Book Review: Before and Beyond Divergence: The Politics of Economic Change in China and Europe. By Jean-Laurent Rosenthal & R. Bin Wong

In this “modest” but “ambitious” monograph (Page 2), Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, a scholar of Europe, and R. Bin Wong, an scholar of China, collaborated to offer a novel approach to exploring the heatedly debated realm of questions on the “Great Divergence” of Europe and China in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In 2000, Kenneth Pomeranz published his groundbreaking work The Great Divergence, which initially highlights on evaluating “living standard,” rather than merely monetary aspects of the economic change, and at the same time puts emphasis on Europe’s geographic advantages that China did not possess. Rosenthal and Wong, from Pomeranz’s relatively humanitarian starting point, stress on the significance of political scale and institutions in the centuries-long transformation process that preceded Industrial Revolution.

The California School faced a wave of criticism after The Great Divergence was published, from scholars like Peer Vries, (Via Peking Back to Manchester: Britain, the Industrial Revolution, and China [2003]) and R. C. Allen (“The Great Divergence: Wages and Prices from the Middle Ages to the First World War,” Explorations in Economic History [2001]). In general, Rosenthal and Wong did a fine job to lead the discourse back to Pomeranz’s initial theories on “living standard” from the discussions over monetary wages. In addition to their emphasis on the long-term process of economic change rather than moment of critical invention, the authors also promote the idea of a set of social factors that once favored China but then later favored Europe, so as to explain the taking-over of Europe from China in terms of economic leading position in the world.

This book contains an introduction, seven chapters, and one conclusion. The main arguments provided in this book are as following: In Chapter 1, the authors propose that despite somehow evident, the differences between China and Europe as two comparing world regions should not be taken as given; they are rather the key elements, which influence economic changes, for rulers of the different polities would set different priorities and policies, which would further lead to respecting economic changes. Chapter two and three argue that demography, resources, and formality of institutions in these two world regions are different from their counterpart to various degrees. However, they are not sufficient to cause the divergence that took place in the late eighteenth century. Chapter four provides an important argument about warfare and its role in economic change: Europe had been suffering from continuous warfare, so that rulers built up city walls and protected their people and manufactures from harm caused by wars and social conflicts – Europe’s urbanization was increasing. Whereas in China, relatively peaceful situation provided the people with little incentive to technological innovation, therefore they did not have reason to move to the cities; and the manufactures remained in the countryside, where relative price was low – China’s urbanization was stagnated. Chapter five and six illustrate that European rulers (representative governments), frequently confronting wars and competitions, collected taxes and used them for warring purposes; whereas Chinese rulers (authoritarian government) imposed moderate taxation, and used them mainly for promoting public goods. Because the rulers believed this was the way to achieve longevity of their regime. In Chapter seven, Rosenthal and Wong suggest the politics of economic change in China and Europe has diverged as early as 1000 A.D., after which they have entered self-reinforcing pattern. Europe had been halfway to industrialization already by 1500. An ultimate step of total transformation would be made when there is a large market available. China, on the other hand, still enjoyed its stable and large market, which was lack of incentives for innovation.

Before and Beyond Divergence: The Politics of Economic Change in China and Europe.

The authors argue that although war brought instabilities and fragmentation to European polities, it also had unintended positive consequences (rise of capital-intensive production as character of modern economy), which benefited economic development. It is crucial to understand the close links between political factors and economical changes. The arguments are presented on two levels. On the first level, besides technological breakthrough, some other economic or cultural factors (e.g., demography, informality of certain institutions, capital markets) have roots in political reasons or are lacking of supporting evidence. The second level is that implications of differences in international relations in terms of technological change, credit markets, and government spending have been made. These implications manifest the unanticipated consequences of war and their further impact on China and Europe.

Rosenthal and Wong successfully pointed out the conventional methods of comparing economies between European model and non-European ones: scholars find traits associated with Europe’s success, and then classify features of other societies, to see how close they are to the European model, and then they evaluate the model of the compared society. Instead of doing so, Rosenthal and Wong attempt to propose an alternative research method from the very beginning of the research, namely by asking questions, which are not already based on European-exceptionalism. The authors believe the best way to explain Europe’s success in the late eighteenth century is to compare the politics of economic change within and between Europe and China across a time period that is beyond the divergence becoming visible. And the significant factors that took effect long before rise of Europe and decline of China lie in the politics. The factors enabled China to reach a Smithian “industrious revolution,” although without further breakthrough; similarly, they favored Europe, when the fragmentation of polities increased possibilities of technological and organizational innovation. This book is the effort of the two authors to view the world history in a way that the rise and fall of historical regions is norm. In contrast to the conventional stories of global/world history, the two authors write, “ours is a tale without heroes or villains, in which the unintended consequences of political conflict are what matter most.” (Page 127)

