Sunday, January 30, 2011

China: A Macrohistory

China: A Macrohistory
a book review


Ray Huang's “China: A Macrohistory” is an excellent work of general history, as well as a daring application of a novel theory of how societies become modern, or what the author describes as “mathematically manageable”.

Huang's book is notable first of all for its ambitious scope. He treats over 2000 years of Chinese history in about 300 pages. The author employs a narrative, almost conversational style that is rare in serious history books. I initially missed the citations I would expect in any historical treatment. Indeed, there isn't even a bibliography as such, but rather a bibliographical note at the end of the book. However, this note makes it clear that much of the research that informs “China: Macrohistory” comes from hard-to-manage original sources such as the 76000 page “Twenty-four Dynastic Histories”. So I understand why Huang doesn't pepper his book with frequent, redundant references to obscure sources that would be inaccessible to most readers.

Because of its wide coverage of most of China's recorded history, Huang's work is a great orientation to the reader with little prior knowledge of China. A series of timelines and maps at opportune moments also greatly aids understanding.

What follows is a summary of some of the book's main themes, as well as my own commentary on Huang's approach and some of his conclusions.


Much of Huang's life work to understand Chinese history involved research of early modern Europe, particularly the transition in England from agrarian to mercantile society. He started by researching why China ceased to be a world leader in science in the 15th century, which is what led him to research the rise of science in early modern Europe. Eventually Huang's mentor led him to believe that Reformation, Renaissance, and modern commerce-based management are a package, trends that occur together and define modernity. In the European case as in the Chinese case, many seemingly ideological struggles (the English Civil War, Mao's rural guerrilla) are underlain by this economic transition, and the final settlement tends to be economic in nature. The ideal of egalitarianism gets transformed into an idea of equal opportunity under the law, and the end point balances old and new cultural and economic forces through new laws.

Huang even lost his National Science Foundation funding because they wondered why a proposal to research Chinese history involved his spending all his time in Europe! In the latter part of “China: A Macrohistory”, there are frequent references, indeed an entire section, dealing with the process of monetization and modernization in the West, with parallels or divergences in the Chinese case. To a postmodern thinker insisting on the uniqueness and ungeneralizability of every culture and every moment, this is anathema, but I feel that Huang more than justifies the utility of his approach.

Huang speaks of the human instinct for self-preservation as giving rise to the accumulation of goods. This drive to accumulate goods has become a governing principle in the modern age, the basis of the commercial system of organizing society. The term “capitalism” is problematic for Huang. It was never used by Marx and rarely by Adam Smith. In fact, like Huang, Smith speaks mainly of the opposition between an agriculture-based system for running society and a commerce-based, modern system. For Huang, socialism and capitalism are just gradations of a single, modern, commercial (or mathematical) system for managing society's affairs.

Huang defines a modern, commerce-based, “monetized” or “mathematically manageable” nation as one possessing rights and obligations of government and people defined by law, a division of labor, and an interchangeability between goods and services. As a society goes from an agrarian base to a commerce base, there must be an interchangeability between its social and economic components. These conditions allow the development of a pluralistic society, because equal opportunities and the possibility of exchange allow citizens to try new things that weren't allowed before. He gives the example of new artists, professionals, and even religions, all competing for patrons, clients, and acolytes. A modern system increases not only how much wealth there is, but how it can be transferred, reinvested, and grow. It represents a transition from running society along a stable, agrarian logic, to running society on a dynamic, commerce-based logic.

Huang looks to the West for the precedents of how such a transformation plays out. In the West the transition from agrarian feudalism to a modern, commerce-based society was favored by both the wealth of the towndwellers, as well as their political franchise. Their relative political freedom allowed merchants to win over landed interests and government to their way of thinking.

Late Medieval Venice was the first place to run itself along a commerce-based logic. The whole city-state was run like a trading company. But it had no real production base of its own, so it faded in time. The 17th-century Dutch then became the vanguard of commercial organization of society. Though the agrarian logic was replaced by a commercial logic in Holland, agriculture itself in fact benefited, as accumulated commercial wealth was reinvested in things like cattle breeding and land reclamation (which today define our vision of rural Holland). England underwent the same transition from agrarian to commercial society during the 17th century's wars and chaos. Sheep farming become tied to commerce through wool exports, and the “rationalization” of agricultural land (taking it from peasants and communal management) created a rural entrepreneurial class and an urban proletariat. The landed gentry became the new bourgeoisie. According to Huang, a comprehensive, universal world history should profile the agrarian-commercial transition in its many iterations throughout the world. The macrohistorian must then illustrate the link from Venice to Holland to England to China.


