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Ming and Qing China Case

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saving technology, resource shortages and official apathy gave no incentive for those with capital to do so. In this aspect, Elvin seems to be right. One should be careful interpreting increasing consumption by the common people as a sign of improving standard of living. Security of private property was not guaranteed in Ming and Qing China - the government taxed unpredictably28 and would probably have encouraged consumption rather than investment into further production. New crops like sweet potato and sorghum allowed the opening up of hitherto inarable land but would not yield as much per acre compared to wheat and rice. By the late 18th century, the land had run out and cultivated area no longer increased with the population,29 signifying the approach of, if not the arrival at the classic Malthusian trap. In fact, in this time the amount of land under cash crops decreased to make way for grain cultivation in order to feed the population.30. In spite of all this, I would still hesitate to call the entire four-century period one of complete qualitative economic standstill. The economy may have remained agrarian and fragmented but the peasant family unit was unique in such a way that any increase in production would equate to higher per capita growth due to fixed 'overheads'. Thus, the opening of new land and specialisation of crops would show that the economy was growing - albeit with diminishing returns to the labour input. Signs of stagnation could not be observed until the latter half of the 18th century. From the evidence laid out, it can be easily seen in hindsight that the Chinese economy was headed towards stagnation. However, it would be inaccurate to call the entire Ming-Qing period one of economic standstill. Heading towards stagnation is not the same as being there. The specialisation of crops and development of a thriving petty production industry would have doubtlessly improved the lot of the peasant family. Only when the land ran out after 1750 did problems start to rise for the still-increasing population. The term 'quantitative growth, qualitative standstill' would therefore only be accurate for a small sliver of the 1368-1799 period.



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