A thousand years ago, the Song dynasty of China created the most advanced and developed society in the world. It was so advanced that historians have compared it to 18th century Britain. However, unlike 18th century Britain, China did not have an industrial revolution. Let’s discuss why on today’s episode of Thinking in English!

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Vocabulary List

Skilled (adj) – skilled work needs to be done by someone who has had special training

We are recruiting experienced and skilled mechanics to work on a new project

Industry (n) – the companies and activities involved in the production of goods

The government has recently started listening to the concerns of industry

Manufacturing (n) – business of producing goods in large numbers

Car manufacturing has increased over the last month

To flourish (v) – to grow or develop successfully

The tomatoes in my garden are flourishing due to the warm weather

Dynasty (n) – a series of rulers or leaders who are all from the same family, or a period when a country is ruled by them

The Mogul dynasty ruled over India for centuries

To observe (v) – to watch carefully

Children learn by observing adults

Plague (n) – (usually bubonic plague) a very infectious disease which killed half of all Europeans in the 14th century

Millions died of the plague

Printing press (n) – a machine that prints text or images, especially for books, newspapers, or other documents

The printing press is one of the most important inventions in history 

To kneel (v) – to go down into a position where one or both knees are on the ground

The mother knelt down beside her child

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What is an Industrial Revolution?

Throughout history there have been, and still are, numerous different ways of structuring and managing an economy. 

For years, farming was the most common job for the majority of people – people lived in rural areas, growing their own vegetables and raising livestock to sell or trade. This is known as an agrarian economy. An agrarian economy is based on the production, trade, and sale of agricultural products – in other words, plants and animals. 

Image of a “spinning room” with new machines – Wikimedia Commons

Moreover, other products including clothes and tools were handmade. Let’s think about a pair of shoes. In the past, shoes were generally made by skilled craftsmen – from start to finish, one person cut the leather, made the sole, and shaped the shoe. Each part was done by an individual person. 

Industrial Revolution is the name given to the process of major change in a country’s economy. A change from an agrarian and handcraft economy, to an economy dominated by manufacturing and industry. The technological changes of the industrial revolution not only result in economic changes, but also fundamentally alter ways of working, living, and transform society!

What Changed During the Industrial Revolution?

The first country to experience an industrial revolution was Britain in the 18th century. New machines were created to make the process of manufacturing textiles faster and easier. Unlike a skilled person, a machine works for cheaper and without needing to rest. 

As more machines were developed in other industries, Britain’s economy began to fundamentally change – with more products new ways of moving them around the country were needed; new business owners were getting richer; and people were needed to work in factories instead of on the farm.

Let me give you all some more concrete examples of such changes. In terms of technology, iron and steel became the most important materials; new energy sources like coal, the steam engine and electricity were developed and used; machines were created which could do the same job as a person; jobs became specialised – instead of one skilled craftsman making an entire shoe, different people were responsible for the different parts and assembly of a shoe; factories became the centre of employment; new transportation like the steam train, steam boat, and automobile were invented; new communication technology like telegraphs and radios were introduced; and science became part of industry for the first time.  

Outside of industry, improvements in farming technology meant it was possible to feed people working in factories and living in cities; there was increased international trade; new political movements based on industry and new government policies based on working class populations; small villages grew into major cities; and people’s livelihoods change – farmers and skilled craftsman became machine operators.

A steam engine (Wikimedia Commons)

Although the industrial revolution started in Britain, it eventually spread to mainland Europe – with the next country to industrialise being Belgium. Like Britain, Belgium’s industrial revolution was based on coal, steel, and textiles! France followed as well, but much slower and less thorough than the UK. The rest of the world was much slower – Germany’s industrial revolution didn’t start until the 1870s, the US also began in the late 19th century along with Japan, and the Soviet Union, India, and China did not have their first industrial revolutions until the middle of the 20th century. 

Historians have debated for years why Britain was the first country to industrialise. It is a complex process, and Britain was not the first place or only place to have a period of development and open exchange. However, it was the first industrialised economy. Although I don’t necessarily agree with his whole philosophy, Karl Marx claimed that Britain’s use of the compass, gunpowder, and the printing press allowed the country to undergo the industrial revolution. However, nearly a thousand years earlier, another civilisation  across the world already used all of these products. 

