The Great Divergence

The academic discussion on the great divergence often focuses on the two peripheral large economies of the Eurasian continent; the European (North) Western nations as compared to China. This essay will do the same.

It is generally accepted that the differences between the separate economic zones within the Eurasian continent differed less than the Eurasian continent as a whole as compared to the continents of Africa, Australasia and the Americas. The Eurasian continent has been observed to be the most economically advanced during the pre-Columbian era on almost all counts.

The general explanations for this Massive Divergence between Eurasia (including North Africa) and the rest of the earth’s economies is most convincingly explained by factors of geography, the most convincing of which, analyzed by Diamond and others, will be briefly outlined below. Given this evidence, it is not necessary to assume that similar geographic factors, including climate and natural resource endowment, have caused the Great Divergence between Europe and the rest of Asia, but it does mean that a comprehensive explanation of this divergence needs to take geography very seriously into account.

Moreover, the hypothesis that serious demographic differences between China and Europe, the Malthusian explanation, had a very significant impact on economic development seems to be debunked by empirical evidence as interpreted by Lavely and Wong ___ and others. The general assumption that China’s universal marriage system would have resulted in a positive check system where Malthusian crises could only be contained by natural disasters and famine is undermined by the evidence that female infanticide and delayed inter-marriage fertility had a more prominent, preventative effect on population dynamics___. Furthermore, a number of the famines and disasters do not correspond as neatly with immense population density extremes___; geography in many cases can be attributed as the underlying causal factor. This essay will mainly focus on geography and its relevance to the Great Divergence.

Diamond recognized two very advantageous basic geographical benefits which befell the Eurasian continent. Firstly, the East-West axis which defines the outline of Eurasia allows for an easy spread of human capital, knowledge and flora and fauna ___. Secondly, the endowments of animals and plants which were very suited to domestication ___. This lead to high population densities, which in turn resulted in specialization, division of labor and in long-term high resistance of the Eurasian populations to infectious diseases ___.

The true overall power of these benefits is evident only after Europe’s specialized explorers encountered the Americas, where their superior immune systems, weaponry and methods of transportation manage to overpower the isolated, less developed native American empires ___.

However, this does not explain, firstly, why European, and not Chinese, armadas discovered the New World and reaped the benefits, and secondly, it does not directly explain why Britain was so successful in direct confrontation with China two centuries later, as at first glance, it is reasonable to assume that both ends of the super-continent benefited from these same general advantages.

This leads many modern “world-historians”, including Pomeranz to believe that the Chinese economy was as developed as Europe until as late as 1800, as opposed to other estimates of the origins of the Great Divergence around 1500. ___ . In order to understand not just whether geography was important, but also what aspects of it were most important, and the extent of the impact, this academic discussion also needs to be taken into consideration.

As has been pointed out in most analyses of the rise and stagnation of the Chinese empire(s), China’s uniquely suited climate to the cultivation of a particularly labor and calorie-intensive crop; rice, which does not require a lot of fertilizer or land, but does necessitate irrigation and labor enhancement schemes, has endowed the country with a pattern of economic development which is necessarily different from that of Europe ___. One of the results is the stimulating effect on population growth, centralization and reliance on indigenous population ___
More obviously negative, as Landes ___ also points out, the particular circumstances of rice cultivation create severe health issues in the form of germs such as schistosomiasis.

A possible, although perhaps far-fetched, European geographical advantage is proposed by David Cosandey. His book, seeking to explain the industrial as well as the intellectual revolution in Europe, stresses two geographical features, the one not very original, and quite plausible advantage being those natural factors such as rivers and mountain ranges which made Europe more likely to consist of separate warring states, causing national Darwinism through political competition, an effect generally thought to breed innovation ___.

His other point is dubbed “The Coastline Shape Hypothesis”, where a highly mathematical analysis of the shores of Western Europe, India and China are provided which indicate that the anomalously high fractal dimensions of Western European shores were uniquely beneficial for seafaring, leading to more trade, conquest and exploratory expeditions, which in turn brought back knowledge as well as prosperity, and allowed for a more diffuse scientific culture ___.

One important fact which can be derived from the second hypothesis is probably that one can go too far in attributing geographical facets as underlying causes of economic miracles. As is widely documented, and covered in detail by Boorstin ___, China sent out armadas for tributary and trade relations along most of the Indian ocean’s Western coasts, including Southern Africa and Arabia, and all accounts agree that the Chinese fleet excelled both in size and technology when compared to that of European nations, even when compared to ships built hundreds of years later in the then most advanced nautical states of Europe ___.