Despite the evident merits of the arguments, there are some insufficiencies. For instance, when discussing a prosperous economic growth, the authors solely considered long-distance trade. Even though as one of the most suitable types of economic activity in discussions on comparative economies between Europe and China, long-distance trade in a region alone can barely indicate its economic performance as a whole. Furthermore, as the authors point out by themselves in the monograph, the world regions are interconnected. Therefore the total absence of other world parts except for China and Europe caused a rather isolated image of the two regions, and fragmented the story.

It is pointed out quite evidently that China enjoyed much more unity during its thousands of years of existence, while Europe suffered from political fragmentation for most of its time. Yet the general representations of China being a unified and peaceful polity, and Europe, to contrast, being an ever-conflicting warring zone, seem to be a manifestation of the authors falling into a problem of generalization. It might be closer to reality to demonstrate Europe in such a “chaotic” way than to present China as a mostly harmonious empire. The authors imply that it is inevitably that China, considering its peace, low taxes, and public goods provision, was a better place to live (in accordance with Pomeranz’s “living standard” discussion). However, the simplistic way of illustrating China’s political performance over centuries could lead to questions about whether the authors have a thorough understanding of Chinese political history.

As claimed in the beginning of the book, Rosenthal and Wong see their enterprise as “modest and ambitious.” “Modest” is in terms of their research focus, which is mainly on specific institutions and establishing a framework for comparisons across societies over time; “ambitious” is their anticipation for the book, that it could provide a keen understanding of the connections between politics and economy in China and Europe. They envision the book would still be valuable by 2050, when China gains its equal statues as Europe economically. The author write: “[Indeed,] effective explanations of what has happened in the past can help us anticipate future possibilities because many of the social processes at work today have historical roots and antecedents.” However, their analysis reaches as far as 1850; what beyond that, when the divergence starting to be visible, and the grand historical change took place, are not in the analysis. In the future, along with the more breakthroughs of technologies that would further lead to social and political changes, the structures of, and the links between economy and politics in different world regions might also change. In this case, could this approach to explain the unintended success of Europe in the eighteenth century still be used to anticipate future possibilities? That is to say, the authors’ modest approach and framework based on simplistic modeling of complex world regions could hardly accomplish their ambition of continuously being consultable in fifty years. Nonetheless, their incentives to stress on political scale, and putting institutions into spatial and temporal contexts are still inspiring to us, and encouraging to alternative understandings of history.


Visualizing Cultures Controversy and Beyond

In October 2014, I visited an exhibition entitled “War and Propaganda 14/18” at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (MKG). Shocked by the elaborated details of the depictions of both visual and textural, I was feeling a little bit of terrified when seeing some of the images of Germany in posters and postcards produced in Britain, France and the U.S.



Upon first seeing pictures on Visualizing Cultures, I was immediately reminded of the images at “War and Propaganda 14/18”. For me, the brutality of the German and Japanese soldiers demonstrated in these images was almost disturbing of a parallel amount. Yet there was a bit more of this feeling of me about the Japanese paintings. The reason for that, I would like to call “national sensitivity”. Simply put, it is something triggered by seeing the image when one’s own people being slaughtered — a reinforcing process for the erection of an individual’s nationhood.

However, the national sensitivity of mine did not cause me strong rejection of this online presentation. For as far as we know, given the fact that the Chinese have been trying every means to show the world the cruelty and ruthlessness of the Japanese during the war, these images, made by Japanese themselves, providing exactly how barbarous and inhuman the Japanese were. Through further browsing the website and reading the texts, I realized it was less upsetting how the images of the Chinese were butchered (although they were), but more disturbing because of the texts written by the professors, which contain words like “exhilarating beauty”, ” a beautiful, heroic, modern war” and etc. This use of language might play with the fire of beautifying or even glorifying the war. According to Wong, this misleading usage of language is the main reason for Chinese students’ protest.

