was not state owned, but neither was it dominated by a landed aristocracy on the scale of feudal Europe. Chinese landlords were always subordinate to a state bureaucracy that constantly sought to limit the size of landholdings and hence the landlords’ political power.

The most thoroughgoing attempt to apply the Marxist method and elements of Marx’s Asiatic mode to China was undertaken by K A Wittfogel in the 1930s. For Wittfogel, the development of the peculiarly Chinese bureaucratic state was bound up with the necessity of large-scale water control in much of North China. This gave rise to a new bureaucratic ruling class of non-hereditary officials.6 Wittfogel, unlike Marx, developed an understanding of Chinese history based on a detailed investigation of specifically Chinese conditions. However, he still referred to it as an “Asiatic system of production” which resulted in “stagnation”. He later abandoned Marxism to become a cold warrior, taking his ideas to ridiculous extremes in his book Oriental Despotism.7 Unfortunately, this easily dismissed work is the one by which he is best known in the English speaking world.

If the Asiatic mode has to be rejected as a whole, Marx nevertheless had a couple of key insights: the centrality of water control to Chinese agriculture and the possibility of the state bureaucracy forming a ruling class. There is less meat to be picked from the bones of the Chinese controversies, but it is worth noting that all parties took it for granted that the period culminating in the ascendancy of the first emperor in 221 BC represented a transition from one form of society to another.

From these elements it is possible to outline an alternative synthesis that more adequately describes the course of Chinese history, and hopefully sheds more light on the reasons for Europe’s very different trajectory.

Plough and studies

At the top of Chinese society were the emperor and the higher ranking government officials. While the emperor’s position was hereditary, those of the officials were not. They were, in theory at least, appointed on merit. The prestige as well as the rewards of government service were enormous, and appointment to office could dramatically change a person’s prospects and social standing. One character in the 18th century satirical novel The Scholars found that on passing the qualifying examinations “local people who were no relations of his claimed relationship, and perfect strangers claimed acquaintanceship”.8 The prestige of the official was an indicator of his position as a representative of the ruling state bureaucracy.

The bureaucratic state is best understood not as an instrument of the rule of a private landowning class, but as a ruling class in its own right. While a disproportionate number of state officials came from the wealthier sections of society, the bureaucracy developed its own interests often in conflict with those of private landlords. A series of measures were adopted to limit the power of private landholders and to insulate officials from any specific landed interests.

The most obvious of these was the abolition of primogeniture. In feudal Europe the eldest son would inherit all his father’s land, allowing the aristocracy to build up vast estates. In China the inheritance was shared by all male offspring, and consequently landholdings were continually fragmented. When this was not enough the state would occasionally forcibly break up larger estates. To prevent the formation of local power blocks, officials were not allowed to serve in their native areas, or in areas where close relatives had been or were officials.9

During the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), selection for office was achieved by a system of recommendation by existing officials. This was clearly open to abuse. As the central power waned, the “system came to be more and more abused until it simply became a useful tool by which the powerful clans could perpetuate themselves”.10 When the empire was reunited, after more than 300 years of division, the Tang dynasty (618-907) introduced examinations for prospective officials. This system, where candidates were expected to display an in-depth knowledge of Confucian classics, became one of the defining features of Chinese civilisation and continued until 1905.

Ho has shown that, although it was certainly easier for the sons of the wealthiest families to devote time to study, they formed only a minority of successful candidates. This was particularly true of the Ming period (1368-1644), when only 7 percent of Jinshi, the highest examination level, came from established scholar families, with 64 percent coming from the broad category min, or “people”.11 Not a few high officials came from artisan families, and cases of farmers combining “plough and studies” to become high officials were by no means unknown.12 These opportunities narrowed somewhat during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) as positions were sold to those who could afford them, but until the last few decades the majority of officials always came through the examination system.

The effect of all this was to produce a stable class with a constantly changing membership. Indeed there seems to have been a common pattern of humble families producing successful candidates over several generations and growing in status, only for their descendants to squander the family’s new found fortune. In one extreme case, the direct descendants of a high official were, seven generations later, illiterate peasants.13

Unlike the feudal aristocracy in Europe, the bureaucratic ruling class of China did not depend on direct ownership of land to monopolise the surplus, but on their control of the state. So, while most land was subject to a uniform land tax, land ownership could take a variety of forms ranging from landless labourers to absentee landlords.

