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China's Advocate: A Review of Ken Pomeranz's The Great Divergence

J. Bradford DeLong

March 2000

Ken Pomeranz (2000), The Great Divergence (Princeton: Princeton University Press: 0691005435: HC240.P5965 2000).

The Great Divergence

For some time now it has been becoming clear that there is something wrong with the traditional story of the coming of the nineteenth-century European industrial revolution and the associated trans-oceanic European empires. The conventional wisdom sees Western European civilization's edge building gradually yet inexorably--with a pronounced setback during the Dark Ages--from the days when the conquests of Julius Caesar and Rome's Julian dynasty emperors brought the high civilization of the Greeks to Eboracum, Londinium, Lutetia, and Colonia Claudia. Western Europeans then build on top of Greek philosophy, Greek literature, Roman engineering, and Roman law. From Naples in the south to Stockholm in the north, from Vienna in the east to Sagres in the west, the tide builds to a flood: the rule of law, the consent of estates to taxation, rational thought, the replacement of magic by religion, security of private property, the horse collar, the scientific revolution, and war-driven technological advance gave--according to the conventional wisdom--European societies as of 1500 a substantial and decisive edge in technology and productivity. During the early modern period from 1500 to 1800 this decisive edge blossomed into the social, political and economic institutions of the modern age that created today's wealthy industrial democracies.

Elsewhere, according to the conventional wisdom, civilizations with agriculture, metalworking, and complex social organization hit the Malthusian wall: populatoin pressure and lack of resources kept standards of living low in spite of sophisticated but non-mechanical technology, and elites focused much more on grabbing the surplus from the people and from one another than on enlarging the surplus through further investment or innovation. The great Eurasian agrarian empires and civilizations had larger populations, more splendid courts, and richer elites, but they were a dead end for a humanity trapped under a monstrous regiment of kings and priests.

Eurasian Parity

However there was always something wrong with this triumphal march, something visible to those with eyes to look. The fifteenth-century Portuguese Infante Dom Henrique sat in his castle at Sagres and sent his ships in small squadrons groping for perhaps a thousand miles south along the coast of Africa. The fifteenth-century Chinese notable Cheng Ho--in modern transliteration Zheng Ze, the eunuch admiral who was a trusted lieutenant of the Yung-lo Emperor--took 30,000 men and seventy ships on eight voyages to the Indian Ocean, reaching as far as Zanzibar and projecting power on such a scale that Sri Lankan kings who were not properly respectful of Chinese power were brought back to China to make their apologies. The Ottoman Emperor Mehmet II deployed the largest and strongest pieces of artillery in the world--specially made for the occasion--for his conquest of Constantinople in 1453. The Great Moghul Babur's use of advanced technology--matchlocks--and tactics--wagons tied together as field fortifications--allowed him to decisively defeat an army eight times his size at Panipat and conquer northern India. We think that the populations of China and India grew more rapidly than the population of Europe from 1500-1850: this suggests--at least if we believe in Malthus--somewhat more prosperous societies with more rapidly growing economies in the Eurasian "east."

In the efficiency of agriculture, in the scale of social organization, in the sophistication of consumer goods, in the density of population, and even in navigation and military technology the fifteenth-century Eurasian east--from the Ottoman Empire through Iran and India to southeast Asia, China, and Japan--appears nowhere less and almost always more "civilized" than the small, semi-anarchic proto-nation-states of western Europe. As Pomeranz puts it, the core regions of Eurasia "the Yangzi delta, the Kanto plain, Britain and the Netherlands, Gujarat--shared some crucial features with each other, which they did not share with the rest of the continent or subcontinent around them... relatively free markets, extensive handicraft industries, highly commercialized agriculture..." The similarities are more impressive than the differences.

So what happened? If the western European edge in technology, organization, and productivity was not a long-standing broad tidal wave building slowly since the coronation of Charlemagne, then how did the world we live in come to be? How did the Indian Ocean in the sixteenth century become a Portuguese (and later a Dutch) lake? How did Britain conquer India in the century from 1750? And why did the industrial revolution take place in late eighteenth century Britain?

