Countries and Deep Patternings: China

China’s High-Level Equilibrium Trap as a Concept

The Pattern of the Chinese Past
Mark Elvin
Paperback: 348 pages
Publisher: Stanford University Press; 1st edition (June 1, 1973)

The 1973 classic work in Sinology, Mark Elvin’s The Pattern of the Chinese Past gives the student an “exemplum” in the kind of scholarship that might be called “pattern-seeking.” Without such attempts, all of history becomes formless and shapeless and an endless parade of “routs and rallies,” and “crimes and follies and misfortunes” (in Edward Gibbon’s catchphrase).

Professor Elvin renders Chinese history through an economic perspective instead of using the common dynastic classification by attempting to answer three questions:

  1. What contributed to the continuity of the Chinese empire?
  2. Why was the Chinese economy the most advanced in the world from the Song dynasty (960-1279) up until the latter half of the Qing dynasty (mid-1800s)?
  3. Why did China fail to maintain her technological advantage after the mid-fourteenth century while advancing economically?

In the first section of the book, the author elucidates the staying power of the Chinese empire was due to the following factors. The economics of defense in relation to the size of empire and the power of its neighbors never became an extreme burden that it rendered the state impotent for any consecutively long period of time. It was always able to reformulate itself after a short disunity or rule by a foreign power of the whole, which only happened twice within a two thousand year period (Mongol and Manchu rule). Two other factors that contributed to the continuity of the Chinese state include a relatively isolated existence from the rest of the Eurasian landmass and the important placed on cultural unity, beginning with the first emperor’s destruction of local records in order to quell local loyalties (pp. 21-22). Both of these factors had been built up over time through a revolution in communication and transportation.

The second section of the book analyses the causes of the economic revolution that occurred between the 8th and 12th centuries and the technological growth that accompanied it. The transformation of agriculture, especially in the south, was the major impetus that fueled the economic growth of this period. This revolution in agriculture had four aspects.

  1. The preparation of soil became more effective as a result of improved or new tools and the extensive use of manure and lime as fertilizer.
  2. Seed improvements allowed for double cropping.
  3. Improvements in hydraulic techniques and irrigation networks.
  4. Specialization in crops other than basic food grains (p.118).

Improvements in transportation and communications were almost as important as agriculture in growing the economy. Water transport saw big gains and led to the golden age of geographic studies and cartography, with envoys traveling as far away as Africa. Money and credit matured during this time helping to expand the economy. Paper money made its first appearance in 1024. Improvements in science, medicine, and technology also occurred during this period. However, despite all these advancements, “this period was the climax and also the end of many preceding centuries of scientific and technical progress” (p. 179). Although the Chinese economy continued to advance from the 14th century on, albeit on a smaller scale, it was not accompanied by improvements in technology.

The last section deals with this phenomenon, describing the distinctive characteristics of this late traditional period (1300-1800), and then proceeding to point out why technological advancements did not keep pace with the growth in the economy. This period sees a rise of small market towns in the sixteenth century and a decline in contact with the non-Chinese world around the middle of the fifteenth century. Also, by the eighteenth century serfdom disappeared, aiding population growth, which had reached 400 million by the mid-1800s. Elvin interestingly points out that the highly sophisticated metaphysics that evaded Chinese intellectual thought during the Ming and Qing dynasties negated any deep scientific inquiry (p. 233). In the attempt to explain the lack of technological advancement, Elvin disputes a number of conventional explanations. Contrary to popular belief, there was enough capital during this period to finance simple technological advances, also there was minimal political obstacles to economic growth.

In short, Elvin believes “that in late traditional China economic forces developed in such a way as to make profitable invention more and more difficult. With falling surplus in agriculture, and so falling per capita income and per capita demand, with cheapening labor but increasingly expensive resources and capital, with farming and transport technologies so good that no simple improvements could be made, rational strategy for peasants and merchants alike tended in the direction not so much of labor-saving machinery as of economizing on resources and fixed capital. Huge but nearly static markets created no bottlenecks in the production system that might have prompted creativity” (p. 314). This condition is what he terms as a “high-level equilibrium trap.” The term “trap” to describe the condition of late imperial China’s technological advancement in relation to the economy is similar to Escape from Predicament, Thomas Metzger’s analysis of the “predicament” that confronted Chinese intellectual thought from the Song through to the end of the Qing dynasty. Both explanations have at their core the idea of late imperial China not being able to generate real sustainable progress internally, stating that it was the Chinese response to the Western threat in the mid to late 1800s that finally brought the needed change.