But large-scale landholdings were unusual: “By far the largest category of landholders in the early Sung were independent smallholders” and “in the 17th century Yangtze Delta, really large landowners were rare and probably three quarters of the land was owned by medium landowners or smallholders”.14 It was not uncommon for small-scale land owners to farm some of their land and rent the rest out, or for those with plots too small to feed a family to rent additional land.

If Chinese landlords were much smaller scale than their European counterparts, relations with their tenants were also very different. Because of the constant division of land, larger holdings tended to be fragmented. So, Kang Chao suggests, tenants must often have rented from more than one landlord, giving them a degree of independence from each.15 In some places tenancies could be bought and sold without the approval of the landowner.16 The relative strength of the tenants’ position is indicated by the high levels of rent default.

Payment of rent was essentially the only obligation of the tenant to the landlord. Labour obligations were to the state in the form of the periodic corvée—compulsory public labour performed outside the crucial sowing and harvesting seasons. It was the landowner, however, who was responsible for paying the land tax. If, as Wickham suggested, Chinese society incorporated feudal and tributary modes of production side by side, then a tenant farmer paying rent to a landlord, who in turn paid the land tax to the state, must have been in the absurd position of simultaneously taking part in both.17

Although the victory of the Qin in 221 BC and its consolidation by the Han had decisively defeated the earlier aristocracy, replacing it as the ruling class, they could not prevent the periodic re-emergence of a landlord class. While the absence of primogeniture reduced the possibilities for the accumulation of large landholdings, it could not entirely eliminate it. This phenomenon played a role in the cyclical downfall of dynasties.

For instance, Emperor Wu of Han in the first century BC forcibly broke up the larger estates and removed many landlords from government positions. However, in the later Han the system of governmental appointments allowed powerful families to regain their positions and accumulate land at the expense of the peasantry. Consequently, the tax base of the regime was reduced and the dynasty eventually collapsed in AD 220.18 This tendency was reduced in later dynasties by the introduction of the examination system and other measures, but it could not be eliminated altogether.

The benefits of water

The theory that a particular form of class society, the bureaucratic state that arose in China, derived from the need for large-scale water control is almost universally rejected these days. This is usually done by knocking down a straw man version of the theory, in which the bureaucratic state supposedly attained and maintained power through its ownership of irrigation works. But a much stronger case is based on the necessity of comprehensive water management on a scale that only the state is capable of.

The geography of China means that effective agricultural production is inconceivable without large-scale water control, putting a premium on governmental centralisation. As Needham put it:

The geo-climatic conditions of China exerted an irresistible influence on Chinese society in the direction of strengthening centralised government. The simple reason for this was that any effective treatment of the engineering problems set by the rivers, and the desired intercommunication between watercourses, tended at every stage to cross the boundaries of the smaller feudal units.19

These massive public works also required a huge mobilisation of labour, provided by the corvée system. This would not be possible if the peasant farmers were attached to individual lordly estates. The advent of private, and ideally small-scale, land ownership was a crucial factor in the rise of the bureaucratic state in the mid-first millennium BC.20

Chi has argued that in China “almost all the major regions demand water control in one form or another as a basis of agricultural development”.21 In the south, where there is an abundant supply of water, irrigation works could be constructed and maintained by small groups.22 But in the Yellow River basin the water supply varied enormously from year to year and flood control was the key issue. “On the north China plain the dikes containing the Yellow River were all that separated farmers from disaster, even when the level of the river was normal”.23 The extensive canal system, which developed along with the bureaucratic state, was also essential to the state’s procurement of the bulk of the agricultural surplus in the form of grain tax.

One of the earliest sites of Chinese agriculture was in the loess highlands of the north west. The loess, a highly fertile soil blown in from the Gobi desert, required irrigation for effective cultivation, but not necessarily on a large scale. Lattimore has argued that expansion into the great plain of the Yellow River required social organisation on a far larger scale.24 It is perhaps no coincidence then that the centres of the earliest civilisations, Erlitou and the Shang (c1600-c1050 BC) capital of Anyang, both lie on the threshold of the river’s emergence from the mountains into the plain.

