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Revue des livres
Notes de lecture

Cheng Lin, Terry Peach and Wang Fang (eds), The History of Ancient Chinese Economic Thought

Qunyi Liu
p. 109-113
Bibliographical reference

Cheng Lin, Terry Peach and Wang Fang (eds), The History of Ancient Chinese Economic Thought, 2014, Abingdon, UK: Routledge, xxvii + 230 pages, ISBN 978-0-415-50014-2

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1This is the 162nd book in the Routledge Studies in the History of Economics series, and the first to concentrate on the history of Chinese economic thought. It therefore provides a unique look at this topic—in fact, it is not only the subject matter that is unique, but also the framework of the book. In contrast to three earlier books on similar subject areas (Hu, 1984 and 1988; Ma and Trautwein, 2013), this book is described in the introduction as “a collection of papers on the history of Chinese economic thought” (1) from the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770–225 BC) to the Western Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 9)—namely, only the earliest period in the research era. However, this book does not just examine this time period, but also looks at related research methodology. All of the twelve translated articles, written by prominent scholars in the field, have already been published in Chinese journals, and most of them were written after the open-door policy of China in 1978, except the article by Ye (Chapter 5), which was published in 1965—after the Chinese Liberation in 1949 and before the Cultural Revolution of 1966 – 1976. The articles can be grouped into three parts:

2(1) Research methodology (Chapters 1-3);

3(2) Interpretations of ancient texts and schools (Chapters 5-8, 10 and 11); and

4(3) International influences and modern relevance (Chapters 4, 9 and 12).

5Part 1 comprises three papers, which represent two trends of research methodologies on terminology in the field, although all of them insist that ancient Chinese society produced economic theories and paradigms that are worthy of research. Hu (Chapter 1) considers the issue of economic terms, that is to say, which terms or categories should be used to carry out the analysis: Western words, such as production, distribution and circulation, or traditional Chinese ones such as chan (perpetual property) and sheng ji (economy). He emphasizes the similarity between the Western and Chinese economic systems and concludes that Western words can certainly be employed, as long as the historical backgrounds of the terms are understood. Therefore, he holds the opinion that comparative analysis, including the ancient and modern comparison or Chinese and Western comparison, “is all the more essential” (39). Wu (Chapter 2) reiterates the basic question of whether there were systems of economic thought in ancient China. As the chapter is virtually an introduction to his edited book, History of Economic Thought in the Pre-Qin Period, his answer to the question is definitely positive. However, his attitude towards the use of Western words is relatively different from Hu. He adopts several key terms from Chinese classics, such as chan (perpetual property), jie yong (frugal consumption) and zhong ben yi mo (agriculture first and commerce second) instead of property, rational consumption and physiocracy respectively. Despite the distinct terminology, his arguments about the three main themes of the research have been consistently and comprehensively accepted—that is: the philosophy used as the foundation of economic thought, policies advocated regarding various economic issues, and the analysis of the internal and external relations of economic phenomena. As the title of the following article suggests—“Fu Guo Xue and the ‘economics’ of ancient China” (Chapter 3)—the author, Zhao, conveys a similar viewpoint to Wu’s opinion about the terms and contents of Chinese economic thought. Fu guo xue was the counterpart to economics during the late Qing dynasty, which was adopted by some Chinese intellectuals to explain or translate Western economic literatures. Zhao argues that there are three different perspectives to the meaning of fu guo xue—“country enriching”, “people enriching” and “family enriching”. He uses the concept instead of economics just because fu (riches) had emerged even before the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BC) and the term fu guo xue is more appropriate to summarize the economic theories in ancient China. However, he adds, although fu guo xue in ancient China was not identical to the concept of economics in the Western and modern sense, there are indeed some similarities between the two concepts. Zhao also describes the process of acceptance of the term “economics” in early modern China, explaining at the same time the route of transmission of Western economics from Japan to China. Although the term fu guo xue disappeared for a long time, Zhao insists that “the excellent heritage of fu guo xue should never be forgotten”. (80)

