Is Industrial Revolution an accident? Reflections on The Great Divergence by Kenneth Pomeranz

The book is the main reading for my course Economic History of China. Pomeranz’s main argument is simple: Europe and China pursued divergent paths of economic development, one capital-intensive and the other labor-intensive, largely because Europe had the New World to supply them with adequate energy, resources, and labor. I found most parts of his reasoning convincing. In the following, I will supplement my thinking about this issue.

1. The Crops-Only Agriculture

The English adopts crops-cum-animal agricultural system and Chinese a crops-only one. The crops-only agriculture was an essential response to China’s huge population size and limited land resources.

Daniel Little puts forward three issues are worth investing in China’s agriculture: First, the nature and rate of agricultural development (output, productivity and application of new technologies). Second, the direction and nature of change in rural welfare during the period. Third, the character and pace of social change during this period (rural to urban migration, land tenure change, concentration of landholdings).

Chinese agriculture was neither in a boom nor in decline in the eighteenth century. Robert Allen uses convincing data collecting methods and finds out that labor productivity in the Yangzi Delta was about 79% of that in England in 1800. England and Jiangnan went on divergent paths in the mid-eighteenth century, with sustained productivity growth in manufacturing and agriculture in England, and static or worsening productivity in Jiangnan.

Although the labor productivity in the Yangzi delta was comparable to that in England, the Chinese crops-only agriculture generated resistance to labor-saving technological innovation, since the crops were already chosen to have high yields and were likely to cover the peasants’ subsistence needs. In Britain, however, the enclosure movement allowed land owners to combine grain and animal husbandry and increased livestock production by 73 percent (other than farm horses) between 1700 and 1800 in the eighteenth century (Huang, 2002).

2. China’s size effect

We should note the different political unit of Jiangnan and Britain in our comparison. Jiangnan was one region in China and was bound to be affected by market dynamics, labor mobility, demographic change and other factors in the rest of China. Pomeranz argues that the socioeconomic crisis outside the delta had nonetheless affected the delta powerfully (Pomeranz, 2002).

According to the world system theory put forward by Immanuel Wallerstein (1974), there are core regions and peripheral regions in the world. There can be a sustainable economic development mechanism as long as the core region can supply manufactures to and receive raw materials from the peripheries. Because of the sheer size of China and her unbalanced regional developments, the argument also applies to China’s inter-regional trade.

The Jiangnan and Lingnan regions were the most advanced areas by the end of the eighteenth century and could be viewed as the “core”; southwest China (e.g. Sichuan and Yunnan), northeast China, and even southeast Asia (although China’s international trade was insignificant compared with internal trade) could be viewed as the “peripheries”. China’s internal trade patterns, however, were blocked by the import substitution in the middle and upper Yangzi River. During 1750 and 1850, the population growth there exceeded China’s average and local residents began to develop proto-industries on their own instead of importing from the Yangzi delta (Pomeranz, 2000). This was partly because newly developed areas were not located at convenient transport centers and costs would be high if they were to continue importing manufactured goods from Jiangnan. Moreover, the Qing government promoted the gender norm of “men plows, women weaves” and encouraged import substitution in the peripheries. Jiangnan’s ability to exchange manufactures for primary products from the peripheries diminished. The reduced demand lowered profits of rural industries in Jiangnan and discouraged merchants and peasants from production innovation.

China as a big country did not have a great enough cushion to buffer its resources shortage shock in Ming and Qing during a population surge. In addition, the sheer size of China means extended bureaucracy with more intermediate layers and difficulties of effective co-ordination. The advantages of size — resources and imperial wealth– were unfortunately located far from the most developed region of Jiangnan and Lingnan. Moreover, by Elvin’s high-level equilibrium argument, a much larger stimulus would be needed in order to provoke a technological breakthrough in China (Elvin, 1973). In Europe, however, there were “slack” resources which could be tapped into when institutional and prices changes make it profitable. This “slack” resources could be gradually mobilized to meet the new population and resource pressures in nineteenth century (Pomeranz, 2000).


Elvin, M. 1973. The Pattern of the Chinese Past. Stanford University Press.

Huang, P. 2002. “Development or Involution in Eighteenth Century Britain and China: A Review of Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence,” The Journal of Asian Studies 61 (2): 501-538.

Little, Daniel. “The Involution Debate: New Perspectives on China’s Rural Economic History,”

Pomeranz, K. 2000. The Great Divergence. Princeton University Press.

Pomeranz, K. 2002. “Beyond the East-West Binary: Resituating Development Paths in the eighteenth Century,” The Journal of Asian Studies 61 (2): 539-590.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1974. The Modern World System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the 16th Century. New York: Academic Press.

* To those who want to read The Great Divergence: it’s very technical and requires a lot of thinking. If you want light-hearted stuff, this is not for you.


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