Stephen Davies on “the most rapid and sustained technological innovation anywhere in the world before the later eighteenth century”

I have recently been reading The Wealth Explosion by Stephen Davies. Its subtitle is “The Nature and Origins of Modernity”. I recommend it to anyone who wishes to think about why the “modernity” that the world now enjoys happened where it did and when it did.

In particular, Davies asks, why did modernity not happen sooner? As he reveals in his chapter entitled “Song China and the Ming Restoration”, modernity very nearly did happen, several centuries earlier, in China. He describes, in the section entitled “Was Song China Close to Being a ‘Modern Economy’?” (pp. 81-85), how very close indeed China got to leading the world out of Malthusian economic stagnation:

Faced with this kind of evidence, a number of historians have argued that Song China was in fact the world’s first ‘modern’ economy and society and that had it continued we would now be speaking of the transition to modernity in the fourteenth century rather than the nineteenth. Certainly, by a number of measures Song China was as developed as mid eighteenth century Europe. Not only that but it displayed several of the distinctive features of modernity outlined in the first chapter, and the direction of development seemed to be for these ‘modern’ features to become more marked rather than less. What though were the modern aspects of China under the Song that have so caught the imagination of subsequent authors?

In the first place, Song China had rapid, even ‘explosive’ population growth. World population as a whole grew throughout the medieval warm period but the growth in China was much more rapid than that found elsewhere. By 1190, China’s population had reached at least seventy three million: seventy years later it had arrived at the hundred million mark. China’s population more than doubled between 960 and 1100. (It had remained stable at roughly fifty million for the previous six hundred years.) As a contrast, world population grew from about two hundred and fifty million to three hundred and thirty million between 960 and the later thirteenth century, an increase of thirty-two per cent. As in the contemporary modern world this process of population growth, which took place throughout the Song dynasty, accelerated as time went on and the rate of increase seems to have been at its most rapid during the last years of the dynasty, in the thirteenth century.

Moreover, this rise in population was exceeded by the rise in output of both agriculture and manufacture, both of which showed again a rising rate of productivity increase as the years went by. So for example, the level of iron output in 1078 mentioned earlier represented a six-fold increase from 806, in the last years of the Tang. In Shanxi in the 1040s annual production of iron amounted to some sixty tonnes per annum but by the 1110s this had risen to three hundred and sixty tonnes per year. This means that what we have in Song China, from at least the eleventh century, is modern style intensive growth, in contrast to the pattern of broadly extensive growth found elsewhere.

This went along with a ‘commercial revolution’ every bit as dramatic as that of eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe. By 1200, all of the institutions of the kind of market economy found in Europe in 1800 were already present in China. These included large firms and partnerships with tradable stock and a whole range of sophisticated financial and banking institutions and instruments. The Song economy had a wide range of forms and varieties of business venture from large government monopolies to major private firms, often organised into confederations, and an enormous range of small private businesses engaged in all kinds of productive activity, including an expanding range of services for the urban population of the empire. Much of the production was decentralised and performed in households or small workshops with the goods being sold to professional middlemen or brokers who in turn sold the products to merchants who distributed and sold them using the dense internal trade network or exported them in exchange for foreign products.

Perhaps most significantly, the changes in agriculture made possible by the legal reforms of Song Taizu meant that there was a clear movement of population from the countryside to the cities and of labour from agriculture to manufacturing. Our best estimate is that by the later twelfth century, between six and seven and a half per cent of the population of Song China lived in cities with a population of over one hundred thousand with a similar proportion living in smaller urban centres, which would make it clearly the most urbanised society on the planet at that time. The capital before 1127, Kaifeng, had a population of over a million, as did Hangzhou, which became the capital after that year. What is really striking is the rate of urbanisation. Kaifeng grew from half a million in 1021 to over a million by 1100. Hangzhou went from four hundred thousand inhabitants in late twelfth century to over a million by 1270. Moreover, urbanisation on this scale was not just a feature of the capital. Guangzhou, Chinas major seaport at this time reached a population of half a million by 1120 and the inland city ofJiankang had a population of two hundred thousand at the same time.

In contrast to the cities of Tang China, which had been mainly centres of administration, these were primarily commercial centres, even if they also housed the imperial court. In contrast to the Tang period when there were a limited number of strictly regulated markets, Song cities had markets and retail establishments on all of their main streets as well as huge commercial markets, which were only lightly regulated. There were also large covered entertainment complexes known as pleasure grounds where games and entertainments would be available until the early hours of the morning. One prominent feature of urban life under the Song was clubs and associations of all kinds. Patricia Ebrey for example cites a document of 1235 that mentions the West Lake Poetry Club, the Buddhist Tea Society, the Physical Fitness Club, the Anglers’ Club, the Occult Club, the Plants and Fruits Club, the Antique Collectors’ Club, the Horse-Lovers’ Club, and the Refined Music Society – all of these in Hangzhou.

