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The pre-industrial economies of Western Europe and China


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#1 Tibet Libre

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Posted 19 June 2010 - 06:11 PM

I noticed that on this forum the idea that "China was the richest country (sic) of the world" for centuries or even millennia has been often treated as a given, as if this were an established fact. However, it clearly is far from that.

I am not saying that the following estimations are the real deal, and I am not alone in being pretty sceptical that reliable estimations for pre-19th century economies can be made at all. But they should serve their minimal purpose that there is enough scholarship by serious economic historians out there to dismiss the above claim outright into the realm of cherished, but subjective beliefs.

I assume that "rich" means wealth per capita. In this sense, Luxemburg is much richer than the PRCh, although the latter has a vastly bigger economy.


MACROECONOMICS

1. Comparison between Western Europe and China 0-1998 in terms of GDP per capita

World GDP per Capita, 0–1998 (1990 international $)

Year                  0   1000 1500 1600 1700  1820  1870  1913  1950  1973   1998
Western Europe        450 400  774  894  1.024 1.232 1.974 3.473 4.594 11.534 17.921
China                 450 450  600  600    600   600   530   552   439    839  3.117

SOURCE: Angus Maddison: The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective, p. 263

Below Maddison's precise data for GDP per capita for the 1st millennium AD: it becomes clear that Western Europe outperfomed China in antiquity by more than 20%, while it later lagged behind by no more than about 5%.

GDP per capita, 0-1000

Year                  0     1000
Western Europe        576   427
China                 450   450

SOURCE: Maddison, Angus: "Contours of the World Economy, 1–2030 AD. Essays in Macro-Economic History", 
Oxford University Press, 2007, ISBN 978–0–19–922721–1, p. 382, table A.7.

2. Comparison between Roman Empire and Han China in terms of total GDP
The two most recent estimates of Roman GDP confirm the impression of a massive positive reevaluation of the power of the Roman economy, which was by ca. 60% and almost 400% respectively larger than of Han China (the 2007 estimation by Maddison for the Roman Empire is only of limited use, since he assumes a much too small population size).

Total GDP in International Dollars

Han Empire:       26,820,000,000 (Maddison 2007)
Roman Empire:     22,000,000,000 (Maddison 2007)
Roman Empire:     42,700,000,000 (Scheidel & Friesen 2009)
Roman Empire:    100,000,000,000 (E. Lo Cascio and P. Malanima 2009)

SOURCES:
E. Lo Cascio and P. Malanima, ‘GDP in pre-modern agrarian economies (1–1820 AD): a revision of the estimates’
 Rivista di Storia Economica
Scheidel, Walter; Friesen, Steven J.: ''The Size of the Economy and the Distribution of Income in the Roman Empire'',
 ''The Journal of Roman Studies'', Vol. 99 (2009), pp. 61–91

3. Comparison between Roman Empire (301 AD) and China (1933) in terms of national product per head

Only one estimate which permits a direct comparison of real product per head of the Roman Empire with that of modern countries has been found. On the basis of prices in Diocletian's edict of AD 301 and of the distribution of expenditures of Italian peasant families in the 1920s the value of expenditures per adult has been estimated at 181 International Units, i.e. U.S.A. dollars of 1925-34. As the standard of living in Diocletian's time is likely to have been below that of the early Empire expenditures per adult should have been above 200 IU which compares with 370 IU per occupied person in Italy in 1893, 163 IU in Brazil in 1928, 138 IU in China in 1933 and 132 IU in India in 1867/68.

Source: Raymond Goldsmith: "An Estimate of the Size and Structure of the National Product of the Early Roman Empire", Review of Income and Wealth, Vol. 30, No. 3 (1984), 280


Table 1 shows the Western European GDP per capita (400) to be only by an eight smaller at the time when many historians would hold that the ancient Chinese economy had peaked, that is in the early Song dynasty (450). By 1500, that is during the Renaissance, Western European has surpassed China in terms of GDP per capita by a third (774 to 600), with the gap constantly increasing even before the onset of the Industrial Revolution.

Table 2 shows that the national product per capita in the late Roman Empire around 301 AD (181 IU) was higher than China's as late as 1933 (138 IU), even though the technological gap at that point of time was already vast (railways, steam ships and engines, electricity etc. all were obviously unknown to the Romans and could not have bolstered their economy the way they did so with the Chinese economy of the 1930s).


INDUSTRY: METALLURGY AND MINING

Metal extraction and circulation is by all accounts an important way of determining the economic power of a national economy.

1. Copper

Roman peak production: 15,000 t
Sung peak production (all-time Chinese high): 13,000 t

SOURCE: Sungmin Hong; Jean-Pierre Candelone; Clair C. Patterson; Claude F. Boutron: "History of Ancient Copper Smelting Pollution During Roman and Medieval Times Recorded in Greenland Ice", Science, Vol. 272, No. 5259. (1996), p. 247

Since the Roman Empire was less populous than the Sung, Roman copper per capita production was even higher than the absolute numbers suggest. This is notable because, while copper was the single most important metal of the Sung period (copper coinage), it did not have a similar importance in the Roman economy which was rather based on gold and silver circulation.

