General Question

TexasDude's avatar

Why did Europe develop industrial capitalism before the Far East did?

Asked by TexasDude (25274points) February 20th, 2011

First of all, I’d like to say that I want to avoid a Eurocentric argument as much as possible. God didn’t smile upon Europe (and especially Britain) with His protestantism which magically made everyone a harder worker. I want to avoid that kind of historical narrative because it’s… well… incorrect.

That said, I’m aware that Britain had easy access to coal deposits that China and India just didn’t have. The British (as well as Spain, Portugal, and others) also got involved in the colonialism game early on, which made a lot of them fabulously wealthy (and contributed to the development of industrial capitalism). Until the Age of Exploration, Europe was sort of a hillbilly backwater while the Far East was super rich and technologically advanced (with their own pockets of proto-capitalistic activity), so why did Europe perfect large scale industrial capitalism first? Is it really because of their colonies and their almost accidental easy access to coal?

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44 Answers

Ladymia69's avatar

I am not entirely up on my dates, so what exact time period are you speaking of? And this may sound like a stereotype, but wasn’t opium a huge part of Asian culture among the upper and lower classes in the 18th and 19th centuries? Could that have played a part in slowing industrial advances?

zenvelo's avatar

The far-East Asian countries were insular, and rigidly monarchial. They did not explore, and did not pursue mercantilism, which in turn demands saleable manufactured goods. But the “delay” was not tremendously long. The English/European Industrial expansion started for real in early 19th century; the first railroad in China was in 1876, not a long time after.

And Japan was a closed society, but once they opened to the west, the first thing they did was build steel battleships.

WasCy's avatar

If you also consider that the Chinese were sailing in the Pacific, South China Sea and Indian Ocean before the European voyages of exploration, and on a far grander scale [fixed link] – but then scuttled the fleet and most of the written records – it’s even more of a mystery.

I suspect that it has a lot more to do with the ties between religion and politics and their various modes of ‘population control’ more than access to energy. The European city-states were well on their way to developing capitalistic trading empires before the invention of the steam engine, the Industrial Revolution and the force multiplier of mass production and other elements of modern industrialism. Even here in these former English colonies we were working a lot with water power and textile manufacturing (based on secrets stolen from the British) prior to the introduction of the steam engine.

Jeruba's avatar

If I were going to invent an answer on the spur of the moment that I hoped would sound knowledgeable (just to hold up my end of conversation at a party where no one could check my answer), I’d probably offer a hypothesis such as this:

Currency developed as a way of exchanging and transporting value in place of having to carry goods all over the place. Europe wanted many more things than it actually had, especially once it had a taste of things coming in from Asia by way of the Silk Road and the great trading cities of Italy, whereas the Far East didn’t really need anything that Europe had. So the motivation to develop marketable goods and take advantage of the benefits of currency-based economics was much stronger in Europe than in Asia, which was doing very nicely on its own.

Is that any good?


I think WasCy gave a very good answer. Personally, I think for the West, “colonialism” of other countries played a major role. Europeans wanted to exploit the rest of the world for its own riches, and in order to do that, they had to get the necessary resources from other lands, namely Africa and Asia, and they didn’t care if it involved slavery and killing. That jump-started the Industrial Revolution in England, and led to such conflicts as the Opium War with China.

Despite Europe’s development, it should be noted that if it weren’t for many of the inventions that came out of ancient China to begin with (eg., the invention of the navigating compass, paper, printing, gunpowder, the wheelbarrow, etc.), the Industrial Revolution wouldn’t have occurred sooner than it did. Historically, China paved the way for Europe’s and America’s development.

Jeruba's avatar

@MRSHINYSHOES, I think you mean “wouldn’t have occurred as soon as it did.”

meiosis's avatar

The Enclosure Acts of the 18th and 19th centuries gave rise to more efficient agriculture, which combined with the ending of feudalism brought on by the English Civil War, meant more people were available and looking for work. Colonisation didn’t provide raw materials as these weren’t needed (the first advances were in the woollen mills, and Britain had more than enough sheep) but rather the money that powered the demand.


@Jeruba Yes, I think so. Lol. Thanks Jeruba for keeping me on my “shiny-shoed” toes. ;)

TexasDude's avatar

@Jeruba, that’s actually an excellent explanation that I hadn’t really considered up until now. And exactly what I’m looking for, here.

@ladymia69, well, The UK and US, to a small extent sort of raped China at the end of Opium War numero dos. This consolidated Britain’s hold on the drug trade over there, which no doubt enriched them, but it still doesn’t address the fact that they had already beat out China in getting involved with industrial capitalism. That is, the Brits already had industrialized before they fucked China in the Opium Wars. Your ideas are useful to me, though, so thank you.