However, this long predates the advent of the bureaucratic empire, and so the need for water control may not have been the initial cause of bureaucratic government. Perhaps, as Gernet suggests, the intense fighting of the pre-bureaucratic period, aptly known in Chinese history as the Warring States, made more efficient government essential.25 However, once established, the successful bureaucracies were able to use their power to mobilise labour for large-scale hydraulic projects, increasing the economic and hence military performance of their states and giving further impetus to their own development.

The Qin state, in which bureaucratisation went furthest, constructed two huge irrigation projects in the 3rd century BC, the Zhengguo canal in the Qin homeland (modern day Shaanxi) and the Dujiangyan irrigation works in the newly conquered Shu territory (modern day Sichuan). Incredibly, both are still in use today.26

The Han historian Sima Qian well understood their significance to Qin’s ultimate victory in establishing the first empire: “Consequently [on the construction of Zhengguo canal] Guanzhong became a fertile country without bad years. Qin thus grew rich and powerful, and finally conquered all other feudal states”.27 Following the establishment of the empire there was a steep rise in the number of water control projects during the Han dynasty.28

Warring States

The dominance of the bureaucratic state was the ultimate product of an intense period of class conflict within a prior form of class society. This earlier period actually has more in common with European feudalism than the later one, characterised as it was by a myriad of aristocratic fiefdoms. Many historians in fact refer to this as China’s feudal era.

The fiefdoms were created following the victory of the Zhou over the Shang in 1050 BC, as rewards to the kin and followers of the Zhou monarch. In the following centuries the growth of agricultural production and the increasingly distant kinship relations tended to make the fiefdoms more independent. Following the Zhou court’s forced move eastward under pressure from invading “barbarian” forces from the west in 771 BC, Zhou rule became a fiction. The fiefdoms were effectively independent states, while continuing to pay formal fealty to the Zhou king. Consequently this political fragmentation was accompanied by a relatively homogenous culture.

The period immediately preceding the establishment of the empire clearly fits Marx’s description of an “epoch of social revolution” caused by the conflict between the developing forces of production and “the existing relations of production”, marking the struggle of a new order to overthrow the old one.29 The period lasted several hundred years and was characterised more by war than social revolution as we would understand it today. In the course of the fighting the numerous states of the earlier Spring and Autumn period were reduced to seven by the start of the Warring States and, of course, to one by its end.

These inter-state struggles are by far the most widely recognised aspect of the period, but there were two other dimensions of conflict: bitter, fratricidal infighting within the ruling aristocracy, and a class struggle between them and the emerging bureaucratic classes. The tone of the period was captured by the Han dynasty writer Liu Xiang:

They were greedy and shameless. They competed without satiety. The states differed in their politics and in their teachings, each making their own decisions. It can be said that there was no Son of Heaven above and there were no local lords down below. Everything was achieved through physical force and the victorious was the noble. Military activities were incessant and deceit and falsehoods came hand in hand.30

During this period the nature of warfare changed fundamentally, from aristocratic charioteering bound by rules of chivalry to the mass mobilisation of peasant infantry. To be effective the states needed to become more centralised and better organised, making use of more able administrators. But the interests of these increasingly important officials ran up against the hereditary privileges of the aristocracy. In the core states aristocratic power was entrenched and able to resist the challenge. In the more peripheral states, particularly Chu in the south and Qin in the west, the aristocracy was not well established and bureaucracy triumphed. Consequently the core states declined, while Chu and Qin became increasingly dominant.

Like many such periods in world history, the enormous upheavals of the Spring and Autumn, and Warring States led to a flourishing of new ideas. According to the Chinese phrase, a “hundred schools of thought” contended. With the exception of Buddhism, a later import from India, all the major ideologies in Chinese history had their origins at this time.

If the emergence of new ideas was in part a reaction to the turmoil of war and an attempt to offer solutions, it also reflected the emergence of new social forces. Confucius, who lived during the Spring and Autumn period, was on the surface a very conservative figure, looking back to a mythical golden age. But in advocating government by those most able, irrespective of social background, he anticipated the changes to come.

Under the Han, Confucianism became the ideology of the bureaucracy, but other strands of thought lived on too. Feudal Europe with its “centrifugal state” required a centralising ideology, in the form of the Catholic church, which demanded unquestioning obedience.31 In complete contrast, the centralised Chinese state could tolerate a variety of ideologies, particularly Daoism and Buddhism, as long as they did not become too powerful. China never had a dominant religious orthodoxy.