2. Silver and gold

Roman production exceeds Chinese peak production of silver and gold by several orders of magnitude. Even single Roman provinces surpass the Chinese output whatever dynasty is considered for a comparison:

No comparable estimates are available for the Han period. However, we are told that the Tang empire enjoyed mining yields of 12,000-15,000 ounces of silver per year (or 450-550kg at 37.3g per Tang ounce), although one source refers to as much as 25,000 ounces, or 930kg. These rates are extremely low compared to Roman silver production in Spain.

Under the Song, output was boosted to 145,000 ounces in 998 and a record 883,000 ounces in 1022 before dropping to 215,000-220,000 ounces in 1049/78. The most productive prefecture was then credited with 100,000+ ounces/year.179 These output figures range from 5.4 to 8.2 tons per year. Even the peak in 1022, at 33 tons, merely equals Roman production levels in a single province. In the same period, gold was produced at annual levels of c10,000-15,000 ounces, or 370-560 kg, an entire order of magnitude lower than output in any one of the most profitable Roman provinces. If anything, precious metal yields in the Han period must have been lower still...

In fact, China appears to have been incapable of establishing a solid silver-based currency system until massive silver imports from Japan, the Philippines and the New World between the mid-sixteenth and the mid-seventeenth centuries injected some 7,300 tons of this metal into the Chinese economy.

SOURCE: Scheidel: "The monetary systems of the Han and Roman empires", 2005, p. 31


More precisely, the average Greek and Roman silver output was between 25 and 200 times larger than the maximum Chinese production of 1 metric ton during the Han and Tang dynasties:

                Average Greco-Roman silver production in tons per year
350-250 B.C.        25
250-150 B.C.        60
150-50  B.C.       100
 50 B.C.-100 A.D.  200 
100-200 A.D.       100
200-300 A.D.        30
300-400 A.D.        25

SOURCE: Patterson, C. C.: "Silver Stocks and Losses in Ancient and Medieval Times", ''The Economic History Review'', Vol. 25, No. 2 (1972), p. 229


3. Lead

Roman lead production reached an amount of 80,000 metric tons per year. Although the authors are silent on Chinese production, they conclude that the Romans achieved "the largest output before the Industrial Revolution". Hence, Chinese production must have been lower, probably by a large margin considering that lead is typically a by-product of silver which used to be mined in China only in very low quantities.

A pronounced maximum of about 80,000 metric tons per year (approximately the rate at the time of the Industrial Revolution) was reached during the flourishing of Roman power and influence around two millennia ago (Fig. lA). The use of lead was ubiquitous, and most districts that were suitable for mining in the Old World were known and worked, especially those in Spain, the Balkans, Greece, and Asia Minor (5, 7)...This occurrence marks the oldest large-scale hemispheric pollution ever reported, long before the onset of the Industrial Revolution....

Lead production then decreased sharply during the decline of the Roman Empire, down to a minimum of only a few thousand tons per year during medieval times, before increasing again from A.D. 1000 with the discovery of the lead and silver mines of Central Europe.

SOURCE: Sungmin Hong; Jean-Pierre Candelone; Clair C. Patterson; Claude F. Boutron: "Greenland Ice Evidence of Hemispheric Lead Pollution Two Millennia Ago by Greek and Roman Civilizations", Science, Vol. 265, No. 5180. (1994), pp. 1841


4. Iron

Total output:
Roman Empire:  84,750 t 
Han Dynasty:    5,800 t
Song Dynasty: 114,000 t

The annual iron production of the Roman Empire was ca. 14 times higher than of the contemporary Han, while it was lower by about a third than the much later Song Dynasty. However, we should keep in mind that the Song dynasty was more populous on most accounts than the Imperium, at least if we go with the Roman low count (60-70 mio) as opposed to the high count of 100 mio.

These figures we need to factor in to determine the focus of our study, the output per capita:
Roman Empire:  84,750 t / 60-70 mio to 100 mio = 1.4-1.2 to 0.8 kg
Han Dynasty:    5,800 t / 58 mio               = 0.1 kg
Song Dynasty: 114,000 t / 95 mio               = 1.2 kg

We see that on the high count, Roman productivity per head is as high and even higher than Song's, while on the low count Song productivity leads by 50%. The contemporary Han productivity is dwarfed by the Romans by the factor 8 to 14.

The archaeological record shows that iron was a very familiar low-cost material. Estimates have been made for iron production of 2,250 tons per annum in Roman Britain, and 82,500 tones per annum through the rest of the Empire (Sim and Ridge 2002: 23; cf. Cleere and Crossley 1985: 57-86).

SOURCE: Craddock, Paul T.: "Mining and Metallurgy", in: Oleson, John Peter (ed.): ''The Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World'', Oxford University Press, 2008, ISBN 978-0-19-518731-1, pp. 93–120 (108)


For the Han period I have suggested elsewhere that iron production might have been on the order of 0.1 kg per capita per year (Wagner 2001a: 73). Since, as Hartwell has shown, the uses of iron had broadened greatly between the Han and the Song one might well be justified in supposing an increase in production by an order of magnitude in the intervening thousand years. Therefore his suggestion, 114,000 metric tonnes, amounting to about 1.2 kg of iron per capita per year, is quite plausible, but there appears to be no direct quantitative evidence for it.

