ABC, 123, Do Re Mi

John Gulick john_gulick at
Fri Jan 24 12:07:57 MST 2003

Mark Jones wrote:

>which raises the interesting question of why not? This was the nation
> >whose large fleets of junks sailed the Pacific centuries before the
> >Portugese and whose eunuch-admirals presented the emperors with >accurate
>maps of Tasmania long before Capt. Cook got there. And given >the extent of
>Chinese long-distance trade, embracing the Red Sea, the >Indian ocean, the
>east coast of Africa, Indonesia, Central Asia (there >was a Chinese
>governor in Samarkand in the 6th century AD) and the >Mediterranean since
>the time of Roman antiquity, you have to wonder >why there was no Chinese
>overseas empire later on.

My knowledge of this is rather trifling, but I was under the impression that
seafaring Arabs and Gujaratis pretty much dominated the Indian Ocean
merchant lanes, and that the Chinese were never regnant there.

>All of which is not to say that you are wrong about Pomeranz, you >surely
>are not. Actually Pomeranz does discuss Chinese coal workings, >I seem to
>remember--and the fact that the Chinese were smelting iron >with coke
>several hundred years before Abraham Darby (re)invented the >process in
>Coalbrookdalein ?1709. Pomeranz is much more interesting >than Brenner or
>Meiksins Wood, anti-Marxist tho he be.

Right, it's not so simple as China had relatively less in the way of coal
deposits. I once read somewhere that during the early Ming Dynasty
more Chinese were in the employ of the (state-run) metallurgical
"industry" than in England during the early 1800's. And of course dirty
brown coal still remains the chief source of the PRC's primary energy today
(extracted from deep-shaft mines with lethal accident rates that have
skyrocketed in the last few years, as state-run enterprises sub-contract
extraction to fly-by-night TVE's and private firms).

My recall on Pomeranz is quite poor (and I didn't read the whole book inside
and out to begin with). But if my memory serves me properly, I don't think
he claims that the overseas commercial networks linking diasporic Chinese in
SE Asia and mainland Chinese in coastal South China in any sense ebbed
during the Ming and early Qing Dynasties.
Quite to the contrary, in fact, although naval participation in and imperial
sponsorship of these long-distance trade vectors certainly was curtailed.
(Although classical Marxists and Weberians alike have made far too much of
the extent to which Beijing mandarins clamped down on Guangdong
sailor-entrepreneurs -- the bogus "Asiatic mode of production" crapola and
all that). Pomeranz argues that the socio-ecological divisions of labor
between Western Europe and its tributary arena and between China and its
tributary arena worked differently, facilitating the industrial transition
in the former but not in the latter. For example, the environmentally
ruinous smash-and-grab sugar plantations on the coasts of Bahia were of
course principally manned by
African slaves who did not self-provision their means of consumption. Almost
all of the garments came from the manufactories of the Low Countries, North
Italy, England and so on. Epidemic-driven depopulation
in Latin America translated into such an abundance of coastal land that
soils and water could be super-exploited with no ecological blowback; it
also meant that plantation workers could be nothing other than bonded labor
in its most heinous (but also commodity-consuming, if at a very low
per-capita level) form. The socio-ecological division of labor in Southeast
Asia, centered in China, did not function like that ... how, exactly, I do
not remember very well. In any event, China's peripheries did not soak up
Chinese textiles and porcelains to the same degree and also did not furnish
cheap vegetable (and mineral) wealth to the same degree. I vaguely remember
Pomeranz arguing something to the effect that Southeast Chinese "wastelands"
carved out for colonial settlement (with non-Han indigenous locals fleeing
to the highlands where they still congregate today) soon became
quasi-replicants of previously farmed parts of China, replete with peasant-
and space-intensive agrarian schemes. I'm not well-read enough to decide
whether Pomeranz's argument regarding the socio-ecological division of labor
binding together Western Europe and Latin America represents any kind of
qualitative advance over dependency theory, world-systems theory,
neo-Marxist theories of colonialism and imperialism, etc..

John Gulick

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