Street barber in Hanko

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: ““China did not have a single central market during the Qing dynasty (Shanghai, for example, was just a small town until the late 1800s), but it was big enough to have many important markets and goods moving amongst them. Some goods — particularly specialty items — moved across great distances. Medicinal herbs from the mountains in West China moved East, where they were used for medicines and salves. Cotton moved from North China to cotton weavers in Central China. Rice moved in much more localized markets because of its bulk and because it was readily available in many places. But where there was a market for a certain product, Chinese merchants were there to create the facility to move the product. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Madeleine Zelin, Consultant learn.columbia.edu/nanxuntu]

“Farming Economy with Proliferation of Markets: China’s economy during the Qing dynasty was still largely a farming economy. Eighty percent of the population lived in the countryside at the end of the Qing dynasty, and most people had some relationship to farming or to something that was a byproduct of farming. So China at this time does not fit the image of a modern industrial economy. On the other hand, China was a place where, by the late Ming dynasty and into the Qing dynasty, there was a proliferation of markets. Approximately eighty percent of the population lived within a day's journey of a market town and could take some of their produce to the market and become involved in marketing activities.

“Taxes Paid in Money: “During the Qing period, all Chinese people had to pay part of their taxes to the government in money (usually copper coins or silver) as opposed to goods-in-kind. This meant that the farmers, especially, had to sell what they produced in order to acquire currency for their taxes. In fact, one could say that the Qing government's tax policy was one of the factors that pushed economic growth in China during this time.

Also see Sections on China in the 18th, 19th and early 20th Centuries

Website on the Ming Dynasty Ming Studies mingstudies.arts.ubc.ca; Qing Dynasty Explained drben.net/ChinaReport ; Recording of Grandeur of Qing learn.columbia.edu Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Zheng He and Early Chinese Exploration : Wikipedia Chinese Exploration Wikipedia ; Le Monde Diplomatique mondediplo.com ; Zheng He Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Gavin Menzies’s 1421 1421.tv Websites on the Qing Dynasty Wikipedia Wikipedia ;

Commercial Activities During the Qing Dynasty

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “From the middle of the seventeenth century on, commercial activities, especially along the coast, continued to increase and we find gentry families who equip sons who were unwilling or not capable to study and to enter the ranks of the officials, but who were too unruly to sit in villages and collect the rent from the tenants of the family, with money to enter business. The newly settled areas of Guangdong and Guangxi were ideal places for them: here they could sell Chinese products to the native tribes or to the new settlers at high prices. Some of these men introduced new techniques from the old provinces of China into the "colonial" areas and set up dye factories, textile factories, etc., in the new towns of the south. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

But the greatest stimulus for these commercial activities was foreign, European trade. American silver which had flooded Europe in the sixteenth century, began to flow into China from the beginning of the seventeenth century on. The influx was stopped not until between 1661 and 1684 when the government again prohibited coastal shipping and removed coastal settlements into the interior in order to stop piracy along the coasts of Fujian and independence movements on Formosa. But even during these twenty-three years, the price of silver was so low that home production was given up because it did not pay off. In the eighteenth century, silver again continued to enter China, while silk and tea were exported. This demand led to a strong rise in the prices of silk and tea, and benefited the merchants. When, from the late eighteenth century on, opium began to be imported, the silver left China again. The merchants profited this time from the opium trade, but farmers had to suffer: the price of silver went up, and taxes had to be paid in silver, while farm products were sold for copper. By 1835, the ounce of silver had a value of 2,000 copper coins instead of one thousand before 1800. High gains in commerce prevented investment in industries, because they would give lower and later profits than commerce. From the nineteenth century on, more and more industrial goods were offered by importers which also prevented industrialization.

Finally, the gentry basically remained anti-industrial and anti-business. They tried to operate necessary enterprises such as mining, melting, porcelain production as far as possible as government establishments; but as the operators were officials, they were not too business-minded and these enterprises did not develop well. The businessmen certainly had enough capital, but they invested it in land instead of investing it in industries which could at any moment be taken away by the government, controlled by the officials or forced to sell at set prices, and which were always subject to exploitation by dishonest officials. A businessman felt secure only when he had invested in land, when he had received an official title upon the payment of large sums of money, or when he succeeded to push at least one of his sons into the government bureaucracy. No doubt, in spite of all this, Chinese business and industry kept on developing in the Manchu time, but they did not develop at such a speed as to transform the country from an agrarian into a modern industrial nation.

Money and Prices in the Qing Era (1644-1912)

In the 19th century, Chinese copper coin had a square hole for stringing. The value of a coin was taken as one-thousandth of a Mexican dollar. A “string” theoretically consisted of a thousand coins, but in many regions was around 500. The latter equaled about one-third of a gold dollar. A catty, a Chinese pound, was equal by treaty to one and one-third pounds. A tæl was a weight of money equivalent to a sixteenth of a Chinese pound; an ounce. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics” in 1894: “A hundred cash are not a hundred, and a thousand cash are not a thousand, but some other and totally uncertain number, to be ascertained only by experience. In wide regions of the Empire, one cash counts for two, that is, it does so in numbers above twenty, so that when one hears that he is to be paid five hundred cash he understands that he will receive two hundred and fifty pieces, less the local, abatement, which perpetually shifts in different places. There is a constant intermixture of small or spurious cash, leading to inevitable disputes between dealers in any commodity. At irregular intervals, the local magistrates become impressed with the evil of this debasement Of the currency, and issue stern proclamations against it. This gives the swarm of underlings in the magistrate's yamen an opportunity to levy squeezes on all the cash shops in the districts, and to make the transaction of all business more of less difficult. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894. Smith (1845 -1932) was an American missionary who spent 54 years in China. In the 1920s, “Chinese Characteristics” was still the most widely read book on China among foreign residents there. He spent much of his time in Pangzhuang, a village in Shandong.]

