In the two millennia dynastic history of China, the five centuries of 1500–2000 encompass four political regimes, the Ming (1368–1644), Qing (1644–1911), Republican (1911–49) and Communism since 1949. The five centuries saw regime changes and dramatic ideological shifts and reversals (especially following the collapse of Qing in 1911, the last imperial dynasty) as well as the resilience of historical and political legacy.
This chapter provides a brief account of major economic changes in the last five centuries and offers some major quantitative indicators on long-term welfare. The emphasis of the narrative is on the importance of ideological and institutional changes to China's long-term economic trajectory.
The beginning century of our study marked the final century of Ming's imperial dynastic rule. It was a century that also saw the maturing of a highly centralized, unitary political regime governed by an absolutist emperor at the top of the power pyramid, aided by a formal bureaucracy recruited through a highly structured national Civil Service Examination rooted in Confucius classics. But whatever impersonality and neutrality remained of China's imperial regime, they were more than often compromised by the emperor's personal rule, and his personal entourage of eunuchs, consort and other inner court staffs (Ma 2012). Beyond the borders of China, Ming and Qing reigned supreme in East and Southeast Asia throughout the so-called tributary states trade system, where neighbouring small states remained in the status of near protectorate under which limited trade was conducted. China remained more or less isolated politically beyond East Asia until aggressive Western imperialism reached its shore by the mid-nineteenth century.
The claim that China was the world's leading economy in the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries was somewhat misleading based on a conflation of aggregate for the per capita terms. Maddison (2007) was credited with the claim of China being the world's leading economy; based largely on guesstimates, he puts China's annual income at about 500 or 600 international dollars (in 1990 prices), at about 80 per cent (in 1500) and 35 per cent (in 1700) of the world's leading but much smaller economies of the time, Britain and the Netherlands. But Maddison was right in trumpeting the aggregate size of the Chinese economy. Entering into Qing, China saw a doubling of territory and a tripling of population between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries.