The Great Divergence China History Essay

Kenneth Pomeranz, a very renowned economic historian, professor of California University, in his book, “The Great Divergence”, aims at tackling one of the tough tasks of the global history – to investigate the way that Western Europe could achieve the industrialization as well as world domination. He argues that the slight edge in technological improvement cannot alone explain the economic rise of Europe relative to China’s economic advance. In this vein, he very cogently conducts comparative analysis to explain the similarities and differences between European development and what we see in certain other parts of Eurasia (primarily China and Japan) – not the whole of that development or the differences between Europe and all other parts of the Old World. For the comparative analysis, the author picked up Europe, Western Europe in particular, China, Japan, India as well as South Asia in some extents. Pomeranz concentrates majorly on England and the lower Yangzi delta of China (Jiangnan) from the 16th to 18th centuries, however sometimes comprises all of Europe, China, Japan, India, and the New World. His pretty clear thesis stands that China, and Europe were basically similar in nearly all significant economic indices, counting standard of living, market development, agrarian productivity, and institutional structures that affected growth. This basic similarity neglects arguments stressing deeply rooted “European miracle”. However, around the 1800 an unanticipated leap by England over the other rests of the Eurasia, namely the “great divergence” happened due to primary and sudden preconditions – suitable coal supplies and exploitations of the rich resources of the New World. Thus the lucky England could easily survive the impediments and challenges that were jeopardizing the entire continent at that time, on the other hand, due to those fortuitous windfalls, was possible to manage to thrive further.

The author coherently splits up his masterpiece into three big parts: “A world of Surprising Resemblences”; “From New Ethos to New Economy? Consumption, Investment, and Capitalism”; “Beyond Smith and Malthus: from ecological constraints to sustained industrial growth”. Hence, he provides very implicit insights by bringing clear-cut findings and up to date knowledge of economic history that certainly make his very systematic comparison convincing and accurate.

The first part of the book deals with figuring out the similarities between the “West” and the “Rest” by the industrial revolution. Pomeranz’s conviction is that there were not any substantial differences between the wealth of Asia and Europe. He alludes that he does not reveal a systematic advantage for the West with regard to agriculture, transport, livestock capital, technology, the development of a market economy, accumulation, or ecology. Even, in contrast, he figures Europe was less advanced than Asia, for instance: agriculturally (pp. 32-55). Nevertheless, the main argument of author does not stand for ignoring fundamental differences between the economies and societies of Europe and Asia. The essence is to plead that existed small differences were not the leading factor for European economic growth.

Later in the second part of the book, the author argues that towards the mid-eighteenth century both the Chinese and European economies were alarming with the challenges of the limits of their growth potential within the framework of preindustrial technology. The overall production suffered much from the constraints causing the dependence on land as the basic supplier of food, raw materials, and energy. The land constraint led to serious ramifications since it hindered the potential rise of output per capita and increasing yields. Dramatic growth of output per person for both China and Europe was terribly unfeasible.

Nevertheless, the last part soundly sheds the light on Europe’s rigorous endeavors making the leap through i.e. avoiding ecological constraints and grasping the world domination and sustained growth that was unlike for China nor other Eastern edge of the Eurasia. Here Pomeranz evaluates the process of transition from ‘Smithian’ growth to modern industrial growth. He defines the great divergence through summing his analysis up with the fact that throughout its industrialization England managed to rescue from the Malthusian constraints and Smithian limits pertaining to organic economies, whereas China had not experienced the same(pp.242-248). To this end, Pomeranz critically assess the following questions: Why did Britain and Europe, afterwards, did not pursue the labor-intensive track of the “industrious revolution” done by Eastern counterparts, but instead expediently follow capital-intensive path leading to the industrial revolution, and why it happened unprecedentedly in England, not in China, although there were not any tangible differences ?

In order to avoid lame arguments, Pomeranz, rather tends to conduct thorough research to scrutinize the primary points (indices) that decisively differentiate core regions of the North-Western Europe from Asia’s (p.283). In this sense, he sorts out essential three differences: technological innovations; unexploited domestic resources of Europe which were abandoned due to institutional obstacles; and some advantages coming from the access to New World, namely, colonization, overseas trade (pp.166, 295). Subsequently he installs his focus on core factors – he considers very central that made Europe diverge – coal and Americas-ward expansion of Europe.

Undoubtedly, the coal was very important to industrialization and high growth in England. Besides rich coal supplies, Britain was auspicious enough since it was close to abundant water and accessible ports, made the steam engine economically feasible. Unlikely China’s main coal deposits were in the north-west, in Jiagnan, which was far from its textile manufacturers, had no use for a steam engine, and unsuitable and not cost-effective at all to get coal to the lower Yangtze. Hence, propitious geological as well as geographic site fundamentally had a powerful effect on not only obtaining cheap energy, but also on creating the preconditions for the first industrial breakthrough.

Before launching the justification of the latter factor, European expansion, Pomeranz boils down his analysis to the possible answer of the question- why did China not strive to expand and exploit available free lands in the South-East Asia? He mentions the significance of those less-dense, empty lands as a very resource for land-intensive demands of China, though they could not benefit of this. Pomeranz explains it as a lack of adequate state support – “[…] by comparing the effects of Europe’s New World Empires to those Chinese merchants who established themselves in South East Asia without state backing” (p.200). Later he also puts forward the connections between India and South Eastern Asia and Europe as well as importance for latter by stressing the crucial role of China. Nevertheless, Pomeranz does regard only the New World as the periphery for Europe. It was distinctively vital because of being unique trade partner, access to abundant raw materials, slave and bullion trade. Particularly American bullion was extremely central establishing trade with India, China, the Ottoman Empire and the Baltic.

By evaluating the book, essentially three motives – contingency, coercion, and global conjunctures – and relationships among them should be sorted out. Contingency, connected to global processes, is characterized as following: windfalls stemmed from the sugar, timber, cotton and silver coming from the New World; its rich resources subsequently became unintended consequences of colonization that urged them to cope with ecological crisis of Europe; trade companies were emerged and directly served to collecting the resources of the colonies. Those companies, so-called private institutions, initially were functioned for conquest and thus they involved actively in the piracy against Asian traders. However later they evolved the strategies towards the accumulation of capital, thereby, turned to industrial enterprises that further crucially led to making world economy. Trading companies ventured European inter-state rivalries overseas, linking the European state system to global economic dominance. Here geopolitical strategy began to embrace the economic story.

The first and foremost uniqueness of this book is an in-depth run research that very implicitly backs every argument put forward by the author and his decisive effort on avoiding Eurocentric approach is worth considering. Pomeranz distinctively blows down previously written pieces, which obviously represent Eurocentric views, by conducting very systematic reciprocal comparisons. Particularly his endeavor in comprehending the resemblances between West and the Rest is very exclusive.

The intelligent and convincing traits of the book can easily admire every reader and it does not make the room to figure out any tangible weakness. Therefore it should be admitted that Pomeranz can be certainly regarded fair successful. He sets out undoubtedly respective methodology for studying the great divergence, however his answers to “why”s, in some extends, are not full adequate. Thus, in its turn, this book originates further debates in great divergence and raises up new research questions such as, why coal and cotton?; Are colonies and coal very crucial?; What can be else a driving force for great divergence? Nevertheless, as for the answers, Pomeranz’s “Great Divergence” has been an unique asset so far.

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