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The Great Divergence

March 22, 2010

Kenneth Pomeranz. The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2000.

Sharon Chen (2003)

China, with its historically stagnant and blurred economy, has often been used as a foil for the dynamic and forward-thinking European economy. However, in his eye-opening book, Kenneth Pomeranz seeks to find “how different Chinese development looks once we free it from its role as the presumed opposite of Europe;” in his excision of China from its role as “presumed opposite,” he also finds many similarities between East and West (Pomeranz, p.25-6).

In offering a new take on the industrial growth that hit Europe but bypassed China in the nineteenth century, Pomeranz reveals many similarities, often overlooked, between Europe and China. For instance, Pomeranz points out comparable birthrates in Europe and Eurasia; from this he deduces that “various groups of Asians were at least as able and determined as any Europeans to keep birthrates down for the sake of maintaining or improving their standards of living” (41). Thus, the Chinese were just as aware as Europeans were about the implications of their populations on their economies. Similarities such as these show that it was not a backwardness inherent in Asians, nor a unique European superiority, that resulted in the East/West economic split of the nineteenth century. Instead, Pomeranz argues that although western Europe and China experienced many similarities, it was geography, ecology, and Eastern and Western reactions to these similarities, as well as luck, that created the divergent economies.

Coal is one example of European luck in shaping its lead over China in developing an industrial economy. Propitiously, “some of Europe’s largest coal deposits were located in Britain. This placed them near excellent water transport, Europe’s most commercially dynamic economy [and] lots of skilled artisans” (66). However, Chinese coal mines were located less favorably, and were also in constant danger of spontaneously combusting; these geographic differences translated into drastic economic differences as Europe was able to use its coal for industrial advancement, while China was not.

As Pomeranz shows, ecological differences were also crucial in explaining the different economic paths traveled by China and Europe. As a “core,” Europe was able to find and exploit “peripheries” such as the New World. Peripheries allowed Europe to avoid exhausting its own land, ensure a market for its exports, and have a steady stream of needed, or desired, imports. China, however, did not have peripheries it could mine and exploit to the extent that Europe did. This contrast is also important in understanding the divergence between Europe and Asia.

Throughout his book Pomeranz also gives much needed attention to instances in which Asia was more advanced than Europe. For example, Pomeranz highlights the differences between the European putting-out system that “[bypassed] a competitive labor market” and the Chinese system of selling within “a world of multiple, competitive buyers;” it would appear then, that China was actually closer to the ideal capitalist paradigm than Europe was at the time (99-100). Luxury items, precursors to a more modern economy, also illustrated Chinese advancements over Europeans; for instance, the Chinese realized before Europeans did that cotton was more comfortable to wear than hemp was, and they also consumed sugar more extensively earlier than Europeans did. Furthermore, Pomeranz points out although Europe may have been more advanced with its housing, Chinese and Japanese water supplies were much better than European ones; it is too narrow-minded to look only at European advancements. Thus, it is too simplistic to claim that because Europe managed to achieve an industrial economy before China did, Europe had some vital aspect China lacked, or that China was not able to deal with its problems (much of which were similar to European problems) as well as Europe was. Rather, geography, ecology, and luck had much to do with the European economic lead.

Kenneth Pomeranz’s book is an enormously thought-provoking and significant contribution to history for its revisal of many traditional perspectives about the East and the West. Pomeranz uses economics to bind together world history, and by adding new dimensions to the received arguments and by looking at China as an entity unto itself instead of a foil for Europe, Pomeranz adds complexity and depth to the argument. As Deirdre McClosky says, “never again will Europeans imagine they stood alone in the doorway of economic growth.”

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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