SOURCE: Wagner, Donald B.: "The Administration of the Iron Industry in Eleventh-Century China", ''Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient'', Vol. 44, No. 2 (2001), pp. 175–197 (175f., 191)


Elsewhere Donald Wagner gives the absolute number:

If we were to assume an average annual production of 100 tonnes per Iron Office, then total annual production in the Han Empire as a whole in AD 2 would have been about 5,000 tonnes, or about 0.1 kg per person.

SOURCE: Donald B. Wagner: "The state and the iron industry in Han China", p. 73



Preliminary conclusion: Macroeconomic estimates by historians of economy as well as inferences from metal production by analysis of Greenland ice indicate that the notion of China having been historically the "richest country" is untenable. Rather, the evidence points to the Roman Empire being the richest region of the world for the time of its duration, while Western Europe exceeded China in terms of GDP per capita again sometime before 1500. China may have been wealthier in the period in between (where the data shows huge gaps), but the difference in terms of GDP per capita to Western Europe appears in any case to have been small (not higher than 1/8). However, since this thread does not consider the economic performance of classic India and the Golden Age of Islam, both of which too peaked during the time, even for this limited period the notion of China as the richest world region is as yet unproven.

Edited by Tibet Libre, 24 June 2010 - 11:54 AM.


#2 sindeee

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Posted 20 June 2010 - 01:10 AM

I noticed that on this forum the idea that "China was the richest country (sic) of the world" for centuries or even millennia has been often treated as a given, as if this were an established fact. However, it clearly is far from that.


I'm not sure what prove you offered that stated otherwise. Maddison's estimate shows that China's GDP per capita was higher than Europe's from the 5th to the 14th century, this is nearly a mellenium and this tend to be the concensus among the traditional economic historians. Revisionists since the past decade have gone further in arguing that China's economy remained ahead per capita until the 18th century. Revisionist trends always take long to be the dominant school, so we need to give it time. The economic comparison between China and Europe between theperiod of 14th-18th century was probably comparable and not at all much different. Both saw the growth of proto-capitalist economies and industrialization. European travelors of the 16th-18th century were usually amazed at China's industres and trade volumes, especially in the 16th century. So in all probably the economies were probably around thnd the same with both areas leading at different times according to the circumstances(such as war and famine).
In another word, the disagreement today mainly lies in the period before the 5th century and the period after the 14th, while almost all economic historians uniformly agree that China's per capita output was greater than medieval Europe(this is really common sense seeing as medieval Europe don't have any cities above 100,000 in size.

Only one estimate which permits a direct comparison of real product per head of the Roman Empire with that of modern countries has been found. On the basis of prices in Diocletian's edict of AD 301 and of the distribution of expenditures of Italian peasant families in the 1920s the value of expenditures per adult has been estimated at 181 International Units, i.e. U.S.A. dollars of 1925-34. As the standard of living in Diocletian's time is likely to have been below that of the early Empire expenditures per adult should have been above 200 IU which compares with 370 IU per occupied person in Italy in 1893, 163 IU in Brazil in 1928, 138 IU in China in 1933 and 132 IU in India in 1867/68.

Source: Raymond Goldsmith: "An Estimate of the Size and Structure of the National Product of the Early Roman Empire", Review of Income and Wealth, Vol. 30, No. 3 (1984), 280



TL, you don't seem to be very updated on Roman economic historiography. Goldsmith's article was written in 1983, so I would recommend you stop using it as a reference since its the [b]trend for Roman economic historians of the past two decades to reevaluate Roman economy and portray it as fragile and labor inefficient. Just go take a look at newer analysis done by classical economic historians such Richard Saller. The new question among Roman historians is not why did the Roman Empire collapsed, but how it was able to last so long despite been so inefficient and fragile.

Also as I noted in other places, China's economy was actually at one of its lowest point in the 1930s-40s and even Maddison's graph showed that (he gave the per capita output of China in 1950 at 439 which was lower than both the Roman and Han per capita output of 450). What makes capitalism unique is that economic growth becomes linearly related to time, while "feudal economies" as the Marxists would put it, tends to move in cycles. So surpassing Chinese economy of 1933 is hardly a phenomenon since its natural for pre-capitalist economies to decline to a low point despite being later in history; most ancient Chinese dynasties surpassed ROC economy as well.

Edited by sindeee, 20 June 2010 - 01:23 AM.


#3 Borjigin Ayurbarwada

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Posted 20 June 2010 - 04:36 AM

Table 1 shows the Western European GDP per capita (400) to be only by an eight smaller at the time when many historians would hold that the ancient Chinese economy had peaked, that is in the early Song dynasty (450). By 1500, that is during the Renaissance, Western European has surpassed China in terms of GDP per capita by a third (774 to 600), with the gap constantly increasing even before the onset of the Industrial Revolution.


