High level equilibrium trap

High level equilibrium trap

Discussion
Ask a question about 'High level equilibrium trap'
Start a new discussion about 'High level equilibrium trap'
Answer questions from other users
Full Discussion Forum
 
Encyclopedia
The high level equilibrium trap is a concept developed by Mark Elvin
Mark Elvin
Mark Elvin is a professor emeritus of Chinese history at Australian National University, specializing in the late imperial period.He is famous for his high level equilibrium trap theory to explain why an industrial revolution happened in Europe but not in China, despite the fact that the state of...

 to explain why China
China
Chinese civilization may refer to:* China for more general discussion of the country.* Chinese culture* Greater China, the transnational community of ethnic Chinese.* History of China* Sinosphere, the area historically affected by Chinese culture...

 never underwent an indigenous Industrial Revolution
Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution was a period from the 18th to the 19th century where major changes in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, transportation, and technology had a profound effect on the social, economic and cultural conditions of the times...

, despite its wealth, stability, and high level of scientific achievement. Essentially, he claims that the Chinese pre-industrial economy was efficient enough as it was that there was no profit motive for the capital expense of technical improvements. Late imperial production methods and trade networks were so efficient and labor was so cheap that the economy reached an equilibrium point where supply and demand
Supply and demand
Supply and demand is an economic model of price determination in a market. It concludes that in a competitive market, the unit price for a particular good will vary until it settles at a point where the quantity demanded by consumers will equal the quantity supplied by producers , resulting in an...

 were well balanced, and there was thus no economic pressure to improve efficiency.

At the same time, an intellectual paradigm shift
Paradigm shift
A Paradigm shift is, according to Thomas Kuhn in his influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions , a change in the basic assumptions, or paradigms, within the ruling theory of science...

 from Taoism
Taoism
Taoism refers to a philosophical or religious tradition in which the basic concept is to establish harmony with the Tao , which is the mechanism of everything that exists...

 to Confucianism
Confucianism
Confucianism is a Chinese ethical and philosophical system developed from the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius . Confucianism originated as an "ethical-sociopolitical teaching" during the Spring and Autumn Period, but later developed metaphysical and cosmological elements in the Han...

 among the intelligentsia moved the focus of academic inquiry from natural science
Natural science
The natural sciences are branches of science that seek to elucidate the rules that govern the natural world by using empirical and scientific methods...

 and mathematics
Mathematics
Mathematics is the study of quantity, space, structure, and change. Mathematicians seek out patterns and formulate new conjectures. Mathematicians resolve the truth or falsity of conjectures by mathematical proofs, which are arguments sufficient to convince other mathematicians of their validity...

, which were conceived of under Taoism as investigations into the mystical nature of the universe, to studies of social philosophy
Social philosophy
Social philosophy is the philosophical study of questions about social behavior . Social philosophy addresses a wide range of subjects, from individual meanings to legitimacy of laws, from the social contract to criteria for revolution, from the functions of everyday actions to the effects of...

 and morality
Morality
Morality is the differentiation among intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are good and bad . A moral code is a system of morality and a moral is any one practice or teaching within a moral code...

 under Confucianism. According to Elvin, this produced an intellectual climate that was not conducive to technical innovation.

By comparison, the economy of Great Britain
Great Britain
Great Britain or Britain is an island situated to the northwest of Continental Europe. It is the ninth largest island in the world, and the largest European island, as well as the largest of the British Isles...

 at the time of the Industrial Revolution was vastly smaller and less efficient than the late imperial Chinese economy. Labor was comparatively more expensive, and internal trade far less efficient than in China. This produced large imbalances in the forces of supply and demand
Supply and demand
Supply and demand is an economic model of price determination in a market. It concludes that in a competitive market, the unit price for a particular good will vary until it settles at a point where the quantity demanded by consumers will equal the quantity supplied by producers , resulting in an...

