Why Did China Not Industrialize First?

China had an early and strong lead over Europe economically and scientifically, yet industrialization and modern science began in Europe.

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The Great Wall of China

ver since Marco Polo came back to Italy from his travels in China, westerners have marveled at the technological achievements of China. There are plenty of stories in the media and in popular books about the amazing array of Chinese inventions and the sheer scale they did everything. It is often remarked how backwards Europeans were in comparison.

Judging by these accounts it would seem like an utter mystery how a patch-work of small backwards Europeans states always at war with each other could in the course of a few hundred years end up completely dominating the planet and forging the modern world in their image.

These accounts have much in common with the tendency to marvel at the Roman empire, the ancient greeks and dismiss medieval times in Europe as a time of superstition, backwardness and religious zealotry. There are those who imagine that if it had not been for the fall of the Roman empire we would have entered the modern era much sooner.

This is wishful thinking rooted in the tendency to overvalue high culture at the expense of practical inventions and advances.

Before we get to China, lets take a little detour and compare Roman society to medieval Europe, technology wise, because it is going to help you understand how Europe got the upperhand on China.

Deficiencies in Agriculture and Workforce Utilization in the Roman Empire

One of these practical inventions of the early middle ages was the heavy plough. The Romans in contrast only had access to the ard or scratch plough.

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An ard plough similar in function to that used by Romans.

But as Professor Thomas Barnebeck Andersen of the University of Southern Denmark explains:

The heavy plough turned European agriculture and economy on its head. Suddenly the fields with the heavy, fatty and moist clay soils became those that gave the greatest yields

Another major weakness of Roman society compared to medieval Europe was its slave economy. This had a detrimental effect on economic development. Adam Smith(father of free market economics) notes for instance, how productivity in the agricultural sector of Italy started falling as more slaves were employed:

But if great improvements are seldom to be expected from great proprietors, they are least of all to be expected when they employ slaves for their workmen. The experience of all ages and nations, I believe, demonstrates that the work done by slaves, though it appears to cost only their maintenance, is in the end the dearest of any. A person who can acquire no property can have no other interest but to eat as much and to labour as little as possible. Whatever work he does beyond what is sufficient to purchase his own maintenance, can be squeezed out of him by violence only, and not by any interest of his own. In ancient Italy, how much the cultivation of corn degenerated, how unprofitable it became to the master, when it fell under the management of slaves, is remarked both by Pliny and Columella.

He also goes on to elaborate on the reason why slave plantations never competed with free men in food production in the New World. They worked on plantations with high value crops like sugar and tobacco. There is of course a cruel irony that such an immoral and cruel institution as slavery, also happened to be extremely bad for the economy. It would have been cheaper and more humane to free the slaves and pay them wages.

The problems caused by slavery extended well beyond agriculture in the Roman world. It caused the price of manual labour to be very low. This discouraged the development and utilization of labour saving techniques.

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The usage of water wheels exploded in the Middle Ages.

Hence while labour saving machinery like water wheels did exist in the Roman Empire, they were not extensively used. However the Middle Ages were different:

Though the watermill had been around since ancient times and had been in use in Medieval Europe since at least 650 CE, the sudden explosion of watermills around 1050 was unprecedented. In a single French province, watermill production increased from an average of a mill every 5 years (from 850–1080) to a mill a year (from 1080–1125) to 5 mills a year (from 1125–1175). In 1086, William the Conqueror recorded over 6,000 watermills in England alone.

The Factors Hindering the Industrialization of China

The Roman Empire had a number of short comings and weaknesses not apparent if one merely studied the technology utilized by the Romans or the arts and literature they produced. Likewise merely iterating the great number of inventions produced by ancient China fails to give an accurate picture of the strengths and weaknesses of China, relative to Europe.

