Why did capitalist imperial domination arise in Europe and not in Asia?


IN his history of capitalism, Fernand Braudel writes, “the Italians, Armenians, Jews, Portuguese, and Spaniards…pushed across the oceans and explored new areas until they encountered and adapted to, or else destroyed, the rival networks they found in Latin American the Middle East, India, China, and Japan.” This engendered the “true break in the old lines of economic life” through the profits of overseas trade. With regard to industrial capitalism, John Hobson analyzed the ways in which 19th-century imperialism was the mode par excellence of capitalist expansion. Vladimir Lenin analyzed the path through which capitalism turns into imperialism through monopoly, a transition to finance capital bound up in the struggle for the partition of the world. While it may be possible to conceive of capitalism and imperialism abstractly as distinct processes, the fact of their global history is deeply entwined.

Yet, why did capitalist and imperial global domination in the 19th century occur through Europe and not Asia? China had meritocratic bureaucratic government centuries before feudal Europe had anything close to that kind of “modern” institution, and until the late 1600s, China led the world in inventions and scientific discoveries—with their compass, papermaking, gunpowder, and woodblock and movable type printing being the foundations of modernity. The Warring States period (403-221 BCE) created advanced metallurgic technology; the Song Dynasty’s (960-1279) sophisticated economic system saw the invention of paper money, its invention of gunpowder brought exponential advances in artillery, and the compass allowed large fleets to expand Chinese trade to India, Arabia, and Africa.

As Immanuel Wallerstein writes in The Modern World-System, early modern China, with its extensive state bureaucracy, more advanced technology, and greater monetization of the economy, seemed better positioned to move toward capitalism than did Western Europe. So why then was it Europe and not Asia? Scholars attempting to answer this question have generally debated the consequential (though contingent) differences in culture, fertility, core-periphery relations, culture, and political structure.

Thomas Malthus argued that Northwest Europe’s delayed marriage and elevation of celibacy as a virtue lowered fertility rates, which increased families’ capital accumulation, as contrasted against the caricature of high mortality and fertility rates attributed to India and China. However, James Lee and others showed that through abortion, infanticide, adoption, etc., Chinese marital fertility rates were far lower than those in Europe while the overall Chinese population growth rate between 1400-1800 remained at the same level as Europe’s. (See Victor Lieberman’s Strange Parallels)

C.A. Bayly argues that the divergence resulted from critical cultural differences. Bayly, as Lieberman summarizes, underscored the “impersonal, transgenerational character of commercial enterprise; peculiarly European ideology of progress and techniques of protoscientific inquiry; a vigorously critical and increasingly patriotic public opinion” that were the “precondition for timely public investments, particularly massive Hanoverian commitments to naval and military power that allowed Britain to reap hugely disproportionate rewards from agricultural intensification in Asia and in the Americas.” In this, I think the intertwined factors of the rise of the nation-state and its attendant patriotism alongside that of dense military competition are especially salient. As Bayly recounts in “South Asia and the ‘Great Divergence’ ” the centuries of internecine intra-European warfare “produced more compact, professionalized military machines…that could mobilize massive numbers of men for continuous warfare overseas.”

Pomerantz’s narrative of the divergence figures a mid-1700s dilemma of shortage of natural land resources requiring more labor-intensive strategies and threatening continued political expansion in Europe and China, from which China didn’t escape. England’s easy access to coal as a domestic energy source and the vast New World resources removed England’s land constraint and allowed laborers to move from farms to industry. Yet, Philip Huang counters that coal wasn’t a factor, as the Chinese didn’t have industrial demand for it, and Robert Brenner argues that while New World resources and markets accelerated growth, English agriculture and manufacturing relied predominantly on European markets and food.

Pomerantz additionally argues that England’s 18th-century core-periphery relations were more conducive to industrialization than China’s. Pomerantz analyzes England’s peripheries (Ireland, Eastern Europe, and the slave-labor systems of North America and the Caribbean) as relatively unlikely to industrialize, purchasing English manufactures while providing foodstuffs and raw materials. In China, however, “the ease with which textile and other technologies diffused from the Yangzi core to outlying areas meant that the latter could easily copy the delta’s best protoindustrial practices;” and this ease was a result of less encumbered market mechanisms in China than those in Europe, creating a closer approximation in China of the classical liberal ideal.