Keep in mind that the data which Maddison took from regarding to Chinese grain production(where the per capita is determined) came from Perken and Rozman, sources that were written in a time where historians thought that the Song period had been the most productive period in Chinese history(ten years before that the common trend was to regard the Tang as the most productive period, as well as being the height of the "feudal economic system" in pre capitalist China). Perkens assumed that Chinese per capita food output were roughly stable from the Song to the Ming and gave a figure of 285 kg (570 jin). Historians from the late 80s on have been constantly publishing new finds and studies in the mainland and few historians of China today would think that the Ming and Qing economy was stagnant and no better than that of the Song. Many economic historians of China both in China and abroad(especially in Japan) generally consider the late Ming to be another phase of economic growth and expansion, indeed Wu Songyi estimates that the late Ming food production as over 1,700 jin compared to the 1,330 shi jin of Northern Song and the 1,256 shi jin of the Tang dynasty (A production over 25% greater than that of the Song.) Maddison also clearly had no stats in regard to pre-1000 AD China, so any estimate he makes of that period can be taken with a grain of salt.

Also, 1/8 and 1/3 difference isn't much of a difference by today's economic standard. Even assuming Maddison's outdated data was correct, China in the 18th century was still only alittle more than around 50% lower in per capita than Western Europe, which is analagous to the per capita between the US and Britain today; a gap so small that both are still first world countires. The ancient GDP is generally a paradox, due to the slow pace of technological growth vis a vis population growth, states that achieved a high population from growth generally have a higher total GDP, but lower per capita output. So states which are "wealthier" are generally ones which are less productive in the big picture. So for those of you who like to compare their penis lengths, you might want to ask yourself whether comparing per capita wealth has any meaning in pre-industrial and pre-capitalist times.

Edited by Borjigin Ayurbarwada, 29 June 2010 - 12:38 PM.


#4 Borjigin Ayurbarwada

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Posted 20 June 2010 - 05:06 AM

What makes capitalism unique is that economic growth becomes linearly related to time, while "feudal economies" as the Marxists would put it, tends to move in cycles. So surpassing Chinese economy of 1933 is hardly a phenomenon since its natural for pre-capitalist economies to decline to a low point despite being later in history; most ancient Chinese dynasties surpassed ROC economy as well.



Capitalist economies does not move linearly with time, thats why most first world economies in the world stagnates today. However, as the name "capital" indicates, the accumulation of capital allows a large section of the population to raise their standards of living by several folds, a phenomenon that couldn't have been achieved by the economic modes of production before that (these being hunter and gathering, slave mode of production, and feudal mode of production). The standard of living among the first three modes of production is comparable and not all that different.

Edited by Borjigin Ayurbarwada, 20 June 2010 - 05:13 AM.


#5 Tibet Libre

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Posted 20 June 2010 - 05:26 AM

As I said, I won't be defending these figures are the best since sliced bread, as I am generally sceptical of interpreting too much into statistics which - as all economic stats on ancient history - rest on shaky evidence. However:

I'm not sure what prove you offered that stated otherwise. Maddison's estimate shows that China's GDP per capita was higher than Europe's from the 5th to the 14th century...



Where do you get this idea from? There is a 1000 year-gap (year 0 to 1000) in Maddison's statistics and these figures don't tell when Chinese GDP per capita began to outgrow the Western European one. Certainly, Chinese economic development through the 1st millennium could not have been very impressive, since even at its undisputed peak (around 1000), Sung China hardly exceeds Western Europe in terms of GDP per capita (400 to 450); and even this small gap would have likely melted away swiftly , once the Romanesque period and the real rise of medieval Europe started in the course of the 11th century.

Also consider that at this point of time - which marks the peak of the Middle Byzantine Empire - Eastern Europe was by no small amount richer than the Western part, so chances are that its wealth outstripped closely-matched Sung China, either.

TL, you don't seem to be very updated on Roman economic historiography. Goldsmith's article was written in 1983, so I would recommend you stop using it as a reference since its the [b]trend for Roman economic historians of the past two decades to reevaluate Roman economy and portray it as fragile and labor inefficient.



Trust me, the opposite is true. There has been a positive reevaluation of the Roman economy, technology and demography which has captured the attention of the whole field of classicists. The latest The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World from 2008 is a case in point. While Goldsmith still operated with the traditional value of 55 mio. Roman inhabitants, consensus now has moved to between 60-70 mio. (low count) and 100 mio. (high count) for the Imperium. In percentage, this increase means that the total GDP of the Roman Empire should be from 10-30% to 90% higher than previously thought.

Maddison also clearly had no stats in regard to pre-1000 AD China, so any estimate he makes of that period can be taken with a grain of salt.



Agree, not only of that period, but also of all others, notably the Roman period, where he operates with too low, outdated estimates.


Also, 1/8 and 1/3 difference isn't much of a difference by today's economic standard. Even assuming Maddison's outdated data was correct, China in the 18th century was still only alittle more than around 50% lower in per capita than Western Europe, which is analagous to the per capita between the US and Britain today; a gap so small that both are still first world countires.



Disagree. In a subsistence situation which all pre-industrial, peasant societies faced, a difference by 1/8 per capita is already substantial and one of 100% marks the diffence between rich and poor, between prospering and starving. Definitely, 19th century China was by all foreign and Chinese accounts impoverished and torn apart by constant social and political unrest and upheavals, so the exact opposite of a first world country.