Lets try to put together the major pieces of the puzzle to the mystery of China’s lack of early industrialization. I will pick some of the major large scale factors as well as talk about crucial technologies and science, as it is often assumed that China had an absolute technological and scientific lead. However this was not the case:

  1. Geography. As mentioned in a previous post water transport is crucial to economic development. What I did not mention earlier is how geography affects the ability of utilizing water power.
  2. Political Unity. Europe was a patchwork of states while China was one large Empire. While seemingly a strength, this proved a significant weakness in the long term.
  3. Writing Systems. The Chinese way of writing became a major issue when the printing press got developed.
  4. Glass. History books and articles will often talk at length about how desirable Chinese porcelain was in the West, yet forget to mention that the Chinese had not mastered the art of fine glass making, unlike the Europeans. This had major repercussions in many scientific and technological areas.
  5. Mechanical Clocks. Accurate measurement of time is crucial for ocean navigation and scientific measurements. This is an area Europeans got an early advantage without China recognizing the importance of clocks.
  6. Astronomy. All the way back to Greek Astronomer Ptolemy, Europeans have been concerned with creating mechanistic models of how the solar system and universe works. There was no similar Chinese effort to derive laws of planetary motions. This had consequences for the development of modern science.

Unfavorable Geography and Climate for Water Transport

I would like to elaborate more on the story on water based transport in my previous post, in particular to relation between England and China. England did not merely have and advantage in terms of pure geometry of the landmass but also in the climate.

Terje Tvedt at Center for Advance Studies at University of Oslo, has written a paper discussing the Great Divergence, focusing on the importance of water systems for the industrial revolution, a topic rarely given much weight.

Terje Tvedt notes:

Compared to the core economic regions of China, India, Northern Italy, and France, England had a unique system of relatively easily navigable waterways, and waterborne transport had long been more reliable than road transport.

Why is that important?

Canal boats in England could carry 30 tons pulled by a single horse, or more than ten times the cargo per horse using a cart.

How come water transport was so much better in England?

The rivers were fed by rain all year round, reflecting the regular precipitation pattern of this part of western Europe and resulting in little variations in water levels. What destroyed muddy roads made rivers navigable. Moreover, there were few rapids, and the waters carried little sediment and did not normally freeze during winter.

Hence ironically the infamously bad weather in Britain is a contributing factor to the early British industrialization.

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A hourse could pull a canal boat with 30 tons of cargo or a carriage with 3 tons of cargo. A 10x advantage to water transport.

While water transport was extensive in China, it had sever dependency problems. Due to flooding, seasonal heavy rains, dry periods etc, they would need more maintenance and could not be depended on to the same extent as British rivers and canals.

Britain was lucky with its natural rivers in ways, China was not:

both coal and iron deposits were available within the ambit of the water transport system in England, to a much larger extent than in any other country. This made it possible for sources of raw materials to be linked to the production sites as well as to the market

The sheer size of the rivers in China posed transport challenges. Crossing them with boat was difficult due to strong currents, and impossible to build bridges across due to their width. This was not a problem for the much smaller rivers in England.

Water Power and Its Limits in China

Industrialization relies on the substitution of human labour with inanimate sources of power such as wind, water or steam. The steam engine has perhaps an outsized role in the normal story telling. The early stages of industrialization was dominated by wind and water power.

The water wheel and wind mill was used in China, at similar times as in Europe, and got quite large and advanced.

However geography limited the ability to utilize water wheels compared to northern Europe in particular. Terje Tvedt points out:

On the extremely flat Yangtze plain, crossed by a violent, silt-laden river, draining 70– 80% of China’s precipitation, there were very few appropriate places to exploit the flow of water for driving water wheels, especially overshot vertical wheels. The Yangtze and its main tributaries could not be used for producing power through numerous water wheels, in the way that the much smaller and more modest English rivers, streams, and brooks could. In major cotton-producing regions, there was simply not sufficient head of water to work hydraulic machinery.

