Essay on Industrial Revolution: Why China Failed to Industrialize Alongside the West

Published: 2021-08-15
1897 words
7 pages
16 min to read
Sewanee University of the South
Type of paper: 
Research paper
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Following economic reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping in1978, China has recorded phenomenal industrial growth more than any other nation in the world until today. The communist nation has grown from an agrarian economy to become the largest industrial producer in the world-it overtook the United States as the worlds leading industrial powerhouse in 2010(Wen).Of course, this position does not mean that China has overtaken the US in terms of the volume of the goods both countries have produced since industrialization took place in their respective countries. As a matter of fact, industrialization started taking shape in the US way back in the 1890s and as far back as 1800s in Western Europe, particularly in Great Britain. The question that then comes to the fore is: why did China leave it so late to industrialize?

Some theories have attempted to explain the discriminative technological progress around the world. In a typical course of human history and development, it has been a natural trend for one part of the world to make more progress than others in regards to various disciplines in so far as acquisition of knowledge is concerned. As Wen speculates, perhaps the environment plays a significant role in the development of knowledge and human progress. According to Wen, the environment creates a problem that may require those that live in such ecosystem to devise ways of coming up with a solution or development of superior ways of doing things. Indeed, Joel Mokyr has extensively explored the influence of environment on knowledge evolution and technology. In his recent book titled A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy, Mokyr notes that technological progress is a product of the continuous interactions of people with their physical environment and not fellow human beings. Although Mokyr acknowledges the role human relations play in technological advancement, he contends that the physical environment is what inspires imagination at the individual level thereby resulting in the development of new techniques of carrying activities on a daily basis (3-5).Based on this argument, it worth conjecturing that the perhaps the physical environment in China 250 years ago was not ripe for industrialization to take off.

Some scholars have argued that the technological progress witnessed in particular areas was a result of historical accidents. For instance, these scholars hold that the contact created by the Portuguese with the Indian Ocean, which opened up the region for European expansion, was as a result of an accident. In other words, the sailing of the Portuguese across the Indian Ocean and subsequent conquest of the East African region cannot be said to have occurred in a deliberate manner (Landes 3-4).Similarly, this school of thought may term as a historical accident the industrial revolution that began taking root in the 1800s in Great Britain. For instance, one may argue that the fact that the Britains geography had deposits of coal underneath did not put the British at an advantage over those regions that lacked coal. Rather, it was a historical accident which could have happened in any part of the world. Any other explanation outside this is an attempt to glorify one region and diminish others (Landes 3; Goody 231).According to Goody, societies began even but others moved ahead only to be caught by others (231).As such, this is a natural trend and will continue as long as the human life exists. The aspect of the environment and historical accident proposition will be will further expounded in the subsequent sections of the paper in relevance to the case of China.

Why do we see a variation between China and the West in terms of periods of industrialization if the historical accidents and the physical environment factors were there in both regions? What exactly made the West and North America experience industrial revolution much earlier than other parts of the world? It may not be possible to ascertain in certain terms what caused this divergence in industrialization between these two regions. However, several scholars have attempted to explain the causes for the variation in times of industrialization between Western countries such as the Great Britain and North America on the one hand and China on the other.

As already pointed out the preceding discussion, the failure by China to industrialize well before the West-or at least at the same time- is a puzzle to historians. This is because of the position China occupied in the world in regards social, economic, and technological matters during the period in question (Wen). As such, to provide a comprehensive answer to the question of the late industrialization of China, it is important to give a background information about Chinas history regarding science and technology vis-a-vis Western Europe and its offshoot in North America. Indeed, this is the framework upon which comparative studies into the economic and technological developments of China and the West have been based.

Before the advent of industrial revolution in Britain, China was considered as the greatest civilization, dominating the world from at least 200 B.C. to 1800, the time Industrial Revolution began taking root in England (Wen). Before even England came to the ore as an industrial powerhouse, China was well ahead in technological developments. According to Landes, the Chinese had a power-driven spinning machine in the 13th century, 500 years before people in knew about water frames and mules in England where industrialization started (5). Additionally, iron smelting machine was another invention that the Chinese adopted before the England. As early as the eleventh century, the people of China had learned how to use coal in blast furnaces to smelt iron and managed to smelt a considerable amount of pig iron during the mentioned century. This was 700 years before industrialization took off in England. Other inventions that took place in China several centuries before Britain were the wheelbarrow, the rigid horse collar, the stirrup, the compass, printing press, gunpowder and porcelain (Landes 5-6). These were important tools that would have sparked off the industrial revolution in China but did not happen. Why?

