Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Commercial Revolution in Early Modern China

Book Cover

Book Title

The Commercial Revolution in Early Modern China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986


Hao, Yen-p’ing


The book opens by declaring that capitalism fundamentally changed the world in the nineteenth century, which included China. Explaining that the commercial sector or rather the commercial ‘stage’ of capitalism was “a most vigorous and fascinating development” has been widely ignored by scholars, it provides the book an impetus. The author looks at the effects of the development of coastal mercantile activities in the late eighteenth century, and locates the resultant developments within a commercial revolution. By examining the scope, intensity and important features of the commercial revolution, the book is able to give an analysis of the impact of this on the Chinese society and economy.

Using the term Capitalism whilst claiming it to have anachronistic and contemporary connotations, the work employs the term because it finds it the most appropriate for its analysis. Similarly, the term revolution is problematic, as trends had been developing for a long period of time- the book is also a thematical study of commercial developments over a long period.

The book aims to depart from existing analyses by focusing on all the important developments of commercial capitalism along the coast, and further, throw light on problems related to worldwide capitalism and Chinese history.

Largely being based on western records, the book examines the relations between China and the West and those formed with the advent of capitalism. It also examines the change in the structure of Chinese society in relation to the development of technological advancements. The author qualifies clearly that the subject of Sino-Western commercial capitalism is the central focus of the book, whilst related topics such as coastal commerce feature as secondary to this central focus.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The book focuses on late eighteenth and nineteenth century China. Claiming a larger scope than many previous studies in the field, the book looks at the commercial developments under the Canton system to the end of the nineteenth century. It goes on to examine all the important features of commercial capitalism along the coast: including free commerce, the rise of Chinese “shopmen”, new forms of money, and opium as a key commodity among other analyses of rates of interest, credit transactions and the import and export market. By looking at the concept of economic nationalism, the study is able to give commentary on Sino-Western competition in the nineteenth century.

Giving a general assessment of the important features, but also providing a rigorous account of the relationships generated and the practices of trading at the time, the book opens up discussion on the emergence of capitalism and commercial relations, and the parties both impacting and also being transformed by these developments.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

The basic argument of the book is that Sino-Western commercial capitalism occurred as a critical development which was the result, (the author uses Fernand Braudel’s term conjecture) of a multitude of factors that occurred simultaneously. With fundamental economic change as a development without the active promotion of the Ch’ing government, the commercial revolution could be seen as the stimulation of ‘free’ commerce substantiated by latter free trade mechanisms.

The growth in the use of money from the 1820s created a new economic force. The commercial revolution gained momentum in 1860, after the war with Britain and France, as well as the failure of the Taiping Rebellion. At this point of time interior silk producing economies were given revitalization and the expansion of tea exports increased to a sum of 250,000,000 pounds in the 1880s (88% of world exported tea).

The capitalist expansion drew competition and this was visible in the pursuit of profit. This had led to greater Sino-Western cooperation and gave both Chinese merchants and Western businessmen different benefits.

After 1860, the growth in worldwide communication led to greater commercial rivalry, and as compared to 1820, the period during and after 1860 gave a larger scope and structurally changed the nature of the commerce. However, it must not be assumed that the process was straightforward, for the period was marred by conflicts as well as financial crises. The past, as the author admits, is far more complex and involves simultaneous and sometimes overlapping developments.

With far less government control in the nineteenth century, it was a system primarily based upon private undertakings. With Sino-Western commercial capitalism being broad and quick, this gives an insight into the risk taking mentality of the entrepreneurs on both sides at the time.

The Chinese economy was affected as a whole and there being a lack of political disturbance through treaty ports, usually meaning that the trade overshadowed the political framework it was under. The coast and the rise of commercial capitalism is argued to be a salient aspect of China’s quest for modernity.

Annotated by Sandeep Singh