Huang defines macrohistory as the description of mega-trends, a following of the general direction of history as opposed to smaller details. He tries to tie past traditions to present realities in China. Macrohistory implies a long-term logic to the grand sweep of history. The long-term rationality of history means that even odd turns of events make sense. A macrohistorical perspective may seem deterministic and even amoral, but Huang asserts that human agency and values have a place in his scheme; the path of human history is made by millions of tiny thrusts, actions of free will inspired by values and ideals (though also shaped by the past).

Huang's macrohistory avoids packaged, dogmatic interpretations such as the concept of Oriental despotism. Rather the author asserts that a condition long present in China, as in all pre-modern societies, was the lack of mathematical or commercial management of society, and that this has had repercussions throughout China's recorded history.

This idea of mathematical manageability serves as Huang's central thesis that unifies and makes sense of two thousand meandering years of Chinese history. The author asserts that China's early unification under centralized rule bore consequences that defined the country's underlying tensions for two millennia, and that are still in the process of resolution. Essentially China came under centralized rule long before the rulers had the tools to manage a large, complex population.

The peasantry in China has always been huge, so centralized governments had to treat and move the population in blocks. Practical problems were turned into abstract maxims, which then had to be translated back to the practical at the village level. In such a system of bureaucracy, form was often more important than substance. Truth and authority came from above, and bureaucrats pushed for homogeneity and uniformity in governance and military management. It was impossible to promote a division of labor either among the peasants or among the bureaucrats. For lack of management capabilities, the State treated the entire country as if it were a collection of villages of undifferentiated small farmers, though on the ground this rigid treatment from above ignored and even facilitated the exploitation of the poor by wealthier landholders.

China's centralized government had no practical way to sustainably manage its huge, populous empire until the introduction of “monetary” or “mathematical management”. The State could not accommodate complexity in its government. Without a generally-accepted, standardized interchangeability between products and services, and a division in people's labor, China's governments always had to strive for homogeneity in society, and a series of taxation schemes that always eventually proved insufficient. Already hundreds of years ago, Adam Smith believed that perhaps China's laws were putting limits on the formation of capital. He saw that China's way of ruling itself was keeping it economically stagnant.

Huang makes a convincing case that most of China's history moved in cycles between dynasties. Every dynasty in China's history started with a new or modified system for governing land, taxes, trade, and war. Over time society evolved, but the governance system, created based on conditions that no longer prevailed, could not adjust to the new realities, at which point the dynasty would fall, to be replaced by another. This cyclical template for Chinese history repeated itself time and again until the past century, when China's governments finally began to manage the country mathematically. However, even today the historical problem persists. An example of the tension caused by non-monetized management in modern China is the free or almost-free public housing built in the 1980s. Eventually maintenance costs and administration of these buildings demand either raising rents or privatizing in some other way, and monetization becomes a necessary measure that makes the unmanageable manageable.

If Huang's interpretation is correct, many things about China's history and present become clearer. Confucianism is a governance system that is well-adapted to the attempt to govern an unwieldy mass without a modern bureaucracy. The disparity between reality and official claims in today's China has roots in the millenarian tension between neat schemes for governance and the messy reality of hundreds of millions of people. Even incidents the West decries as human rights violations can be understood as the logical actions of a government valuing order and coherence over diversity and individual rights.

“China: A Macrohistory” was written in 1987, with a new edition published in 1997. The newer edition is mostly unchanged, save for a new foreword and an epilogue about China at the dawn of a new century. Huang argues that his methodology of macrohistory aims to describe large trends that do not change much in the light of this or that recent event. I would agree, and argue furthermore that despite the fifteen or more years that have transpired since the book's two editions, its remove from the onslaught of daily news gives it an astounding explanatory power for the developments of the past ten years or so.

