China in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations


Joseph Wei

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Towards the middle of Chapter VIII in The Wealth of Nations , Adam Smith?s typically unadorned writing undergoes a brief but startling stylistic shift. This stylistic shift occurs with respect to Smith?s conception of China: a ?stationary? country whose capital and stock have not increased or decreased; a country whose people are forced to derive subsistence from the ?carcase of a dead dog or cat?though half putrid and stinking?; a country where newly born children are nightly ?exposed in the street, or drowned like puppies in the water.? Yet, China should not theoretically exist in such a state. Smith and other 18th century thinkers all recognize China?s considerable natural resources and favorable climate and soil, conditions that should naturally lead to opulence. For Smith, China?s contradictory existence can be explained by the nature of its laws and institutions. Laws and institutions imply not specific faulty laws, but an entire system of government. What form of government, then, prevents China from attaining its full complement of riches? All signs point to despotism, a form of government in China ruled solely by custom. But though custom maintains order, it also retains abnormal and monstrous practice as well ? I am thinking of newborns ?exposed? and ?drowned? in China. Using classic theoretical (e.g., Smith, Montesquieu) and historical texts, as well as modern theory (e.g., Grosrichard), I hope to understand the representation of China in Smith?s theory, along with China?s overall theoretical position in 18th century thought.


Warren Montag




Faculty Student Summer Research Endowment

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