By that Tvedt, means the side rivers of Yangtze simply didn’t offer the kind of needed elevation and pressure to drive water wheels. Also the enormous variations in water precipitation and the sheer amount of water made it too difficult to deal with and too random. It is hard to utilize water power if you risk getting your mills flushed away each year in a huge flood. Britain had no such problems. British rivers were in contrast very favorable to be utilized for water wheels.

This had profound implications for industrialization, as most early English factories utilized water power. It was also water power the allowed one to create industrial scale production of cheap steel needed for building steam engines later. Water powered textile mills also provided a template for how steam power later could be utilized.

The Hidden Cost of Political Unity

Lets talk about the difference between European and Chinese political unity and what the advantages and disadvantags are of a large unified empire is.

With a large unified country one derives benefits of scale:

  • Larger markets for goods
  • Standardization across large geographic area
  • Larger armies which can more easily defeat invaders
  • Internal peace, which promotes trade and prosperity

However there are some major long term costs to having a land area being unified into one country rather than being divided into separate states, as was the case with Europe.

This is perhaps best illustrated with admiral Zheng He who led major Chinese naval expeditions abroad. In 1424 the new Hongxi Emperor ended Zheng He’s expeditions and burned the fleet down, and forbid further naval expeditions and foreign trade.

Such stupid decision are guaranteed to happen by leaders on occasion. Europe would have been no exception. The difference is that by not being unified, the bad decisions of one head of state would not have fatal consequences for the whole continent. European states were always in strong competition with each other. Bad decisions would hence have a propensity to get correct as it would quickly become apparent that such decisions would benefit competing countries.

While the division of Europe cause problems with never ending wars and conflicts, it also gave an insurance policy against random terrible ideas ever affecting the whole continent.

European competition for overseas territory was a major driver behind the rapid European expansion abroad and eagerness to go exploring unknown territories.

Chinese Logograms and the Printing Press

A popular misconception is that Gutenberg invented the printing press. Somewhat similar to how people believe Edison invented the light bulb or James Watt invented the steam engine. What Edison, Gutenberg and James Watt all did was to take existing technology and improve it to such an extent that it radically altered the course of an industry. They made an existing technology practical and available to the masses. The same was the case for the printing press and Gutenberg.

Printing technology had several important development stages. The first was woodblock printing, where e.g. a whole book page got carved into a block of wood, then ink would get applied and the woodblock pressed onto paper.

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With woodblock printing a whole book page was carved out of wood. Ink was applied and the woodblock pressed onto paper. Naturally this was time consuming as there was no ability to reuse carvings for different pages.

This is of course rather tedious, and hence movable type represented a big improvement. With movable types each symbol would be carved out on separate small blocks and then book pages could be assembled by lining up the small blocks.

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With movable type, a carved character could be reused on different pages, avoiding the need to carve the whole book page from scratch.

Both of these inventions happened in China first. Yet the printing revolution that Gutenberg caused in Europe never happened in China. Why was that?

I believe there was three key components. Since Roman times Europeans had been using agricultural screw presses, to make vine from grapes and oil from olives. Hence they were well known in Europe and the screw press was a key component which made Gutenberg’s printing press have a big advantage over the competition. It allowed printing to happen much faster.

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Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press

The second perhaps most important factor was the fact that European languages are written using letters in an alphabet representing sounds. This drastically reduced the number of unique metal characters which had to be cast.

Chinese on the other hand is written with logograms, meaning the characters are symbols with particular meaning rather than sounds. This means thousands of unique logograms has to be cast to make a book. This made movable type not offering much advantage over woodblock printing in China, thus historically a higher prevalence of woodblock printing has occured in China. Europeans tended to utilize this technique mainly for illustrations or pictures.

The third factor was that Gutenberg developed a device for quickly making identical types called the hand mould. This was important as typesetting books required large amounts of identical metal types. Together all these three factors made printing in Europe significantly faster and cheaper than what was possible in China.

With cheap books, knowledge could spread out to much larger parts of the population, enabling the enlightenment.


