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Cotton Textile Manufacture and Marketing in Late Imperial China and the ‘Great Divergence’

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Abstract By 1800 cotton cloth was China’s most important domestic trade commodity after grain. This paper reviews the history of cotton textile production in the Jiangnan region (or Lower Yangzi River area) where it thrived from 1300 to 1830, and discusses the factors contributing to its commercialization. It reveals the impact of the Ming and Qing governments in its institutionalization, and how the social organization of the industry was framed around the household economy and women’s labor. This essay also documents the problems that cotton production and marketing encountered by the end of the eighteenth century, and demonstrates how the recent debates about the ‘great divergence’ and the nature of the Chinese political economy resonate in the history of China’s cotton textile enter-prise. Finally, it shows how in the first decades of the nineteenth century, empire-wide demographic and environmental constraints brought economic stasis to Jiangnan’s cotton industry.


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