@zenvelo, interesting facts. Thank you.

@WasCy, yeah, and that’s what’s so strange about it. The Qing and Ming Dynasties (and Mughal India) were lightyears ahead of Europe in terms of technology for a long time, but I guess their cultural institutions (continuing monarchies) were what wound up making them lag behind in the end.

@MRSHINYSHOES, that’s pretty much my understanding of the issue as of now. It’s pretty ironic how European usage of Chinese developments wound up hurting the East.

@meiosis, interesting. I had not heard of the Enclosure Acts until now. Thank you. Colonisation did bring silver to the Old World, which China really needed when they decided to switch to precious metal coinage.

Zaku's avatar

Seems to me that “industrial capitalism” is more of an American and Marxist fascination, than it is some true way waiting for all cultures to discover it.

Power and economies were organized differently in the far east than in Europe.

TexasDude's avatar

@Zaku, good point. Unfortunately, this whole question and the concept within is just something I’m trying to grasp to help me understand a class I’m taking better. The professor (and the text) assumes that industrial capitalism is some archetypal “true way” as you put it just waiting to be uncovered.

Zaku's avatar

@Fiddle_Playing_Creole_Bastard Interesting. Sounds like a great question to raise during discussion. Well, depending on how annoyingly dogmatic the teacher is.


@Fiddle_Playing_Creole_Bastard It’s interesting how China is now beginning to take its place in the world again as the number one country economically, scientifically, and technologically. There was an article in the newspaper yesterday saying how China will overtake the United States in science technology in the next 10 years, and equalling it in just a few more years by 2015. The person who has been analyzing this notes that the number of scientific journals coming out of China (an indicator of a country’s progress in science and medicine) has extraordinarily increased in the past couple of years, whereas the number of science papers coming out of the U.S. and Europe has decreased significantly, and is still declining.

LostInParadise's avatar

Jared Diamond addressed this question in his book Guns, Germs and Steel. If I remember right, one of the arguments was that the shape of Europe, with its jagged coastline, encouraged the development of several competing nations. There was a point during the Middle Ages when China had a navy powerful enough to conquer a major portion of the world, but abandoned any such plans and focused inwards.

Nullo's avatar

Because they did their own homework I would guess that it has to do with the general political instability prevalent in the region, along with a greater cultural tendency towards individualism.

mammal's avatar

if you look at the European mindset, it is clear that it turned it’s attention away from cultural pursuits in favour of wholly materialist interests, The Ancient Romans were a prime example, that epoch was a cultural low point, in Human history. But technology was highly prized, subordination and domination became imperative to the Roman Way of life and it’s expansion, Eventually Christianity took a grip and halted the march of progress, But Science reasserted itself along with industrialisation and neo-materialism.

Why specifically Europe? geological and climate are probably actors, geographical location, there is a more intensive co mingling of diverse peoples, that means innovative ideas spread and competitiveness is more intense.

Nullo's avatar

@mammal Like fun it did. The Middle Ages saw quite a bit in the way of technological development, when you consider that most people in Europe were some kind of peasant or another. Agriculture, for instance, saw the invention of three-field crop rotation, the use of fertilizers, advancements in plough design and ways to attach animals to them. Metallurgy, mining, warfare, maritime transportation, craftsmanship, medicine, and doubtless a dozen others that I’m forgetting due to fatigue, saw change and improvement in this period. Not bad for people whose primary concern was staying alive from year to year.
Development skyrocketed after the Black Death wiped out vast chunks of the population, freeing up their assets for others to use, thereby giving rise to a middle class that bought things more freely than the aristocracy that preceded it, which stimulated demand, which got the entrepreneurs thinking of new ways to profit.
If anything, the Church helped, what with teaching people to read, write, and do basic math. And the record-keeping. And with the looking after the poor. And preserving documents from the past. And setting up the universities.
The European Middle Ages are a fascinating period in history; I strongly recommend that you go and actually study it.

cazzie's avatar

China and Japan actually had institutionalised closed cultures, didn’t they? Their leaders decided to enforce a ‘closed borders’ policy. They had plans and prototypes for all sorts of sea going vessels and then scrapped the idea, deciding that the ‘outside’ had nothing to offer.

China had and has plenty of coal. So, it wasn’t so much a natural resource thing, as a ‘things aren’t broke, so why fix or change things’ approach.

Warring countries in Europe had much to do with advancements in technology as did the scramble for colonial territory. AND let us not forget that amazing, map-changing virus:

The Black Death suddenly tipped the balance of power a bit and landlords no longer had a huge base of cheap labour to draw upon. Labour saving devices were invested in and a middle class began to grow.

meiosis's avatar

I forgot to mention Patent Law, which is another prime factor in the development of engineering innovation and industrialisation.