Edited by Tibet Libre, 20 June 2010 - 05:27 AM.


#6 sindeee

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Posted 20 June 2010 - 06:11 AM

Where do you get this idea from? There is a 1000 year-gap (year 0 to 1000) in Maddison's statistics and these figures don't tell when Chinese GDP per capita began to outgrow the Western European one. Certainly, Chinese economic development through the 1st millennium could not have been very impressive, since even at its undisputed peak (around 1000), Sung China hardly exceeds Western Europe in terms of GDP per capita (400 to 450); and even this small gap would have likely melted away swiftly , once the Romanesque period and the real rise of medieval Europe started in the course of the 11th century.

Also consider that at this point of time - which marks the peak of the Middle Byzantine Empire - Eastern Europe was by no small amount richer than the Western part, so chances are that its wealth outstripped closely-matched Sung China, either.


Maddison drew a growth chart which covered all of the 1st mellenium. European per capita dropped to 400 USD by 500 and remained so until 1000, while China's remained at 450 until 1000. Eastern Europe's per capita was not higher than the west, this was demonstrated in Maddison's book as well. Aside from Maddison, its a common concensus that China's economy by the Sui Tang transition was clearly ahead of Europe. Adshead, S. A. M. (2004)'s, "T'ang China: The Rise of the East in World History" explained this trend.


Trust me, the opposite is true. There has been a positive reevaluation of the Roman economy, technology and demography which has captured the attention of the whole field of classicists. The latest The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World from 2008 is a case in point. While Goldsmith still operated with the traditional value of 55 mio. Roman inhabitants, consensus now has moved to between 60-70 mio. (low count) and 100 mio. (high count) for the Imperium. In percentage, this increase means that the total GDP of the Roman Empire should be from 10-30% to 90% higher than previously thought.



Please quote from the cambridge history of the Greco-Roman world to support your point because from the writings of Walter Schneidel and Richard Saller, who helped with the Cambridge history of Roman economics, I'm getting the idea that the y are not very impressed by the efficiency of the slave economy. Unless you are talking about Roman citizens alone, then this does not apply.

Edited by sindeee, 20 June 2010 - 06:18 AM.


#7 Tibet Libre

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Posted 20 June 2010 - 06:52 AM

Maddison drew a growth chart which covered all of the 1st mellenium. European per capita dropped to 400 USD by 500 and remained so until 1000, while China's remained at 450 until 1000. Eastern Europe's per capita was not higher than the west, this was demonstrated in Maddison's book as well.



Please provide the name of the book, page and quote.


Please quote from the cambridge history of the Greco-Roman world to support your point...


Which point? True, Scheidel belongs to the more conservative thinkers, but my point has been that even this group has positively reevaluated the demography and/or economic power of the Roman empire:

Different methods of estimating the Gross Domestic Product of the Roman Empire in the second century c.e. produce convergent results that point to total output and consumption equivalent to 50 million tons of wheat or close to 20 billion sesterces per year.

SOURCE: Scheidel and Friesen: "The Size of the Economy and the Distribution of Income in the Roman Empire", Journal of Roman Studies, 99, 2009


Comment: This figure is much in line with Goldsmith's estimate (p. 263) of 20 billion sesterces per annum.

If we accept the lower estimate of the size of the Roman citizenry, the total population of the Roman empire at its peak on the eve of the “Antonine plague” of ad 165 probably numbered between 60 and 70 million. While approximately 55–60 percent of them resided in the European provinces
and around 20 percent each in Asia and Africa, the demographic split between the “Latin” western and the “Greek” eastern halves of the empire
was about 60–65 to 35–40 percent (Table 3.1).

SOURCE: Scheidel: "The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World", p. 47


Comment: The low count exceeds the traditional count of 55 mio. by 5-15 mio. The high count is much larger, around 100 mio:

Perhaps most crucially, it likewise raises questions about the size of the empire’s population as a whole: while the ‘low count’ envisions some 60 to 70 million imperial subjects...the ‘high count’ must assume either that the imperial heartland was massively overpopulated relative to its provinces or that the entire empire was much more populous than commonly assumed, presumably in excess of 100 million.

SOURCE: Scheidel: "Population and demography", 2006, p. 9


Specialist research on particular branches of technology such as these takes a while to filter through into the consciousness of mainstream history; these revisions to our understanding of technological progress have not yet been applied to any significant degree to the study of the ancient economy, and the 'stagnationist view' has recently been defended in an article on the scope for economic growth in antiquity. But, coupled with more general revision of thinking on ancient technology and with studies on the ancient economy which reject or radically modify earlier primitivist models to do with trade and both agricultural and non-agricultural production, these recent studies seem to demand a complete reassessment of the role of technology in the ancient economy. The purpose of this paper is to start from the newer thinking on ancient technology, especially the use of water-power, and to assess some of the implications for the study of the ancient economy, and of Roman attitudes to production and investment.

SOURCE: Andrew Wilson: “Machines, Power and the Ancient Economy”, The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 92 (2002), pp. 1-32 (3)


Comment: This is the locus classicus of the reevaluation of Roman technology.