I was initially shocked to read Huang's pronouncements on macrohistory, and his methodology throughout the book. It has been a long time since I've seen large-scale, almost mechanistic visions of human history in the academic realm. Granted, I read a fair amount about the Neolithic agricultural revolution and other prehistory, and much of this writing employs a fairly mechanistic view (for example Jared Diamond or Marcel Mazoyer). However, this work is usually classed as natural history, archeology, geography, or the like, and as such employs an approach closer to the natural sciences. But I can't recall the last time I've read a straight historian employing a sort of universal template to describe history's progression. Indeed, in our postmodern, deconstructionist era such thinking is almost automatically discounted as lacking in seriousness.

Huang is influenced by Marx in his analysis of long stretches of history through a sequential, progressive lens: “all societies pass through phase A, followed by phase B, etc”. Huang is not a Marxist however, so he traces not a progression from feudal to capitalist to socialist, but rather from agrarian, in-kind societies to commerce-based, mathematically-managed societies.

In the light of Huang's macrohistorical thinking, China's history makes sense, especially the last hundred turbulent years. Huang asserts, “Much of the clamor about Chinese absurdity can now be put aside.” This is to say that what Westerners have long seen as silly or backwards about China can now be understood as a coherent trajectory of history and people's rational responses to their reality.


Having described the defining problem in Chinese history as the lack of mathematical management in society, Huang claims that the 20th century's revolutions (which he regards as a single, unified phenomenon, encompassing more than 50 years and passing through Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, and Mao's Communists) were what brought modernity to China. The major result then of the 20th century in China was to overturn the system of undifferentiated peasants in undifferentiated villages, in order to make possible the rational use of land and labor. Huang claims that this created an “equal opportunity for betterment” among the peasantry, which marked the end of the Chinese revolution.

This march to modernity has not been smooth. In fact, much of the past century and a half in China seems like a series of failures and false starts. Since the Opium Wars China has tried to adjust, to make a settlement between Chinese culture and foreign influence arriving from afar. The Japanese did this in the 1800s, which is why they became modern and prosperous well before the Chinese. In fact, commercial-style organization in Japan's government and military led to victory over China in the war of 1894. The so-called “Self-strengthening Movement” in 1860s and 1870s China tried to imitate Western military technology, but couldn't do so without adopting Western efficiency and precision, the opposite of China's timeless bureaucracy aiming to maintain internal cohesion. There were no inter-business links to make this modernization attempt work, so the Self-strengthening Movement was the first in a series of seeming failures in the modern age. Even after the 1911 revolution, the new written constitution didn't quickly change culture, neither in the countryside, the schools, or among factory workers. Only in 1919 did the bureaucrats and students start to shift their way of leading.

The egalitarian streak of the civil war in China laid the groundwork for mathematical management. It reorganized villages and ended local usury, which had the unexpected consequence of enabling mathematical management. Egalitarianism doesn't suffice to modernize a nation, because according to Huang things would eventually revert to the prior state of inequality. So for China to become modern it was necessary to diversify livelihoods and enable interchangeability. Even the much-reviled Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution of the mid-twentieth century fit into Huang's thesis. The Great Leap Forward looked to decrease transport and technology needs and to replace capital with labor. It was another failed experiment, but it led to the capital savings that enabled the subsequent economic growth of the 1970s onward. Huang feels that the official history written by the Chinese Communist Party in the late 1980s, which touched much on Mao Zedong, was in fact one of the frankest looks at any leader by official historians in China's history. For Huang this is another indication that China is firmly on the way to modernity.

When Huang says “The Chinese revolution is over”, he means that from now on the tensions between modernity and tradition will no longer be resolved through violence and bloodshed. China is now becoming mathematically manageable, and is finding links to the Western and world history. It's impossible now for China to manage its current growth through centralized planning, because there are so many actors involved. Any single economic product involves a plethora of subcontractors and suppliers.

Nevertheless, despite the end of the revolution, there remain problems with land, population, and ecology to work out.


In the end Huang's thesis can be summarized thus: all societies go through a transition from agrarian, in-kind management to commerce-friendly interchangeability of goods and services (ie monetization). To someone like me this is hard to swallow because I devote lots of effort to militating for a more agrarian, less monetized society. But this is all the more testament to the strength of Huang's argument—I am forced to accept it, despite my ideological preferences to the contrary. It's a good thing I didn't read this book when my dad first gave it to me in my teens. I might have been converted into a rabid neoliberal!

