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When did the Great Divergence between China and the West take place?

przez Piotr Chodak

The main objective of the paper is to find the answer to the question “When did the Great Divergence between China and the West take place?”, and provide an explanation for the answer.

The aim of the essay is to find the answer to when the Great Divergence between China and the West took place. In the paper, the author makes an attempt to compare two different narratives about the divergence, a traditional one and the narrative of the so-called „California school”.

Głównym celem eseju jest znalezienie odpowiedzi na pytanie kiedy w zasadzie nastąpiła Wielka Dywergencja pomiędzy Chinami a światem zachodu. W artykule autor podejmuje próbę porównania dwóch różnych narracji na temat dywergencji, gdzie szkoła tradycyjna zderza się z nowszymi odkryciami tzw. „szkoły kalifornijskiej”. 


The main objective of the paper is to find the answer to the question “When did the Great Divergence between China and the West take place?”, and provide an explanation for the answer. This question is the subject of heated debate by two different groups of scholars, and for many, there is no exact answer to the question. The debate is generally divided into two separate camps. Firstly, there is a traditional debate that believes that the divergence between China and the West occurred around 1600, and secondly, there is a modern approach created by California School that put into doubt that statement. This camp suggests that the Great Divergence happened only after 1800.

First of all, the paper will examine the traditional debate on the Great Divergence with the Europe-centred point of view on the development of Europe and the rest of the world, based on the culture, international system, and science and technology. To analyze this approach I will rely on the research made by scholars like Landes (1998), and Wolfgang Schluchter (1981) in terms of cultural differences, then Wallerstein (2004), and Rawski (2009) while analyzing the international system differences, and finally Needham (1995). On the other hand, I will analyze the new “California School” approach that as mentioned above questions when the divergence between China and the West took place and put it into comparison with the older point of view on the time when the divergence actually happened. To examine it, I will use works written by leading scholars on that subject like Pomeranz, Goldstone, and Wong.

As for the main argument, I will try to show the evidence that the modern debate is the closest to the truth, and early modern China was not less but even more advanced economically than the West, had already sophisticated systems of production and trade, the foreign trade was flourishing, and Europe around the beginning of 18th century wasn’t clearly the center of the world economy.

The last section will provide the conclusions with the final answer when the Great Divergence actually happened with the key findings and summarisation of the main argument.

Europe-centric point of view – literature review

To answer the question of when the Great Divergence between China and the West occurred we must focus on two different narratives that come from the so-called traditionalist point of view and a modern one created by “California School”. In this section, I will try to present the main points of Europe-centric scholars that claim that the Great Divergence happened from the beginning of the 17th century and lasted until the 1930s. The traditional debate is based on three different areas of their narrative that might be crucial in their explanation of why China in their perception stopped developing at the same pace as the Old World, or in different words was just a backward kingdom. We may divide these three areas into cultural and international system differences with the third in science and technology.

Cultural factors

One of the most relevant scholars that took attempted to discuss the cultural basis that could influence the economic development of both sides is David Landes in his book “Wealth and Poverty of Nations” (Landes, 1998). What is most crucial, he has pointed out in his book that the cultural factors that differentiated Europe and China started diverging in the medieval era, more specifically around the 10th century.

As the origin of the cultural divergence, he mentions differences in religion, different political systems, and finally different perceptions of the world that caused it. Firstly, it is important to see religion as the factor that contributed to economic development. In China, for instance, there was no established faith, and the imperial court played the main role of the custody that played morality and was itself a doctrine that was engaged in the shaping of thought and behavior, which resulted in stifled innovation. Literally, society was homeostatic and was not a subject of any dramatic changes (Landes, 1998). On the contrary, Western medieval Christianity, in general, condemned the earthly rulers, and for instance, it gave protection to private property, which caused more willingness among the European people to engage with more labor-intensive work (Landes, 1998).