Wallerstein’s analysis of the East-West divergence rests on political and agricultural structures. Wallerstein compares Europe’s agronomic thrust toward cattle and wheat to China’s toward rice, the former necessitating more territorial expansion and the latter more space but fewer workers. English farming practices required decreasing labor inputs per land unit, freeing labor for an urban-based industrial revolution. Meanwhile, China’s increased productivity resulted from rural labor intensification. Trajectories since the ancient empires of China and Rome show that while Europe’s “Roman framework remained a thin memory whose medieval reality was mediated largely by a common church, the Chinese managed to retain an imperial political structure, albeit a weakened one.” This allowed China to maintain a more advanced, integrated economy, but centralization constrained its developmental possibilities.

Unlike Western Europe, early modern China was a large, unified empire, not a collection of states in permanent competition. Within this, Wallerstein writes, even those who would have liked to expand overseas were restrained because “crucial decisions were centralized in an imperial framework.” The 15th-century Ming ended the long distance fleets “to curb the upstart merchants and supposed pirates off the coast of Southeast China who profited from this expansion and threatened the existing Confucian cultural, political, and economic hegemony of the Ming.” Peter Perdue, however, highlights that the Ming Empire resumed foreign trade in the 1550s and didn’t perceive it to be against its interests; moreover, there was a great volume of trade that the state center never controlled, relying on local networks instead. Land invasions by the Manchus in the Northwest were of immediate threat, and the farther the fleets had traveled (finally reaching Africa), the poorer the communities they found. Therefore, it was a strategic, rational calculation to reallocate resources to fight invasion.

Indeed, those invaders would win, and go on to establish the Qing Empire, which, in turn, would eventually find its ideology of rule discredited in the new, Western-dominated world of the 20th century.

Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Student in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University


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  1. Hmm. I’m surprised you didn’t mention the the “middle kingdom” mentality of China. Yes, they engaged in trade, but this wasn’t to gain territory. China found itself to be the significant center, so why find establish other places? Chinese expansion, even now, is limited to the places just right outside its border.

  2. Justaskingseriously on

    Follow the money. It is amazing how Wikipedia simplifies this. Banks are where the money is. And Banking practices is how the money turns into capital and gives rise to capitalism. Fractional-reserve banking enabled the Europeans to multiply capital and the introduction of this banking trick in the middle of the 19th century to the Chinese financial system caught imperial China flat-footed as they needed to borrow from the British Banks for their imperial defense funding. That takes care of the why in your topic. Dynasty after dynasty of chinese banking could not produce yinhang. Yinhang is the word the chinese coined for the british banks. It means “silver institutions”. Silver after all is always sterling — impressive.

    Follow the money. Be it Mapasapano, BBL, PDAF, DAP, MRT, Smartmatic, you-name-it. Just follow the money. All the who, what, where, why, how, and when will be revealed in no time.

  3. I wish the author’s writings are translated into vernacular in tabloid newspapers so that majority of Filipino masses now will have other alternative ideas of reasoning.

  4. Ikabod Bubwit on

    Christianity and the desire to trade for huge profits are the main reasons. The voyage of Christopher Columbus was partly justified for the spreading of the good news of Jesus Christ – aside from being able to trade directly with the Far East. The other voyages of discovery was justified similarly. Also, the Christian religion was a good weapon for expansion – it disarms the target population. Although the original intentions of Christian proselytisation were good and noble later unscrupulous individuals and groups and corporations found the Christian religion a useful weapon and tool to enrich themselves and exploit others. The Chinese and other Asians did not have Christianity to help them.

  5. Amnata Pundit on

    You left out religion which is a people’s most basic belief, more so than any other beliefs including economic. In Asia they encountered Islam and Buddhism and other Oriental philosophies like Confucianism etc. Islam had not fully taken root in these islands when the Christians came except in the deep south. I believe your most basic belief which is religion, will serve as the guidepost for accepting or rejecting whatever other beliefs are presented to you, thats why with the exception of this country the Christians failed to westernize- which is actually the unspoken theme of your article- Asia. I think this matter deserves more serious studies.

  6. To the Author,
    Thank you for an interesting and informative article. Well presented and accurate. The answer could be as simple as wine appreciation. The Chinese never acquired the telescope until European interaction because they had not invented glass making. They consumed tea whereas the Europeans’ loved their wine and in order to check on the quality of the much prized commodity the race was on to invent a transparent material to store the valuable liquid. The Chinese were stuck with their earthen ware, which to this day carries the name of china, while the glass manufacturers went on to develop lenses that are the integral component in telescopes, giving the owner a distinct advantage in any conflict.