Should China Have Been the First Industrial Country?

China should have been the first industrial country. A thousand years ago, while Europe was so weak and backwards that the Middle East and Asia considered it not even worth visiting, China was flourishing with the most advanced civilization in the world. Between the years 960-1279, China’s Song dynasty came close to industrialisation. 

In fact, according to the historian Stephen Davies – “in key areas of the economy, government, social structure, and intellectual life and scientific investigation, Song China was as close to modernity as eighteenth century Europe.”

How did Song China become so advanced? 

Before the Song dynasty, China had spent years under constant war, with different regions constantly battling for power with each other. After uniting the country, the Song emperor Taizu did something unexpected, extraordinary, and historically important. 

Map of Song China (Wikimedia Commons)

Taizu invited his military officers – the people responsible for uniting China and making him emperor – to a large banquet. At this banquet, he asked all of the generals and military leaders to retire, go home, and live peaceful lives. Instead of getting roles in China’s new government, the military went home and civilians took charge of the country! And therefore, the focus of Song China became development rather than war or fighting. 

At the same time, traders from foreign lands were allowed back into China. Muslims, Indians, Persians, and Jews were not just welcomed back as traders, but were given important roles in Chinese society. Taizu even appointed an Arab Muslim as his first atronomer – the scientist responsible for observing the stars and planets (which was very important as China used a calender based on the moon). 

Allowing foreign travellers into the country was incredibly important and beneficial – it allowed China to benefit from the knowledge and expertise of people from other parts of the world. India and the Middle East, for example, provided new science and technology. Better types of rice were imported from Vietnam and South East Asia. And Chinese artists and philosophers were inspired by knowledge from other places. 

It is well documented that the most open countries and societies tend to be the fastest to develop and invent new products. When different cultures, ideas, methods, and knowledge meet – the result is usually technological advances. Hundreds of years before Europe, for example, China was using a movable printing press allowing documents to be printed quickly and cheaply. 

What else did Song China do differently? They invented paper money – as coins became too annoying and heavy to carry between cities. Paper money made trade much, much easier. Farmers who moved to new land and successfully grew crops were allowed to keep the land and sell it in the future – land was owned by the farmer, not the Emperor. 

China’s golden age?

China’s fleet of trading ships was the best in the world. New roads were built to allow crops and products to be transported to boats, and then on to different parts of China or the world.  In just a few hundred years, Song China’s population and wealth grew massively! In fact, Song China was incredibly close to experiencing an industrial revolution. During the dynasty, business men were already experimenting with iron, coal, and textile machines 500 years before anyone in Britain.

So what went wrong? 

Why was China not the First Industrial Country?

As we know, China didn’t industrialise until the middle of the 20th century – literally a thousand years after the Song dynasty. Song China was so advanced (according to some historians comparable with 18th century Britain) – but something went wrong. 

It was not a problem with resources – China had materials, had knowledge, and had energy. They had more than enough for an industrial revolution. Instead, according to Johan Norberg, it was a problem of politics. 

The Song dynasty was not always peaceful. Most of northern China was lost in 1127 and the smaller country of Southern Song was created. A hundred years later, the Mongol army began to attack Song territory. Although the Chinese defended for many years, by 1279 the Mongol forces finally conquered all of China. However, this did not mean the end of the Song’s ideas and knowledge. 

Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis, kept much of Song China’s society and science. In fact, the Mongol’s even introduced new improvements learnt from their territories across Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. The famous traveller Marco Polo was impressed by this China – the China of Kublai Khan. There was even more trade, even more international recruits, and the silk road was opened again after many years. The Mongol empire was one of the greatest empires to ever exist. 

Then, the bubonic plague, also known as the black death, struck. It killed millions around the world, ended international trade, and caused the loss of much of China’s wealth. Rebellions against the Mongol leaders resulted in the Han Chinese Ming Dynasty coming to power.

Ming Dynasty and the End of Progressive China

The Ming dynasty were embarrassed that China had been controlled by “foreign” Mongols. They blamed the fall of Song China on the weakness of an open society. So, Ming China decided to be the opposite of Song China – they gave the emperor and government unlimited power, started trade wars with their old partners, and built walls to stop foreigners entering the country. 