Another cultural factor that could initiate the divergence was different political systems. Since the fall of the Roman Empire, medieval Europe has become more fragmented. It can be interpreted as an advantage because decentralized authority made Europe safer from the single-stroke conquest. From the other perspective, what was at least to some extent similar to Celestial Empire in China were despotisms, although they were mitigated by basic laws and territorial partition. What was different about Europe, was the fact that the power was divided between local authorities and the center (Landes, 1998). It is important to mention the creation of semi-autonomous cities that were a specific European phenomenon. What was special about it, was the economic function of the communes that lived within the cities. Landes, describes it as“governments of the merchants, by the merchants, and for the merchants” (Landes, 1998). What’s more, it also had the civic power that granted civil rights to businesses, and it provided freedom from outer interference. For China, we may consider it a fully despotic empire. The state was present in all aspects of the life of its citizens that were treated as imperial subordinates. The autocracy of the system that lasted for centuries throughout many dynasties was the main obstacle to promoting innovative minds and willingness to change. It was seen by Landes as one of the reasons that created the divergence between Europe and China (Landes, 1998).

Finally, in his book, Landes mentioned totally different perceptions of the world that characterized both societies. He writes that European economic expansion originated because of the European entrepreneurial approach, and the quick development of commerce in Europe in his narrative could be caused by the blend of the role of the Church and different political systems that shaped the minds of Europeans. On the other hand, he sees China as an inward country with a heavy influence of authoritarianism that in comparison with promoted individuality in Europe was suppressed. Right now, I would like to refer to the work written by the father of modernization theory, Max Weber ( Schluchter, 1985) who has seen the development of the West that originated in the Protestant work ethic that was the causation of creating the new capitalist economic system which was further a catalyst for swift scientific and technological development (Schluchter, 1985). That helps us to think about the initial date of the Great Divergence. While referring to Weber’s “developmental theory of the West” and the foundation of capitalism, it could begin in the 16th century.

International system

The traditional debate also links the start of the Great Divergence with the creation of the 17th-century international system based on trade. We can link it with the foundation of capitalism. Wallerstein, in his book “The Modern World-System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century v. 1” describes widely the origin of this system dating it as it was created in the sixteenth century. Wallerstein argues that Europe has established the capitalist system to ensure the continuation of economic growth. When the feudal crises in Europe occurred in the second part of the fifteenth century it created a chance to find a new world economic system. What is special about it, is the fact that for the first time, European countries have superseded the national boundaries, and that has helped to boost commerce across the continent (Wallerstein, 2011). The system functioned in the division into two groups: the core and the periphery. As the core, we can consider northwestern Europe and as the peripheries, we can take Eastern Europe and Latin America. Wallerstein has also distinguished semi-peripheral, and external areas like Russia. The very early interconnectedness between these groups can be considered a new European division of labor. It determined the relationships between the countries by for instance the types of labor conditions that were characteristic of particular groups (Wallerstein, 2011). The origin of the new West economic system in the traditional narration has contributed to the divergence between China and the so-called “insiders” of the core, and semi-peripheral groups.

On the other hand, in the eyes of the “traditionalists”, China was seen as an inward-looking empire that hardly participated in a newly established world system, and from their point of view it had only a minimal share in the international trade. That clearly shows the reasons why the Great Divergence ought, to begin at the beginning of the 17th century, whereas the traditional narrative tells, the Celestial Empire was just a backward empire and was characterized by a high level of authoritarianism with very limited contact with the outside world, to not think about any transitional changes that would continue the development of the country.

Science & Technology

The third aspect that can tell us when the Great Divergence happened is the development of science and technology. To answer that question based on technological advancement I will refer to the article written by Justin Yifu Lin, “The Needham Puzzle: Why the Industrial Revolution Did Not Originate in China?” (Lin, 1995). What’s most important, Lin presents Chinese technological achievements as more advanced than Europeans in the premodern times. He motivates it with the claim that in premodern times, new inventions depended on the population (Lin, 1995). The greater population was the main reason why China had advanced technologically, but it changed when it came to modern times. Premodern times can be defined as the period starting from ancient times and ending in the medieval era. According to most scholars, the modern era has begun at the beginning of the 16th century and lasted until the early 19th century. Lin in his attempt to find the answer “Why a Scientific Revolution Did Not Occur in China?” has pointed out that the developmental gap between Europe and China occurred at the beginning of modern times which can be interpreted as it started from the 16th century (Lin, 1995). Lin describes it as “the failure in the transition from premodern science to modern science” (Lin, 1995).