#8 Tibet Libre

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Posted 20 June 2010 - 07:19 AM

Mining and metallurgy: Copper:

There is also something to be learnt from metal extraction. Let's compare the Roman production with the Chinese all-time high during the Sung dynasty:

You will see that Roman peak production (15.000 t) outdid the maximum output by the Sung (13.000 t) even though
1. the Romans were mining a millennium earlier, that is Sung had the advantage of technological progress
2. the Roman empire was less populous than Sung (Romans max. 100 mio., Sung min. 100 mio.), that is Roman copper per capita production was even higher
3. copper was probably the single most important metal of the Sung period (copper coinage), while it did not have a similar importance in the Roman economy which was based on gold and silver circulation

The Roman period marked the beginning of a sharp rise in the production of copper in response to the rapidly increasing use of copper alloys for military and civilian purposes, especially in coinage. Total production peaked at over ~ 15,000 metric tons per year ~ 2000 years ago (Fig. 2). The main production districts were in Spain (which accounted for more than half of worldwide production during Roman times), Cyprus, and central Europe.

...After the fall of the Roman Empire, copper production greatly declined in Europe and world production remained low at ~ 2000 metric tons per year until about the eighth century. But during medieval times, the largest share of the production originated in China, especially during the Northern Sung period (10th to 12th century). During that period, Chinese production reached a maximum of ~ 13,000 metric tons per year ~900 years ago, which gives a worldwide production peak of ~ 15,000 metric tons per year ~900 years ago, which is comparable to the Roman peak ~ 2000 years ago.

SOURCE: Sungmin Hong; Jean-Pierre Candelone; Clair C. Patterson; Claude F. Boutron: History of Ancient Copper Smelting Pollution During Roman and Medieval Times Recorded in Greenland Ice, Science, Vol. 272, No. 5259. (1996), p. 247


What the text does not say is that the accompanying fig. 2 shows the Roman high to be more broadly based than the Sung peak (probably twice as broad), that is not only the Roman maximum production was higher but they also produced over a longer period more copper than the Sung did.

In terms of gold, silver and lead (by-product of silver) mining, the picture is even more heavily tilted towards the Romans.

Edited by Tibet Libre, 20 June 2010 - 07:32 AM.


#9 Borjigin Ayurbarwada

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Posted 20 June 2010 - 07:25 AM

Certainly, Chinese economic development through the 1st millennium could not have been very impressive, since even at its undisputed peak (around 1000), Sung China hardly exceeds Western Europe in terms of GDP per capita (400 to 450); and even this small gap would have likely melted away swiftly , once the Romanesque period and the real rise of medieval Europe started in the course of the 11th century.



Sung China's undisputed peak was only achieved in 1100, not in 1000, when the Song just got established. Estimate by Wu Hui puts high Tang food production at 1,256 shi jin, while early Song at barely 1,100 shi jin. Tang economy was generally considered to be the most productive in the world, surpassing India(which probably had the highest per capita during the Gupta) by the 7th century, this happens to be a general concensus among the academic circle in China, Japan, and much of the West. So while its absurd to consider Chinese per capita as the highest in the world since the beginning of history, historians generally consider the period between the Sui to Yuan as the period where Chinese living standards were clearly higher than Europe.

Agree, not only of that period, but also of all others, notably the Roman period, where he operates with too low, outdated estimates.


Speaking of outdated estimates, Maddison's entire work on China has been using older, low end estimates, so you might as well not use him at all when much more exhaustive works have been published.

Disagree. In a subsistence situation which all pre-industrial, peasant societies faced, a difference by 1/8 per capita is already substantial and one of 100% marks the diffence between rich and poor, between prospering and starving.


Not really, pre-industrial peasants have similar living standards everywhere. This was why Chinese records of Parthia, India, and Rome often referred to these people as “having the same lifestyle as the Han peasants” without discrimination. Even nomads, who are just at the subsistence line, having at least 1/8 lower living standards, often look down upon sedentary peasants. Indeed, the Xiongnu ruler frequently referred to the Han peasants as “those Han people who live in straw roofs and mudbrick houses”, often peasants actually abandon their agricultural products and escape north despite having a slightly higher per capita. Similarly, European Jesuits only had positive things to say about the Ming society and even most writers of the Qing praised Chinese living. It’s not really until the late 19th century where common reference to China as poorer appeared.

Definitely, 19th century China was by all foreign and Chinese accounts impoverished and torn apart by constant social and political unrest and upheavals, so the exact opposite of a first world country.



Not quite. The concept of a developing and developed nation only appeared well into the mid 20th century. While wealthier, late 19th century Europe was not by any means solved of its own poverty problems for the majority of its population. Writings that pitied China and about how to feed its population only appeared in abundance in the 20th century.
While on the other hand, contempt for Europeans as inferior was common among the common Chinese population in the late 19th century. One British writer notes that in 1876, a bunch of Chinese kids called him a devil, threw rocks at him, and the two adults although not shouting insults at him, coldly rebuked him in discriminatory words and later injured him with a club. He concludes that the Chinese “had a discrimination of Europeans from top down and thought that they were inferior barbarians”. This is in stark contrast to how third world nations actually perceive first world nations, where common worship of everything foreign was the norm.

Furthermore, late 19th century Chinese economy suffered from war and overpopulation and Europe was already at least three times wealthier than China at this date, not by a mere 50%. To put it bluntly, a difference of a mere 50% is virtually unnoticeable, weather it is an agricultural based economy or an industrial one.

Edited by Borjigin Ayurbarwada, 20 June 2010 - 11:25 AM.


#10 Borjigin Ayurbarwada

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Posted 20 June 2010 - 07:29 AM

There is also something to be learnt from metal extraction. Let's compare the Roman production with the Chinese all-time high during the Sung dynasty:

You will see that Roman peak production (15.000 t) outdid the maximum output by the Sung (13.000 t) even though
1. the Romans were mining a millennium earlier, that is Sung had the advantage of technological progress
2. the Roman empire was less populous than Sung (Romans max. 100 mio., Sung min. 100 mio.), that is Roman copper per capita production was even higher
3. copper was probably the single most important metal of the Sung period (copper coinage), while it did not have a similar importance in the Roman economy which was based on gold and silver circulation


First of all, the Song dynasty economy was not the highest in Chinese history, update yourself. Northern Song productivity was only slightly higher than the Tang, if at all(in fact Wu Hui estimates late Song food per capita utput to only be 1,150 shijing, while Tang output to be 1256 jin.) but far inferior to those of the late Ming and Qing. This has been the opinion of the majority of scholar in China since the past two decades.
Secondly, producing more money does not show higher level of output, I don't even know where you got this ridiculous idea from. Economic growth does not accompany a similar rate of growth in monetary production, since the source of metal for the money might well be scarce, in fact the shortage of money often shows that the economy was growing and the minting was not keeping up with that growth, this was why theSong also came up with the first paper money currency in the world.

Edited by Borjigin Ayurbarwada, 24 June 2010 - 11:38 PM.


#11 Tibet Libre

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Posted 20 June 2010 - 07:37 AM

First of all, the Song dynasty economy was not the highest in Chinese history, update yourself.


We are talking about copper production. The text above says "world production remained low at ~ 2000 metric tons per year until about the eighth century" and fig. 2 shows Chinese copper production clearly to be peaking in Song times (but still below the Roman peak).

#12 Tibet Libre

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Posted 20 June 2010 - 07:45 AM

Mining and metallurgy: Silver and gold:

Roman production exceeds Chinese peak production of silver and gold by several orders of magnitude. Even single Roman provinces surpass the Chinese output whatever dynasty is considered for a comparison:

No comparable estimates are available for the Han period. However, we are told that the Tang empire enjoyed mining yields of 12,000-15,000 ounces of silver per year (or 450-550kg at 37.3g per Tang ounce), although one source refers to as much as 25,000 ounces, or 930kg. These rates are extremely low compared to Roman silver production in Spain.

Under the Song, output was boosted to 145,000 ounces in 998 and a record 883,000 ounces in 1022 before dropping to 215,000-220,000 ounces in 1049/78. The most productive prefecture was then credited with 100,000+ ounces/year.179 These output figures range from 5.4 to 8.2 tons per year. Even the peak in 1022, at 33 tons, merely equals Roman production levels in a single province. In the same period, gold was produced at annual levels of c10,000-15,000 ounces, or 370-560 kg, an entire order of magnitude lower than output in any one of the most profitable Roman provinces. If anything, precious metal yields in the Han period must have been lower still...

In fact, China appears to have been incapable of establishing a solid silver-based currency system until massive silver imports from Japan, the Philippines and the New World between the mid-sixteenth and the mid-seventeenth centuries injected some 7,300 tons of this metal into the Chinese economy.

SOURCE: Scheidel: "The monetary systems of the Han and Roman empires", 2005, p. 31



#13 Borjigin Ayurbarwada

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Posted 20 June 2010 - 08:08 AM

We are talking about copper production. The text above says "world production remained low at ~ 2000 metric tons per year until about the eighth century" and fig. 2 shows Chinese copper production clearly to be peaking in Song times (but still below the Roman peak).


Since I already noted that monetary production does not reflect per capita output, what exactly is your point in making these posts? Do you want people to list the silk productions of China compared to that of Rome?


Roman production exceeds Chinese peak production of silver and gold by several orders of magnitude. Even single Roman provinces surpass the Chinese output whatever dynasty is considered for a comparison:



You forgot that Han dynasty gold production was magnitudes higher than later dynasties. In fact its one of the biggest mysteries in Chinese economic history where all those golds went. Various theories were made and some even speculate that it sifted westwards to Rome.

Edited by Borjigin Ayurbarwada, 20 June 2010 - 08:12 AM.


#14 Tibet Libre

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Posted 20 June 2010 - 09:17 AM

Mining and metallurgy: Lead:

Roman lead production reached an amount of 80,000 metric tons per year. Unfortunately, the authors are silent on Chinese production which may point to its insignificance. At any rate, they conclude that the Romans achieved "the largest output before the Industrial Revolution", so Chinese production must have been lower, probably again by several magnitudes of order considering that lead is a by-product of silver which has always been mined in China only in very low quantities (see post #18 below which vindicates my educated guess).