“Prices at once rise, to meet the temporary necessity for pure cash. As soon as the paying ore in this vein is exhausted, and it is not worked to any extent, the bad cash returns, but prices do not fall. Thus the irrepressible law by which the worse currency drives out the better, is never for an instant suspended. l The Condition of the cash becomes worse and worse, until as in some parts of the province of Honan, everyone goes to market with two entirely distinct sets of cash, one of each is the ordinary mixture of good with bad, and the other is composed exclusively of counterfeit pieces. Certain articles are paid for with the spurious cash only. But in regard to other commodities this is matter of special bargain, and accordingly there is for these articles a double market price. That enormous losses must result from such a state of things; is to any Westerner obvious at a glance, although the Chinese are so accustomed to inconveniences of this sort, that they seem almost unconscious of their existence, and the evils are felt only as the pressure of the atmosphere is felt.

“Chinese cash is emphatically "filthy lucre." It cannot be handled without contamination. The strings, of five hundred or a thousand (nominal) pieces, are exceedingly liable to break, which involves great trouble in recounting and re-tying. There is no uniformity of weight in the current copper cash, but all is both bulky and heavy. Cash to the value of a Mexican dollar weigh not less than eight pounds avoirdupois. A few hundred cash are all that anyone can carry about in the little bags which are suspended for this purpose from the girdle. If it is desired to use a larger sum than a few strings, the transportation become a serious matter. The losses on transactions in ingots of sycee are always great, and the person who uses them is inevitably cheated both in buying and in selling. If he employs the bills of cash-shops, the difficulty is not greatly relieved, since those of one region are either wholly uncurrent in another region not far away, or will be taken only at a heavy discount, while the person who at last takes them to be redeemed, has in prospect a certain battle with the harpies of the shop by which the bills were issued, as to the quality of the cash which is to be paid for them. Under these grave disabilities the wonder is that the Chinese are able to do any business at all; and yet, as we daily perceive, they are so accustomed to these annoyances, that their burden appears scarcely felt, and the only serious complaint on this score comes from foreigners.”

State Control of the Economy During the Qing Era

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “A major misconception about the relationship between the Chinese state and the economy is that the state controlled economic activities with a heavy hand. But if one really looks at the size of the Chinese bureaucracy and the size of China throughout its history, whether in terms of the size of the territory or the size of the population, one can see that no Chinese state could have controlled economic activity completely. More importantly, as early as the Tang Dynasty in the 7th century, the state made the decision to withdraw from control of the economy, and thereafter the Chinese state was no longer determining where a market could or could not be established. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Madeleine Zelin, Consultant learn.columbia.edu/nanxuntu ]

“The Qing, a Laissez-Faire State? In practice the Chinese state under the Qing took a relatively laissez-faire approach to the economy, and the state did not regulate trade. Indeed, the Chinese legal system, which was one of the most advanced and sophisticated legal systems in the world during this time, left the regulation of private matters largely to the people directly engaged in the economic exchange. With certain exceptions, the state set out specific parameters for economic activity, but it was mainly within the local economic communities, within the guilds and elsewhere, that Chinese customary law for the handling of economic affairs was emerging. The emerging rules, regulations, and customs of this time suited the needs of the people who were engaged in commerce.

“An Exception: The State Monopoly on the Salt Trade: To a large extent the Qing state concerned itself only with the movement of a small number of goods that were seen as essential for life and were also a good source of revenue for state coffers. The most important of these was salt. But the state did not regulate how salt was manufactured; it only required a license for the transport of salt. Licensing for the transport of salt was an important source of the revenue for the Qing state.

“Hereditary Occupations: By the Ming dynasty, the Chinese state had stopped trying to control what occupations people could have. This contrasts with Japan where, until the late 1800s, people were born into a hereditary status or occupational group and were expected to do what their fathers did. By the beginning of the Qing dynasty, the only truly hereditary occupation in China was the military, and most of the people involved in this system were attached to the ethnically Manchu military structures rather than to the ethnically Han Chinese military.”

Qing Dynasty Tax Policy

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Tax Policy at the Local Level: The Qing rulers implemented many innovations in the ways in which government was run, one of which relates to the difficult task of providing necessary services efficiently to a large and diverse population. The Yongzheng emperor, who ruled for just 13 years (after his father, the Kangxi Emperor, and before his son, the Qianlong Emperor), undertook a monumental reform of the state tax system, transforming Qing taxation policy to provide a reliable revenue stream at the local and national levels. The taxation system that the Qing inherited from the Ming was one that was focused entirely on providing sufficient revenues for the central state and left the management of local government expenses up to local officials to meet as they could. This older system left enormous openings for corruption. The Yongzheng emperor transformed this system into one which provided for a revenue stream specifically for local government. This was a remarkable reformation, for it allowed local officials for the first time to have a sense of how much money they were going to have available to them, so that they did not have to rely completely on what has been called "squeeze" in order to fund the projects that they needed to fund, such as road repair, wall building, and granary construction. It also meant that there would be fairly clear demarcations between what was the fiscal base of local governments and the fiscal base of the central state. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Madeleine Zelin, Consultant learn.columbia.edu/nanxuntu ]