“California School” debate

Apart from the traditional narrative that tries to convince us that the Great Divergence has begun around the beginning of the 17th century, there is another group of scholars considered the “California School” that has created a fundamentally new perspective on this phenomenon (Vries, 2010). Academics like Kenneth Pomeranz, Roy Bin Wong, and Frank A.G. have argued that the Great Divergence has happened only in the 19th century with the massive industrialization of European countries, and before the period from 1400 to 1800, there were more resemblances than divergences between West and Eurasian economies (Vries, 2010). According to this narrative, the rise of the West was relatively recent and happened suddenly, and what’s more, it relied heavily on the achievements of other civilizations (Goldstone, 2008).

The first and some scholars considered the most important advocate of the new interpretation of the Great Divergence is Kenneth Pomeranz in his book “The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and The Making Of The Modern World Economy”. Most of all, he puts into doubt the Europe-centric point of view on economic development, and he decides to compare the European continent with China while using the world-systems perspective. In his book, he also focuses also on the economic comparison of two specific regions which are England and the Yangtze River Delta (Pomeranz, 2000). Although what is the most important answer to the essay question is the fact that he has moved the date of the Great Divergence to the 19th century when the Industrial Revolution emerged firstly in England, and then spread across the European continent (Pomeranz, 2000). In justification for that claim, he has shown a lot of similarities between China and the West in terms of commerce, proto-industrial development, and agriculture as late as 1750. He also examines the factors such as birthrates, life expectancy, and other demographic variables in China (also in Japan) and while comparing it to the European data the achievements of the West look much more ordinary. Going further, he claimed that ecologically Asia played out a Europe because it had plenty of room left to grow, but these things have changed drastically in the 18th century when Europe gained some ecological advantages. What is more, he argues that as late as 1789 China had a greater competition that allowed Chinese merchants to choose from multiple buyers and sellers. Pomeranz also puts into doubt the argument that China has produced an ‘involuted economy’ where women and children “were working beyond the point at which their marginal output sank below the value of subsistence wage” (Pomeranz, 2000). He argues that the Chinese families resembled the European societies where the reorientation of leisure, labor, and consumption toward the market occurred in the pre-modern times as well as in Europe.

Another scholar that is considered a member of California School is Andre Gunder Frank. In this paper, I will refer to his famous “Review of The Wealth and Poverty of Nations” mentioned in the previous sections, and to his book“ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age” (Frank, 1998). As part of the modern narrative that advocates for globalism, not just a European economic history, in his review Frank opposes Lande’s argumentation that in the history of economic development, “the culture makes all the difference” (Frank, 1998). Among many points made in the review, he criticizes Lande’s approach to the “facts” that were provided in the book. Among many, he mentions that in fact, Western science did not contribute to technology before 1870, and what’s more that “four-fifths of the world non-European; but Asian, and particularly Chinese and Indians, were also richer, more productive and much more competitive than the still quire marginal Europe in the Eurasian world economy and history before 1750-1800” (Frank, 1998). He refers to the East-West “Oriental” trade, and Adam Smith has discovered that across the whole of India and its main ports, the whole European shares put together accounted for less than 10% of the Asian Indian Ocean trade among Eurasian nations. This information relates only to India, not to talk about the South or North China Seas, where the European share was just marginal (Frank, 1998).

The other argument that has been used by Frank to deny the earlier divergence is demography. He refers to the recent empirical research that clearly shows that in 1800 per capita income in China was still higher than in Europe at the same time. Another important point is the productiveness of China and India which in the eyes of Frank until the 19th century were more productive than Europe (Frank, 1998). These few arguments make Lande’s Europe-centric narrative at least look bad. On the other hand, he has also written a book “ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age” where he urges experts focused on the early modern age to focus not only on Europe, but specifically on Asia, because in fact until after 1800 countries such like China, and India were larger contributors to the global economy than it was thought before. In the book, he uses the argument that Europeans themselves haven’t modernized themselves, but they were relying on foreign inventions. He sees European achievements as forceful colonization that has given them wealth based on the imported silver from the New World, and what’s more important it took a couple of centuries to accumulate such wealth. Although, his main argument is that Europe could begin to dominate the world only after 1800 (Frank, 1998).