TexasDude's avatar

@LostInParadise, hmm, I guess that would be a good book to read, despite its criticisms. Thanks for the tip.

@Nullo, I’ll give you the instability, but I don’t really think there was any cultural predisposition to individualism in Europe at the time. At least until the Enlightenment which was a characteristically European invention.

@mammal, Frankfurt school? I’ve considered the influence of the climate and geography, but not the point about the diversity of local cultures. I think I can use that. Thank you.

@cazzie, yep, they did. Notoriously closed cultures. China did have coal, but it was easily accessed until the early 20th century (at least according to my professor and this Marks guy’s book). Your point about the Black Death is excellent, and one I had nearly forgotten about. Thank you.

@meiosis, awesome, I’ll look it up. Thanks.

@all, thanks guys for the information. I feel more confident in my knowledge of this issue now, thanks to your suggestions and input.

Nullo's avatar

@Fiddle_Playing_Creole_Bastard I was thinking about the overall history.

Zaku's avatar

Imperial Rome seems to me like the first good example of money-oriented semi-industrial imperialism. The earlier Greek and Persian examples of empires were far from any concept of Capitalist, it seems to me.

But I think any search for a European origin needs to include Venice, which was hugely successful as a city-state merchant naval power which was pretty great example of a medieval capitalist state with commercial and military industries and a representative government. This model existed hundreds of years before the European Age of Exploration, and the origin of it was that Venice essentially survived the fall of the Roman Empire, as the Huns etc. didn’t manage to pillage their way across the Venitian swamps, so from the middle of the 6th Century A.D., they started a new history as a surviving community of the Roman civilization.

TexasDude's avatar

@Zaku, thanks for the info. Venice did have a thriving capitalist system, but it wasn’t industrial capitalism, per se. Thank you, though.

@all, I just got back from the discussion and I completely dominated it, with you guys/gals’ help. Thanks again.

Zaku's avatar

@Fiddle Depends on your definition of industry. I would argue that Venice’s Arsenal (q.v. – the origin of the word is from Venice) was definitely a military-industrial complex, if ever there was one. Assembly lines, parts specialists, labeled parts by maker, specialist professions, etc. And I think the commercial industries they had were close enough for my definitions, too, thought not exactly the same thing as the European Industrial Revolution.

TexasDude's avatar

@Zaku, interesting… I really didn’t know that actually. (As an amateur military historian, I’m intrigued by Venice’s proto-military-industrial complex).

From what I gathered in class, my professor is more focused on industry as in that of the steam-driven, smoke belching sort. It’s a rigid definition, but it works in the context of the class, I suppose.

Zaku's avatar

Ya, some teachers are about learning their “brilliant” interpretation of a subject, and parroting it back to them.

Check out this image of the Arsenal:

and the Wiki article is a decent overview of it:

TexasDude's avatar

@Zaku, wow, that’s badass! Thanks for the links!

Zaku's avatar

@Fiddle Glad to share!

Blackberry's avatar

I love Fluther, I actually learn here lol. How did you guys become so knowledgeable?

Zaku's avatar

I got interested in history, physics, and most other subjects through games which represent situations and get you to interact with how those situations work. Board games, wargames, role-playing games, designing games, later computer games, programming games…

Jeruba's avatar


> I just got back from the discussion and I completely dominated it

What did you say, and how did you win? and are you on the prof’s s**t list now?

TexasDude's avatar

@Jeruba, basically, I was the only one that spoke (which is rather typical of every history class I’m in) and the professor applauded me heartily (he’s the sporting, open minded sort… definitely not the unshakable ivory-tower type). I brought up critiques of his (really, the textbook’s) views on industrial capitalism inspired by Zaku and mammal and then synthesized yours, everyone elses’, and my own thoughts into a sort of mini-thesis that, for the sake of argument, Europe developed industrial capitalism because of the accidental access to coal, the resources brought in by colonies (fueled by a desire for silver, labor, and lebensraum), the rise of a middle class due to the death of feudalism, and the introverted nature of Eastern societies.

Something like that. Professor thanked me after class. I think he’s just glad that someone actually participated. Most people just stare at their desks awkwardly.

WasCy's avatar


That’s all very good, but why did they scuttle that exploration fleet? I mean, “the largest wooden vessels ever built” (including “since then”). There’s even speculation that they did a Pacific crossing to North America. (I suppose anyone crossing now and finding California as it is today might say, “Thanks, but no thanks,” but back then it wasn’t filled with Californians. It must’ve been a nice place.)