In Ken Pomeranz's book The Geat Divergence we have one serious attempt at an answer. It is a wonderful book. It is the first book I have read that takes the problem of the post-1500 great divergence between the Eurasian west and the Eurasian east seriously and thoughtfully, and that does not run far ahead of its evidence in pursuit of pre-chosen conclusions.

This is not to say that I agree with the book. I think that it misses--or rather downplays--three important phenomena that, in my opinion at least, are key to understanding the past millennium of world history. The first is the shift in the locus of invention--not in the level of technology, but in the birth of new technologies--from China to Europe around the year 1000, and subsequently what appears to be a steadily growing European lead in inventiveness and science. The second is the extraordinary organizational coherence of western Europe by 1700, which shows itself in areas as divergent as the military superiority of European-trained musketeers in eighteenth century India, in the extraordinary reach and longevity of Europe's armed trans-oceanic trading companies, and the requirements of at least the appearance of due process of law--trials and bills of attainder--imposed on even the most tyrannical northwest European rulers. The third is the late nineteenth century firebreak: as Sidney Pollard put it, the fire of nineteenth-century industrialization burned brightly to the limits of western European populations and colonial settlements, smoldered in eastern Europe, and there stopped (with the single exception of Japan)--no nineteenth-century industrialization in Turkey, Egypt, India, or China. The fact that the nineteenth-century Eurasian east did not while the nineteenth-century Eurasian west easily did adopt British-invented industrial technologies must be explained somehow.

But even though I think that in the end the book misses the bullseye, it is definitely a solid hit on the target. It is very much worth reading. In the past I have had a very hard time finding a book that challenges the conventional wisdom that I am not ashamed to give to my students--for example, I can't get my students to take Immanuel Wallerstein seriously, for his unwillingness to count makes it impossible to assess whether his anecdotes are representative and his teleological functionalism makes it nearly impossible to figure out just what the proposed chain of causation is; and they have a hard time dealing with Jack Goody, who splits hairs ever more finely as if deconstructing sociological and anthropological concepts will somehow lead to understanding. This is a book I will not be ashamed to give my students. And it makes me think.

The Grand Counterfactual

At the core of Pomeranz's book is a grand counterfactual. Suppose that you removed the Americas from the surface of the globe: Columbus sails west in 1492 and dies of thirst in a mammoth world ocean. And suppose that you erased the coal deposits from the island of Britain and from the Rhine valley. What would post-1500 world history have looked like then?

Pomeranz's answer is that the most likely trajectory would have seen economic life in northwest Europe evolve the way that economic life in Gujerat or the Yangzi delta evolved between 1500 and 1800: a flourishing commercially-revolutionized society bumps up against ecological limits as deforestation, declining marginal products of labor, the rising ability of peripheral regions to make their own manufactures, and so forth reduce the returns to innovation and commerce and increase the rewards of landlord or priestly surplus extraction. Thus growth stops. And what growth there is follows a labor-intensive, resource-economizing logic that--as it did in the nineteenth century Yangzi delta--boosts elite consumption but not mass standards of living, and leaves no space for an industrial revolution.

Pomeranz's argument is powerful. For he is right in saying that "industrial capitalism, in which the large-scale use of inanimate energy sources allowed an escape from the common constraints of the preindustrial world, emerges only in the 1800s." Up until then the average western European had little edge in living standards over the average elswhere in Eurasia--perhaps we conclude that the average European in 1750 was significantly behind if we think about the standard of living of Portuguese peasants or about Braudel's estimates that German meat consumption per capita declined by 80 percent in the centuries after 1400.