Education via Strands of Great Books

Booth Tarkington’s novel The Magnificent Ambersons is very informative and educational precisely because it weaves together, in a “braid of insightfulness,” the various truths and phenomena of a life which have to be “taken together” to form a “cluster of understanding,” which is a pillar of what we are attempting to teach.

Life as a Social Status Olympics. The Death Scene of Major Amberson

“And now Major Amberson was engaged in the profoundest thinking of his life.

And he realized that everything which had worried him or delighted him during this lifetime, all his buying and building and trading and banking, that it was all trifling and waste beside what concerned him now.

For the Major knew now that he had to plan how to enter an unknown country where he was not even sure of being recognized as an Amberson.”

(The Magnificent Ambersons, Booth Tarkington, Orson Welles’s 1942 film narration)

Time and Place. The World of 1873, the Financial Crisis and the Vicissitudes and the Tempo of Life

“The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873. Their splendor lasted throughout all the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city. In that town in those days, all the women who wore silk or velvet knew all the other women who wore silk or velvet and everybody knew everybody else’s family horse and carriage. The only public conveyance was the streetcar. A lady could whistle to it from an upstairs window, and the car would halt at once, and wait for her, while she shut the window, put on her hat and coat, went downstairs, found an umbrella, told the ‘girl’ what to have for dinner and came forth from the house. Too slow for us nowadays, because the faster we’re carried, the less time we have to spare.”

(The Magnificent Ambersons, Booth Tarkington, Orson Welles’s 1942 film narration)

Fickleness of Life and Its Ephemeral Nature

[Uncle Jack to George:] “Life and money both behave like loose quicksilver in a nest of cracks. When they’re gone, you can’t tell where—or what the devil we did with ’em.”

(The Magnificent Ambersons, Booth Tarkington, Doubleday, Page, 1918, page 435)

Entrepreneurial Psychology

[Uncle Jack:] “Twenty years have passed–but have they? … My Lord! Old times starting all over again! My Lord!”

[Eugene:] “Old times? Not a bit! There aren’t any old times. When times are gone, they’re not old, they’re dead! There aren’t any times but new times!”

(The Magnificent Ambersons, Booth Tarkington, Doubleday, Page, 1918, page 97-98)

The task is to “amalgamate” the points in great books into a sort of unified “braid.” That’s deep education. Booth Tarkington’s 1918 novel, The Magnificent Ambersons, is very informative and educational precisely because it weaves together, in a “braid of insightfulness,” the various truths and phenomena of a life which have to be “taken together” to form a “cluster of understanding,” a pillar of what we are attempting to teach.

Essay 97: Lombard Street as an Educational Gateway to Finance

Lombard Street [Project Gutenberg ebook] from 1873, by Walter Bagehot (editor of the Economist of London) is the best overview of the modern emergent financial system. If the student then reads Charles Kindleberger’s contemporary Manias, Panics and Crashes he or she will have a background or “pedagogic overview” for finance.

About the Author

Walter Bagehot is one of the most celebrated finance writers ever. One of the most lucid and discerning critics of his time, Bagehot was the editor of the highly regarded Economist. Widely acknowledged as an expert on banking and finance, he was frequently consulted by Parliament.

Table of Contents

Essay 96: Education and London’s Centrality in Global Finance: Then and Now

To understand our world, we have to go back to classics of understanding such as Lombard Street [Project Gutenberg ebook] which gives one a vivid sense of London’s rise as world’s banker, already in 1873. 

Our current world was certainly shaped by these long-term historical trends.