Change within tradition

Over a large part of human history Chinese civilisation was peerless, scientifically and culturally far ahead of Europe. How was it then that Europe, and not China, gave birth to capitalism? Or, in Tawney’s vivid phrase, why was it that “China ploughed with iron when Europe used wood, and continued to plough with it when Europe used steel”?32

The commonly held view that China stagnated in the later dynasties, the Ming and Qing, is contradicted by one stubborn and remarkable fact: the Chinese population, which grew only modestly in the 1,400 or so years from the Han to the Yuan (1271-1368), multiplied approximately six-fold between 1400 and 1800.33

Alex Callinicos, following Wickham, sees the “tributary” nature of the Chinese state as the problem. So the European feudal lords’ “involvement in production to a greater degree than the state bureaucracy of tributary society contributed to the considerable advance in agricultural output and productivity that unfolded between the 10th and 13th centuries, making possible the growth of trade and of urban life”.34 However, Bray estimates that northern Chinese agricultural productivity in the middle of the first millennium was “far higher than anything northern Europe had to offer before 1600”.35

The state’s dependence on the land tax meant that “in this predominantly agricultural society it was natural that the government should concern itself deeply with matters of the soil, like the distribution of seed in times of shortage, the dissemination of farming techniques, and the organisation of irrigation works and flood control”.36 Consequently, “Chinese expertise in agriculture, as in many other branches of knowledge, still rivalled and surpassed anything known in the west when the Jesuits arrived at the Ming court”.37

It is true that the Tang and Song (960-1127) are often seen as the high point of Chinese cultural and technological development. Liang Ssu-ch’eng in his history of architecture, for instance, refers approvingly to the earlier “period of vigour” and less favourably to the later “period of rigidity”.38 The Ming and Qing certainly saw less innovation in the sort of labour saving technologies associated with the rise of European capitalism— what we might call “hard” technologies as, being made of wood and metal, they leave obvious archaeological evidence. However, the problem facing China from around the 13th century was not primarily labour shortage, but land shortage. And the Chinese showed remarkable ingenuity in finding ways to feed their expanding population. These consisted in part of opening new land to farming, and in part of increasing land productivity by the use of “soft” technologies, such as improved seed grains that allowed multi-cropping, the increased use of fertiliser and the spread of new, more productive crops. The opening of new lands also demanded increased productivity as these tended to be the less fertile areas that had not previously been considered worth cultivating.39

So, Bray suggests, “it is certainly true that Chinese crop characteristics, together with the Chinese farmer’s attention to economical sowing and careful tending of each plant, generally produced far higher rates of return than were normal in Europe before the agricultural revolution”.40 The ratio of harvested to seed grain in China was commonly 20 or 30 to one, as opposed to three or four to one in mediaeval Europe.41 This was not therefore a period of “technological and economic stagnation. Not only did agricultural productivity manage to keep pace with rapid increases in population, but local industries and trade expanded”.42

The structure of Chinese society, as well as the more explicit actions of the state, did, however, act to restrict the possibilities for the development of capitalist agriculture and commerce, so preventing the emergence of an independent bourgeoisie on the European model.

There have been numerous studies of the growth of trade, particularly in the Song dynasty, often seen as the high point of commercialisation in China. But this was an exceptional period, especially after the northern part of the empire was overrun by the Mongols, and the court fled south, establishing its capital, for the first and only time, in a port city, Hangzhou.

The vast majority of trade was local, so “the commercialised part of agricultural production circulated for the most part within a radius of several dozen kilometres”.43 Foreign trade was “essentially exotic in character”, providing luxury goods for the ruling class, and utterly peripheral to the agricultural economy. The brief flirtation with exploration in the amazing voyages of Zheng He in the early Ming was subsequently abandoned, to the bemusement of many western writers. But the reason is clear: they were exorbitantly expensive and offered little of benefit to the ruling class. What trade existed, was of more interest to those on the western than the eastern end. The Qing emperor Qianlong famously rebuffed British trade envoys, declaring, “We possess all things” and “have no use for your country’s manufactures”.44 Most European imports from China had to be paid for in silver.45