Remove the New World from the equation, and you remove the imports of what Sidney Mintz terms the "drug foods" that provided western Europe with extra calories and extra raw materials. Without American cotton it is hard to see the British industrial revolution taking off so rapidly. Without American sugar and other land-intensive products it is easy to see the relative price of food in Europe rising, the urban share of the population falling, and political power shifting back from merchants to landlords. And it is possible to see the industrial revolution stopped in its tracks if the characters who populate Jane Austen novels had possessed an even greater hammerlock on late eighteenth and early nineteenth century British politics--especially if there had been no available coal.


But there are places where the argument overreaches--where the implicit equivalence of Liverpool-London-Liege to the lower Yangzi seems strained. For if Britain without coal and American cotton would have had a much more difficult time making an industrial revolution, it is by no means clear that even much more abundant natural resources--in this case coal: they had cotton and sugar--in the lower Yangzi would have led to an industrial revolution.

Contrast the landlord and entrepreneur-driven British coal mining industry with Chinese coal mining in northern Jiangsu (within range of the Yangzi). Pomeranz writes (p. 65) that the Chinese "government decided to encourage coal... with the explicit goal of alleviating the Yangzi delta's fuel shortage." But it "gave the mining licenses to poor and unemployed people, who mostly dug small, shallow mines.... [H]aving such small operators in charge at one of the few sites in China where coal was within relatively easy reach of both large markets and concentrations of skilled artisans could hardly have improved the odds." A market society in eager pursuit of new markets and new industries this is not.

Or consider Pomeranz's argument (p. 168) that Chinese social structure did not militate against long-lasting mercantile dynasties. Pomeranz writes that "many Chinese firms survived for centuries, despite the ups and downs of th elineages from which they were indeed imperfectly separated." But we know little about them: "records of commercial dynasties are particularly scant." Why? Because "this type of success was rarely flaunted..." This proves too much, for the social forces that deny us records of what might have existed were the same forces that made lineages focus on education, office holding, and state service.

Even if you buy Pomeranz's argument that without British coal and New World exports western Europe would have run into its ecological constraints and stagnated without industrializing--and I do not--it still seems a mammoth stretch to conclude that the relaxation of ecological constraints in other Eurasian core areas would have led to industrial revolutions there. And, indeed, I am not sure that Pomeranz is arguing that the relaxation of resource constraints in western Europe was the key. For as he writes (p. 213), "...that does not, of course, mean that having this extra breathing room explains technological creativity--but the two factors worked hand in hand, each increasing the rewards of the other..." At the very least there were two keys--the resource constraint relaxation key on the one hand, and the technological-organizational-scientific key on the other. So that when (p. 285) "coal, steam, and mechanization opened up vast new technical possibilities, western Europeans... were in a unique position to capitalize on them..."

Second Thoughts

But were coal and New World resources as important as Pomeranz believes? I have always thought that for the first century and a half the New World was a minus for European development: it funded the armies of the Counterrefomation that sacked Antwerp; it funded Habsburg dominance of northern Italy under which what had been the mercantile core of the European economy collapsed; it deindustrialized Spain. Only with the early nineteenth-century invention of the cotton gin can I see the existence of the New World boosting even British resources by as much as 1% of total economic product. By then the great divergence was at least a century old. And while I can see a lack of cheap American cotton slowing the British industrial revolution, I cannot see it stopping the British industrial revolution.

And coal? Pomeranz may well be correct: perhaps without coal there would have been no industrial revolution. Certainly the Harley and Crafts interpretation of British productivity growth which piles nearly all British productivity growth in the century of the industrial revolution into cotton, mining, and ironworking would lend plausibility to the proposition: no coal, no industrial revolution. But there is another historiographic tradition that I see as more persuasive that sees a much broader wave of invention, and productivity growth distributed over a much broader range of industries. Studies like Peter Temin's "Two Views of the British Industrial Revolution" have made this second view--that sees the industrial revolution not as coal and cotton but as an entrepreneurial and innovative economic culture that finds its most powerful expressions in coal and cotton--the more probable one (in my opinion at least), and lead to the conclusion that an absence of British coal and American cotton would have slowed, but not stopped the industrial revolution.

And how much slowings could the process take before it would have been stopped in its tracks? I do not know, but there are the three phenomena I noted above that suggest deeper-rooted differences between Liverpool-London-Liege and other Eurasian economic core regions:

We need to understand how other Eurasian core regions like the Yangzi delta, Gujerat, or even pre-Mongol Mesopotamia could achieve such a mercantile and agricultural economic flourishing in some dimensions, and yet fail to build the social capabilities to either develop or rapidly adopt the physical and organizational technologies of western Europe's industrial revolution. Until we understand this, we cannot claim to understand the great divergence.

p. 24: "mercantilism and especially the African slave trade made the flow of neede resources to Europe self-catalyzing in ways that consensual trade between Old World regions was not."

p. 57: To understand how self-sustaining growth became possible, one must look... for developments that eased the pressures on land. Wrigley emphasizes incresaed use of coal, which yielded far more power per unit of surface than wood ever could. To this I would add the adoption of New World food crops, particularly the potato... imporvements in ecological understanding and land (especially forest) management... [and] the New World yield[ing] both land-intensive products (cotton, sugar, and later grain, timber, meat, and wool) and land-restoring products such as guano."

p. 62: "The relevant skills in which western Europe led the eighteenth-century world were ones in which Britain led. One of these was mining itself, but the others are not ones whose relevance is immediatley obvious: clock-making, gun-making, and navigational instruments."

p. 62: "North and northwest China have huge coal deposits... China developed a huge coal and iron complex... not merely large but the years from 1100-1400, north and northwest China were hit by a staggering series of catastrophies.... By the time the area began to enjoy some stability again after 1420, China's... center had shifted... to the ecologically more hospitable south; much of north China needed to be repopulated by government-led transfers of people during the fifteenth century."

p. 64: "China's nine southern provinces have just 1.8 percent of... coal reserves, and its eleven eastern provinces 8 percent."

p. 65: "In the eighteenth century, when the government decided to encourage coal in this area [northern Jiangsu] with the explicit goal of alleviating the Yangzi delta's fuel shortage, it also chose to give the mining licenses to poor and unemployed people, who mostly dug small, shallow mines. Although it seems unlikely that even better capitalizaed mines would have achieved the major breakthroughs needed to trandform China's energy, transport, and metalos sectors, having such small operators in charge at one of the few sites in China where coal was within relatively easy reach of both large marketsw an dconcentrations of skilled artisans could hardly have improved the odds."

p. 67: "... it was the transfer of prcision boring and calibrating skills from instrument-making (and to some degree from gunmaking) that made newcomen's original steam engine work reasonably well and then allowed for Watt's improvements, which quadrupled the engine's efficiency..."

p. 87: "Almost every rural household in the lower Yangzi did some textile work for the market by the early 1600s"

p. 92: "In Strasbourg between 1400 and 1500 the amount of manual work needed to purchse a month's worth of wheat for a family of four fluctuated between 40 and 100 hours.... By 1540 it was well above the 00-hour line and was not to dip below that level again for three centuries.... Given how central grain was... over helf the calories even for upper class urbanites and perhaps 80 percent of the calories for the poor..."

p. 115: "...what Mintz calls 'the drug foods': sugar, cocoa, tobacco, coffee, and tea, all of them exotic luxuries in any part of sixteenth-century Europe but commonplace in much of western Europe by the late nineteenth century."

p. 123: "China's post-1750 population growth was heavily concentrated in relatively poor areas."

p. 142: "Thus Chinese textile consumption stacked up quite well against that of Europe in the mid- to late eighteenth century.... Disapproving accounts of popular religious cults... refer to the excessively gaudy clothes, make-up, and jewels worn by even peasant women.... Pilgrimages themselves were a boming business.... A parallel boom in commercialized eating places extended even to rural market towns, at least in the Yangzi delta. An early nineteenth century souce cits one town of "a few thousand households" with 45 wine shops and over 90 teahouses."

p. 143: "There was also a huge boom in the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries in the printing of religiou stexts, medical manuals, and almanacs using simplified language and aimed at a popular audience. In about 1600, the missionary Matteo Ricci believed that books were cheaper and more widely available in China than in Europe. While Chinese book ownsers were probably less commo9n than Bible owners in teh more prosperous parts of seventeeth... century Protestant Europe (which enjoyed the cost advantages of movable type in alpahbetic languages), their numbers still testify to a largte and growing popular demand."

Matteo Ricci cited in Rawski 1985, pag 17.

p. 160: "The tendency to see China's import preferences as a sign of cultural conservatism has been further reinforced by treating silver as modrn 'money'-in other words, a residual store of abstract value transferred to make up Europe's 'trade deficit'. Instead, we need to see silver itself as a good: a refined product with a mineral base, which was well suited to an important function and which the west could produce far more cheaply... the accidents of geology were such that China could barely produce it at all.... The arbitrariness of treating silver as money in the modern sense, which was sent to east Asia in lieu of goods, rather than as a good the Chinese used as a monetary medium, becomes obviou sonce the issue is raised."

p. 161: "... the West's huge comparative advantage in the export of silver sucked in trendsetting prestige goods from Asia. This helps explain why so many other exotic goods flooded into Europe--they paid for silver and made the wheel of fashion spin.... It roots this unique influx in an economic conjuncture spanning Europe, Asia, and America, rather than in any uniquely European 'materialism' or 'curiosity'."

p. 168: "...many Chinese firms survived for centuries, despite the ups and downs of th elineages from which they were indeed imperfectly separated. Records of commercial dynasties are particularly scant, as this type of success was rarely flaunted..."

p. 169: "Chaudhuri suggests that persons and landed wealth were not necessarily more insecure in Asia than in Europe. But the capital of merchant firms was not treated separately from people in Asia, as it came to be in Europe..."

p. 172: "Shipping costs fell dramatically in the Atlantic in the eighteenth century becasue... European shippers... found ways ot cut port time... and so could make two round trips a yar instead of one. But the wind patterns in... Asia ruled out any such breakthrough there..."

p. 172: "... heavy involvement in overseas trade might bring a Chinese firm unwanted state attention.... The Qing... were indifferent or hostile to Chineses who settled overseas.... Nor would any Chinese regime license the development of private armed trading from a Chinese base..."

p. 179: "... it was extremely hard in China to seize land used as collateral.... Viewed from one perspective such (customary) rules... undoubtedly raised the interest rate that lenders demanded. But the borrowers' perspective was likely different..."

p. 206: "But had Europe not benefited from a remarkable confluence of factors--epidemiology, European warfare, military fiscalism and luxury demand, Chinese silver demand, and so on--it could not have used the New World as it did, either..."

p. 213: "Europe's advantages in escaping these constraints were largely ecological. Some stemmed from slack resources in Europe itself.... Others... were related to the fortunate location of coal deposits and skill at exploiting them. Others were basedon the bounty of th eNew World..."

p. 213: "That does not, of course, mean that having this extra breathing room explains technological creativity--but the two factors worked hand in hand, each increasing the rewards of the other..."

p. 274: "If the average Briton consumed 2,500 calories per day in 1800... then [sugar]... is almost 4 percent of total intake even at that early date..." and 18% of calories by 1900.


p. 285: "Thus when coal, steam, and mechanization opened up vast new technical possibilities, western Europeans... were in a unique position to capitalize them... untapped New World resouces (and underground resources)... essentially abolishing the land constraint."

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I enjoyed your review of Pomeranz in Aside from being extremely erudite and thoughtful, you're right, I'd say -- it's not New World resources that matter. Politics, and a culture of scientific innovation, are crucial; although I'd say the distinctively powerful empirical science only arises in the 17th century, and only in Britain. Other scientific advances are either "catch-up" with the Arab world or China, or to a degree that most people underestimate, peter out or are suppressed. In a series of recent papers, I argue that it was science and technology, PLUS coal, PLUS an open and entrepreneurial society (Temin) that had to converge to produce the IR as it happened. All three elements were crucial, and the combination was found nowhere outside of UK.