…But very few persons are aware how much greater the ready balance—the floating loan-fund which can be lent to any one or for any purpose—is in England than it is anywhere else in the world. A very few figures will show how large the London loan-fund is, and how much greater it is than any other. The known deposits—the deposits of banks which publish their accounts—are, in

London (31st December, 1872). . . . . . . .£120,000,000
Paris (27th February, 1873) . . . . . . . . . .13,000,000
New York (February, 1873) . . . . . . . . . .40,000,000
German Empire (31st January, 1873) . . .8,000,000

And the unknown deposits—the deposits in banks which do not publish their accounts—are in London much greater than those in any other of these cities. The bankers’ deposits of London are many times greater than those of any other city—those of Great Britain many times greater than those of any other country.

Of course the deposits of bankers are not a strictly accurate measure of the resources of a Money Market. On the contrary, much more cash exists out of banks in France and Germany, and in all non-banking countries, than could be found in England or Scotland, where banking is developed. But that cash is not, so to speak, “Money-Market money”: it is not attainable. Nothing but their immense misfortunes, nothing but a vast loan in their own securities, could have extracted the hoards of France from the custody of the French people. The offer of no other securities would have tempted them, for they had confidence in no other securities. For all other purposes the money hoarded was useless and might as well not have been hoarded. But the English money is “borrowable” money. Our people are bolder in dealing with their money than any continental nation, and even if they were not bolder, the mere fact that their money is deposited in a bank makes it far more obtainable. A million in the hands of a single banker is a great power; he can at once lend it where he will, and borrowers can come to him, because they know or believe that he has it. But the same sum scattered in tens and fifties through a whole nation is no power at all: no one knows where to find it or whom to ask for it. Concentration of money in banks, though not the sole cause, is the principal cause which has made the Money Market of England so exceedingly rich, so much beyond that of other countries.

…I believe that our system, though curious and peculiar, may be worked safely; but if we wish so to work it, we must study it. We must not think we have an easy task when we have a difficult task, or that we are living in a natural state when we are really living in an artificial one. Money will not manage itself, and Lombard Street has a great deal of money to manage.

Essay 90: Is History the Story of Technology? Dreiser’s Novel

Due to the welter of inventions and gadgets around us, we have come to understand the entire past our “path to the present” as the story of technical milestones. This is a very narrow-gauge view of the world, but it is part of our “epochal waters” that buoy us up (i.e., our minds immediately go there without our knowing quite why). Consider the opening paragraph of Dreiser’s (died in 1945) novel, The Financier. The past is explained as a setting for technical change by itself:

The Philadelphia into which Frank Algernon Cowperwood was born was a city of two hundred and fifty thousand and more. It was set with handsome parks, notable buildings, and crowded with historic memories. Many of the things that we and he knew later were not then in existence the telegraph, telephone, express company, ocean steamer, city delivery of mails. There were no postage stamps or registered letters. The street car had not arrived. In its place were hosts of omnibuses, and for longer travel the slowly developing railroad system still largely connected by canals.

Theodore Dreiser (Chapter I, opening paragraph of the novel)

The larger story is described here. Notice the Panic of 1873 as pivotal:

In Philadelphia, Frank Cowperwood, whose father is a banker, makes his first money by buying cheap soaps on the market and selling it back with profit to a grocer. Later, he gets a job in Henry Waterman & Company, and leaves it for Tighe & Company. He also marries an affluent widow, in spite of his young age. Over the years, he starts embezzling municipal funds. In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire redounds to a stock market crash, prompting him to be bankrupt and exposed. Although he attempts to browbeat his way out of being sentenced to jail by intimidating Mr. Stener, politicians from the Republican Party use their influence to use him as a scapegoat for their own corrupt practices. Meanwhile, he has an affair with Aileen Butler, a young girl, subsequent to losing faith in his wife. She vows to wait for him after his jail sentence. Her father, Mr. Butler dies; she grows apart from her family. Frank divorces his wife. Sometime after being released, he invests in stocks subsequent to the Panic of 1873, and becomes a millionaire again. He decides to move out of Philadelphia and start a new life in the West.

This is Book 1 of the “Trilogy of Desire.”