One of the scholars who have dealt with the question of industrialization of England (and the West) vis-a-vis China is Kenneth Pomeranz. In his book the Great Divergence, Pomeranz sought to investigate the reasons for sustained economic and industrial growth in Northwestern Europe despite the similarities between Northern Europe and East Asia. He, for instance, notes that life expectancy, markets, consumption and positions households were the same as those of Europe and East Asia at time industrialization began in England. After observing these factors, Pomeranz concluded that it was a matter of luck that coal was located in England, leading to the substitution of timber as a source of energy. The presence of this resource made the use of land easier, leading to growth and development of energy-intensive industries (Pomeranz; Landes 4-5). As such, industrialization was encouraged, new technologies developed and passed on to the next generations .These generations, in turn, improved the new techniques to meet the needs of their time.

Pomeranzs position has been supported by some scholars in the field. Landes reports that the idea of historical accidents has been considered as the sole reason why certain areas developed more than others (3). Relevant to this, Mokyr posts that the physical environment plays an influential role in motivating creativity and innovation among the people who live in that particular environment. That is to say, the fact that the British lived under coal was a matter of chance which resulted in resource possession and exploitation. As such, it cannot be said that other world peoples would not have devised ways of exploiting coal had it been located or discovered in their territories-it is not unique that the British exploited coal, sparking off industrial revolution in the country; it could have happened to any society such as China.

When the argument of the presence of coal is considered against the Chinese and the British, it reveals an interesting scenario. The Chinese, as mentioned earlier had known and used coal to heat iron in furnaces 700 years before the concept was applied in England. Did the British have better skills in using coal or the coal appeared to be more important to the British than the Chinese? Pomeranz has explored the answer to this question. He observes that China had discovered the use of coal years before the British and its deposits were concentrated in the north. However, due to migrations that happened in the period that the industrial revolution began in England, the Chinese could not further use the coal to their strategic advantage due to the simple reason that they were no longer living on the land that harbored coal reserves (Pomeranz n.p). As a result, the coal that had been boom before the migration became an irrelevance in so far as the creation of livelihoods of the Chinese was concerned at the time. Therefore, it cannot be said that China failed to exploit this resource for its development. The environment did not favor it.

The question of the role of the environment in sparking the industrial revolution in England and not China in the context of coal has been well elaborated by some scholars (Pomeranz; Mokyr 3-7). The argument that these scholars advance here is the supremacy of the location of the two countries in regards to the markets. The question then that arises is: why use a certain resource to generate goods that cannot be transported to the market? In this regard, Tvedt argues that the natural and environmental conditions played a critical part in putting Britain at an advantage to industrialize as compared to China. He, for instance, cites the water transportation system as a crucial factor that propelled to England to prosperity and mechanization. The proximity of England to this system encouraged the division of labor and linked production to markets thereby expanding commerce extensively. He further observes that England had easily navigable waterways compared to the road system and there was little variation of water levels as reliable rainfall fed rivers throughout the year. On the other hand, rainfall in China fluctuated all year round and dry spells affected transport in the region. When it rained, rivers were blocked as a result of sedimentation, causing problems in navigation in water (32-38).These conditions hampered access to the markets which was not the case in England. Such outcome further emphasizes the role of chance and the physical environment (in regards to the location) in sparking an industrial revolution in England around 1800.

China failed to industrialize at the same period with England due to inability to build on its existing technologies (Landes 5; Swanson).According to Landes, the Chinese failed to realize the potential of some of the most important inventions that they had made centuries before England knew about them. This failure was a result of the inability to identify superior technologies and pass them to the next generations who are naturally expected to improve them before passing them on once again. For instance, the subsequent generations of the Chinese failed to mechanize cotton spinning in spite of the fact the discovery was made several centuries before the technology became into use in England (5-7).Due to this pattern of negligence to the discoveries, some technological inventions sunk into oblivion after a few generations thereby stagnating the technological advancement agenda.

Culture has been proposed as the explanation to this pattern of technological negligence. Accordin...

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