The divergence over the Great Divergence is narrowing

Stephen Broadberry, Hanhui Guan, and David Daokui Li have updated their impressive paper compiling estimates of Chinese per-capita GDP over about one thousand years (“China, Europe and the Great Divergence: A Study in Historical National Accounting, 980-1850“), with results that help shed light on one of the great debates in economic history: just when and by how much did incomes in Europe start to overtake those in China?

Our estimates indicate that Northern Song China was richer than Domesday Britain circa 1090, but Britain had caught up by 1400. Also, China as a whole was certainly poorer than Italy by 1300, but at this stage, it is quite possible that the richest parts of China were still on a par with the richest parts of Europe.

By the seventeenth century, however, China as a whole was already substantially behind the leading European economies in the North Sea area, despite still being the richest Asian economy. Even allowing for regional variation within China, it is clear that the Great Divergence between China and Western Europe was already well under way by the first half of the eighteenth century, before the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Although this clearly contradicts the early statements of California School writers such as Pomeranz (2000) and Wong (1997), it is broadly consistent with the later views of Pomeranz (2011), who accepts that his early claim of China on a par with Europe as late as 1800 was exaggerated, and is now willing to settle for an earlier date between 1700 and 1750.

We think this is encouraging, because it shows how engagement between researchers using primarily quantitative methods and those who tend to put more weight on qualitative methods can result in a new consensus that challenges the original position of both sides in a major debate.

The California School were right to claim that, taking account of regional variation, historical differences in economic performance between China and Europe were much less than was once thought. However, the early claims of the California School went a bit too far: China and Europe were already on different trajectories before the Industrial Revolution, as European economic historians have traditionally maintained. The Great Divergence did not begin as late as the nineteenth century.

But you don’t have to take their word for it; Kenneth Pomeranz himself has weighed in with a blogpost reviewing some of this recent research:

A recent paper by Stephen Broadberry, Hanhui Guan and David Daokui Li suggests that Britain must have overtaken the Yangzi Delta in per capita GDP by the first quarter of the 18th century. This is, of course, materially different from my claim in The Great Divergence that the Yangzi Delta had not fallen significantly behind until well into the second half of the 18thcentury, and maybe not until 1800…

I think it is noteworthy that a debate between an early and a late 18th century divergence represents a considerably different intellectual landscape than the one we would have if we relied on Maddison’s GDP numbers, or on the non-quantitative work of David Landes, Deepak Lal, and various others – or for that matter, on an earlier attempt by Guan and Li to estimate comparative GDPs, which had previously claimed that a huge gap already existed in the 15th century. …

Admittedly, that is far from the rough parity I had originally suggested at 1800, and would now be inclined to put at somewhere around 1750 instead; there are some plausible adjustments that I think would narrow the gap further, but that is not really the point for now.  Instead I would emphasize that despite continuing disagreements and continuing data problems – the latter of which will probably never be fully solved – we have made some progress in narrowing the range of plausible answers about when and how much divergence occurred in these terms.

On the whole I see this as an example of the virtues of quantification in social science: when disagreements are about empirically measurable quantities, rather than abstract principles, it should be easier to resolve them. But still, how often does that actually happen in economics?


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