Published online by Cambridge University Press: 07 February 2022
Over the past two generations a fundamental change has taken place in the scholarly understanding of the commercial world of late imperial China. Lasting from the Song (960–1279) to the end of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), this millennium of Chinese history had long been judged a period of decline, its initial economic breakthroughs never fulfilling their promise. The commercial and technological innovations of the eleventh and twelfth centuries were thought to have given way to economic stagnation and cultural conservatism, as the enterprising peasantry and merchants of south China lost out to the prerogatives of Confucian scholar-officials and their state-sponsored culture in the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing dynasties. Tested by a highly competitive examination regime and thereafter sheltered by a host of privileges, these scholar-officials acquired and retained an unrivalled hegemony that was cultural, political, and, some would add, economic. When China suffered a severe economic downturn during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the once-admired stability of the Qing regime was criticized for its backwardness, and the late imperial economy of these scholar-officials’ rule was condemned for its stagnation.