“Taxes Levied on Agriculture but not on the Commercial Sector: The Qing government maintained a monopoly on the sale of salt, an everyday commodity, but did not otherwise burden the commercial sector with heavy taxes...In Qing dynasty times no one ever thought to institute a personal income tax. Indeed, such a tax would have been virtually impossible to implement. Rather, China based its tax revenues almost entirely on land; that is to say, the government taxed farmers. To a lesser degree, government revenues also came from certain government monopolies — most importantly the monopoly on the sale of salt, which was an everyday commodity that everyone needed. What the Qing state did not do, on the other hand, is tax the commercial sector in any significant way. This may come as a surprise to those who think of China as a state that has tightly controlled the economy throughout the years.

“The impact of this non-commercial tax policy was that as China’s population continued to grow under the Qing, even the great tax reforms of the early 18th century became insufficient to meet the needs of the growing state system. This is one of the reasons that China looks so dysfunctional in the late 19th century — quite the opposite of the situation in the 18th century. But in fact, China has had problems related to finances throughout its long history. Many of the fiscal problems that the Qing emperors encountered are similar to problems that can be seen in China today.”

Merchants and Markets During the Qing Period

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “A common stereotype about late imperial China — one that is actually perpetuated in the study of practically every period in Chinese history — is that the Chinese government was anti-merchant. Common reasons given to support this assertion are: that Confucianism was anti-business and anti-merchant; that Confucian scholar-officials were at the top ranks of Chinese society; that state policy impaired economic activity by not supporting it in any constructive way; and that taxes were so heavy that they squeezed the life out of merchants and their businesses. But all these things are untrue. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Madeleine Zelin, Consultant learn.columbia.edu/nanxuntu ]

“Development of a Merchant Hierarchy: The Qing dynasty also saw the development of a merchant hierarchy. There were merchants who worked only within a local marketing community, and also farmers who spent some of their time working as peddlers to bring in extra money. But there were also long-distance merchants, whose economic life blood involved extensive traveling. Even in the early Qing there is evidence of the establishment of guild halls in distant parts of China to represent and serve the interests of merchants from other parts of China who traveled there. As aliens in that particular community (perhaps not speaking the dialect of that region), these traveling merchants would need a place to stay and to meet with other merchants to conduct business.

Development of a Complex Market Structure: The Qing dynasty saw not only an increase in the number of markets and market towns, but also an evolution in market structures. If marketing is viewed as a hierarchical process, wherein there are some markets that are central and collect the goods from many lower markets in the hierarchy, then China was "filling out" its hierarchy during this period. There were markets that served entire regions, markets under these that served sections of regions, and an increasing number of markets that served the producers. Simultaneously, the markets that were serving the producers were moving from being periodic markets (markets that only met a few days a week, to which farmers could come and bring their produce) to becoming stationary markets that operated every day and had stores that existed all the time, wherein people were working full time as merchants.”

Qing-Era Banking and Currency

Qing dynasty banknote

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Remittance banks were also often referred to as "Shanxi banks." This is because merchants from the province of Shanxi in northwest China, which was not itself a very rich province, became bankers to the rest of the country. They did this by developing a system from taking deposits by merchants in one place and issuing remittance certificates that could be redeemed elsewhere. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Madeleine Zelin, Consultant learn.columbia.edu/nanxuntu ]

“Paper Money and Bimetallic Currency: Although China was one of the first societies to introduce paper money (around the 11th century), for most of its history before modern times, as well as during the Qing dynasty, China also used bimetallic currency, meaning that both copper and silver were in circulation. Copper coins with an opening cut out in the middle (used to tie several coins together) were used for everyday transactions, and silver was used for larger transactions and for paying taxes to the government.

“Early Banks and Long-distance Trade: China's use of bimetallic currency over a large marketing area created in turn a big industry in money-changing. By the 18th century, money changers were playing many additional roles, including providing credit, particularly within local market communities, as well as developing into the earliest native Chinese banks. China had a huge market and a large number of commodities that were moving both within local marketing systems and over longer distances. But conducting this kind of business with heavy, metal money became problematic, especially if a merchant had to carry huge bags of silver on his donkey or by other means. This would also make the merchant vulnerable to any bandits he might encounter on the road. The remittance bank was developed during this period to address this problem. The remittance bank would take cash deposits from a merchant in one place and issue him a remittance certificate, which the merchant could then take elsewhere to pay someone with whom he was doing business. That person could in turn go to a bank in his area and exchange the certificate for coins. By the 18th century there was a vast network of such banks, and they were extremely important to the development of commercial activity in China.

Population Growth During the Qing Dynasty

Ken Pomeranz and Bin Wong wrote: “One of the real signs of the tremendous success of the Qing dynasty in the eighteenth century in what historians like to call the High Qing (1680 to about 1830 or so) was the enormous increase in population. Looking back...we tend to think of population growth as not such a great thing, but at the time, it was really looked on as a sign that the regime was doing its job. It enabled more people to come into the world, to have the satisfactions of being alive, and to live something vaguely approximating the Confucian good life. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“The Qing were able to preside over a rough tripling of the Chinese population between about 1680 and maybe 1820. This growth was achieved without a decrease in the standard of living, thanks to the increasing sophistication of the economy, to state efforts to shore up regions that couldn't produce enough food for themselves, or through such areas being able to produce some other commodity that they could trade for food.

