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Frugality and Luxury: Morality, Market, and Consumption in Late Imperial China

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This article contributes to a wider critique of the use of European capitalist, patterns of industrialization in studies of the economic history of modern China—patterns commonly assumed to be universally valid. This sort of analytical framework denies not only the value of alternative economic models, but also that of Chinese independent economic thought. In this context, the present article argues that most of the intellectual changes of seventeenth-century Europe that led to the formulation of liberal capitalism—resistance to government intervention, support for luxury consumption as well as a new understanding of the market and of the relationship between private interests and morality—had taken place in China more than a century earlier. The background against which the two processes emerged, however, varied significantly, leading to distinctive ramifications. Unprecedented population growth and a widening gap between hinterland and coastal economies led Chinese officials and intellectuals to discard ideas of free market and focus instead on solutions for increasing production, maximizing the circulation of resources, and fighting poverty. It was not, therefore, a lack of a “scientific” understanding of the economy that led China to turn away from European-style laissez fare, but rather an evaluation of the Empire’s circumstances, raising questions on whether the European model is indeed universally applicable regardless of local conditions.

Affiliations: 1: Department of History, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA 70803,


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