Image and literary text function primarily in a inter-complimentary way. Decoding image and decoding text are controlled by different areas in the brain. Image interpretation is essential for human survival and is derived from our ancestor; while language, especially literary creation came into being much later comparing to the ability of image comprehension, for to immediately percept images is one of essential animal instincts. Therefore, it is reasonable to deduct that image stimuli receives faster and stronger feedback from human brain than literary text. Images provide something that cannot be documented by words. Certain extent of emptiness that leaves out certain details stimulates imagination, further creates much complex emotional and perceptional effects on readers. On the other hand, literary texts that accompany the images serve to direct the readers to a certain understanding perspective, which generates certain emotion or rational thinking, as expected by the exhibitor (the professors, in this case), resulting in fulfilling the exhibiting purposes. Therefore, the “misunderstanding” of the Chinese students in this controversy seems to be caused by the lack of proper instruction of viewing the provided by the professors. What about the “brainwashed” Chinese students who were misunderstood by Chronicle, for whom it is rather merely an “understanding” without “mis-“? Were these students being overly national sensitive? Why on earth would they being so “narrow minded” and “overreacting”? How would the Taiwanese react to these images? How about Hong Kong people? Accept it or not, they are to some extent related to the people who were depicted as “weak”, “humiliated”, and “killed” in these paintings. How much does an individual’s nationality/nationhood matter here?

The Falling Man – a photograph taken by the veteran photographer Richard Drew on the worst day – recorded a man falling from the north tower of World Trade Center, with his hands at sides, his legs bent, facing forwards. This photograph caused a huge furor right after its appearance. Readers were outraged and asserting the image for being “distressing”. It is so controversial since it represents a series of trauma: a theme of trauma (9/11 terrorist attacks), a national and an individual trauma. it gives the reader “a punch in the stomach”, causes them filled with severe psychological discomfort.


But The Falling Man is not the first photograph that “punched in the stomach” of readers so hard that caused huge public debate and discomfort. On February 1, 1968, during the opening stages of the Tet Offensive, Vietnam War, photographer Eddie Adams took his most famous photograph — a Vietcong prisoner, Nguyễn Văn Lém, was being executed by police chief General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan.

RETRANSMISSION TO RESIZE FILE--FILE--South Vietnamese National Police Chief Brig Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan executes a Viet Cong prisoner with a single pistol shot in the head in Saigon Feb. 1, 1968. Nguyen died Wednesday, July 15, 1998  at his home in Burke, a suburb of Washington, D.C., after a battle with cancer, said his daughter, Nguyen Anh. He was 67. This photo of Nguyen aiming a pistol point-blank at the grimacing prisoner's head became a memorable image of the Vietnam War. The photograph, by Eddie Adams, won a Pulitzer prize for The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)
RETRANSMISSION TO RESIZE FILE–FILE–South Vietnamese National Police Chief Brig Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan executes a Viet Cong prisoner with a single pistol shot in the head in Saigon Feb. 1, 1968. Nguyen died Wednesday, July 15, 1998 at his home in Burke, a suburb of Washington, D.C., after a battle with cancer, said his daughter, Nguyen Anh. He was 67. This photo of Nguyen aiming a pistol point-blank at the grimacing prisoner’s head became a memorable image of the Vietnam War. The photograph, by Eddie Adams, won a Pulitzer prize for The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)

This photograph shares some effects to the audience as “the Falling Man” does. Each of them records the very last moment of a person’s life. Both of them were at the very moment of their death. In fact, even the bullet exiting Lém’s head was revealed in this photograph if one takes a closer look. But unlike the public’s reaction of great anger to The Falling Man, American public’s reactions to Adams’ photograph of war execution were much less fierce and without much resentment. In Adams’ photograph, the Americans are the spectators of this trauma while the Falling Man makes the American people the receivers of this trauma, for they see the person falling down as a possible self, or a possible/real person in their own lives. In this way, it is understandable that a immense rejection of the Falling Man was received from the American public.

The example of different reactions of American public to The Falling Man and Adams photograph of execution sheds light on the role of “national belonging” in responding to a certain historical visual representation. It can certainly justify the emotional reaction of some Chinese students to the paintings and the way that the paintings were displayed on a website. Accordingly, the scholars, who failed to understand this universal nature of human, are standing on an absolutely uneven ground, despite how righteous and just they claim to be.

So was the response of the protest a result of PRC’s excessive patriotic education and brainwashing? Unlikely. The national sensitivity of a person depends on his individual nationhood, which is built up in a complex way, which varies from nation to nation. The Sino-Japanese war is not the past only for the Chinese, certainly not only for mainland Chinese people; it is also the past for the Japanese. Invisibly but more importantly, it is the past for all the non-Chinese and non-Japanese, who imagine they do not “take a side”, but they did for a century .