“Also the population grew because of various technological changes, mostly in agriculture. The Qing were very good at taxing relatively lightly in this period while providing order and making sure that very basic survival services—such as flood control— were provided, whether by the government or by private parties encouraged by the government. This population growth, in some cases, eventually became a problem. In the eighteenth century, however, it was still overwhelmingly seen as a blessing. It happened very differently in different parts of the country. The Yangzi delta, the richest part of the country, had almost zero population growth between about 1770 and 1850 for a number of reasons, including the conscious use of various methods of birth control.

Importance of the Grand Canal in the Qing Era

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Grand Canal was a major conduit for grain, salt, and other important commodities. Any taxes that were paid in kind were paid in grain, which was shipped along the Grand Canal. Thus, control of the Grand Canal was of critical importance to the Qing government. To a certain extent, the Qing state itself facilitated the movement of goods to market by locating Beijing, its capital, far to the north, away from the rich and prosperous rice growing areas of Southern China. This resulted in a natural market for the demand of goods in the North, if for no other reason than to feed the imperial household and court. This was one of the reasons why it was so important to keep the Grand Canal working. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Madeleine Zelin, Consultant learn.columbia.edu/nanxuntu]

The Grand Canal is largest ancient artificial waterway in the world and an engineering marvel on the scale of the Great Wall of China. Begun in 540 B.C. and completed in A.D. 1327, it is 1,107 miles long and has largely been dug by hand by a work force described as a "million people with teaspoons." At its peak the Grand Canal extended from Tianjin in the north to Hangzhou in the south. It connected Beijing and Xian in the north with Shanghai in the south, and linked four great rivers—the Yellow, the Yangtze, Huai and Qiantang. Water levels have traditionally been maintained using a system of stone gates which channel water in and out of the canals. When it has been necessary to prevent flooding gates are opened so that water can be diverted into lakes. The world's longest modern canal, the Belomorsko-Baltiyskiy Canal in Russia, is 1,410 miles long.

According to UNESCO “The Grand Canal bears witness to the unique cultural tradition of canal management via the Caoyun system.... It consisted of an imperial monopoly of the transport and storage of grain, salt and iron, and a taxation system. It contributed to the fundamental link between the peasant economy, the imperial court and the supply of food to the population and troops. It was a factor of stability for the Chinese Empire down the ages. The economic and urban development along the course of the Grand Canal bears witness to the functioning core of a great agricultural civilisation, and to the decisive role played in this respect by the development of waterway networks.” ==

In 2007, David Lague wrote in the New York Times: “The Duke of Wu began work on what became the Grand Canal in 486 B.C., but it was not until the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan moved the capital to Beijing and straightened the canal that it became a direct north-south waterway. The canal’s main purpose was moving rice to the empire’s wheat-growing north, but it has carried far more colorful cargo over the years. The wood used in building the Ming tombs on the outskirts of Beijing was transported down the Yangtze River from Yunnan and Sichuan provinces and then up the Grand Canal to the capital. During the Ming dynasty, the bricks used to build the Forbidden City in Beijing were hauled up the canal from Jiangsu and Shandong Provinces. Even the craftsmen and artisans recruited from Jiangsu to build the sprawling complex that became the seat of power for the Ming and Qing dynasties arrived in the capital on the canal. [Source: David Lague, New York Times July 24, 2007 |^|]

“In 1790, during the reign of Emperor Qianlong, opera troupes from Anhui Province were ferried up the canal to perform in the capital. The troupes stayed on, and their melodies and performances, combined with other influences, eventually became Beijing Opera. But by the beginning of the 19th century, the canal was in decline as a weakened Qing dynasty neglected maintenance and dredging. A major flood on the Yellow River in 1855 damaged the waterway and blocked it for more than a decade at a time when increasing amounts of cargo were being carried by sea and then rail.” |^|

Land and the Gods in the 17th and 18th Centuries

Ken Pomeranz and Bin Wong wrote: Land changed hands very regularly by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in China, in most parts of China. “It changed hands in extremely sophisticated ways. People were leasing land and then subleasing it. They were selling shares in the produce of a particular plot of land, and setting up what we would today call trusts. They were working out all sorts of complicated arrangements in which they got together to irrigate the land in a village, for instance. As part of these arrangements, they had an agreed-upon measure of how much that irrigation increased the productivity of a given piece of land, and then each landowner owed money back to the irrigation society based on those assumed benefits. Some of these were phenomenally complicated things. Moreover, the contract had become in many ways a metaphor for people's lives. Often people even approached the gods in a contractual way. They would go make an offering and, in fact, in a sense said to the god, "Here's my up-front payment. If you come through and my wife has a healthy son or my mother recovers from her illness or whatever, there will be a larger payment later." [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

sacrifice to the god of agriculture

“In fact we have numerous documents in which people described their transactions with the supernatural world in terms of contractual relationships. Now that's not to say that they all loved a world bound by contractual obligations. Many people were deeply resentful. They might have thought that land should be a patrimony, that it was with a family forever, and they were resentful if they were displaced for another tenant who would pay a higher rent, for instance, just as many people are in our world today. But the fact is over the course of those roughly 200 years from say 1600 to 1800 or even 1500 to 1800, they came to take it for granted that this was the way of the world, and there was no point in fighting it. They took it so much for granted that they even thought that their relations with gods were determined by contracts. It was a really remarkable way of looking at the world. And it's fundamentally different from our stereotype of the Chinese peasant as so deeply rooted in the soil and tradition that he or she couldn't think about anything else.

Maintaining Grain Supplies in Qing-Era China

Ken Pomeranz and Bin Wong wrote: “The Qing dynasty built granaries in an attempt to ensure subsistence, and thinking very systematically about the ecological diversity of China, said, "In this place, which is close to river transport, we're not going to need to build granaries. Here the market will work, and we can just give them silver to buy grain from up-river in an emergency. In that place we had better have the grain because it's landlocked." [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“When both the Ming and Qing dynasties faced threats in the northwest and had to deploy large armies in this relatively arid region, they were not going to be able to feed their forces from the local food supply, so they came up with some very clever tricks. They told merchants that if they were willing to move grain cheaply up to the northwest—essentially to move it at a loss—the government would reward them with the right to participate in the government salt monopoly, which was a place where one could make big money...When European governments intervened in the grain supply, it was almost always either to ensure that the army got fed or that the major cities got fed. Those were the two groups of people the government was most worried about. And it went back to a long tradition in the West of cities having special political status.

“However, the Chinese notion was that, in a sense, everybody counted and that rural subsistence was something the government should be fundamentally concerned with. The European state in many ways, until modern times, ceded the countryside to the aristocracy, and/or the church, effectively saying, "It's not our problem."

Monopolies and Competition in Qing-Era China

Qing accountants

Ken Pomeranz and Bin Wong wrote: “The Qing government tried very hard to make sure that no one grain dealer obtained complete dominance over the local grain market because they knew what that could mean for consumers. As a result they devised a licensing system, which was designed to make sure that there were always multiple licensees in any given place. If you look at that in isolation, you can find a document that says so-and-so had his grain license taken away. And if you're caught in the old stereotype that the Chinese government hated commerce, you look at that and that appears to be evidence of an anti-commercial attitude. But if you look at it in the broader context, you say, "Oh no, they were not anti-commerce. They were anti-monopoly." [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“One important exception to this is the government monopoly on salt. Various Chinese regimes going back centuries found salt taxes an irresistible revenue source. Salt was an essential nutrient that you can only produce in selected areas, and so it was relatively easy to control and to raise the price. In fact, many premodern regimes find salt to be a crucial source of funds and monopolize it.

“On the whole, however, the Qing government encouraged competition and made sure that there were multiple grain dealers so that nobody could do the sorts of things that monopolists do. There were a whole series of regulatory efforts as well as educational efforts to teach people how to weave, spin, and grow cotton, and how to market their products. The government also built emergency granaries and maintained public order to ensure that grain moved back and forth.

Salt Trade During the Qing Dynasty

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Indispensable and essential to the daily diet, salt had always been a state-monopoly commodity ever since Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty in the 2nd century B.C. In the Qing dynasty, only authorized merchants who purchased dealer rights were allowed to sell salt. A special governmental office was installed in Jiangsu Province to manage the salt affairs; as a result,all major salt merchants gathered in Yangzhou, creating another prosperous peak for the city under the reigns of Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong emperors, after its first one during Tang dynasty. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“The mentioning of "salt" in the Qing Dynasty often leads to the association with the Yangzhou salt merchants. During the 12 southern patrols in the Kangxi and Qianlong Era (early Qing Dynasty), these merchants devoted all their energies to please the emperors, and as a result, they were able to live an extremely luxurious and wasteful lifestyle. However, the major salt merchants between the regions of Yangzhou and Lianghuai had almost no relationships with the coastal residents because most of these merchants came from the districts of Wannan, Anhui. They engaged in various immoral activities using the salt that the coastal residents heavily depended on, taking advantage of "people over sixty or under fifteen years of age, disabled adults, and elderly women" to flourish their salt business. This eventually led to investigations. \=/

“To create a sense of stability in the people's livelihood, the Qing government allowed the distribution of surplus salt to support the poor. They were asked to carry the salt on their shoulder or back; the intent was to look out for the people who were struggling financially. The regions which were introduced in this memorial consisted poor people from "Renhe, Qiantang, Haining, Haiyan, Yinxian, Cixi, Zhenhai, Xiangshan, Shanyin, Xiaoshan, Yuyao, and Shangyu," who "lacked sustainable jobs living along the harbor; the surplus salt can to be used for them make ends meet. By taking advantage of this natural resource, they can be protected from coldness and hunger." The law itself was constituted on virtuous believes, however the situation deteriorated over time as salt merchants "hired poor people to help them carry out the salt." To eradicate this malpractice, Qianlong issued a decree for a "comprehensive organization to achieve a favorable result. The surplus salt was to be purchased accordingly by government officials and thereafter distributed to the poor. All practices concerning the carrying of salt on shoulder or back was abolished to ensure that the poor could still provide for their family and that the treacherous activities be terminated. \=/

“However, the effectiveness of this policy for the salt distribution situation in the various regions remains to be seen, and all responsible officials are required to handle these issues as they are presented through proper conduct. They are required to report any instances of abuse and not turn a blind eye merely to ingratiate to this decree." \=/

Rice Trade During a Shortage in 1755

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “In 1755, the crop failure in Jiangsu had resulted in the price hike of rice. Despite the emperor's decree to withhold the cao rice and demanding the provinces of Henan and Shandong to purchase rice and transport it to Jiangsu, it was unable to make up for the extent of rice deficiency suffered by the region. An inquiry was made by the Governor of Jiangsu to the Fujian merchants, upon which he learned that Taiwan had enjoyed a bumper harvest in the previous year. Zhuang Yougong, Provincial Governor of Jiangsu thus submitted a memorial to Qianlong kindly requesting the emperor to replicate the scenario in 1751 where the sea ban was removed for the province of Zhejiang to allow the import of rice. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“The emperor responded to his request by saying that "the instance in itself presents a number of difficulties: unlike Zhejiang, Jiangsu is not directly connected to Fujian. In addition, the travellers who entered Zhejiang did not land in Fujian. Considerations must also be made concerning the unpredictable sea weather in Taiwan, which will complicate the matter as a result of the increased travel distance. In addition, the removal of the sea ban will give rise to numerous potential misconducts. Furthermore, it will take over three months (by then it will be autumn) for the decree to first reach the Ministry, then to the Viceroy of Fujian, then to Taiwan. Your submission of the memorial lies in the assumption that such request, sent on the grounds of saving your people, will undoubtedly receive the applause from the people and therefore my approval. However, you must also be aware that such request must be reasonable and genuine. I have approved requests that have brought forth personal glory in my early years, but have also learned to see the real truth of things from my many years of experience. I hereby reject your request."

“The rejection by Qianlong raises a number of questions that are worthy of discussion: First, concerning the distance of travel from Taiwan to Jiangsu, although it was undoubtedly longer than the distance of travel from Taiwan to Zhejiang and Fujian, the problem of "unpredictable sea weather in Taiwan" existed in all three scenarios; second, regarding the time it required for the decree to reach the corresponding departments, considering the power vested in the emperor, a direct order to the Office of Military Secrets would have resulted in immediately action rather than by autumn. Therefore, the real reason behind the rejection of this request most likely lied in the emperor's mention of "the removal of the sea ban will give rise to numerous potential misconducts"; it could be because that the incident which had transpired in 1751 had resulted in a number of malpractices. \=/

“It is rare for Qianlong to show his state of mind in the comments of the memorial. The remark "I have approved requests that have brought forth personal glory in my early years, but have also learned to see the real truth of things from my many years of experience" was particularly interesting. Qianlong, having served as emperor for 21 years and now reaching into the ripe old age of 46, can truly be said to have learned the real truth after his many years of experience. (By Chen Long-Guei) Palace memorial requesting the honor of an imperial inscription board to grace a much worshipped temple in Fujian, and the instituting of formal ceremonies in every province capital where such temples exist, so as to gratify the populace Palace memorial requesting the honor of an imperial inscription board to grace a much worshipped temple in Fujian, and the instituting of formal ceremonies in every province capital where such temples exist, so as to gratify the populace.” \=/

Chinese Economy Versus European Economy in the Qing Era

British trade ships

Ken Pomeranz and Bin Wong wrote” “From 1000-1500, China led the world in economic development. As trade between China and Europe begins to expand from 1550 onwards, the Chinese economy is, by many measures, more productive than Europe's.Comparing the leading economic region in Europe (England) and in China (the Yangzi delta) in the period from 1500 to 1800, we find that these two regions perform quite similarly. The population of the Lower Yangzi Region in China is roughly as well off as the population of England at this time.[Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“Until about twenty years ago, the studies of most historians on different parts of the world were largely kept separate. This made it possible for us to think that the making of the modern world was principally a European story, the story of Europeans going out and exploring the rest of the world. We have understood the dynamism and the construction of the modern world to be the product of European motives, efforts, and intentions. In the last twenty years, people working on other parts of the world—East Asia being a crucial area—have begun to recognize that the dynamics that take place in their parts of the world have certain similarities to those that take place in Europe. And it is from those initial insights of specialists that we begin to see in the last decade the integration of that knowledge with the knowledge about European history to produce a more informed world history.

“Nineteenth-and twentieth-century East Asia is often viewed in terms of the responses that people made in these countries to opportunities presented by the West and to pressures put upon these countries by Western political and economic forces. So we tend to think of what is modern in these countries in terms of the traits that they either learned from Western countries or had forced upon them through their connections to the West. There is a serious problem with this perspective because there are traits that developed in these countries that we can think of as modern. The problem is that we tend to ignore, and indeed to not even see, the traits that existed in these countries that have a longer history. And if we notice them, we tend to think of them as anomalies or as something problematic, as an obstacle to people becoming more modern.

Some things happened in China first...In Europe and America, we think of social welfare as a national problem, as a modern national problem, which emerged in the nineteenth century, but it's not until the second half of the nineteenth century that we start to see European states caring about education.However, in China, it's quite clear that governments have cared about the subsistence conditions—the food supply conditions of its people—for many, many centuries. And they have done so not merely on a local level, but spanning the entire country, which again, in the Chinese case, because it was an empire, is the equivalent of many European countries put together.

Was China More Productive Than Europe?

Ken Pomeranz and Bin Wong wrote: “When we think about the kind of trade taking place across the world in the 1600s and 1700s, and we recognize that Chinese finished goods are going to Europe in return for silver, this shouldn't be too great a surprise, since we know that if we go back several centuries to the Song dynasty that the first real urban commercial dynamism within Eurasia took place there. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“There was an expansion of trade, the development of larger cities, the improvement of agricultural technologies to raise the yields of rice and other grains and crops on the land. And there was the development of transportation technologies to take advantage of river transport. Those developments start in China much earlier on a broader spatial scale than they do anywhere else in the world. And therefore in the year 1100, the most developed economy in the world was certainly in China.

