The Mancunion

Britain's biggest student newspaper, serving Greater Manchester

Pomeranz: ‘I got into Chinese history by a series of accidents’

Celebrated historian Kenneth Pomeranz talks to The Mancunion’s Jonathan Breen about the importance of understanding China and Niall Ferguson

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If Europeans had not discovered well-located reserves of coal in the eighteenth century, the world might have been a very different place.

Leading East Asian Historian Kenneth Pomeranz argues that this lucky geographic accident was one of the main reasons for Western success in recent history and Eastern failure, known as ‘The Great Divergence’.

In his famous book The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy, Professor Pomeranz shows surprising similarities between Northwest Europe and Southeast China as recent as 1750. And he asks, “Why did sustained industrial growth begin in Europe?”

“When coal, steam, and mechanization opened up vast new technical possibilities, western Europeans (especially in England) were in a unique position to capitalize on them,” he said in his book. “Vast untapped New World resources (and underground resources) still lay before them.

“[In China] by far the largest deposits, which theoretically might have justified major investments in production and transportation improvements, were those in the northwest,” a region thousands of miles from the core of China.

Professor Pomeranz, a Professor of History at the University of Chicago and the head of the American Historical Association, was in Manchester last week to give a guest lecture. He spoke to The Mancunion about how he formed his now famous divergence theory, what he thinks of some of his competition, and what he is working for the future.

“I got into this field of history in part by a series of accidents,” he said. “I started out thinking I was going to go to graduate school in European history, but I got bitten by the China bug during my senior year of college.

“As a historian of China, I tried to think what I could say about China that would make people who more interested in some other part of the world think again.”

The move from student to the writing of The Great Divergence was helped by a number of factors, said Pomeranz, but one that came to mind was when he read the draft of a particularly Euro-centric world history book.

“Somebody asked me to read a draft of a world history textbook they were publishing, and to be honest I read the draft and I disliked it so much that I thought, something has to be done,” he said. “The book was originally a western civilisation book and at some point had been turned into a world history book.

“So it was as if it was – ‘here is the main story, which is the West and now we have these add-ons on China, the Middle East, and South Asia, for example’. That really bothered me.

“I also had three little children at the time, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get to the archives in Beijing any time soon. So a project I could do from reading in the library was appealing.”

Pomeranz acknowledges that although he was “bitten by the China bug”, everyone should being paying attention to China, regardless of what he says. But through work like his people can better understand the country with the second largest economy on earth and nearly a quarter of its population.

“Clearly, China matters,” he said. “The need to pay attention to contemporary China is independent of any theory. China is big and important and so on and so forth and that’s true whether I’m right or wrong.

“What I think work like mine does is suggest that you’re not going to be able to understand contemporary China simply by saying ‘well they puttered along, they weren’t doing it right etcetera etcetera and then they learned from us,’ which is the sort of version you often get in op-eds and popular books.

“To suggest this seems to be pretty obviously wrong. The idea that the West and the West alone had this dynamism just plainly isn’t true.

“If you read certain people’s work – I do get tired of always using David Landis as a whipping boy, but he did write an enormously successful book. He basically says except for maybe the Japanese, nobody else in the world had a society that was conducive to growth and development except the Europeans. He says the Europeans developed it independently and then other places began to catch up to the extent that they imitated the West.

“I think outside of academia this hypothesis is still very popular, and it cuts against everything we are learning. As the field of Chinese history develops, it is showing more and more comparability between Europe and China, rather than less.”

Harvard professor and star of multiple history documentaries Niall Ferguson in 2011 wrote a book on the success of the West called Civilisation: The West and the Rest, which suggests Europe was unique in its ability to succeed. Pomeranz finds this fundamentally flawed.

“Ferguson says the West developed ‘six killer apps’ and the rest of the world then downloaded them,” said Pomeranz. “That has been discredited. Period.

“Like when he says things like only the West had property – No. It’s just not true.

“I find Ferguson very puzzling, because he did some quite good history once upon a time and it seems to me basically, he has stopped reading other people’s work. He seems not to have kept up with the empirical literature even on Europe, much less on other parts of the world.”

Nowadays, Pomeranz’s work plays a major part in the study of East Asian history and the title of his book spawned a phrase, “The Great Divergence”, that is known by any student of the subject. But not everyone knows that the title was born in an imaginary dentist’s chair.

“I had gone through a whole bunch of titles for the book, none of them really good, and at some point my editor said ‘imagine you’re at the dentist, he’s just given you a shot of novocaine, your jaw is going to go numb in a minute so you don’t have much time and he says to you – so what are you working on?’

“And for whatever reason that’s when it popped out. I said I’m working on the story of this divergence, which is in someway a great divergence.

“I think I had played around with the phrase before, but that was when I really decided it was the one.”

Despite the success of the book, Pomeranz finds some fault in his work.

“I think I was wrong to suggest close comparability in living standards in 1800, it was probably more like 1750, which matters. And I do think I underestimated the importance of technology. You can’t just explain the technological divergence by saying, ‘look at the cost of energy here and there of course you would get more invention of energy intensive machines where energy is cheap’, I think there is a lot to that, but it is not the whole story.

“In my defence I think I underestimated it because I was trying to respond to a literature in which it had been overestimated. But yeah, I think I went too far.

Pomeranz is currently working on a book called Why is China So Big? In which he looks at how China came to be so large in size and population, and why China has almost always been one of if not the biggest state in the world.