, leading to economic problems which provided a large financial incentive for the creation of scientific and engineering
Engineering
Engineering is the discipline, art, skill and profession of acquiring and applying scientific, mathematical, economic, social, and practical knowledge, in order to design and build structures, machines, devices, systems, materials and processes that safely realize improvements to the lives of...

 advances designed to address them. At the same time, the Enlightenment had shifted the focus of academic inquiry towards natural science
Natural science
The natural sciences are branches of science that seek to elucidate the rules that govern the natural world by using empirical and scientific methods...

s, providing the basis for many technical innovations.

Background


According to Elvin, Chinese knowledge of science
Science
Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe...

, mathematics
Mathematics
Mathematics is the study of quantity, space, structure, and change. Mathematicians seek out patterns and formulate new conjectures. Mathematicians resolve the truth or falsity of conjectures by mathematical proofs, which are arguments sufficient to convince other mathematicians of their validity...

, and engineering
Engineering
Engineering is the discipline, art, skill and profession of acquiring and applying scientific, mathematical, economic, social, and practical knowledge, in order to design and build structures, machines, devices, systems, materials and processes that safely realize improvements to the lives of...

 in the 14th century was far more advanced than anywhere else in the world. He presents the case study of the spinning wheel
Spinning wheel
A spinning wheel is a device for spinning thread or yarn from natural or synthetic fibers. Spinning wheels appeared in Asia, probably in the 11th century, and very gradually replaced hand spinning with spindle and distaff...

, a device used to assist in the production of yarn
Yarn
Yarn is a long continuous length of interlocked fibres, suitable for use in the production of textiles, sewing, crocheting, knitting, weaving, embroidery and ropemaking. Thread is a type of yarn intended for sewing by hand or machine. Modern manufactured sewing threads may be finished with wax or...

 from plant fiber
Fiber
Fiber is a class of materials that are continuous filaments or are in discrete elongated pieces, similar to lengths of thread.They are very important in the biology of both plants and animals, for holding tissues together....

s which increased the efficiency of a worker by orders of magnitude. An automatic, water-powered spinning wheel for hemp
Hemp
Hemp is mostly used as a name for low tetrahydrocannabinol strains of the plant Cannabis sativa, of fiber and/or oilseed varieties. In modern times, hemp has been used for industrial purposes including paper, textiles, biodegradable plastics, construction, health food and fuel with modest...

 fiber was described in Chinese scientific manuals by the early 14th century ; comparable devices would not be invented in Europe until the 18th century.

Despite providing an enormous gain in worker productivity, the Chinese spinning wheel fell into disuse over the subsequent centuries and was completely unknown by the 17th century, whereas the mechanical automation of spinning in Europe in the 18th century (from manual spinning wheel
Spinning wheel
A spinning wheel is a device for spinning thread or yarn from natural or synthetic fibers. Spinning wheels appeared in Asia, probably in the 11th century, and very gradually replaced hand spinning with spindle and distaff...

 precursors of the 13th century ultimately sourced from Asia Minor) led directly to a process of technical refinement and engineering improvements that resulted in the Industrial Revolution
Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution was a period from the 18th to the 19th century where major changes in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, transportation, and technology had a profound effect on the social, economic and cultural conditions of the times...

 and widespread mechanization of production of goods beyond yarn.

Decline of the mechanical spinning wheel in China


Elvin says that cotton
Cotton
Cotton is a soft, fluffy staple fiber that grows in a boll, or protective capsule, around the seeds of cotton plants of the genus Gossypium. The fiber is almost pure cellulose. The botanical purpose of cotton fiber is to aid in seed dispersal....

 began replacing hemp
Hemp
Hemp is mostly used as a name for low tetrahydrocannabinol strains of the plant Cannabis sativa, of fiber and/or oilseed varieties. In modern times, hemp has been used for industrial purposes including paper, textiles, biodegradable plastics, construction, health food and fuel with modest...

 as the main fiber crop shortly after the mechanical spinning wheel was invented. Cotton produced far higher fiber yields per unit of land than hemp, and was thus far more profitable, so it largely replaced hemp. As hemp fibers are much longer than cotton fibers, existing mechanical spinning wheels designed for hemp could not be used to spin cotton fibers without substantial mechanical modifications to the apparatus. Apparently, no such modifications were ever made. All spinning in China reverted to far less efficient hand-spinning, and the automatic spinning wheel was forgotten. Elvin proposes several factors whose confluence prevented any further technical development of the automatic spinning wheel.

