'Sucking the Life Out of the Past and Flattening History'

Times Literary Supplement, 9 June 2000



China and Historical Capitalism. Editor - Timothy Brook and Gregory Blue, ISBN - 0 521 64029 6, Publisher - Cambridge University Press, Price - 40.00, Pages - 291


This book takes as its point of departure the Marxist-inspired approach of Immanuel Wallerstein, a notable practitioner of 'world-systems theory', to analyse how 'historical capitalism' has shaped knowledge of China. Predictably giving primacy to economic factors, Wallerstein sucks the life out of the past and flattens history to make it conform to his rigid vision of a world system. Human agency, technological innovations, cultural variables and historical contingencies are left out, as a concern with systemic processes sweeps away all evidence that might stand in the way of the author's disarmingly simplistic conclusion: capitalism is disruptive and 'the genie was let out of the box' around 1500, allowing the 'totally irrational' and 'insidious threat' of market-generated wealth to subject the world to its rule.


World-system theory assigns moral culpability to the West, and most contributors to this volume are happy to pose as crusaders against 'Eurocentric judgments' and rescuers of Chinese history. Gregory Blue's overview of representations of China in Europe during the period of 'historical capitalism' is typical: plodding over this well-known field with the help of secondary sources, he is less interested in analysing the limits of available information on China than in assessing whether a variety of different views express a 'positive opinion' or 'negative attitude'. His overview reaches the inevitable conclusion of world-system theory - that the experience of 'world capitalism' shaped a Eurocentric judgement of China as a stagnant and despotic civilisation.


Timothy Brook dabbles in the history of modern China and Japan to demonstrate that this representation was also taken on board by social scientists within Asia. Dependent on secondary sources yet disregarding any counterfactuals, the author explains that Asia was forced into the capitalist world system during the modern period, a process that compelled Asian intellectuals to interact with capitalist theory. The result was that the concept of western capitalism came to rule the 20th century: intellectual activity in China is seen here as a passive response to an active impact from the West, inescapably incorporating Asia into its world system.


Two further chapters attempt to establish new foundations on which China's historical experience can be better understood, although Francesca Bray's contribution on non-western technology does little to achieve this goal. Basing her account of technology on the observation that rice and cotton became the central products of the empire after the Song, she shows that a gendered division of labour led men to farm and women to weave in self-sufficient local economies. In its pursuit of economic prosperity, the Chinese state further promoted and monitored land reclamation, a granary system, the development of frontier regions and a large-scale inter-regional economy. Unfortunately, this chapter relies almost exclusively on secondary sources. This lack of familiarity with primary sources leads to an uncritical replication of the state's conservative and highly idealised vision of economic self-sufficiency and social stability.

The last chapter by R. Bin Wong comes as a breath of fresh air, as it departs from the schematic approach of the preceding chapters. Wong questions the utility of capitalism as an analytical category, wisely refusing to see 'the West' or even 'modern Europe' as homogeneous historical entities, and proceeds instead to highlight how the rate and degree of economic change found in parts of Europe can also be identified in imperial China: a flourishing commercialisation from the 16th century onwards provides evidence against the notion of a 'traditional' order being submerged by a modern form of capitalism. He points out how comparable dynamics of commercial expansion within different political economies finally intersected by the end of the 19th century. Contrary to other authors in this volume, he explicitly refuses to see modern China as an appendage of a larger system. With the exception of this final chapter, the volume as a whole eloquently exemplifies the shortcomings of world-system theory, reproducing in a different guise the very Eurocentrism it wishes to avoid.