China’s Lost Industrial Revolution

A map produced by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1992 showing coal deposits throughout China. Notice how the majority lie in the North near Mongolia – a big part of which was under Chinese imperial jurisdiction in the 1100s. Source: Library of Congress.

Last year Chinese audiences surpassed American ones as the biggest moviegoers – and therefore the most important ones for Hollywood. And in many other areas, China is steadily gaining an upper hand. But this is nothing new. If anything, the Chinese are simply reclaiming a spot that used to be reserved for them.

In the 11th century, Chinese furnaces were burning hot. So hot, in fact, that China produced more coal in the year 1080 than all of Europe (minus Russia) did in 1700. It was during this time that China created one of the world’s foremost market economies. Trade was not just in coins and kind, as was the case throughout Europe, but in paper currency. The Chinese population reaped the benefits: It exploded, got healthier, and specialized economically.

Any sensible person looking at 11th century China would predict an upcoming industrial and economic revolution. But it never happened.

ACEDEMICS HAVE LONG THOUGHT about why Europe industrialized when the rest of the world didn’t. One of the most frequently cited reasons is a certain European panache for innovation, technology, and scientific thinking. Often paired with a love of free trade, and the importance of decentralized institutions. In its most egregious example, one Harvard professor described a world divided between “Greek democracy” and “oriental despotism”, the former characterized by an economics of private property, the latter by “ruler-owns-all”. In other words, Europe was predestined to industrialize and become modern history’s predominant economy because we somehow inherited a Greco-Roman way of thinking that allowed for innovation and all things good in the world.

On the other hand, the people of the East suffered under despotic rulers who took everything away from them and stinted any notion of progress.

We only have to consider a few individuals from Europe to realize that the explanation above is wrong. Just think about Caligula, Oliver Cromwell, and Leopold II. (To say nothing of Mussolini, Franco, or Hitler.) Hardly men of enlightenment.

A person with a beard

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If black workers didn’t collect rubber quickly enough in the Belgian colony of Congo, their hands were cut off. This was just one of many horrible was that the colony was run, directly overseen by its private owner, king Leopold II of Belgium, above. Source: Store Norske Leksikon.

That the Chinese were a technologically stinted people compared to Europeans is as preposterous as claiming that Nazis inhabit the dark side of the moon, and just as unfounded. Gunpowder, the printing press, paper, the compass, and the umbrella are all inventions we owe to the Chinese. Even the toothbrush first appeared in China. My dental hygiene is forever in the debt of China.

Industrially, China was doing splendid before European industrialization. By the 18th century, China had some of the most advanced furnaces in the world. They were designed to trap heat like nothing seen in Europe. And heat equals energy. Chinese burning was cost-effective, as equal amounts of fuel in a European and Chinese furnace would provide much more energy in the latter.

Back in the 1100s, China had a foundation on which to industrialize. Why didn’t it happen?

The answer lies to the north, in the middle of Chinese coal country: Shanxi and Inner Mongolia, regions that today comprise 61.4 % of all Chinese coal reserves.

Up to the 12th century, the Northern parts of China were the center of commercial, political, and industrial activity. It was in this region that most Chinese lived and worked. And they used coal as the foundation on which to build their economy. Mainly because it was accessible and cheap.

The reason coal is such a cheap fuel is that it packs tons more energy per ton than wood does.

Energy density ranking of hydrocarbon fuels  
This chart compares the amount of energy contained in a single kilo of different fuels. Firewood pales in comparison to coal which packs almost double the efficiency (depending on the grade). Notice how oil beats coal, and natural gas beats oil. Is industry simply a question of maximizing efficiency? The chart certainly suggests so. Source: “Renewable and nuclear heresies,” Jesse Ausubel.

Therefore, having access to coal in a time before global warming was a major economic boon.

But Northern China has historically had a major challenge: its nomadic neighbors. From 1100 to 1400 swarms of Mongols and other nomadic flooded the Northern regions. Add to that civil wars, plagues, and major floods, and I’d say it’s safe to conclude that Northern China was a miserable place to live during that time.

PEOPLE AGREED. Many fled, and when the region finally stabilized again, the economic heart of China along with most of its population had drifted south. The majority of the Chinese population no longer ate grain and wheat products, such as noodles, but rice. Industrially, the go-to fuel was no longer coal, which was scarce in the South, but wood. After 1200, China’s industry took a technological step back to continue functioning. It’d be centuries before coal once again came to play a major role in industry, this time not in China, but in the rugged north of England.

Other factors also played a role. Potatoes, for example, proved vital in helping European populations grow due to their high calorie content, a crop that never made it to China. (Rice is already quite calorie rich.) Furthermore, Chinese population growth after 1200 happened mainly in the countryside, European in the cities. Also, the invention of steam power proved a major engine for industrialization in Europe because it fueled new, consequently better inventions. Something heat-trapping furnaces never managed to do in China.

That China was systematically cut off from the outside world after the ascent of the Ming dynasty in the 14th century didn’t help either. China’s economic dominance was on the retreat. But it looks like the tide is turning once again – this time back in Chinese favor.

Featured image source: Smithsonian.

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