I've heard it's 33% during the Qing dinasty. 4% during cultural revolution. Now it's climbing up steadily to 11%.

Where can I see the table of those actually tracking those numbers?

What were the causes?

  • The Needham Question as e.g. discussed on the BBC's In Our Time program is perhaps relevant to the causes: "Why had China been overtaken by the West in science and technology, despite its earlier successes?"
    – Drux
    Feb 3, 2013 at 21:49
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    GDP before modern age mostly came from agriculture, and some part from mining. Industry and service was small, and steady part of it. Big countries with large crop fields and good climate could easily dominate. Europe has significantly colder climate, with similar crops producing half-third of what could get in Egypt/North Africa or richer regions of China.
    – Greg
    Jul 7, 2015 at 12:42

4 Answers 4


Well, at least the drop during the "Cultural Revolution" is easily explained. Setting hordes of young, largely semi-literate, thugs to torture and maim the productive and educated members of society will do wonders for the economy. Here is a long quote from wikipedia:

The ten years of the Cultural Revolution brought China's education system to a virtual halt. The university entrance exams were cancelled after 1966, and were not restored until 1977 under Deng Xiaoping. Many intellectuals were sent to rural labour camps, and many of those who survived left China shortly after the revolution ended.[citation needed] Many survivors and observers[who?] suggest that almost anyone with skills over that of the average person was made the target of political “struggle” in some way. According to most Western observers as well as followers of Deng Xiaoping, this led to almost an entire generation of inadequately educated individuals. The impact of the Cultural Revolution on popular education varied among regions, and formal measurements of literacy did not resume until the 1980s.[75] Some counties in Zhanjiang had illiteracy rates as high as 41% some 20 years after the revolution. The leaders of China at the time denied any illiteracy problems from the start. This effect was amplified by the elimination of qualified teachers—many of the districts were forced to rely upon chosen students to re-educate the next generation.[75]

  • That's a very good answer. I think western experiment with capitalism also explains why the rest of the world are getting richer. I want something more comprehensive. Notice that this mean even during colonization, the peak of western civilization, china weren't that bad.
    – user4951
    Feb 3, 2013 at 10:46
  • "Setting hordes of young, largely semi-literate, thugs to torture and maim the productive and educated members of society will do wonders for the economy." This strategy actually works fairly well if you exclude the victimised portion from the imperialist portion of GDP measures, see India or Ireland's GDPs in the 19th century. Also works if the "victors" of such a civil war implement "more productive" relations of production (human suffering is of course an externality), see Ireland there, or the "settler societies." So not a universal, but right about the Cultural Revolution. Feb 3, 2013 at 21:39
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    @SamuelRussell: Not sure what exactly you meant, but your parallels are wrong. The Cultural Revolution was not about getting rid of foreign interference, so Ireland and India are not relevant. And yes, I contend that mass butchery of ones own people is not a good or even passable development strategy for any country. Feb 3, 2013 at 21:43
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    While I agree with you about systems of human suffering being undesirable, the original questioner was asking about GDP. GDP is notorious for externalising human suffering. Seeing an estimated GDP harmonised with HDI over time would be interesting! If you follow a Ðilasian analysis of Bolshevik parties, the Cultural Revolution is as much about sorting out party control and class warfare inside the society. My comparison to Ireland and India was on this basis—the horrific sundering of previous class relationships to allow for primitive reaccumulation of wealth in new hands. Feb 3, 2013 at 21:49
  • The Chinese economy continued to grow by strongly for most of the CR. For example, in 1970 it grew by 19%.. The Great Leap Forward (59-61)was a tough time though. Jun 12, 2016 at 15:46

There is an overview in an article on China Whisper.com: China`s historical GDP share in the world

Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD)
GDP per capita: $450, 26%

Tang Dynasty 618 – 907 AD GDP per capita:$480, 58% of world GDP

Song Dynasty 960-1279 AD GDP per capita:US$2,280, 80% of the world’s GDP

Yuan Dynasty 1271-1368 A estimated to account for about 30% -35% GDP

Ming Dynasty 1368–1644 AD GDP per capita:US$600, 55% of world GDP

Qing Dynasty 1644-1922 AD GDP per capita:US$600 Qing Dynasty accounted for 35% -10% of the World GDP

People’s Republic of China 1949- GDP per capita:US$5414, 9.48 percent of the world economy. See also Wikipedia for this period.

There is also another article at Wikipedia: Economic history of China before 1912

Maybe you can find hint to other sources there.

  • Good answer, but do you have any causes known? Feb 3, 2013 at 22:35
  • Wow. We once control 80% of world GDP during Song. But Song is a failure.
    – user4951
    Feb 4, 2013 at 2:26
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    I believe that Song's success must be attributed to the earlier period. Before continuous jurchen and mongol invasions. Also, I would be happy if China Whisper's article showed some references. I feel awkward every time I notice USD in historical approximations. Feb 4, 2013 at 4:22
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    @JimThio don't forget the timing, the collapse of the (Western) Roman empire during this time! Jul 31, 2014 at 6:56

The ChinaWhisper article doesn't seem to give sources, and its numbers are implausible, particularly having per capita GDP be several times bigger under the Song dynasty than before or after.

A big compilation of historical population and GDP estimates was done by the late economist Angus Maddison, who among other things wrote extensively on China's economic history, and this work is being continued as the Maddison Project. His book The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective can be downloaded; Table B-20 (p. 263) gives estimated historical GDP percentages by country (in "1990 international dollars").

A graph of his estimates for China's share of world GDP is available on Wikipedia. While it does not resolve all the dynasties, China's share of global GDP stays in the 20% to 35% range until the mid-19th century, at which point it starts dropping, to around 4% under Mao. Now it is back up to 17%.

  • USA has huge GDP? On 1000th CE?
    – user4951
    Feb 3, 2017 at 14:33
  • You are confusing the USA and W Europe lines
    – pixel
    Feb 7, 2017 at 19:57
  • Yap. Both blue. Because they are whites. Racist graph. He he he he
    – user4951
    Feb 10, 2017 at 10:30

What is China has changed over time, as have the number of people in China, as has China's level of per capita output (GDP prior to capitalism is an anachronistic imposition if measured in a current value expression), as has the number of people not-in-China, as have the level of per capita output in places not-China.

The assumption that China's proportion of world output would remain static is a less tenable hypothesis than that all proportions of long lasting cultural nexuses of output would vary.

What you're really asking is "Was Needham right?" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Needham#The_Needham_Question

And there's a great deal of literature about prefigurative forms of capitalism in China out there. I'd suggest you start by reading the review articles on the Needham Question, because scholarly discontent with the failure of China, a large high productivity advanced feudal society*1 to cement the prefigurative forms of capitalism into actual capitalism continues.

*1 Marxist use in relation to circulation of prestige, status, and direct extraction techniques; not a claim of infeudation.

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