Cheap labor


Elvin says that substantially all extant arable land in China was already under cultivation by the 17th century. Prior to that, food production was expanded by simply cultivating new areas rather than through technical improvements in production methods, which was possible only because of China's vast size. Once all arable land was under cultivation, the lack of technical progress meant that crop yields were relatively flat, whereas the population continued to grow. This led to a large labor surplus, which drove down wages substantially. He suggests that this abundance of cheap labor rendered the capital investment required for ongoing engineering research and improvements simply not cost-effective compared to hiring laborers to do the work by hand.

Further, the wealthy merchants who financed cotton production wielded effective political control over government officials. They had the trade laws written broadly in their favor in such a way as to prevent any significant accumulation of wealth by the independent peasant contractors who were actually doing the spinning, rendering it less likely that one of the spinners would be in a position to develop efficiency-improving technology.

Well-developed trade network


By the cotton period, Elvin says that China's trade network had reached an advanced and highly efficient state. As the Chinese economy was enormous, local shortages and crop failures were no longer a major problem as local shortages were quickly alleviated through internal trade with some other part of the vast economy. This removed much of the local economic pressure to increase production efficiency.

Shift from Taoism to Confucianism


Elvin says that the Chinese intelligentsia
Intelligentsia
The intelligentsia is a social class of people engaged in complex, mental and creative labor directed to the development and dissemination of culture, encompassing intellectuals and social groups close to them...

 gradually abandoned Taoism
Taoism
Taoism refers to a philosophical or religious tradition in which the basic concept is to establish harmony with the Tao , which is the mechanism of everything that exists...

 in favor of Confucianism
Confucianism
Confucianism is a Chinese ethical and philosophical system developed from the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius . Confucianism originated as an "ethical-sociopolitical teaching" during the Spring and Autumn Period, but later developed metaphysical and cosmological elements in the Han...

 around the 14th century. Whereas the Taoist philosophical paradigm had promoted scientific and mathematical investigation as a kind of mystical exploration of the workings of the universe, the Confucian paradigm focused far more on social philosophy
Social philosophy
Social philosophy is the philosophical study of questions about social behavior . Social philosophy addresses a wide range of subjects, from individual meanings to legitimacy of laws, from the social contract to criteria for revolution, from the functions of everyday actions to the effects of...

 and morality
Morality
Morality is the differentiation among intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are good and bad . A moral code is a system of morality and a moral is any one practice or teaching within a moral code...

, which prompted a general lack of further research in mathematics
Mathematics
Mathematics is the study of quantity, space, structure, and change. Mathematicians seek out patterns and formulate new conjectures. Mathematicians resolve the truth or falsity of conjectures by mathematical proofs, which are arguments sufficient to convince other mathematicians of their validity...

 and natural science
Natural science
The natural sciences are branches of science that seek to elucidate the rules that govern the natural world by using empirical and scientific methods...

s.

Decline of serfdom


During the period when hemp was the dominant fiber crop, many Chinese peasants still lived as serf
SERF
A spin exchange relaxation-free magnetometer is a type of magnetometer developed at Princeton University in the early 2000s. SERF magnetometers measure magnetic fields by using lasers to detect the interaction between alkali metal atoms in a vapor and the magnetic field.The name for the technique...

s and worked under the direct control and supervision of an aristocrat
Aristocracy (class)
The aristocracy are people considered to be in the highest social class in a society which has or once had a political system of Aristocracy. Aristocrats possess hereditary titles granted by a monarch, which once granted them feudal or legal privileges, or deriving, as in Ancient Greece and India,...

ic manor lord. Elvin says that this direct supervision of their work by well-educated lords who had broad knowledge of the latest scientific and engineering principles may have contributed to the invention of the automatic spinning wheel as a means of improving their work efficiency. In the cotton-dominant period, however, the practice of serfdom had died out and much spinning was organized as a cottage industry; peasant spinners typically worked at home as independent contractors with no direct supervision. He suggests that their lack of access to education may have helped to prevent the development of technical improvements in the spinning process.

