Establishing statistical foundations of a chronology for the great divergence: a survey and critique of the primary sources for the construction of relative wage levels for Ming–Qing China

Kent Deng, Patrick O'Brien
Published Online:
10 Mar 2016
Volume/Issue No:
Volume 69 Issue 4

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This article is a survey and critique of recent endeavours to establish statistical foundations for a chronology for the great divergence based upon trends and levels in relative wages. Our reading of the bibliography in Chinese labour history, together with a preliminary investigation into other primary sources, suggests that the Kuznetsian paradigm for empirical economics may not be viable for the construction of analytical narratives for the Chinese and other premodern imperial economies in South and West Asia. Nevertheless, two datasets currently in print will continue to be quoted to lend support to numerically grounded speculations for levels and trends in real wages and welfare for the families of wage‐dependent urban workers in China over the eighteenth century. Statistical evidence for the Ming and Qing dynasties calibrated for the purposes of comparing real wage levels for wage‐dependent labour between China and western Europe can, however, be placed on a spectrum for accuracy and inferential analysis that runs from ‘unfounded guess work’ to ‘plausible conjectures’. The unwelcome contention of this article is that the data published and potentially available for China (and probably for India and the Ottoman Empire) stand close to the unfounded guess work end of that spectrum. Meanwhile, and as a speculative conclusion, we offer a conjecture that the ‘real wages’ for Qing China's tiny proletariat, whose income included high proportions of wages in kind, have remained as elusive as they were when the real wage debate began a decade ago.

© Economic History Society 2016

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