“And it's that lead, as it were, that China developed, beginning in roughly 1000, that remained in place for several centuries. Eurasian economies grew and contracted in this preindustrial area, but in essence, the Chinese economy remained a very productive economy for the following 500 years, so that when trade started to take place between China and Europe, fueled by the American silver that the Europeans were bringing to China, it was not surprising that the Chinese economy was, in certain ways at least, a more productive economy.

Lower Yangtze Versus Industrial England in the the 1750s

Chinese waterwheel

Ken Pomeranz and Bin Wong wrote: If you compare the Lower Yangzi, circa 1750, with the industrial heartland of England around the same time, “food supply per capita is roughly comparable. In fact the Lower Yangzi may even have been a little bit ahead. Cloth production per capita would again be very close. And those were the two most important sectors of the economy: food and textiles. They were the two largest sectors. Wages seem to be roughly comparable, though it's a little bit deceptive because in England what we're talking about as we get towards the end of the eighteenth century is really wages. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“It's people who work for somebody else and get a pay envelope at the end of the week. Whereas in China you're mostly talking about peasants. People who owned their own little farm and maybe had a loom in the house somewhere where the wife or wife and daughter worked. So it's earnings from their own self-employment compared to English wages, which is a little bit deceptive. But still real income seems to be pretty comparable.

Synthesizing much of the gradual story of European development, Jan De Vries has embedded the Industrial Revolution in a larger "industrious revolution," a concept which among other things, helps dissolve a paradox. The grain-buying power of European day wages fell very sharply between about 1430 and 1550, and it didn't return to 1430 levels until 1840 or later, depending on the place.This could have occurred because people spent more hours per year working for the market, earning cash to pay for new possessions, as well as for stable amounts of their increasingly expensive bread. People probably had less leisure time, though there are complications here with how one defines "leisure." They certainly spent less time making goods for their own households.They specialized more, and they bought goods made by strangers. They began to buy bread that other people baked, candles that other people made, so on and so forth, and so many of their purchases "saved time," in modern parlance, on domestic chores.

“The Chinese story, I'd argue, is surprisingly similar. The rice-buying power of a day's wages mostly fell, though with some interruptions, after about 1100. But nutrition did not seem to have worsened, nor was it inferior to that in Europe during this time. Meanwhile, grain-deflated earnings in textile work and agriculture in the Yangzi delta matched up well against England. Chinese life expectancies were comparable to England's and thus above those for most of the European continent, until almost 1800. And Chinese birth rates, contrary to mythology, appear to have been no higher than those of Europeans between 1550 and 1850, and while population grew faster, this suggests that Chinese death rates were no higher either.

“And for a long time China also kept pace with Europe in nonessential kinds of consumption. Reconstructing some measurements of consumption, China circa 1750 stacks up reasonably well against Europe, and the Yangzi delta region reasonably well against England. This is the case for two non-grain foods we can make reasonably good guesses about: tea and sugar. The Chinese edge in tea consumption is perhaps not surprising. Where does the stuff come from after all? The Chinese parity, or in fact better-than-parity in sugar consumption circa 1750, is quite surprising though, and in cloth—probably the second biggest item of expenditure—we see a similar pattern circa 1750. China as a whole seems comparable to Europe, and the Yangzi delta to England.”

European Economic Standards Improve in the 19th Century

Ken Pomeranz and Bin Wong wrote: “Between 1750 and 1900, European production and living standards were transformed, while Chinese non-grain consumption actually seemed to decline a bit. Nineteen hundred figures for cloth and sugar, for instance, come out below even my lower-bound estimates for 1750. Why would that be? What happened? “Much of the difference was ecological, but not in the simple sense that population pressure produced any more serious problems within Chinese cores than in core areas of Europe. That view— that there were simply too many people in China, et cetera—is a standard warhorse of the literature. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“I've reconstructed just for one example, nitrogen fluxes from dry farming areas of North China and England. Nitrogen is the limiting nutrient in most early modern farming, and fortunately it's also somewhat easier to reconstruct what happens with that than with most other nutrients. Again, even more than with most numbers, these have to be taken with grains of salt. We can talk about where they came from, but they show circa 1800 that there's no reason to assume more severe soil depletion in China than in England. Archaeology, agricultural-yield data, and increasing reports of sandstorms all point to serious soil degradation in various Western European regions during the eighteenth century. Forest cover declined dramatically in the early modern period, and so on. But then, many of these indicators actually stabilize in the nineteenth century, amid the much-faster population and economic growth of that period, which is, at first blush, exactly what you would not expect.

“If there are more people, and they are each consuming more resources, you would expect things to get considerably worse. Of course, in certain ways like air pollution, they did, but other crucial indicators stabilized. A contrast both to what we would expect, and as we'll see, to what happened in East Asia, where far less impressive growth leads to far worse ecological decline in the nineteenth century.

“Part of the answer is the transition in Western Europe to fossil fuels. Above all, there was coal, each ton of which equaled the sustainable timber yield from 1 to 1.5 acres of prime mid-latitude forest. But Chinese coal deposits were just too many landlocked miles away from its core regions to be economical before railways, no matter what breakthroughs in extraction use occurred. And mines so far from concentrations of skilled artisans were not well positioned for technological change anyway. Also, inconsistent government policies toward mining based on fear of groups of single males didn't help either. The Chinese still preferred that mines be small.