6The second part of the book begins with an article on Guanzi (Chapter 5)—not the most famous thinker of the time, but whose work, Guanzi Qing Zhong (Weighing and Balancing Economic Forces), contains the greatest wealth of economic thought from that period. The core principle of the work can be analogized to the market-clearing theory in classical economics. However, because of the era in which the material was originally written and published, the author uses the concept of Marxism to explain the theory instead of the classical terms of demand and supply. There are five other articles in this second part of the book, covering several different schools of thought, referred to in the period of bai jia zheng ming (a hundred schools of thought contend). Chapters 6, 8, 10 and 11 all contribute to the analysis of the economic theories of Confucianism, the most influential school of philosophy in ancient China. The article by Tang (Chapter 6) emphasizes the philosophical perspective of Chinese economic thought proposed by Wu in Chapter 2. The author argues that various schools in the pre-Qin period could be reclassified into two groups—Confucianism and Daoism. Therefore, the fundamental discourse of economic thinkers can be conveniently analyzed through the comparison of the arguments of two schools. In the following analysis he compares the different Teachings of Confucius and Laos in the treatments of totality, desire, utopia, private ownership, production, trading, allocation and consumption. The most distinct difference lies in the status of the two paradigms. While the economic thought of Confucianism dominates the economic life of feudal society in China, the essence of Daoism is popularized among the non-orthodox schools of thought and non-governmental areas. However, in contrast to the non-liberal philosophy described in this chapter, Ma’s paper, in Chapter 8, argues that the economic policies under the influence of Confucianism are mostly laissez-faire ones, especially the policy of “sparing a little will benefit another greatly”. The author suggests that fa jia (Legalists), whose representative was Han Fei, emphasizes state intervention, while the mainstream Confucian thought argues that “economic development should be left to private individuals and that the state should adopt a policy of non-interference”. The latter had quite a few followers after the Qin and Han dynasties. The deviation from the philosophical view is explained by a variety of academic schools in Confucianism. The chapter further argues that Confucian economic thought has exerted a positive influence on the rise of the East Asian economies, which is related to the main theme of the third part of the book. Although it is an interesting topic, not only in other East Asian countries, but also among other developing areas, the book only touches on the subject here, in several short sentences. The other two papers relating to Confucianism differ from each other, presenting macro and micro perspectives respectively. Chapter 10 deals with the micro aspect of division of labor, one of the basic factors of the Smithian dynamics, in Mencius’ theory. The author, Yan, elaborates on the theories intensively, with an in-depth analysis of Confucius’ followers, and examines the treasures of economic literature. Chapter 11, by Zhong, aims at showing how the government’s policy since 2004, conforms to Confucianism, in the sense of building a harmonious society in China, and the author focuses on the macro aspect relating to the national economic system of Confucianism. The present system of market economy in China is evaluated as an ideal construct for the Chinese people, which will help to transform the economy and successfully achieve social modernization. The only paper that is not on Confucianism in this part of the book is Chapter 7, which introduces one of the earliest extant works on agriculture—Jia Sixie’s (circa 544 CE) Qi Min Yao Shu (Important Arts for the People’s Welfare). Jia belongs to the school of nong jia (Agriculturists). As a student of Zhao (the author of Chapter 3), the author, Zheng, adopts Zhao’s method and analyses Jia’s book, with the concept of “family enriching”—namely, “family economics”. This is divided into three parts: zhi sheng zhi dao (profession to make a living), zhi sheng zhi li (principles to make a living) and zhi sheng zhi ce (strategies to make a living), which are recognized as a framework of systematic family economics of feudal landlords. In an original approach, the author combines economics with business management as a basis for researching the history of management thought in China, which is the topic he particularly focuses on later.

7Part 3 of the book consists of only three papers, although the topic—the interactive influences between foreign and domestic theories, or the interrelations between the past and present—attracts the most interest from scholars of the field nowadays. As a student of Hu (the author of Chapter 1), Tan (Chapter 4) argues that the theories of the French physiocrats mainly originated from the ideas of “going with the natural laws” and “emulating nature” in ancient China, and that Quesnay’s Tableau économique (1758) is related to the Book of Changes or Chinese hieroglyphs. With regards to the fundamental status of physiocrats in economics, he concludes, therefore, that “ancient Chinese economic thought should be celebrated … as one of the main intellectual origins of modern political economy” (97). Ye (Chapter 9) begins with the core controversial question: Has Chinese economics ever really existed? She answers the question with the etymological study of the Chinese words “economy” and “economics”. Looking at similarities in Japanese and other language materials, she reviews the evolution of the two words along a timeline and proposes an objective attitude towards the different traditions of economic ideas. The last chapter (Chapter 12) deals with the influence of Chinese economic thought on the US agricultural policy in the New Deal (1933–1936) —namely, Ever-Normal Granary, the ancient Chinese system based on the idea of stability in food supply. In 1944, Henry Wallace, the former US vice president, implemented the similar policy in the US. According to the author’s argument, Wallace learned the idea from Chen’s famous book: The Economic Principles of Confucius and His School (Chen, 1911).

8Although the book is divided into three parts by the editors, all of the papers can also be reclassified into two groups, the first being the China-centered approach of Chapters 2, 3, 5, 6, 7 and 11, and the second being the impact–response perspective of Chapters 1, 4, 8, 9, 10 and 12 (Cohen, 1984, 3). As Hu indicates in Chapter 1, the first group of articles consider the issue of “modernization of ancient thought” (41) and establishes that economics definitely existed in China even before the adoption of the Marxist theory; the second group of articles emphasize the comparative analyses of Chinese and Western economics, through which Western influences on Chinese economic thought are given prominence to some degree. However, the two trends are not completely separated and most of the scholars in the field adopt a synthetic approach. The editors also show a similar attitude in the introduction. They question “the status of theories” often attributed to Chinese ancient writings on economics, and meanwhile they recognize “state economic policy based on behavioral assumptions and objectives, which have all the characteristics of theoretical discourse” (31). No matter which method is adopted, the scholars contributing in this book all endeavour to provide an indispensable study of ancient Chinese economic thought with the motivation of “discovering Economics in China” (Cohen, 1984). Moving beyond “tradition and modernity”, all of the authors of this book attempt to reshape the Economics in China with China-centered paradigms.

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Chen, Huanzhang. 1911. The Economic Principles of Confucius and His School. New York: Columbia University Press.

Cohen, Paul.  1984. Discovering History in China: American Historical Writing on the Recent Chinese Past. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hu, Jichuang. 1984. Chinese Economic Thought before the Seventeenth Century. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

Hu, Jichuang. 1988. A Concise History of Chinese Economic Thought. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

Ma, Ying and Hans-Michael Trautwein (eds). 2013. Thoughts on Economic Development in China. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Wu, Baosan. 1996. History of Economic Thought in the Pre-Qin Period. Beijing: China Social Sciences Press.

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Bibliographical reference

Qunyi Liu, Cheng Lin, Terry Peach and Wang Fang (eds), The History of Ancient Chinese Economic Thought Œconomia, 5-1 | 2015, 109-113.

Electronic reference

Qunyi Liu, Cheng Lin, Terry Peach and Wang Fang (eds), The History of Ancient Chinese Economic Thought Œconomia [Online], 5-1 | 2015, Online since 01 March 2015, connection on 25 January 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Qunyi Liu

School of Economics, Peking University,

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