Some of the most lucrative trades were long run as state monopolies, salt and tea for instance. Buying the right to trade in one of these could provide a lucrative income, but offered little opportunity for expansion.46 Private merchants were licensed by the state, dependent on the support of local officials. Merchants and businesses were seen as sources of tax income by the government. It also seems likely that the pressing need to use land for food reduced the area available for cash crops in the latter part of the Qing. Cotton production, for example, declined in Northern China at this time.47

Successful merchants, for reasons of security and prestige, sought to invest their fortunes in land and official positions, becoming a part of the system rather than challenging it. So commercialisation resulted in “change within tradition”, not the development of fundamentally new ways of thinking and acting.48 In any case, “there is no natural or irresistible movement from commercial development to industrialisation”, or indeed to capitalism of any sort, as Harman points out.49

Xu and Wu make a similar point, but they do identify some cases of “embryonic capitalism”.50 The development of capitalism in Europe involved a symbiotic relationship between the more dynamic towns and an agrarian sector which in supplying urban needs itself became increasingly commercial. “Capitalism began to emerge…as a network of productive units in both handicrafts…and agricultural production…bound together by the activity of a section of merchant capital”.51 In an overwhelmingly rural society such as China’s, it is impossible to imagine the emergence of a new mode of production sufficiently developed to push aside the old one without it taking over a major part of agriculture. Yet it was in this sector that “embryonic capitalism” was at its weakest.

As the area of land per head decreased, handicraft production became an increasingly important subsidiary source of income for the peasant family, as captured in the saying “The men till and the women weave”. But hired labour could hardly compete with this unpaid home production. With the exception of silk, “only a minute proportion of the handicraft industries” could be considered capitalist and “no system of merchant contractors controlling household labour seems to have existed”.52

The emergent bourgeoisie of Europe challenged the feudal order in many ways, ideologically and culturally, as well as politically and militarily. But in China “the artisans and merchants of the towns had no power base and knew nothing of self-government; their social status was low and they had to look to officials…for protection”.53 The periodic wars and rebellions threatened only the individuals who ran the system, not the system itself. There was no upsurge of ideological unorthodoxy akin to the development of Protestantism. The history of Chinese art is characterised by the gentle rise and fall of fashion, not the abrupt intrusion of a renaissance, the one partial exception being the development of a vernacular literature, a development associated with the growth of a literate urban population, but hardly a sign of a self-confident bourgeoisie. In fact, Hu Shi identified a circular process whereby each new development in Chinese literature began with the common people and was taken up and refined by the educated elite, only to decline into “blind imitation and conservative solidification”.54

If capitalism could not develop within Chinese society, neither could it be ushered in by a revolution from above, as happened with the Meiji restoration in Japan. The attempt to build an industrial base in response to Western intrusions, through the “self-strengthening” movement, only provided another source of income for increasingly corrupt officials. While the belated attempt at change from above in 1898 went down in history as “the hundred days of reform”, that was how long it took the resistance of officialdom, led by the empress dowager Cixi, to break the lukewarm support of the emperor. The reforms’ leading advocate, Kang Youwei, fled for his life to Japan.

Unlike its Chinese counterpart, the Japanese ruling class was based on large-scale landed estates. So a sufficiently large section of it could hope to preserve at least some of its privileges, while removing the old order and bringing in the modernising reforms that would preserve the country’s independence. In China the vested interests of the vast majority of bureaucrats were dependent on the existence of the empire. So they continued to resist change even as the ship of state was sinking beneath them.


Harman, following Tony Cliff, has argued that the character of a mode of production cannot be deduced simply from “the mode of appropriation or the mode of recruitment of the ruling class”. Rather a more holistic definition is required that encompasses “the economic laws of motion of the system…its inherent contradictions and the motivation of the class struggle”. So “it can only be correct to identify tax-based exploitation of the peasantry as constituting a different mode of production if it results in a fundamentally different dynamic to society”. If such societies display a similar dynamic to feudalism, they should be characterised as feudal.55

Through its promotion of agriculture as the source of its income, the bureaucratic empire of China was able to continue to develop the forces of production over more than 2,000 years. But the inherent contradiction between state control of the surplus and private ownership of land led to repeated crises. The centrality of large-scale water control to agriculture made these crises as damaging to the landlords as they were to the state, so they could not remake society in their own image. At the same time, the bureaucratic empire prevented the emergence of a bourgeois class with even minimal independence. So the rebellions that punctuated Chinese history in times of dynastic crisis did not offer the least suggestion of a systemic alternative. When successful, they always resulted in the renewal of the bureaucratic state, able to further develop production for another period.