“Of course, there's nothing new about noting the importance of coal and the steam engine. If anything, older accounts of industrialization stress them even more than most current ones do. What is less often remarked is how dependent they were on each other. Without steam engines to pump water out of the mines, it's quite likely that English coal production would have stagnated at 1700 levels—which were high by world historical standards, but only about one-tenth of what production would reach by 1830. And while early steam engines were very good for performing this job, they weren't good for much else. They were bulky, dangerous, and extremely inefficient, turning only one to two percent of the energy they used into actual power. They were so inefficient that they were really only worth using at the mine itself, where fuel was virtually free. (Most of the cost of coal was the cost of transporting it, which was extremely high unless you happened to be right on the water.)

Along with the fossil-fuel revolution, northwestern Europe also benefited from soaring imports from land-rich regions, especially in the New World. As their demand for food, clothing fiber, building materials, and fuel—Malthus' famous four necessities—mounted, cores everywhere found themselves needing to acquire these land-intensive products by trading with a periphery that would buy the core's manufacturers.

“But that had its limits. In eastern Europe for instance, with many barriers to factor mobility and much of the population outside the cash economy, the response to external demand was comparatively muted. And though much is made of the Baltic trade and the beginnings of an international division of labor, it actually had plateaued by 1650, at a fraction of the size of China's long-distance staple trades.The New World, however, was a different kind of periphery from any of those that I've sketched, within Eurasia at either end. Smallpox and other disasters depopulated it. And much of the labor force was replaced by slaves, who were purchased from abroad....And so, unlike Old World peripheries, the New World kept expanding as a source of land-intensive exports for Europe. Together, mining in the New World allowed big chunks of northwestern Europe to have a population boom, specialize more in manufacturing, and consume more per capita, without facing either primary-product shortages or further ecological deterioration of farmland.

China’ Economic Standards Stagnate in the 19th Century

early Chinese steam engines

Ken Pomeranz and Bin Wong wrote: “ Meanwhile, in at least some of the Chinese hinterlands, the standard of living may still have been creeping up a bit, as handicrafts spread. But it was far short of Yangzi delta standards, and it now had much more weight in Chinese aggregates, causing the aggregates to sink. And ecologically, things did worsen in nineteenth-century China. But interestingly, not so much in the densely populated cores that you might have thought would be the most stressed areas, but in peripheral areas. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“The northwest and southwest were seriously over-logged. Excessive reclamation in the middle Yangzi was increasing its vulnerability to flooding. And the water table fell sharply in the non-monsoonal hinterlands of the north and west, as their populations grew. Late-eighteenth-century reports began noting that wells needed to be re-dug to make them deeper, a good sign of a falling water table. And by the early twentieth century, lake areas in these regions had shrunk dramatically.

“I think most people know that the mid-nineteenth century is a period of considerable trauma and upheaval in East and Southeast Asia with the "opening" of Japan and later Korea, the French conquest of Indochina, and so on. And this is probably truest of all in China, where the mounting environmental problems we just discussed combine with a serious decline in the government's ability to manage problems—the opium trade, and other problems—to unleash four massive rebellions in the mid-nineteenth century, leaving tens of millions dead.

Significant parts of China—mostly along the coast—did much better, in part because they became part of a post-1870 trade boom that involved large portions of maritime Asia, from Manchuria all the way down to Singapore...Rice from Southeast Asia, for instance, replaced rice from Hunan in feeding Shanghai after 1870, and in feeding Canton after 1890. Timber from Manchuria and later from overseas replaced shipment that used to come along the Yangzi and so on. Both the Manchurian and Southeast Asian trade booms are trends that predated 1840, but they continued thereafter at greatly accelerated rates. Advanced coastal regions sent miners, merchants, and for the first time, really huge numbers of farmers abroad, who sent back both earnings and land-intensive goods, gaining an informal empire of a sort at the same time that the Chinese empire, as conventionally understood, was cracking up. It's not the coast, but other regions that enter really prolonged crises.

“Some, like the middle Yangzi, filled up and then plateaued, while others, such as north China, had real catastrophes, in part because ecological and political crises built on each other. The state was battered by rebellion, foreigners, and as it recovered, it also reoriented itself, beginning to emphasize coastal development, the building of a modern military, and other things needed to survive in a world of predatory nation-states. Money was often diverted from older priorities, with extremely painful results. For instance, the government stopped devoting massive resources to maintaining the Yellow River-Grand Canal junction after the mid-nineteenth century, shifting the money once used for this to paying indemnities, military modernization, and various projects in coastal areas that were both wealthier and more vulnerable to foreigners. The result was a massive increase in flooding in newly marginalized interior regions. The Qing government also stopped subsidizing well-digging in many dry areas, just as population growth and deforestation were lowering the water table in those areas, and so on. Thus, these interior areas suffered from the decreased interregional trade that had begun as they filled up in the late eighteenth century, and also suffered from losing state services that had once made population growth in ecologically fragile areas sustainable.

The disorder in impoverished regions naturally spilled over into the rest of China, delaying any reconsolidation of the state. As one consequence of this, even the regional economies that did well in quantitative terms—and some like the lower Yangzi may actually have rivaled Japanese growth rates—did not make the kind of qualitative shifts into new kinds of industry that Japanese industry began making in the early twentieth century, often with heavy state assistance.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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