Why did the Chinese bureaucracy succeed where the Catholic Church failed?
In 1656, Benedict Spinoza — whose Sephardic Jewish ancestors had been expelled from Spain in 1492 — met the fate of his heritage. He was excommunicated from the Jewish community in Amsterdam after the community’s failure “to turn him from his evil ways.” Those evil ways were, of course, Atheism.
The great attempt to stifle Spinoza didn’t work. He managed to publish his works abroad and under various pseudonyms, and went on to have a great influence on the Dutch Golden Age and an even bigger role in what the historian Jonathan Israel has termed the ‘Radical Enlightenment’.
Why did authorities so utterly fail to suppress, across both centuries and borders, the unorthodox spirit of the Spinoza family? The answer is likely tied to one of the principal questions in economic history: the origins of the ‘Great Divergence’, the period when Europe, led by Britain, rose above all other lands, amongst them China.
Was it the favourable British ratio between prices of energy and prices of labour? Or British institutional mechanics, such as the Bill of Rights (1688) which secured certain civil liberties and restricted certain royal liberties?
Perhaps the industrial revolution wasn’t so much British as continental, in much the same way as the Spinoza family succeeded only by crossing borders. In Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity (2019), economic historian Walter Scheidel paints a picture of a fragmented post-Rome Europe paving the way for the continent’s sudden growth.
What’s important is not so much that Rome fell, but that no empire grew in its wake
In this telling, what’s important is not so much that Rome fell, but that no empire grew in its wake. Rome’s fall could have resulted in the formation of a new empire, but it didn’t. Instead, a fragmented geography grew. Here, there were plenty of oppressions and inquisitions, but also plenty of opportunity to move across borders for inquisitive souls like Spinoza
In this telling, Europe’s rise to economic power was not caused by new institutions per se, but by a lack of strong institutions.
The Catholic Church failed to become one such, but not for a lack of trying. The economic historian, Joachim Voth, has estimated there were around 1,300 cases during the Spanish Inquisition. The local variation in the strength of the Inquisition explains much of the differences in performance between districts within Spain today, and even between northern and southern parts of Europe. And yet, at a continental scale, what is important is that the Inquisition didn’t wholly succeed. As a continent, Europe shot ahead.
What if Spinoza was born in China?
The other half of the question of the Great Divergence begs the question: what if Spinoza was born in China?
In 1200, China was the most developed country on almost every imaginable front. But Chinese growth wasn’t sustained, and when the revolution finally took place in England, and then Europe, China not only did not follow suit – it undid its earlier progress.
If China had a Spinoza, it managed, contra Europe, to suppress him. Where Europe’s inquisition largely failed, China’s version prospered.
China’s Literary Inquisition
In 17-something (the date is unclear), Wang-Xihou, a dictionary maker, was arrested along with 21 members of his family for insulting the Emperor. The offence was to have included in a dictionary the name Confucius with all letters intact. Ultimately, he was executed.
Many such similar stories can be told. The obvious cause of the Literary Inquisition was the 1644 transition from the Ming dynasty to the Qing. The newly-ruling ethnic minority, the Manchus, counted 9/10 against the Han majority. The Han ethnocentricity was tied to Confucianism, which meant that reliance upon Confucianism was not an apparent option for the new rulers. Consequently, there was a need to find new ways to establish legitimacy among the populace.
Why was this Chinese inquisition so much more successful?
The solution was a sinister combination of a weak fiscal capacity through low taxes and a fierce persecution of intellectuals, mainly targeting the newly educated and the gentry. Wang Xihou, the dictionary maker, was amongst the victims of the dynamics of the new dynasty. But why was this Chinese inquisition so much more successful than the European one?
We can look to Mark Koyama, an economist at George Mason University, for precise data on the literary inquisition. First of all: how many cases were there? In a study from 2018, Koyama relies on data from the compendium Qing chao wen zi yu an (“Qing literary inquisition cases”) (Zhang and Du, 1991) to answer this question. A total of 86 cases between 1661 to 1788 is mentioned.