The Ming dynasty actually destroyed many of the new innovations of Song China – people were not allowed to leave their home towns or cities, citizens were forced to wear the traditional clothes from 500 years earlier, and the Chinese calendar became inaccurate as the Ming leaders would not employ scientists who knew how to adjust the calendar. 

Ming China banned private international trade, foreign languages were made illegal, there was no more religious freedom, and a few times silver coins were also banned. Some historians have described it as an “anti-modern revolution.”

The Qing Dynasty

Things got even worse after the fall of the Ming dynasty. The Manchu leaders of the Qing dynasty tried to return China back to the ancient society of Confucius. It was only with the arrival of a foreign (Manchu) government, that China became a traditional conservative state. 

Famously, the Chinese rejected British trade offers as the Qing government claimed they already had everything they needed. And in 1816, the British representative was sent back to England without any conversation after he refused to kneel in front of the emperor. A thousand years earlier, Arab traders also refused to kneel in front of the Tang emperor, but it was accepted that different cultures have different traditions. 

Why did Britain Have an Industrial Revolution?

You might be thinking right now that the reason Britain and Europe eventually managed to industrialise was because the rulers of the West were more intelligent, open, and encouraging than the leaders of Ming and Qing China. But this is also not true. 

18th and 19th century Europe was not more open to technology – and was not more open to change. In 1821, Emperor Francis I of Austria-Hungary told a groups of teachers that if any of them “comes with new ideas, he can go, or I will remove him.” Kings and Queens across Europe regularly banned new machines and factories – even in places like the UK, Belgium, and France. 

So what was the difference between China and Europe? Well, it might shock you to hear, but it was probably that China’s leaders were more powerful and stronger. When Ming China banned new technology, they succeeded. When European countries tried, they failed. European leaders tried to ban development and advances in the economy, but they failed – and this is probably part of the reason Europe managed to industrialise when China failed.

Final Thought

On today’s episode of Thinking in English, I have tried to explain why China, the most advanced society at the time, failed to industrialise. Song China came so close to industrialising hundreds of years before Britain. Song China was a country of innovation, civilian rule, international exchange, and openness. 

After the Song dynasty ended, everything that made Song China great was replaced by traditional and conservative ideas. And China’s strong government meant that they were able to destroy technology and prevent an industrial revolution. 

This story has meaning in our modern world too. Countries around the world have become increasingly anti-immigration, anti-education, and anti-science – the result will not be improvements in technology and innovation. The UK, the US, Eastern European countries like Hungary, Brazil, the Philippines, and China are just a few countries that have become more resistant to free international trade, immigration, or new knowledge over recent years. Hopefully they don’t fall into the same trap China did a thousand years ago!

What do you think was the reason China did not have an Industrial Revolution? Why was Britain the first country to have an Industrial Revolution?

2 thoughts on “139. Why China Should Have Industrialised First!: The Song Dynasty and the Industrial Revolution  (English Vocabulary Lesson)”
  1. I can’t emphasize enough how much I appreciate your work. I’m currently working on my listening skill for the IELTS test, and your podcasts prove valuable resources for practicing Listening. You also included some ideas on certain topics that often occur in the IELTS writing test (mandatory military service, nuclear weapon, cancel culture, etc.). Many of them are mind-opening and thought-provoking! Hope your podcast will achieve more success in the future!

    1. Thank you for your comment! This is exactly why I started my podcast – passing IELTS or TOEFL not only requires excellent language skills, but also the knowledge and ability to talk about social, cultural, environmental or economic issues! I’m happy you find my content useful – Tom

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Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

2 thoughts on “139. Why China Should Have Industrialised First!: The Song Dynasty and the Industrial Revolution  (English Vocabulary Lesson)”
  1. I can’t emphasize enough how much I appreciate your work. I’m currently working on my listening skill for the IELTS test, and your podcasts prove valuable resources for practicing Listening. You also included some ideas on certain topics that often occur in the IELTS writing test (mandatory military service, nuclear weapon, cancel culture, etc.). Many of them are mind-opening and thought-provoking! Hope your podcast will achieve more success in the future!

    1. Thank you for your comment! This is exactly why I started my podcast – passing IELTS or TOEFL not only requires excellent language skills, but also the knowledge and ability to talk about social, cultural, environmental or economic issues! I’m happy you find my content useful – Tom

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