By Pamela Kyle Crossley
The role of the Chinese empires in global history at the height of their economic power (roughly 1400–1800) has been well described in powerful books by Andre Gunder Frank, Kenneth Pomeranz, and Bin Wong. In that period, China’s advanced technology and commercial economy, as well as access to their markets over sea and land, created a market that drove technological development, efficiency in industrial organization, and an increasing volume of long-distance trade. The effects were felt first in East Asia and Southeast Asia, but eventually powered the development of travel, trade, and finance throughout the Indian Ocean, and finally drew Europeans, eager to connect with the center of wealth, out of their continent and into the oceans. After roughly 1800, however, various factors caused China to lose its global economic leadership as it experienced social turmoil, economic fracturing, and the imposition of European imperialism. Global historians sometimes lose sight of the China thread between this threshold of 1800 and the appearance of modern China as an ascendant power in the late twentieth century, but there are many reasons why we should continue to see important trends and their effects reflected in the modern Chinese experience.