That’s a small number compared to the 1,300 cases of the Spanish Inquisition, even accounting for the fact that the European variant spanned a larger number of years. It is also small enough to suggest that the literary inquisition operated primarily as a deterrent effect. But why would it deter, really?
One explanation is that, unlike Europe’s thinkers, China’s intellectuals could not simply move across borders to do their research. They were stuck in the mill. Despite the low numbers of persecutions, a culture of fear and lack of political engagement slowly developed and persisted throughout the Qing period.
Another explanation is that there just weren’t that many liberal ideas floating around in China at the time, or in any period whatsoever.
In A Culture of Growth – The Origins of the Modern Economy (2016), the economic historian Joel Mokyr argues that, even when China was strong and prosperous, its “research agenda made little or no use of useful, practical knowledge … [instead], they lived out their culture’s values.” In China, science was a way of looking inwards, rather than outwards, and this explains, according to Mokyr, why, even in periods with no Literary Inquisition in sight, no Chinese Spinoza arose.
Mokyr might be partly right, but the story is not altogether convincing. As Koyama notes, many Chinese inhabitants did indeed secretly hold liberal values similar to those expressed by many Europeans at the time. In fact, “individuals in prefectures which had a legacy of literary inquisitions [were] more likely to be supportive of a more liberal political order,” Koyama argues. Similarly, it is not too difficult to argue that many reactionary forces in Europe shared a set of values similar to the prevailing Chinese dogma – say, the Romantics of Renaissance Europe.
In Europe, challenging ideas were brought to the fore in a fragmented, uncontrollable environment
A better option, therefore, is to entertain the notion that ideas are more malleable than institutions, and that often a greater variety of ideas than institutions can be found. To that extent it is in the latter that China and Europe have differed throughout the ages. In Europe, challenging ideas were brought to the fore in a fragmented, uncontrollable post-Roman environment, whereas in the isolated mountains of China, such assets remained latent. A Chinese Spinoza, if he existed, was successfully contained.
In two studies from 2015 and 2018 respectively, Koyama takes on the mountainous task of mapping what that meant for Chinese society. Comparing prefectures with low and high degrees of Qing-era persecution, spanning the years 1640 to 1819, Koyama finds that the number of teachers plummeted in persecuted prefectures, and the cost of education rose as a result. In general, fewer people were educated, and literacy rates fell from decade to decade. More precisely, in prefectures where the literary inquisition took place, there was a 69 percent increase in the probability that a given person was illiterate. Local charities fell by 38 percent, presumably as a result of lower social capital.
Even today, major repercussions from the Literary Inquisition can be felt. Using data from the 1982 Integrated Public Use Microdata Series census (IPUMS) — the earliest date for which reliable data is available — as well as prefecture-level data from the Historical China County Population Census (HCCPC) also from 1982, Koyama attempts to map its long-run consequences. In prefectures where it took hold, literacy remains generally poorer, and there is less faith in one’s fellow man once we move beyond the nuclear family. Prefectures that experienced the Literary Inquisition first-hand are today more agrarian and less developed industrially.
Europe was geographically, religiously and politically fragmented, and China was not
The Manchu (Qing) regime managed to create an environment where “knowledge elites” were discouraged from engaging in society. One reason why the Manchus succeeded where the Catholic Church failed was because Europe was geographically, religiously and politically fragmented, and China was not.
Is the West’s new inquisition more like the European Catholic or Chinese Manchu variant?
A pessimist would note the increasing centralisation of social media outside popular control. The optimist would retort that our current woke culture is nothing like China’s literary inquisition — not in the sense that we are free of oppression of ideas and thought, but in the sense that our geography and culture is fragmented enough that it cannot be completely contained.
A dissident such as Bari Weiss, of former New York Times fame, now runs a successful podcast and has a thriving Substack, and the biologists Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying recently moved their Dark Horse podcast to the Odyssey platform amidst YouTube quibbles.
I think, contra many, that the optimists are right. Let’s just hope so.
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