Another scholar that puts into doubt the early date of the Great Divergence is Wong R.B. who has written the book “China Transformed: Historical Change and The Limits of European Experience”. In his book, he relates to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, where he sees many economic similarities between Europe and China in the period between the eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century (Wong, 1997). First of all, the increased cash cropping and handicrafts were developed at a similar level as in Europe, and the most famous expanding silk and cotton industries were located in the Lower Yangzi region. Wong also argues that the market expansion was developing quickly along the Yangzi River, and in spite of it the Pearl River Delta, Chinese farmers were producing, for example, sugar cane, ironware, and cotton (Wong, 1997). He also pointed out that commercialization in China was at a high level, similar to European. He has recorded that land productivity increased after the tenth century. It was done due to the improvement in irrigation techniques, or enhanced farming methods. The best example of commercialization is the development of product markets between 1500 and 1900. That has created a dense network exchange (Wong, 1997). From the other perspective, the Chinese have also developed the labour markets divided into short-term and long-term labour, which was similar to the European model. That was crucial when it came to the time of harvests. There was also a case of long or short-term contracts, where peasants were accepting their jobs based on the conditions offered by the employer (Wong, 1997). On the other hand, while comparing both regions, he mentions that “Western Europe and China shared a common world of harvest insecurities and material limitations.” (Wong, 1997). He also makes a remark that both Europe and China before 1800 were similar in terms of economic and demographic crises. In the conclusion, he compares the industry in China and Europe and still notices surprising similarities, not differences.

In the search for the answer to when the Great Divergence has begun, as the final “Californian” argument I have chosen the review written by Jack A. Goldstone where he also criticizes the traditional point of view on the Great Divergence. Once again, like the rest of “California School” members he cannot accept the interpretation of Lande’s book and the notion that the Great Divergence has begun in the 1600s. He definitely denies the view that the achievements of European economies were a longstanding superiority of Europe over the rest of the world. He accuses Landes of mystifying China while presenting it as a hopeless treadmill that main goal was to secure food production to meet the increase in population (Goldstone, 2000). In response, he has shown that “Chinese were just as careful in controlling household and population size as Europeans” (Goldstone, 2000). He also argues the point made by Landes that the divergence was caused by the “lacked curiosity” of China in the maritime expansion. Goldstone is questioning the supposed inwardness of China arguing that the Dutch and Portuguese engaged in the Indian Ocean trade had discovered that China was a dominant shipping power in the region. He also used the argument that China hadn’t decided to sail further west because simply there was nothing that would attract them (Goldstone, 2000).

If I would have to sum it up, the California School clearly shows that early modern China had already sophisticated systems of production and trade, as according to Pomeranz and Wong commercialization was at an equal level to European. What’s more, China in the period between 1500 and 1750 already possessed private property and property rights, which were mentioned by the Landes as one of the main causes of increased economic development in Europe, and going further the markets were also well developed with the dense network of exchanges. In terms of foreign trade, China for centuries was a leading trade partner on the Indian Ocean, South, and North China seas, and in the eyes of California School scholars, it wasn’t as inward as traditionalists perceived. On the other hand, the perception that the Imperial Court was the only body that had influenced all of the spheres of life in China has been also denied, with the argumentation that the government didn’t constantly interfere and prevented development.