Song China also saw the most rapid and sustained technological innovation anywhere in the world before the later eighteenth century. As well as the innovations already mentioned in maritime technology the period saw the invention of the dry dock for repairing ships and of paddle powered vessels for use as tugs or in warfare. Block printing was invented in the eleventh century and movable type printing in the thirteenth – in this case borrowed from the Koreans. There were important refinements and inventions in the area of mechanical devices, particularly the use of belt drives and complex toothed gears. One important element of technological progress in China at this time, in marked contrast to other periods, was openness to and adoption of innovations made elsewhere. As well as the examples of movable type, and the superior varieties of rice imported from Annam, the most dramatic case was that of the windmill, invented in the Middle East and then adopted by the Chinese in the early thirteenth century. Notably, the Chinese did not simply take up the Middle Eastern technology but adapted and improved it.

Perhaps most striking was the increasing use of complex machinery in textile manufacturing. As early as the twelfth century devices were invented for the mechanical spinning of silk, which could be powered by men, animals or waterwheels. The text describing this machine stated that with its thirty-two spindles it could spin about sixty kilos of thread per day. It was very similar in design to the water frame of Richard Arkwright, which plays such a prominent part in most accounts of the Industrial Revolution. The missing ingredient was rollers to draw out the thread as it was being spun but this kind of device was known to the Chinese at the time in the form of the cotton gin, for removing seeds from raw cotton. So far as we know cotton spinning was never mechanised in this way, but its use as a fabric only became common at the end of the Song period.

Alongside technological innovation were intimations of scientific investigation. The key figures here were polymaths, similar to Renaissance figures such as Leonardo, who combined empirical experimentation and investigation with scientific speculation, typically in a wide range of fields and areas of knowledge. The most famous was Shen Kuo (1031-1095) who published much of his ideas and findings in a collection of essays known as the Dream Pool Jottings, covering topics as diverse as mathematics, geology, economics, medicine, and engineering. As this shows, Song China saw investigation and discovery in a range of areas of knowledge, the most notable being mathematics, astronomy, metallurgy, medicine (including forensic medicine), and optics (where there seems to have been borrowing from the Arabs).

This was linked to important developments in philosophy and abstract thought. The key here was the ideas of Neo-Confucian philosophers, above all Chu-Hsi (1130-1200). He argued that an essential part of the process of self-perfection (a key idea in Confucianism) was the investigation of ‘material things’, that is empirical enquiry. What we can see here are early intimations of the idea of scientific method, which were as well developed in thirteenth century China as they would be in seventeenth century Europe. As in Europe some four to five hundred years later, there was a mixture of philosophical speculation, magic, empirical investigation, and practical (often commercial) endeavour all mixed together into a single intellectual and physical exercise.

There were also distinctively ‘modern’ developments in the structure of government and in social structure and hierarchy. The change here was a very clear movement from a hereditary elite to a more meritocratic one. Reforms to the examination system by which government officials were recruited made the process much more open and Significantly increased the size of the pool of applicants. By the later years of the dynasty in the early thirteenth century, the number of candidates taking the exams was eleven times what it had been in the early eleventh century and the number who passed was five times what it had been under the Tang. However, the number of government posts hardly increased at all. The result was the appearance of a class of degree holders who formed the local elite, but Were not actual holders of government office. Their Confucian training led them to see themselves as moral leaders of society through the force of example as much as administration. The reforms to the system also meant that it was now rare for the status of being a degree holder to persist in the one family for more than three generations. Despite the way in which educated Confucians tended to look down on soldiers and merchants both commerce and the military also provided routes for upward social mobility. The result of all this was to make society much more socially mobile and to make status increasingly non-heritable, as well as increasing income (as opposed to status) inequality.

