Why was there no capitalism in early modern China?

Vol. 37 No. 1 (2017)

Jan-Mar / 2017
Published February 26, 2020

How to Cite

Nasser Appel, Tiago. 2017. “Why Was There No Capitalism in Early Modern China?”. Brazilian Journal of Political Economy 37 (1):167-88. https://doi.org/10.1590/0101-31572016v37n01a09.

Why was there no capitalism in early modern China?

Tiago Nasser Appel
Doutorando em Economia Política Internacional pela Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro-UFRJ
Brazilian Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 37 No. 1 (2017), Jan-Mar / 2017, Pages 167-188


In this paper, we ask the following question: why couldn’t Early Modern China make the leap to capitalism, as we have come to know it in the West? We suggest that, even if China compared well with the West in key economic features – commercialization and commodification of goods, land, labor – up to the 18th century, it did not traverse the path to Capitalism because of the “fact of empire”. Lacking the scale of fiscal difficulties encountered in Early Modern Europe, Late Imperial China did not have to heavily tax merchants and notables; therefore, it did not have to negotiate rights and duties with the mercantile class. More innovatively, we also propose that the relative lack of fiscal difficulties meant that China failed to develop a “virtuous symbiosis” between taxing, monetization of the economy and public debt. This is because, essentially, it was the mobilization of society’s resources – primarily by way of public debt or taxes – towards the support of a military force that created the first real opportunities for merchants and bankers to amass immense and unprecedented wealth.

JEL Classification: N; H2; F5.

Keywords: Imperial China capitalism early modern Europe Fernand Braudel José Luís Fiori.