Thus, it seems like continued Chinese explorations could have led to a reverse divergence, where China would have taken advantage of the benefits of the Americas which remained unique to Europe (some of the advantages of the New World discoveries spread quickly to China – potatoes grown in the less fertile soil North of the rice areas are a famous example ___), such as much needed land for relief of its Malthusian population densities, the new market for its manufactures, which in turn could fuel a shift from agriculture to industry in the motherland ___.

This is the view that many Late Great Divergence historians like to take. Pomeranz in particular argues against the view that diffusion of knowledge was faster, innovation more frequent and structural economic factors developed more consistently in Western Europe. He claims that China just had different types of food, political systems and innovations, and that Europe, and Britain in particular, got lucky because of strategically placed coal deposits, which favoured the development of the steam engine and other related inventions which fuelled the Industrial revolution and were the real cause of the Great Divergence ___.

However, it is important to keep in mind that the periods of isolationism which prevented these continued explorations weren’t random occurrences. The lack of regional competition and centralized imperial rule are likely to have been caused by the geographical lay-out of the country, as pointed out above, and this seems like a more likely explanation for the spells of isolationism. Pomeranz’ partial dismissal of these larger geographical differences seems to be too preliminary.

In that sense, Cosandey’s point about the maritime and riverine conditions of Western Europe echoes the most interesting contribution of Adam Smith on the matter. Although his perception of the Chinese state as grossly underdeveloped and containing a dirt poor underclass has been shown by revisionist historians to be based on false anecdotal evidence ___, particularly about the standards of living of the peasants, his views need not entirely be ignored.

He contrasts the use of the Mediterranean sea, an easily navigable “land-locked” sea, and the several rivers and inlets on the European continent, with the two single navigable rivers in China. He makes the point that these rivers have greatly benefited Chinese capacity for inland navigation and infrastructural growth, but they did not encourage foreign commerce___, something which, according to Smith, has led to a higher division of labor and specialization, and as is well-known, Smith recognizes the degree of division of labor as the single determining factor of prosperity___.

Thus when it comes to the way in which geography influenced the Great Divergence, there is the view that many of the major geographical differences which are said to predetermine the geopolitical, nautical and agricultural differences, and indirectly the scientific and technological ones, were not necessarily important, because the two economies were different qualitatively, but not quantitatively, and that the real geographical differences were the coal deposits and easier access to the Americas.

The opposite view, that structural differences occurred around 1500 because of the nature of the cultural and political matter of both zones, seems more likely in the light of a novel interpretation, put forward by Broadberry and Gupta, who directly challenge Pomeranz and other “world-historians”.

Their paper looks at grain and silver wages and prices in China and Europe, and they conclude that, although Pomeranz is right about the living standards of Chinese peasants in terms of the amount of food their wages can buy them, these wages (1500-1800) do show more correlation with the wages and prices of Eastern Europe in the peasant sector, where agriculture was similarly dominant, and prices of grain were therefore relatively low as well. The more advanced parts of Europe (the North-West) have higher real standards of living throughout this period, when this effect is acknowledged___.

Another convincing observation is that the silver inflation in Europe has been overestimated by Pomeranz and others, and that the inflow of silver and the rise in silver prices did not just reflect an inflationary effect, but also a real increase in wealth in Europe as contrasted with China during the same period___.

In conclusion, it is likely that several geographical features of Europe set it apart from China some time before 1800. It is unlikely that the Chinese would have advanced along the same path, had they been a little more lucky, as Pomeranz, and, to an extent, Landes argue, although luck in resource endowments has been a major advantage to Europe as well.


Smith, A., The Wealth of Nations (New York, 2000), pp. 3-23

Landes, D.S., The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor (London, 1999) chs. 1-2.

Pomeranz, K., The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton, 2000)

Boorstin, D. The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself

Broadberry, S. and Gupta, B., The early modern great divergence: wages, prices and economic development in Europe and Asia, 1500–1800 Economic History Review, LIX, 1 (2006), pp. 2–31

Cosandey, D. The Secret of the West

Lavely, W. and Bin Wong, R., Revising the Malthusian Narrative: The Comparative Study of Population Dynamics in Late Imperial China, Journal of Asian Studies 57:3 (1998) pp. 714-748

(Rik Moors, Kaapstad, maart 2010)