Despite superficial similarities, there were crucial differences between Chinese bureaucratic government and the absolutist regimes of late feudal Europe. The absolutist monarchs emerged out of feudal society and remained dependent on feudal exploitation. While they could for a period use the new financial might of the emerging bourgeoisie as a counterweight to the power of the great aristocratic lords, ultimately they fought to the death attempting to preserve the feudal order. The struggles between the Chinese bureaucracy and the larger landholders were of a different order, a fight between two distinct classes with very different interests. If anything, the fall of the Qing, by removing the restraining hand of the bureaucracy, increased the power of the landlords over their tenants.

The fundamental reasons for China’s distinctive historical path are geographic: the centrality of water control to agriculture, but also its isolation from the world’s other great civilisations. Wickham rails against claims “for the historical uniqueness of specific areas”.56 But there are good reasons for seeing China as a special case. For a start its population accounted for around a third of the world’s total as late as the 18th century. More importantly, the Himalayas and the deserts and mountain ranges to the north effectively reduced to an indirect trickle contact with any civilisation that could be considered a peer or competitor. So China was “isolated on the west by mountain barriers, and on the east in contact with civilisations inferior to her own, to whom she gave, and was conscious of giving, more than she received”.57

This particularly Chinese mode of production could, at the time of the European Middle Ages, raise its civilisation to new heights. But it proved to be a historical dead end, unable either to resist the 19th century European invasions or to develop the social forces that could give birth to a new order. So Harman’s analogy with a sea wall that crumbles at its weakest point but is under assault along its length aptly describes late feudal Europe, but does not seem appropriate for China.58 The nature of China’s mode of production effectively precluded the development of a capitalist class capable of challenging the old order in this way.


1: Hutton, 2006.

2: Amin, 1976; Wickham, 1985. Wickham has since changed his view.

3: Anderson, 1974.

4: Dirlik, 1974.

5: Ste Croix, 1981.

6: Wittfogel, 1934.

7: Wittfogel, 1957.

8: Wu, 1957, p28.

9: Dawson, 2005, p44.

10: Ho, 1964, p11.

11: Ho, 1964, p70.

12: Ho, 1964, p58, pp74-76.

13: Ho, 1964, p146.

14: Bray, 1984, pp605, 608.

15: Chao, 1981.

16: Bray, 1984, p606.

17: Wickham, 1985.

18: Hsu, 1980.

19: Needham, 1995, p192.

20: Needham, 1995, pp192-193.

21: Chi, 1936, p12.

22: Bray, 1984, p108.

23: Perkins, 1969, p187.

24: Lattimore, 1962, pp34-35.

25: Gernet, 1982, p63.

26: Needham, 1995, pp198-212.

27: The Shiji (historical records) quoted in Hsu, 1980.

28: Chi, 1936, p36.

29: Marx, 1976, p3.

30: Quoted in Li, 1985, p7.

31: Anderson, 1974, p152.

32: Tawney, 1966, p11.

33: Perkins, 1969, p24.

34: Callinicos, 1995, p175.

35: Bray, 1984, p58.

36: Dawson, 2005, p22.

37: Bray, 1984, p555.

38: Liang, 2001.

39: Perkins, 1969.

40: Bray, 1984, p287.

41: Bray, 1984, p7.

42: Bray, 1984, p603.

43: Bergere, 1984, p330.

44: Quoted in Ebrey, 1996 p236.

45: Pomeranz, 2000, p159.

46: Ho, 1964, p161.

47: Pomeranz, 2000, p125.

48: Kracke, 1955.

49: Perkins, 1967, p485; Harman, 2004, p60.

50: Xu and Wu, 2000.

51: Harman, 1989, p70.

52: Xu and Wu, 2000, p375-379.

53: Xu and Wu, 2000, p389.

54: Hu, 2001, p327.

55: Harman, 2004, p85.

56: Wickham, 1985.

57: Tawney, 1966, p20.

58: Harman, 2007.


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