The government of Song China was, like that of earlier dynasties, organised on a departmental basis. The main innovation, already mentioned, was the creation of a council of ministers with a deliberative as well as an administrative role and a Prime Minister (the actual title was First Privy Councillor) who headed the administration. The most famous holder of this office was Wang An Shih (1021-1086) who began a major series of reforms between 1069 and 1074. These reforms proved very divisive and led to the appearance of two factions, one known as the New Policies Group that supported them and another, led by another scholar-politician Sima Guang (1019-1086) that opposed them. This division persisted throughout the remainder of the dynasty’s history and so a form of elite party politics came into being, based on this division between reformers and conservatives, which reflected intellectual debates within Confucianism. Song government had a distinctly modern flavour, as it was not household or clan based and operated through a professional bureaucracy. Among its particularly modern elements were several agencies to monitor and assess public opinion, each one using a different method of doing this.

Davies also speaks about his book in this video lecture.

A big painting in a small puddle

I have a busy day ahead of me, or at least I want to. So I am doing today’s quota photo now, to get it out of the way.

And of all my recent photos I find that the one I want to put here is this:

What I think I enjoy there is the contrast between the smallness and shallowness of the puddle and the extremity of the visual effects it is creating. One silly little bit of water, surrounded only by grubby road and pavement detail, creates all that light and depth, to say nothing of the Photoshop effect it does on the building, turning a mere photo into an impressionist painting.

It helps that the building tells me that I am very near to my home, about twenty seconds from my front door. Nearly there. That always lightens the mood.

If you are not impressed …? As I have definitely said before, the good thing about quota photos you don’t care for is that they waste very little of your time.

Fency

Incoming from BMNB’s Blogmaster Michael Jennings, a while back now, from Foreign Parts:

Like I say, it’s a while since this got here, but it deserves the immortality that is conferred upon photos when they are exhibited here at BMNB.

“Fency” is either a very posh way of saying “fancy”, or it is an indication that a lot of the goods in the store were stolen. Which means they’ll be cheap, which means that you can shop at this store with absolute frugality.

I cannot recall if the accompanying email said where this is. Michael?

Excellent wires!

LATER: Ah, it wasn’t “incoming from Michael”. It was at his Facebook page. Kathmandu, Nepal. I just nicked it. Hope Michael doesn’t mind.

Other creature news

In among all the vile bile, Twitter continues to serve up good Other Creatures news, especially in video form.

Here, for instance, is evidence that when it comes to shifting stuff around, while simultaneously showing a bit of common sense, robots would appear to have some way to go before they will be entirely replacing the working class.

Here is a delightful photo of two pigeons, who are checking out a photographer who is trying to photo a ceiling.

And, in otter news, here are otters doing something very strange, under a tree, in what turns out to be Singapore.

Meanwhile, via (the rest of) the blogosphere (David Thompson to be exact), an amplified cat and dogs who ate bees. The dogs look so happy, especially given how very unhappy they must feel.

On a more melancholy note, Mich Hartley tells of the Soviet whale “decimation” of the middle of the twentieth century. Decimation however, is surely the wrong word. It was far worse than that. The writer whom Hartley quotes seems to think that decimation means killing nine out of ten, because he talks of whale species being “driven to the edge of extintion”. But decimation wasn’t killing nine out of ten members of a Roman legion. It was killing one in every ten. It was to punish, not to extinguish, a legion. That verbal quibble aside, there can’t be too many reports of what an insanely destructive economic system the USSR imposed upon all its victims. And its victims were not only human.

Nullius in Verba on the impact of automation – obvious and not so obvious

Since I resumed paying attention to Samizdata, some of my favourite comments there have been from someone calling him/her self “Nullius in Verba”. The only drawback being the pseudonym, which I think always unpacks some of the punch in what gets said.

Here’s what Nullius in Verba, commenting on this posting today by Johnathan Pearce, says about the claim that automation will cause unemployment:

Automation generally results in unskilled jobs being automated and disappearing, skilled jobs being automated and becoming unskilled, and impossible jobs being made possible to the skilled with the aid of automation.

But people only look at what’s going to happen to the job they’ve got now, not what new job they could have in the future. So they’re always going to see automation as a problem in need of a political solution.

Most of the confusion about economics is caused by seeing only the obvious damage that something will do, while neglecting the more unpredictable – but just as real and in the long run more significant – good stuff that will also happen. Or, seeing only the obvious good of a certain measure, and neglecting the longer term harm.

Shame that NiV feels the need to use a pseudonym.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog

On supporting Spurs – but not properly

Well, it’s official. I care more about cricket, as played by anyone, than I care about football, as played by Spurs, the football team that I tell myself I support.