A pronounced maximum of about 80,000 metric tons per year (approximately the rate at the time of the Industrial Revolution) was reached during the flourishing of Roman power and influence around two millennia ago (Fig. lA). The use of lead was ubiquitous, and most districts that were suitable for mining in the Old World were known and worked, especially those in Spain, the Balkans, Greece, and Asia Minor (5, 7)...This occurrence marks the oldest large-scale hemispheric pollution ever reported, long before the onset of the Industrial Revolution....

Lead production then decreased sharply during the decline of the Roman Empire, down to a minimum of only a few thousand tons per year during medieval times, before increasing again from A.D. 1000 with the discovery of the lead and silver mines of Central Europe.

SOURCE: Sungmin Hong; Jean-Pierre Candelone; Clair C. Patterson; Claude F. Boutron: "Greenland Ice Evidence of Hemispheric Lead Pollution Two Millennia Ago by Greek and Roman Civilizations", Science, Vol. 265, No. 5180. (1994), pp. 1841


I believe we can stop for now, since the figures have shown that the industrial power of the Roman Empire shaded whatever Chinese dynasty you measured up against it, even those which have the technological benefit of a much later date.

Edited by Tibet Libre, 20 June 2010 - 01:28 PM.


#15 Borjigin Ayurbarwada

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Posted 20 June 2010 - 11:31 AM

I must thank Tibet Libre for citing Scheidel and Friesen, since we can now make a real comparison between the per capita production of both Rome and the various Chinese dynasties through the most updated and exhaustive data from both sides, by using food output per capita, by far the most important indicator of per capita wealth in pre-industrial times.

Note that Scheidel and Friesen estimated 50 million tons of wheat produced by the Romans in the second century CE, since the population of the Roman Empire was around 65 million by then, this mean that the individual per capita of food production would be around 1,538 pounds. We have very little data for the Han, but much for the Tang. Wu Hui estimates that the per capita food production of high Tang to be 1,256 jin(see Wu Hui, “Zhongguo lidai liangshi mou chan yan jiu” Beijing, nongye chu bang she, p.195 (吴慧《中国历代粮食亩产研究》第195页,北京:农业出版社,1985年)
One Jin roughly equals 1.1 pound, this meant that the per capita food production during the Tang was 1,381 pounds of food every year(which was not far from the 1,528 pounds of wheat produced in Rome). The ancient Chinese devoured millet, wheat, and rice. The prices between millet and wheat vary. In the US, millet cost around the same as wheat per bushel, but in modern China millet cost up to twice as much in certain places. Its impossible to determine the relative price during Tang time, but millet have a higher calorie content than wheat, and had always been relatively more expensive in China. Rice was not a major food during the Tang, so most of the 1381 pounds of food that the individual Tang peasant produced were millet and wheat. This means that the Tang food production per capita was at the very least on a par with Rome's and most likely higher because of the relatively higher price of millet there. Deng Zhen and Wang Xinping estimated a per capita production of 1333 shi jing of food for the Northern Song. This gives it a slightly higher production than the Tang. The Ming per capita food production has been estimated at 1,741 jin by Guo Song Yi; this would be 1,915 pounds of food, this was clearly greater than the food production of Roman times and by some margin. (See Guo Songyi, “Ming Qing Shi Qi de Liangshi Shengchang yu Nongmin shenhuo shuiping.” ) 郭松义《明清时期的粮食生产与农民生活水平》,《中国社会科学院历史研究所学刊》,社会科学文献出版社,2001.

Now estimates for Han are shaky at best, but Wu Hui gives a higher end estimate of close to 1,100 jin for the Han, or around 1200 pounds of food, this should be more or less on a par with Roman production.



Food production of late Qing probably declined to 861 jin or merely half of the production of late Ming, while by 1930 the price again fell to 705.6 jin, or just over half of that of the Song. So really, the Chinese economy of the 1930s was at an all time low by Chinese standards alone.



I believe we can stop for now, since the figures have shown that the industrial power of the Roman Empire shaded whatever Chinese dynasty you measured up against it, even those which have the technological benefit of a much later date.



It really doesn't... since Chinese iron production(by far the most important type of metal) far dwarfs anything Rome produces even as early as the Han(see Donald Wagner). Iron determines the industrial capability of a state, not gold silver, or lead. Chinese iron production during the Song and Ming was even greater than early 19th century British iron production. In fact in the early 18th century, the single province of canton produced 25,000 tons of iron, greater than the entire British Empire's 18,000 tons of production. Selectively choosing several minerals as indicators just doesn't support your case. Not to mention, iron actually takes skill and technology to produce en masse, whereas those other minerals you listed don't. They are a matter of natural resource, not technology or productivity. We also have no evidence that Roman Gold was greater in abundance to Han Gold, since we already know that the quantity of gold during Han times was far greater than those found later, which you misused as a reference.

Edited by Borjigin Ayurbarwada, 21 June 2010 - 05:16 AM.





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