TexasDude's avatar

@WasCy, I really don’t know. Neither does my professor. That would be an interesting research topic. It’s kind of freaky, really.

incendiary_dan's avatar

I suggest that resource scarcity had something to do with it, as it always does in civilizations that spread. Europe isn’t altogether a place brimming with natural resources, at least compared to East Asia. England especially was having some major wood scarcity problems, which was one of the main factors in the wide adoption of coal to heat homes. So when civilizations are running out of resources, they have two ways to offset this: conquer more lands, and pursue more complex means of production/extraction.

@WasCy Back then it was full of real Californians, like Ishi.

TexasDude's avatar

@incendiary_dan, I was hoping you would show up. Your argument is basically what I used in an essay at another point in this class.

Ishi’s story is awesome, by the way. Thanks for posting.

mattbrowne's avatar

This book offers some good answers to your question

The Age of Enlightenment started in Europe before it spread to other continents. Ferguson argues that the rise of the bond market in Renaissance Italy was a key trigger for modern capitalism and spreading wealth.

cazzie's avatar

Oh…. just was reminded about this movie too…...

TexasDude's avatar

@mattbrowne, interesting, I’ll check it out. I know that the Enlightenment was uniquely European in origin (this was a meme that my texts keep repeating) but I never adequately understood why. I guess it is inherently tied with the growth of modern capitalism. Thanks for the link.

@cazzie, thank you, I’ll have a look at it.

The_Idler's avatar

China never had anyone to compete with locally. It was by default, the richest, most powerful country on Earth for the history of human civilization, which is why they were so comfortable in isolation. Then suddenly, a thousand weavers didnt mean so much, when someone devised a machine that achieved the same thing out of a few lumps of coal, and a million-man army didnt mean so much when someone devised a gun that shot 600 rounds per minute…

The_Idler's avatar

And yes, The Ascent of Money and Empire by Niall Ferguson are both worth a read, as is After Tamerlane, by John Darwin.

All are sweeping histories that address the question of the why of Europe’s, or specifically Britain’s, sudden industrially-fuelled rise to global dominance.

After Tamerlane is wonderfully post-euro-centric, not that the others aren’t, but this one is really all about the changing balances between what the author sees as the three great regional civilizations of European West, the Islamic World and Chinese-dominated East Asia, and why the one that seemed most backwards and uncoordinated of them all for a thousand years (after the fall of Rome) suddenly came to dominate the world…

WasCy's avatar

Actually, saying that “China never had anyone to compete with” is a misreading of Chinese history. Intramural politics within what we now know as China was far bloodier and more full of intrigue than anything that happened in Europe, where countries occupied more or less settled borders, at least far more than China did.

A few years ago I read a book length history of approximately 2000 years of Chinese infighting, empire building (and destroying), shifting alliances, subterfuges and mass slaughter that dwarfs most of what we learned in high school classes on “European and World History”, which very conveniently ignores, that, “Oh, yeah, there was stuff happening on the other side of the globe, too…” When I come across the book again I’ll let you know the title; it’s probably out of print, but I could send it to you if you’re still interested.

I recall reading about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty between Germany and the USSR at the start of WW II, and reading about how devilishly evil that treaty was, between the two sworn enemies, to secretly divide and then overrun a buffer nation between them. The Chinese were doing that sort of thing a thousand years ago. They had a lot to deal with between the Mongols, the Tartars and the various ethnic Chinese themselves and their own warring states and constantly shifting alliances.

So maybe that’s part of the answer: The Chinese emperors were more concerned with the politics of subjugating their own empire and consolidating control at the center as much as they could, and partly for that reason they didn’t want to allow decentralization and modernization.

The_Idler's avatar

@WasCy yeah, it was a simplification of the history of the Far East, but I do understand that China never had a serene and static existence for thousands of years, I meant, as you say, that because controlling the whole of “China” was enough to guarantee absolute regional dominance, and because this had been done and the structures were already in place, anyone seeking power, from within or without, would simply concentrate on, well, the throne, rather than trying to make their tiny patch of land support an economy or army of anything close to comparable to that of the Imperium.

In that sense China itself, rather than any particular set of rulers of China, never had any competition. If you were sat on the Emperor’s throne, there was pretty much no good reason to explore or invest lots of effort into making your country richer or more powerful, because it was already the richest most powerful nation around. by a LONG way. and change brings instability.

I’m pretty sure this was a philosophy deeply held by some of the Chinese rulers. If they could have kept everything the same, China would’ve continued to be the richest, most powerful, most important nation on Earth. And that was, in fact, the case, but they couldn’t keep things the same in Britain, thousands of miles away, and then the whole world changed.

I’m pretty sure if (when?) they take over the world, they will once again contrive to stop the hitherto inexorable turning of the wheel of change, and attempt to hold the world static.
And then we may have peace.

By the way, I’m definitely interested in that book =]

jesienne's avatar

@WasCy @mattbrowne I agree with both of you

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