If I truly support Spurs, how come I only bothered to wonder the next day how badly they had lost to Barcelona recently, in their clearly doomed attempt to qualify for the last sixteen of the European Champions League, or whatever they call it? Answer me that. On the night, I was so concerned about when the next test match between Australia and India would start, and whether I could hear any commentary on it, that I completely ignored Spurs. When you consider that this Barca/Spurs game was on Tuesday night, and that the Australia/India game didn’t start until the small hours of Friday morning, you can see what a crap Spurs fan I am.

It was only some time on Wednesday that I internetted the news that Spurs had got a draw against Barca (thanks to a late equaliser), and that because Inter Milan had also only got a draw in their game, Spurs had squeaked through, but only after an agonising wait for the Inter result caused by that game going on for a couple of minutes longer.

While all this drama was going on, I was oblivious to it, and was instead scratching about on the internet chasing that cricket game.

Which is still going on. Day 3 will be getting underway in a few hours, on Radio 5 live sports extra. My sleep is already deranged, in a way that usually only happens when England are playing in Australia.

Today, I did keep track of the Spurs Burnley game, which Spurs won (thanks to a very late winner). So: more drama. But although I was aware of this while it was happening, I was again scandalously relaxed about it all, despite this game being billed as a Spurs Must Win If They Are To Stay In With A Chance To Win The League sort of a game. Oh well, I was thinking, as it remained 0-0 right up until extra time. Oh well, that’s how it goes. Maybe next year, when they have their own stadium to play in.

Maybe the reason I am not shouting at Spurs in my kitchen, urging them on to glory, is that they are indeed engaged in building themselves a brand new custom built headquarters, in the form of that new White Hart Lane stadium. So according to my way of thinking, they shouldn’t now be doing this well.

However, it would seem that all the money that the new stadium will bring into the club has caused Spurs to do something now that they haven’t been doing for several decades, which is keep their best players. I’m talking about the likes of Kane, Deli Alli, Moura (who scored the late equaliser against Barca) and Eriksen (who got today’s very late winner). Such stars might still make more money if they went to Real Madrid or some such even richer club. But, at Real, they might not do as well on the pitch as they are now doing for Spurs. They might then fall off the football pyramid of greatness, never to climb back on it again. Footballers are interested in money and glory, not just in money, not least because glory turns into more money later, when they later try to get football jobs without being players any more. Spurs look like they could be about to do both money and glory rather well.

The same goes for the current rather-hard-to-spell Spurs manager who is masterminding all this. Many now assume that he will shortly move to Madrid. I’m not so sure.

I mean, if this is how well these Spurs guys can do while the new Spurs HQ is still being finished, think how well they might do when they get really settled in in the new place and are able to concentrate entirely on football.

Or maybe it’s that a new stadium is not really a new headquarters building, more like a huge new factory, for something like a brand new airplane. Boeing bets the company every time they launch a totally new aircraft. A football club bets itself whenever it moves into a new stadium. But this stadium is actually for doing football, rather than just a place to do lots of headquartering.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog

The view across The Broadway

One from the I Just Like It directory:

That’s the view you get of Central Hall Westminster, that you now get looking over where New Scotland Yard used to be. I walk past this view whenever I go to St James’s Park tube. Well, that’s the view you get if you go to as much trouble as I did to frame Central Hall Westminster with a concrete pump.

There is now a glut of new luxury apartments in London, so I suppose it’s possible that this view may become a bit less temporary than it would have been two or three years ago. But my guess is that The Broadway, which (from a helicopter) will look very approximately like this…:

…, is now too far advanced for it to make sense for them not to finish it. Although maybe not as ostentatiously as that picture suggests.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog

“That wealth can be created and not just rearranged or come at someone’s expense …”

Russell Roberts, Tweeting in response to a Tweet that has vanished, but it’s still worth quoting:

If you think the economy is a zero-sum game and getting rich makes people poor, you have trouble explaining the last 250 years. That wealth can be created and not just rearranged or come at someone’s expense is so basic but may be the single most important insight of economics.

I prefer “fixed-sum” to “zero-sum”, but otherwise, my sentiments exactly.

I am not now Tweeting, merely perusing the Tweets of others. If I were Tweeting, this would be a Tweet.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog

Michael Jennings explores Tehran

At my home on the last Friday of this month (Friday September 28th – which is in six days time), Michael Jennings will be speaking about Iran, and in particular about how he recently spent some time exploring its capital city, Tehran. The easiest link to learn more about Michael’s amazing globetrottings is to this list of his Samizdata contributions.

Each month, I solicit a few words from the speaker, to email to my list of potential attenders. A few days ago, Michael sent me rather more than a few words about what he’ll be speaking about, more words than I need for that email. But I don’t want all these words going to waste, so, with Michael’s kind permission, here they all are. In the email I send out tomorrow evening, I will be quoting from this, but will include the link to this posting, so that all who want to can, as they say, read the whole thing.