Huang's book has convinced me of the need for monetary management in society. Indeed, as a child of the modern age, even my calls for agrarianism take for granted a monetary framework for society. The organizational principle of interchangeability is here to stay. It has broadened science and technology and enriched human life. The excesses of the present age, when money and our very economy are based on ephemeral abstractions, when commerce and even finance represent greater (though often fictitious) value than the production of concrete goods and services, often inure us to the positive values of a modern, monetized society. With a mathematical, monetized system we can more easily diversify to engage in non-agricultural pursuits, better meet the needs of buyers and sellers, and enjoy increased social and physical mobility.

While Huang's arguments on modernization are compelling, I find myself wondering if the world is as neat and sequential as he implies. Huang asserts, “Modernization is always accompanied by economic growth and expansion”. In the 21st century can we still claim that modernization always goes hand-in-hand with increased well-being? I agree with Huang that Mao's revolution in China, or the French or Russian Revolutions, fit into the framework of struggles to modernize, to transition from agrarian to commerce-based societies. But what about recent wars in Yugoslavia, Cuba, or Colombia? These are already-modernized states that fought or continue to fight, not in order to modernize and monetize society, but because other problems persist during the modern age or are even caused by modernization. Modernization in the course of the early to mid-twentieth century did not eventually lead to a just, progressive, egalitarian society in these cases, which is why wars arose even after modernization was firmly established. Likewise, what about the US? We modernized long ago, and our current problems will not be solved by more monetization. Indeed, problems like clinical depression, crime, inequality, and now economic decline and joblessness are in large part caused by our rabid drive to monetize every aspect of our individual and collective lives. The aberrations of complex financial derivatives, or creating an economy based on outsourcing most tangible activity, have their roots in purely economic, mathematical, commercial logic. Such logic seems to be leading the US to regress in terms of well-being right now, not to advance.

Huang makes the case for a certain monetization of society and its interactions. Perhaps the lesson from the past few decades of rampant monetization in the US are that, while we're all happy not to live an a feudal age, the current age when even food, shelter, childcare, and love and birth are monetized is equally horrid (and creates a similar gap between haves and have-nots). My lesson from Huang is thus that I should moderate my agrarian boosterism. Informed by Huang, I must admit that we shouldn't return to a totally agrarian, non-monetized age. But we as a society would certainly benefit from becoming a bit more agrarian, and reclaiming our most intimate spaces from the rule of the marketplace.


There are a few observations I have relating to Huang's treatment of agriculture. While he has convinced me that the transition from agrarian organization to commercial organization is a real and necessary trend in the history of all countries, his flippant, almost disdainful treatment of agriculture in general is misled. It's common for modern thinkers to downplay the importance of agriculture in everyday life in the modern world, but it's nevertheless a silly and irresponsible attitude. Farming is, after all, the basis for all of our continued existence.

I don't know what to say about the supposed backwardness of Chinese agriculture, which Huang claims reached a technological apex in the 13th century and advanced little thereafter until the middle of the 20th century. That may be, but the productivity per hectare of Chinese farms, even at the beginning of the 20th century, put to shame the productivity of most other regions of the world. F.H. King documents with wonder the agricultural techniques employed in China at the turn of the century in his “Farmers of Forty Centuries”. It's clear that modern, mechanized agriculture is usually more productive per man-hour but less productive per acre than small-scale peasant farming. So perhaps the modernization and monetization of a state doesn't entail increasing agricultural productivity per se, but rather permitting some people to leave farming so as to diversify and grow the economy,

In another part of his book, Huang speaks of land consolidation and integration as leading to a more efficient agriculture than is possible with small plots. This is an unfounded assertion, and makes me wonder if other assertions (in areas I'm not as familiar with) are likewise somewhat idealized or ideologized. All this said, Huang admiringly references Taiwan's Agrarian Reform of 1953, which was modeled on Japan's post-war reform under MacArthur. Both of these agrarian reforms were followed by industrial expansion and generalized, society-wide prosperity. Perhaps this is my meeting-point with Huang. I certainly don't have a theory as coherent and all-inclusive as Huang regarding how a society becomes modern and prosperous, and I don't wish for societies to get too far away from their agrarian roots. But in any case we both agree that a farmer-friendly reform in land and agricultural policies is crucial in order for any nation to develop itself economically.

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