China: An Economic and Environmental History, 1870-1950

Module Code: HIS-00089-I

Credits: 30

Tutor: David Clayton

Pre-requisites: A History first year module.

China was the world’s richest and most technologically advanced country in the 14th century. But from the 18th century it stagnated economically relative to the West, and only from the 19th century onwards did China begin its troubled path to modernity.  

This module looks at two periods of catch-up: 1870 to 1950, when China opened up to global economic forces and sought to reform its polutical-cum-legal institutons, creating, for example, a centralised interventionist state apparatus; and 1950 to 1970, when China went down a developmental dead end: communism.  This module examines China from (in order of significance) economic, political, environmental and social perspectives. 

The teaching programme divides into three parts: the first two weeks are introductory, providing background knowledge on China’s physical and human geography and introducing approaches that will be new to most students—economic and environmental history*; there will then be five specialist seminars on the impact of the Republican epoch, c. 1911-1949—these will provide a foundation for the open exam (67% of the assessmnent); and, finally, there will be a series of seminars on Communist China that will provide contextual knowledge for a project assignment on the Great Leap Forward (33% of the assessment).  The project, to be completed in the summer term and supported by tutorials, enables you to write a highly specilaised history using newly available, translated and published documents and/or the voluminous and expanding secondary literature on the topic.  The GLF was, according to revisionist histories, Mao’s great folly, a man-made disaster that took the form of experimental methods of mass political mobilisation that used coercion and persuasion to get people to work harder (but not smarter) to raise industrial and agrarian production.  Daily lives were also revolutionised as the commune became, instead of the family, the main unit of social organisation.  Exacerbated by floods, droughts and disease, this profound social and political revolution caused the deaths of up to thirty million people, the greatest ‘man-made/natural’ disaster of the twentieth century.

Learning Outcomes

Students who complete this module successfully should:

  • Be aware of the principal issues raised in the historical study of Chinese economic history
  • Have a critical understanding of the development of the historiography relating to modern Chinese economic history; and an ability to analyze debates and evaluate different explanatory or analytical frameworks applied to this field
  • Have an ability to formulate and to present historical arguments in relation to Chinese economic history in the light of the available secondary literature

Teaching Programme

This 30-credit module is taught through a weekly two hour seminar run from weeks 2-10 in the spring term and a four week period of project work undertaken in weeks 1-4 of the summer term. Students will write and submit a procedural essay in week 7 of the spring term. Project work will be completed within the summer period and tutors should arrange to be available for consultation with students twice during that time. There will be no formal seminar teaching during this period.

The seminar programme will deal with the following:

  1. Introduction I: human specialisation in a diverse continental space
  2. Introduction II:  imperial political cycles and national revolutions
  3. Agriculture and the peasantry
  4. Business and industry
  5. State building
  6. Trade, imperialism and war
  7. “Natural” and Man-made disasters
  8. Communism: origins, form and triumph, c. 1925-1949
  9. Communism: the legacy of war, and the early years of rule, 1950-57
  10. Communism: the Great Folly: 1957-62

Individual project work will deal with the following:

The Great Leap Forward: its origins, impact and legacy.


This module is assessed by:

  • A 24 hour open exam to be taken in the summer assessment period. Single subject students, who take two Explorations modules, will take two 24 hour open exams to be held on consecutive days.
  • An individual project for which a piece of written work of no more than 1,500 words will be submitted at the start of the summer assessment period (week 5).

The exam carries 67% of assessment and the project element 33% for this module.

Preliminary Reading

  • Eastman, L., Family, Field, and Ancestors: Constancy and Change in China’s Social and Economic History, 1550-1949. New York, 1988.
  • Jonathan D. Spence,The Search for Modern China (New York, various editions).