Atwell W. S. (1986) Seventeenth-Century Crisis in China and Japan

Atwell William S. (Feb. 1986). “Some Observations on the ‘Seventeenth-Century Crisis’ in China and Japan”, The Journal of Asian Studies, 45/2, 223-244.

Introduction:
Causes the most often advanced by scholars to explain the Ming’s collapse of 1644:
• Wan-li emperor (1580-1644) irresponsible behaviour,
• the cost of war against Japan,
• the defeat of Liaotung in 1619 against the Manchus,
• the “reign of terror” of the eunuch Wei Chung-hsien in 1625-6.
On the other hand, the first century of the Tokugawa is often presented as a golden age. But that contrast ought not to undermine the fact that Chinese and Japanese history are mutually intelligible. What was deferent was the response to a common situation.

The initial situation:
Japanese (and American) silver was an important cue to the Ming administrative reform which allowed the urbanization, market industrialization and economic development of (mainly Southern) China. In the Japanese advanced areas (Kinai, Kanto, Sanyo) a similar trend is observed for the period 1530-1630. In both cases monetization reinforced the central power. Another result was the inter-Asian trade buoyancy (Chinese silk export x 3 or 4 in 1580-1630).

The weather:
In the late 1630s bad weather conditions caused major famines checking demographic growth and changing the relationship between the authorities and the lesser classes. The shogunate managed to help the population but the Ming didn’t and as a result lawlessness soared and ultimately the dynasty collapsed.

Silver (again):
– The problems of the Asian states to cope with a few years of bad harvest may have been caused by the socio-economic effect of the large amount of bullion. Wars and elites’ extravaganza emptied the coffers after the 1570s. Urbanization was also very expensive. All still that depended on agrarian productivity; when the taxes and rents became too heavy productivity dropped (Christian peasant rebellion in Kyushu in 1638).
– China depended on silver import to increase the money supply and avoid economic life from contracting. In the mid-1630s both American and Japanese plummeted. The depression stroke and the Ming had to re-introduce paper money, by 1644 they were virtually bankrupted. In Japan, the Shogun Iemitsu (1623-51) managed to curb the elite’s sumptuary consumption relieving some of the pressure on the exhauster peasantry.
– In Japan, money fluctuations after 1630 had been extremely damageable to this highly monetized economy, creating uncertainty. The contraction of the Dutch and Portuguese East Asian trades seems to have echoed and caused major disruption in the merchant ports, the producing areas and some other regions loosely connected with these trades. On of the consequences was a severe monetary shortage.

The Chinese un-proper answer:
A very strange episode is the Qing’s war against the last Ming loyalist Cheng Ch’eng-kung and his maritime strongholds. To starve him out the emperor ordered most of the population of the seaside to be transferred inland. Ultimately, the measure met military success (fall of Taiwan in 1683) but at an extraordinary high cost (anaemia of the coast economic life, rupture of the Sino-Japanese trade).

Japan suitable response:
In Japan, after the early 1650s, the economy resumed developing (urbanization, rice price going upwards while it was falling sharply in China). The shogun didn’t have to face military expenditures as high as the emperor. The absence of military operations on the archipelago was also a good thing. An excellent copper money (from Japanese mines) restored demand, which was also sustained by the diversification of the supplies (silk from Bengal) and the rise of domestic production.
The crisis is Japan seems to have been relatively mild and well handle by the shoguns (assisted by successful local reforms undertaken by the daimyos). But the somewhat slow down of the economy was not to be over taken with some vigour before the mid-1680s and the re-opening of the Chinese ports to Japanese trade (Genroku’s prosperity 1688-1703, Edo’s golden age).

Aftermath:
This blessed period was short-lived as soon precious metal production in Japan definitely collapsed and the country closed its doors again. Consequently, China had to get more heavily integrated in the emerging world economy.

Discussion:

Although the author’s thesis on bullion has to be revised under the light of Flynn’s brilliant 1991 article, this paper shows how East Asia was caught with the rest of the world in the Seventeenth-century crisis.

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