The main difference between the war propaganda at MKG exhibition and the woodblock paintings on Visualizing Cultures is that, the German’s brutality was depicted by their foe, while the Japanese’s slaughtering actions, despite the “heroic poses”, were illustrated by themselves. Any human would naturally be disgusted by ferocious scenes. How would today’s Japanese react if they see these paintings? Given the equal human nature, I’m certain they would feel disturbed to see them today. As for the Germans, when I and my German friend walking through the “War and Propaganda 14/18” exhibition, he was not only as shocked as I was by the brutality of the war, (although the poster/postcard nature of these images means the use of high-exaggeration, animalization, and fantasizing) but kept filling me in with more historical details that he learnt in school about how brutal the war was for both sides.

Exploring the Meanings of the Great Wall of China Today

The concept of the Great Wall as a national symbol and the ideas based on or derived from it constitute a myth for Waldron. From a negative symbol to a national pride, the meanings of the Great Wall are very fluid. It is given different connotations in accordance with the needs of the group of people in the process of nation building, or the process of transformation from culture to nation, as Waldron would possibly agree. But to which extent does these meanings matter today? Geographical, social and economical factors are crucial to understand the precise significance the Great Wall embodies in current Chinese society.

The Great Wall of China, as noted in the text, is by no means one single wall with one unified story, as it is always generally understood. It is a combination of several walls erected over thousand of years; it is a set of histories, instead of only one. Extending from Shanhai Guan in the east to Jiayu Guan in the west, these walls, complementary to natural landscapes, served as northern frontiers dividing agrarian civilization and the steppe tribes. Today, however, it is said that thirty percent of the Great Wall is in ruins, and another twenty percent is in “reasonable” condition, according to a survey of a hundred sections of the wall carried out by the Great Wall Society of China in 2006.1 And the remaining fifty percent has disappeared. While the parts close to Beijing and other cities (such as Jiayu Guan city) draw attention from the government, and protected by law; some other parts of the Wall at those places where they are remote from population-condensed areas and tourist sites, are loosely protected. Geographical locations of the ruins of the walls play a role here. But if the government wants to protect the Great Wall for its archeological and historical importance, why does not it protect every meter of the Wall in the same manner?

What relates to the geographical factor is how different social groups perceive the Great Wall, whether it is a national symbol or not. In Waldron’s text, the alterations of meanings occurred mainly among Chinese and Western literati. Even though literature and folklores might influence general opinion on the Wall among the common, the degree to which it has impact on is hard to distinguish. In distant places, many local villagers even consider the ruins of the Wall as “only a pile of earth”, and for some tourists, drawing and carving on the Wall are not a behavior to be ashamed of. For these who are also Chinese, is the established Great Wall still a symbol of national pride or even important at all to their national identity? If part of the nation do not feel the national significance of the symbol, how can this symbol be important for “national” identity? Or is it just for the part of people who can be vocal and represent the nation in the world?

Last but not least, economic reason also drives to the restoration of the Wall, which links to the geographical factor previously discussed. Economic concerns matter much to the local governments, if less so to the central government. Tourism attracts more capital and further lifts local economy; not to mention the Great Wall is not only a domestic traveller attraction, but also an international tourist magnet. The symbolic and ideological meanings of the Wall exist and become significant because of national leaders and intellectuals (linking back to the social factor), who identify themselves as part of the imagined massive community called China/Chinese-culture-sharers, in front of “others”, feeling themselves different and special, if not better (proud).

There are different reasons to preserve what is considered “old.” I do not agree with Waldron on the “authenticity” of the Great Wall recognized by “Chinese people”. Various parts of the Wall have been torn down, rebuilt, surrounded by recreation parks, and then charged for entrance fee. These “Great Wall(s)” are of anything but authenticity. Thus preserving the authentic is hardly one of the reasons for restoration; and restoration with other purposes create nothing authentic.

Tearing down the “old” and building up the “new” is a desperate move to search for recognition and self-identification. Comparing to the parts of the Great Wall, which are “lucky” enough to be preserved, the old towns of some other cities in China was less fortunate. Lanzhou, a city filled with architectures from Ming and Qing dynasties, was gradually and completely destroyed and rebuilt. In recent years, the city officials started to realize the loss of uniqueness by completely discarding its past. But it is already too late. The special city structure “double city” nowadays can only be seen in old photos and a newly built sculpture in the city park. At the places where the original buildings were, some black stone tablets stand, giving basic information of the “deceased buildings”, looking ridiculous.

Old double-city structure in City Park:
City Park 1
“Gravestones” of the old town in the lost memory:
Stone Tablet 1 Stone Tablet 2