China to me always remains something of a mystery – and a challenge: on the one hand it used money and had flourishing markets, but on the other hand it retained throughout a highly stratified society where everything depended on the emperor. From the beginning there was a flourishing money economy. Anthony Barbieri-Low in his classic book on Artisans in Early Imperial China has several interesting examples of the extent of the money economy. Firstly advertising, and particularly misleading advertising flourished. He looks in particular at a lacquer bowl excavated in a tomb in north Korea which claims in its inscription to have been made in AD 69 in the “western workshop of the Shu commanderie, worth 1200 coins, very sturdy, may it bring you sons and grandsons”. But it was certainly not made in the imperial workshops, it was far too flashy and the inscription only makes sense if it was designed to be sold in the market place to unsuspecting buyers.

Similarly there is the problem of the reuse of material in tombs. He instances a tomb that commemorate Xu Aqu who died aged only 5 but whose tomb incorporated material that had already been twice reused: even the poignant script is written in rhyming phrases that are in fact boiler plate clichés – and in poor calligraphy. The tomb was clearly being produced for a price, and corners had to be cut if the tomb artisan was to make his profit.

But even though such exuberant examples of the market can be seen as early as the Han dynasty, China still remained a structured society. True it never reached the excesses of the Indian Empire with their rigid caste system, the Chinese system was far more flexible, but it was rigid nevertheless. There were five main classes starting with the emperor and the dynastic family and the nobility, followed by government officials, then the commoners – by far the largest class – and ending with the convicts and slaves. Ironically there were comparatively few slaves and they do not seem to have been badly treated on the whole. It was the convicts, working in appalling conditions who did much of the hard work in building the great Chinese monuments.

The commoners in their turn were further subdivided into the traditional ‘four peoples’, scholars, farmers, artisans and merchants. Of these the farmers were the ‘goodies’ as they did the hard work and provided the food and paid the taxes. The artisans and the merchants were very much looked down on and considered to be non-productive parasites – Confucius was most scathing in the position of the merchants. Perhaps the ultimate failing of the Chinese system was that they did not give sufficient attention to the position of the artisans and the merchants. But then this attitude is very common to pre-industrial societies – the Romans were equally dismissive of the position of the artisans and merchants.

Allied with this was the problem of land tenure. The basis of property owning was the equal field system introduced during the Tang dynasty, whereby all land was owned by the government but allocated to the cultivators on an equal basis of 30 mu, or 1.1 hectares, or 2.7 acres per person – additional amounts for your wife. This was held for life but on your death the land reverted to the state to be reallocated. An exception was made for mulberry trees which are vital for the cultivation of silk, but which needed to be cultivated over long periods and which could be passed down over the generations. The system was reintroduced and formalised by the first emperor of the Ming dynasty who in 1381 carried out a sort of Doomsday Book survey of the country called the Yellow Register, in which all cultivators were registered for taxation purposes and were formally bound to the land. This was followed up a few years later by the ‘Fish Scale’ Register of landholdings, so called because the overlapping holdings on the map looked like fish scales. The system in its full rigour never really worked, but the principle and the ideal continued throughout. The farmers were the bedrock of China’s society. They produced the food and paid the taxes but they owed their position to the emperor rather than to a local landlord, and the emperors realised that if their taxes were to continue to be paid regularly and without problems, they would have to look after the farmers, — which they did better than local landowners.

The system worked extraordinarily well over a period of nearly two millennia but then suddenly it was challenged by new ideas coming through from the West. The ideas which we conventionally call the “Industrial Revolution” were disruptive everywhere, indeed they were disruptive here in the West where we still do not quite know how to control the forces unleashed by the new ideas behind the Industrial Revolution – socialism is essentially a Cri du Coeur against all the problems of the Industrial Revolution.  To some extent therefore we should not blame the Chinese for being unprepared for what happened: at least unlike the Ottoman Empire they resisted territorial dismemberment and kept the Chinese Empire more-or-less intact. Yet there was a period, particularly in the Song dynasty in the 12th and 13th centuries, when China did appear to be on the verge of an industrial breakthrough. Many new inventions appeared around this time: the great Cambridge physicist Joseph Needham who devoted his life to producing a multi-volume study of Science and Civilisation in China listed many of the inventions where the Chinese come to the forefront. Printing, first by woodblock and then by moveable type was invented in China, as was gun powder, the magnetic compass, numerous improvements in shipping, the constant improvements in the cultivation of rice and grain, to say nothing of the minor improvement such as the invention of locks on canals.

These inventions enabled China to keep pace with the steady increase in its population, but they never led to the breakthrough of the Industrial Revolution. Students of the Industrial Revolution often agonise over the reasons why the West made the breakthrough while China did not. Perhaps the answer lies in the very structure of society. The Industrial Revolution was much more than a revolution in industry: it was also a revolution in medicine, it was a revolution in thought, in the study of evolution, and the writing of history. I always like to claim that archaeology was the product of the Industrial Revolution, putting together the simple concepts of stratigraphy and typology to construct history where history had never existed before. And then there are all the improvements to contraception which threaten to subvert all previous religions worldwide – a subversion that is still only at its beginning.

It took a long, long time for the West to recover from the backwardness and disasters of the Dark Ages and to climb through the complexities of the Middle Ages, but finally a new entrepreneurial spirit emerged which owed little to control from kings or emperors or rulers; but which enabled merchants and artisans to make breakthroughs and then improve on them, and to impose a new rationality on what had hitherto been incoherencies. I think here of the invention of football, one of the most remarkably successful innovations of the phenomenon we misleadingly call the Industrial Revolution. The Chinese played football but this was only a game for the few, played in their robes by a few participants in the presence of the emperor. The organisation into a popular sport was left for the West.

We should admire the longevity of the Chinese empire and its remarkable successes; but we should also recognise the challenging and often conflicting spirits in the West that ultimately led to the great breakthrough of the Industrial Revolution.


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7th October 2015, Pibres