Alternate economic histories: What if China had not been united?

On a long plane flight I read Philip T. Hoffman’s Why Did Europe Conquer the World?, an admirably clear and concise entry in the genre of big-idea books explaining European dominance. Though there are lots of interesting historical tidbits in the book, Hoffman is mainly trying to present a model that explains why Europeans could conquer so many other peoples. Europeans won because they had better guns (really a shorthand for a whole complex of military technologies), and they developed better guns because they fought a lot with other states that also had guns, and consistently invested lots of resources in making their guns better. This model clearly comes out of the literature on the “fiscal-military state,” the argument that one of the most important elements in Europe’s modernization was the ability of European states to effectively raise money to fight wars.

Hoffman is good at avoiding value judgments, and he never argues or implies that Europeans won because they were more virtuous or innovative or freedom-loving. Indeed you could say that his model shows that “good” states (large, well-governed, peaceful) loose out in the long run to “bad” states (small, chaotic, warlike), because the “bad” states tend to get better at warfare over time. (Large states do not fight frequent wars because their smaller neighbors are usually not foolish enough to think they can attack and win.) The clarity of his model also allows him to make good comparisons, and to think through counterfactuals very logically; see here for an excellent discussion of how Hoffman embraces the idea of historical contigency–that things could easily have turned out differently.

For today’s reading, here is an excerpt where he uses his model to think through an alternate historical path for China. Hoffman’s model leads him to conclude that a large, relatively peaceful state that spends most of its military energy fighting off annoying nomad attacks (eg, China) will end up militarily disadvantaged relative to smaller, more warlike states that frequently fight with near-equals (eg, Britain). Therefore it is logical for him to ask what would have happened if China had been smaller and less peaceful? You may not agree with the conclusions, but the thought process is interesting. The point of departure for his alternate history is that the Mongols do not conquer (and thereby unify) China in the thirteenth century:

In the early thirteenth century, before the Mongols took over, East Asia was split into three hostile powers locked into a military equilibrium: the western Xia and the Jin to the north, and the southern Song to the south and along the coast. If the Mongols had not shattered this equilibrium (and no other nomadic mega-empire had taken their place), then China might well have remained divided, and the southern Song would have continued to prosper.

Eurasia around 1200 AD, before the Mongol conquests

Since fighting with the western Xia and the Jin would not have stopped, the southern Song would have persisted in developing their commercial taxes and their navy, which had helped them survive a Jin invasion and would have protected both inland waterways and their coastal capital. Over time, one could easily imagine merchant elites in prosperous southern Song cities lobbying (like their mercantile counterparts in western Europe) for a powerful oceangoing navy to protect their burgeoning overseas trade. Gunpowder had been put to military use in China since the tenth century, with the southern Song and the Jin wielding it against one another in their wars and along the way developing gunpowder bombs and what was likely the first fire lance, an ancestor of the modern gun. Without a Mongol conquest, the southern Song and their opponents would have continued to push the gunpowder technology forward, probably even further than the southern Song did in fighting the Mongols. …

What would the outcome have been? Militarily, the southern Song state would have been large by European standards, and it would not have been free of threats from nomads. Hence the southern Song could not have specialized in the gunpowder technology: like the Ottomans and the Russians, they would have had to divide their resources between the gunpowder technology and the older means of dealing with nomads. But they would not have been a hegemon, and with their substantial commercial tax revenues, they could have spent more on the technology and so pushed it further than the Ming or the Qing ever did, all the more so since the Ming and Qing emperors themselves were often (though certainly not always) hegemons too. And since it would have been much easier for southern Song merchants to establish maritime trading centers abroad, the southern Song (like the Russians) would have had less trouble buying the latest version of the technology from western Europeans, should they ever find themselves lagging behind. The end result would likely have been a much stronger state by 1800, one that might have held off the Europeans and the Japanese in the nineteenth century, or at least negotiated with them on more equal terms. …

Would China have also industrialized faster? One might think that seaborne trade would have encouraged industrialization, but there was too little of it to have much of an effect in state as big as the southern Song. And China would still lack England’s cheap coal, or so historians who focus on energy costs would argue. Yet one could imagine a different path to industrialization, one based on a textile industry like that found in the early United States. It would not require cheap coal, although China did have coal deposits, because coal’s importance for industrialization has been exaggerated. In this scenario, the ongoing warfare would have already drawn manufacturing into fortified cities along the coast, raising urban wages and creating concentrations of manufacturing that would help spread new technology. In the long run, industrialization would follow…

Such a southern Song China might not have been the first to industrialize, but it would likely have joined Japan, the United States, and continental Europe in having an industrial revolution not in the twentieth century, but in the 1800s.

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