Contributed by Maynard Handley ( on July 25, 2000.

I sympathize with your desire to have something better than Wallerstein or Goody to give students, and Ken's book is good on the "what" of the divergence, if weaker on the "why."

Maybe one of these [my] papers will work better for students (plus they're not book length). The first opens the question of the traditional narrative by pointing to "The Problem of the 'Early Modern' World." (This appeared in the Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient in 1998). The second asks more pointedly: "The Rise of the West -- or Not?" This essay is forthcoming in Sociological Theory, and takes off from Landes, Frank, Pomeranz, Wong, Flynn, and others who I think are developing a new approach.

Finally -- and perhaps the most fun -- is an essay for a forthcoming volume on counterfactuals in historical argument, edited at OSU by your former Berkeley colleague Phil Tetlock. Supposing that William III fails in his invasion of England, and that James II stays in power, it examines the consequences for the Royal Society, empirical science, the industrial revolution, democracy, and finds remarkable changes .....
Contributed by Jack Goldstone ( on April 25, 2000.

Surely the most immediate significant fact about the discovery of the Americas was not such miniscule economic benefits as ensued but the effect that it had on the world view?

On the one hand a simple-minded idea of "investment" was vindicated. Yes there was treasure out there in the rest of the world, and a nation that sent out ships to search for it would be rewarded (or at least its rulers would.

On the other hand, vast new intellectual horizons opened up, leading us to the reformation, the enlightenment and so on. Once it was known that traditional knowledge (whether that be Christian or Classical) had one significant hole, it was open season on questioning all received knowledge.

Contributed by Jack Goldstone ( on April 25, 2000.

De Long reviewed Pomeranz's _The Great Divergence_ recently on EH.RES, and at .

The question put forth is why European countries quickly industrialized, when the rest of Eurasia did not.

Diamond presented a unification argument: that China, due to lack of geographic barriers, has been far more politically centralized than Europe, and hence risk-averse political choices could stunt growth.

I'm not sure that explains India, though: my impression is that the British were able to expand throughout the subcontinent so easily because it was as fragmented as Europe. One would think that the British would have even been a great argument for industrialization; the superiority of European troops should have spurred the native princes to an industrialization program such as the Prussian.

Perhaps the answer lies more in an argument which Stewart has made here on FoRK: labor saving is a process which feeds upon itself. If Europe was not in conditions as Malthusian as China or India (and the Black Death and a few religious wars may have gone a long way towards keeping it out of them), then there would have been an impetus to find ways to increase labor productivity, but such increase not only threw people out of old work, but also created new work in which they could engage. "The capitalist devil..."


Jacobs had a related thesis in _The Economy of Cities_; her view of city growth was that it involved a continuous development in which a city gradually changes the goods it exports, as well as those which it imports.

Contributed by Dave Long ( on April 13, 2000.

In a message dated 4/13/00 1:29:53 AM, writes:

<< Perhaps the answer lies more in an argument which Stewart has made here on FoRK: labor saving is a process which feeds upon itself. >>

quoting Fernand Braudel, who knoew far more about thisthan I ever would. Basically he says that all thetechnology for industrialization of the textile industry existed in India (along with the designs--the Brits copies them, which were highly fashionable) but labor was so cheap it didn't pay to replace them by machines; likewise there are stories of Chinese irrigating fields by hand rather than using pumps, again labor being so common that it seemed immoral to substitute for it, which would have taken food from a ricewinner's family. It's all in, I think, The Perspecitive of the World, which is the third volume of his history of capitalism, and I think toward the end of that volume. (I've just narrowed your search from 3000 pages to about 300.)

Contributed by ( on April 13, 2000.

Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans Hall, #3880
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