So, Michael Jennings on “Exploring Tehran”:

In recent years, I have done quite a lot of travelling in the Middle East.

From the western perspective – and particularly from the perspective of the western media – it is very easy to look at the Muslim Middle East and see something homogeneous. If you are inclined to see militant Islam and related terrorism as a threat, it is easy to see it as a single threat. However, there are two main strains of Islam, Shia and Sunni, and these are centred in two quite different cultures and civilisations: the first in Iran and the second in the Arab world.

These are two of the three largest cultures in the Muslim Middle East – the third being Turkey. These three cultures speak three unrelated languages – Farsi, Arabic, and Turkish – and the history and differences between these three cultures go back thousands of years – long before the time of Mohammed. These cultures are tremendously divided today. Iran fought a truly ferocious war with Arab Iraq between 1980 and 1988, the memory of which hangs over the country the way World War 1 probably hung over Europe in 1935. Much of the wars of the past 15 years in Iraq and Syria have been about Shia Iran (Persia) and Sunni Arab Saudi Arabia jostling for position in the Middle East. As to where Turkey stands in all this – I think Turkey is trying to figure this out.

I am not remotely an expert in any of this stuff. I have, however, spent a considerable amount of time travelling around the Middle East and North Africa in recent years. I love to explore cities on foot. I have done this, or attempted to do this in many places. Slightly less than two years ago I spent 10 days exploring Tehran on foot. Despite the fearsome (justified) reputation of the regime that rules Iran, I found – from my perspective as a Christian westerner – the most culturally familiar and welcoming culture that I had found travelling in the Middle East. Despite the fact that Iran is the only country in the entire world where all women are required to wear a headscarf at all times, I was struck by the fact that the role of women in public life was clearly much higher and that women are clearly much better educated and have a far more prominent role in the economy than in any Arab country I have been to. The Iranian middle class is substantial, and it is a very westernised middle class. At times in North Tehran I found myself in cafes and restaurants that easily could have been in hipster areas of Los Angeles, apart from the lack of alcohol.

I also found something that I should have known already – Iran is a trading, commercial nation. In South Tehran I found myself in shopping streets and bazaars that resembled East Asia – possibly commercial districts of Bangkok or Hanoi – more than anything elsewhere in the Middle East. I found myself sitting in stores being made tea (and being offered illicit alcohol) by merchants who wanted to tell me all about their trading trips to Shenzhen. It was fascinating.

And yet, this is a country that faces sanctions, and is cut off from the official system of international trade. What happens when you cut such a country off from the official system of international trade, and international academia, and international everything and so impoverishing the country, even though this is a culture that wants to participate? Come along to my talk, and I will speculate. Or possibly just show you my holiday pictures.

The basic point of my meetings is for people to attend them, but another point of them is for me to spread a gentle wave of information about people who have worthwhile things to say and interesting stories to tell, even if you do not actually attend. This posting now means that, this month, that second mission is already somewhat accomplished.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog

The man from Glint

Earlier this evening, I attended a fascinating Libertarian Home talk given by Jason Cozens, one of the founders and bosses of Glint. (Scroll down there a bit, and I think you will see why I think I smell yet another two-man team.) Glint enables those who think that currency ought to be gold-backed to get there hands on just such a currency, thereby personally reversing, as it were, the decision by President Nixon, in 1971, to take the US dollar off the gold standard.

This talk was excellent, and was clearly saturated in Austrianism. In the highly unlikely event that Jason Cozens has not met up with a conversed with Detlev Schlichter, he should.

Here is a photo I took of Mr Cozens waving an ancient gold coin from Roman era Britain, which he had come by in some way that he did describe but which I immediately forgot:

And here is that coin, and him holding it, somewhat closer up:

Glint, however, does not deploy actual gold coins. Any gold it arranges for you to own stays in a vault in Switzerland. You get yourself a Glint account, with whatever combination of gold or other popular currencies in it that you want, and you can buy stuff with your card, which looks and works like any other credit/debit card.

Glint would appear to be well worth investigating.

I also found the evening very advantageous on a more personal level. I was able to solidify no less than two future Brian’s Last Fridays talks, and was able to woo two other potential future speakers of great interestingness. Others present seemed equally busy making connections of their own. Which is a lot of the point of such meetings, and which is all part of why I believe in organising a steady stream of them.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog