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.
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.
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
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
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.