The high level equilibrium trap


Elvin says that these factors in combination produced what he calls a "high level equilibrium trap." He says that widespread technical progress results from some large disequilibrium between supply and demand
Supply and demand
Supply and demand is an economic model of price determination in a market. It concludes that in a competitive market, the unit price for a particular good will vary until it settles at a point where the quantity demanded by consumers will equal the quantity supplied by producers , resulting in an...

 in the economy
Economy
An economy consists of the economic system of a country or other area; the labor, capital and land resources; and the manufacturing, trade, distribution, and consumption of goods and services of that area...

, which prompts people to find creative new ways to address the difficulties produced by the change. The late imperial Chinese economy had reached an equilibrium point. It had become stable, efficient, and well-organized. The rapidly growing population but slowly growing amount of agricultural land largely prevented any significant capital surplus
Capital surplus
Capital surplus term that frequently appears as a balance sheet item as a component of shareholders' equity. Capital surplus is used to account for that a firm raises in excess of the par value of the shares ....

 from developing, as almost all production was required for basic sustenance. The growing population also provided a ready pool of cheap labor. The Chinese economy was enormous and well-integrated. The dense and well-developed water trade networks yielded a relatively large amount of profit to the upper classes and alleviated local supply shortages. Thus, there was no incentive for further technical refinement, and technical progress stagnated.

Comparison to Britain


By comparison, the British economy at the time of the Industrial Revolution
Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution was a period from the 18th to the 19th century where major changes in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, transportation, and technology had a profound effect on the social, economic and cultural conditions of the times...

 was much smaller and less efficient than China's. Local shortages could not be readily alleviated by internal trade; besides being far smaller than China, Britain lacked an efficient internal water-based trade network, which prompted the development of the steam engine
Steam engine
A steam engine is a heat engine that performs mechanical work using steam as its working fluid.Steam engines are external combustion engines, where the working fluid is separate from the combustion products. Non-combustion heat sources such as solar power, nuclear power or geothermal energy may be...

 and railroads. The early paucity of arable farmland in Britain encouraged technical refinements to improve crop yields at an early date, whereas the vast size of China permitted production to be increased simply by cultivating more land until late in the imperial period. Although overseas colonies provided cheap slave labor for part of the Industrial Revolution period, local labor in Britain itself was more expensive than in China, providing the capitalist class an incentive to improve worker efficiency.

See also

  • Great Divergence
    Great divergence
    The Great Divergence, a term coined by Samuel Huntington , refers to the process by which the Western world The Great Divergence, a term coined by Samuel Huntington (also known as the European miracle, a term coined by Eric Jones in 1981), refers to the process by which the Western world The Great...

  • Industrial Revolution in China
    Industrial Revolution in China
    In the 1960s, about 60% of the Chinese labor force were employed in agriculture. The figure remained more or less constant throughout the early phase of industrialization between the 1960s and 1990s, but in view of the rapid population growth this amounted to a rapid growth of the industrial sector...

  • Economy of the People's Republic of China
    Economy of the People's Republic of China
    The People's Republic of China ranks since 2010 as the world's second largest economy after the United States. It has been the world's fastest-growing major economy, with consistent growth rates of around 10% over the past 30 years. China is also the largest exporter and second largest importer of...

  • Economic history of China (Pre-1911)
  • Economic history of Modern China
    Economic history of modern China
    The economic history of modern China began with the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. Following the Qing, China underwent a period of instability and disrupted economic activity. Under the Nanjing decade , China advanced several industries, in particular those related to the military, in an effort...

  • The Enlightenment