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A critical survey of recent research in Chinese economic history

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China is a resilient dinosaur. In contrast with so many other great empires in Eurasia – the Egyptian, Roman, Byzantine, Arabian, Ottoman and Tsarist-Soviet – China has the longest history. The Empire kept expanding until the mid-nineteenth century when it practically reached the physical limits for a predominantly agrarian economy. The size and wealth of the Chinese economy, the variety of its produce and the degree of commercialisation and urbanisation made China one of the most popular international trading destinations from Roman times. With the rise of the opium trade in the early nineteenth century, however, the Chinese economy has been severely impoverished at least in relative terms. In response, since the 1870s, the Chinese sought to rescue their civilisation by adopting a wide range of foreign examples in social engineering for social experiments and reforms. Nevertheless, China's per capita GDP is still very low despite its political influence in the world since the 1970s. It is justifiable to view China as a case of growth failure in the recent centuries. The study of Chinese economic history has the same age as China's modern history itself. The field has been led and dominated by the West. Scholarly attempts have been made since the turn of this century to explain China's premodern success and its downfall after the Opium War. Two approaches can be identified: the 'Sinological approach' which refers to China only and the 'comparative method' which compares China with the West. The former tries to find out what achievements China managed to make and when and how it made them and the latter seeks to understand why premodern China was not industrialised.

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