Glass making originated in Egypt and later spread to Europe. While China was often early with most inventions, compared to Europe, this was an area were China was a late comer. Glass making started late, and further development got abandoned. Part of the reason for this was the far more advance state of Chinese porcelain.

Porcelain and glass was both used to make drinking cups. There is hence a lot of overlap in usage, hence Chinese advantage in porcelain likely impeded its progress in glass making.

In the early phases this made little difference, however as glassmaking technique developed in Europe it offered new possibilities for scientific discovery and technological advances which would be closed to the Chinese.

Glassmaking led to the development of lenses which had a large number of applications. Telescopes which was important for navigation as well as studying the stars and planets.

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Microscope designed by english scientist Robert Hooke, a contemporary of dutch Antony Van Leeuwenhoek

Lenses allowed microscopes. The dutch scientist Antony Van Leeuwenhoek managed in the 1600s to create a microscope with 270x magnification, which allowed him to discover bacteria, yeast, blood cells and tiny animals swimming around in a drop of water. The idea that life was made up of small parts had not been considered before. Naturally these discoveries were crucial to the development of modern medicine.

Telescopes were crucial to the development of astronomy and our understanding of the solar system.

Prisms made people realize light was made up of multiple colors. Lenses and mirrors led to understanding the movements of light and optical laws.

Astronomy was the foundation for Newtons theory of gravity. The insight that there was a force moving the planets in orbit was the same as the one that made objects fall to the ground on earth was ground breaking. It served as a template for all future scientific theories. Well-known modern physicist Richard Feynman would introduce Newtons theory of gravity as a way of explaining how a scientific theory works.

Without glass there was simply no way for China to develop modern science.

Another crucial usage of glass was for three different instruments of navigation.

  1. Sextant. This instrument allowed navigators to determine the latitude of the ship on the earth. Latitude is essentially how far you are away from the equator.
  2. Dry compass. Old compasses were floating in liquid. This was impractical. With a dry compass, the needle is placed behind a glass. If not for the glass the needle would have easily fallen out.
  3. Telescope, for locating land and other ships.

It is hard to imagine Europe’s rise to power without advance navigation skills. It was far away trade and colonies, import of new foods and materials which gave a big boost to European economic development.

Mechanical Clocks and Astronomy

While Chinese astronomers in many regards made more accurate and detailed observations of the night sky, than Europeans, they did not attempt to organize this knowledge into any sort of theory for the motions of the sun, moon and planets.

Europeans however were keen to derive laws for planetary motion. It has been speculated that the origins of this difference is in difference of religion. Christianity encouraged the idea of discovering God’s laws or the mind of God.

Early clocks were in fact astronomical clocks showing not just time of the day but also other astronomical phenomenon.

The chronometer was a clock accurate enough to be used for navigation. By having the clock set to the same time as in Greenwich in England, one could determine once longitude. E.g. if the sun reaches its highest points (noon), 3 hours later or earlier than it should according to your chronometer, you’d know that you are 3 time zones away from Greenwich in England.

So as with glass, accurate mechanical clocks were key to advancements in science and navigation. Mechanical clocks also served as their own little laboratories for the study of mechanics and motion.

While the Chinese were early with the development of water clocks, they never saw a need for European mechanical clocks, and mainly treated them as toys or curiosities with European merchants visited China.


That China failed to industrialize and Britain did, could in essence be summed up as a consequence of geography, climate and historical accidents.

European geography and climate and in particular British geography and climate was far more favorable to the processes leading to industrialization happening there.

China missing out on crucial technological inventions such as glass making and Gutenberg’s printing press is largely a historical accident.

That Chinese ended up using Logograms rather than phonetic letters is likely a random occurrence, which had less of an importance in early history but which proved problematic when printing with movable types to introduced.

Political unit also seems like mostly an accident. The geography of China likely made it easier to keep it unified than Europe which has too many natural barriers between political units in the form of mountain ranges and rivers.

Written by

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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