In the search for the answer to the essay question “When did the Great Divergence between China and the West take place?” I have decided to compare two different academic interpretations. Although it is still difficult to give a definite answer to that question. Both “schools” provide really striking arguments, although it seems that “California School” scholars have shown more accurate arguments. The traditional debate focuses only on the European-centric point of view, many times excluding Chinese achievements in the period between 1500 and 1800. For me, taking such an approach with the exclusion of broader China studies is not as convincing as the new approach taken by “California School”. The similarities in the economic development between China and the West shown by Pomeranz or Frank seem to be more reliable, and the pieces of evidence provided by “modernists” in my subjective opinion are more cohesive. Definitely, the book “The Great Divergence” written by Pomeranz possesses the most powerful argumentation, where he has decided to use economic analysis of England and the Pearl River Delta, where he has found many not proven similarities between these two regions. Although, his most important claim is that China was at least an equal state to Europe until the 19th century. The similarities that were confirmed later by other “Californian” scholars that refer to commerce, proto-industry, agriculture, or factors like birthrate or life expectancy seem to be relevant to support this claim. Some academics like Frank have gone even further claiming that European science hadn’t contributed to new inventions until 1870 and going further he has also claimed that a fourth-fifth of the world’s population was way more advanced and richer than European citizens. Ignorance of traditionalists that haven’t taken into consideration the trade network, and competitiveness in Eurasia is another argument that shows the advancement of the Far East civilizations. Wong relates to this issue, where he points out that commercialization in China was at least at an equal level as in Europe, and the network of exchange in Asia between 1500 and 1900 was even more developed than European trade routes. To support the answer that is exposed by the “California School”, Goldstone presents China as the major shipping power on the Indian Ocean and tries to demystify the Chinese “inwardness” that was shown by the traditional debate on the Great Divergence. Because of all of these factors, it is hard to see China as a backward country, where a despotic regime blocked any potential inventions, and a Europe-centric point of view that only Europeans had this entrepreneurial spirit that contributed to the divergence. As recent research has shown, China wasn’t only a peripheral country, but it has shared the same achievements as Europeans, and going further it could be the largest economy in the world until the 19th century. From my personal point of view, the answer of “California School” that the Great Divergence started only after 1800 is more convincing, and in the period between 1500 and 1800, China was at least equal economically to the West, with sophisticated systems of production and trade. The sources that I have used to present the traditional argumentation seem to be limited to the Europe-centric view with less convincing arguments that relate to the rest of the world, more specifically to China.


  • Frank, A. G. China, From Reorient: Global Economy In The Asian Age. 1st ed. Berkeley: the University of California Press, 1998. Print.
  • Frank, Andre Gunder, and Kenneth Pomeranz. „The Great Divergence: Europe, China, And The Making Of The Modern World Economy”. The Journal of Asian Studies 60.1 (2001): 180-182. Web.
  • Frisby, David. „Review: The Rise Of Western Rationalism: Max Weber’s Developmental History By Wolfgang Schluchter; Guenther Roth”. JSTOR. N.p., 1982. Web. 29 Apr. 2017.
  • Goldstone, Jack A. „The Wealth And Poverty Of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich And Others So Poor (Review)”. Journal of World History 11.1 (2000): 105-111. Web.
  • Landes, David S. „The Wealth And Poverty Of Nations – Why Some Are So Rich And Some So Poor?”. 1st ed. United States: Abacus Book, 1998. Print.
  • Lin, Justin Yifu. „The Needham Puzzle: Why The Industrial Revolution Did Not Originate In China”. Economic Development and Cultural Change 43.2 (1995): 269- 292. Web.
  • Pomeranz, Kenneth. The Great Divergence. 1st ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000. Print.
  • Wallerstein, Immanuel Maurice. The Modern World-System. 1st ed. Berkeley: the University of California Press, 2011. Print.
  • Wong, R. B. „Economic Change In Late Imperial China And Early Modern Europe, From China Transformed: Historical Change And The Limits Of European Experience”. Ithaca: Cornell University Press (1997): 13-32. Print.


Wojciech Adamczyk jest The Associate of King’s College (AKC), jak również absolwentem Master of Science in China and Globalization na King’s College London, University of London oraz The School of Law and Economy of China na Uniwersytecie Warszawskim. Ponadto jest absolwentem Finansów i Rachunkowości Przedsiębiorstw w Szkole Głównej Handlowej w Warszawie oraz Akademii Młodych Dyplomatów przy Europejskiej Akademii Dyplomacji.


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