In his work, Justin Yifu Lin investigates the history of Chinese economic development and states several hypotheses explaining why, despite the numerous inventions and potential, the Chinese industrial revolution never happened.
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All the economic factors that led to the famous Industrial Revolution in England in the nineteenth century already existed in China four centuries earlier. In the thirteenth century, China developed the most complex agricultural system and made some world’s most prominent inventions. However, with all the economic power and progressive technologies, at some point China started to lag behind the European countries. Many scholars were trying to find out why such a highly-developed civilization did not come to the revolution like Europe did. The markets in China were as strong as in Western Europe, yet it was not enough for the industrialization (Shiue and Carol 1189). Lin distinguishes two main types of progress: experience-based and experiment-based (278). He explains that the experience-based approach was common in premodern times and large Chinese population was a significant advantage for the development.
It took much more time for Europe to achieve the similar results, yet, unlike China, it eventually changed the experience-based approach to a scientific one. The fundamental difference laid in the social and political changes. China stood for its traditions when the Western civilizations experienced major social and political transformations, such as American constitution and the formation of British middle class (McCloskey para. 11). Europe was competitive in studying the laws of nature and developing new ideas (Mokyr 1). Unlike China, European countries did not limit the employment of women; therefore the factories had to be well equipped and suited for female labor (Goldstone 1). The Chinese government had an absolute power and did not allow any community dispute or contribution. The specific curriculum limited time needed for scholars to devote themselves to scientific research. The beginning of any revolutionary movement always requires the “individual thought and action” (Mantoux 42), China did not succeed in developing a local industrial revolution.
Goldstone, Jack A. “Gender, Work, and Culture: Why the Industrial Revolution Came Early to England but Late to China.” Sociological Perspectives, vol. 39, no. 1, 1996, pp. 1-2.
Lin, Justin Yifu. “The Needham Puzzle: Why the Industrial Revolution Did Not Originate in China.” Economic Development and Cultural Change, vol. 43, no. 2, 1995, pp. 269-292.
Mantoux, Paul. The Industrial Revolution in the Eighteenth Century: An Outline of the Beginnings of the Modern Factory System in England. Routledge, 2013.
McCloskey, Deirdre Nansen. “The Industrial Revolution.” The Handbook of Libertarianism. Web.
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Mokyr, Joel. A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy. Princeton University Press, 2016.
Shiue, Carol H. and Wolfgang Keller. “Markets in China and Europe on the Eve of the Industrial Revolution.” The American Economic Review, vol. 97, no. 4, 2007, pp. 1189-1216.