Scarcity and locality reflected in Chinese pre-industrial societies

In Patricia Crone’s book Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World, she put forward an interesting argument: scarcity and locality of activities are the two fundamental features of pre-industrial societies, and they justified the existence and development of various economic, political, and social institutions and policies in the pre-industrial world.

It is interesting to relate this point to the Chinese monarchies which I’ve been reading about recently. Scarcity of labor due to inefficient production technology was a great problem faced by virtually all Chinese dynasties. Serfdom, which tied labor to land, emerged for the landlords to secure the farming labor for their own needs. The welfare of the serfs did get better as internal and external trade developed during the Tang and Song dynasties. Serfs had more sources of income apart from farming. They could allocate their time between growing grains/rice and spinning and weaving cotton. The long lasting peace in the Ming dynasty and early Qing dynasty spurred a huge demand in clothing and thus increasing profits in cotton production. Serfs could enjoy more freedom by then, because their bargaining power grew much stronger. They were entitled to the right of deciding whether or not to stay when their landlord changed. By the time of Kangxi emperor, serfdom was officially abandoned. Freed up peasant population enabled a better allocation of labor.

Another feature, “people living in local worlds”, is closely related to deficiencies in transportation. Before Song dynasty, local economic activities were relatively self-sufficient. This was partly due to the limited population then and the adequacy of local resources. But an upsurge in population caused people to trade and exchange with other areas and specialization thus came into being to promote higher efficiency and overall welfare.

Anther point which I’ve been thinking about is the relationship and dynamics of China’s central and local government and how this affects the Chinese monarchies (or even now). In China’s case, the territory was large and central power could not keep an eye on every corner of the empire. The power had to be delegated to local officials. Here comes the classical principal-agent problem: there’s always some loss of efficiency because the motivation of central and local officials could not be perfectly aligned. The central government did, however, design various schemes to prevent centrifugal powers, be it implicit content to extra taxes or the central’s strong control over local head officials. The balance between the central and the local is a delicate game. From the change in territory throughout the Chinese dynasties, maybe we can find some clue.


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