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2nd Seminar: François Gipouloux, "Why no capitalism in late imperial China? The paradox of wealthy merchants and weak capital accumulation"

Gipouloux François (Emeritus Research Director, National Centre for Scientific Research [CNRS], France)
Ioanna Sapfo Pepelasis (Professor Emerita, Athens University of Economics and Business)



This presentation proposes another interpretation of the Europe/China divergence, based on a redefinition of capitalism in much broader terms than its mere reduction to the industrial revolution. It recalls the reasons why Chinese merchant networks were unable to formalize autonomous institutions, in order to confer a perennial scope to their affairs. What was the cause of this endogenous business practices structural weakness? It revisits the paradox of Chinese economic history where the emergence of rich merchants does not translate into steady capital accumulation. Collecting savings and making them available to entrepreneurs in the form of long-term capital is traditionally the task of banks. What credit institutions facilitated the collection of capital in China? How did it circulate? Where were capital markets developing credit instruments, allowing a wide exchange of information and the diffusion of financial innovations? If very few of the Chinese financial institutions that handled these operations was like a bank, in the sense of the term as used in the Middle Ages in Europe, did they nevertheless fulfil, its functions, even partially? This presentation raises the issue of capital sterilization, due to the fragmentation of financial institutions and high interest rates. The Ming commercial revolution was not the premise of a new world, but rather the sign of a dying economy whose dynamism had been exhausted. There was indeed a socio-economic  transformation of China under the Qing, but it took place in a political framework and geopolitical context very different from Europe. The transformation towards a capitalist economy was halted, while the rise of the market economy paradoxically contributed to the weakening of the imperial administration.


François Gipouloux is Emeritus Research Director at the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), since 2015. His research focuses on a long-term comparison of the dynamics of capitalism in Europe and Asia. He is the coordinator of the International Research Group (CNRS) "The origins of globalisation and the 'divergence' Europe Asia: Trade networks and trajectory of economic institutions, 1000-2000" and of the International Research Programme (CNRS-FMSH) "Maritime Empires, Continental Empires 1500-2000". His research interest also includes urbanisation in China, the rivalry between the major Asian metropolises (Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai) in the East Asian maritime corridor. He coordinated the research project for the European Community: "Sustainable urbanisation in China-Historical and comparative perspectives, mega-trends towards 2050" (2011-2015). Knight of the Legion of Honour, François Gipouloux has worked for nearly 20 years in Asia: Beijing, Tokyo, Hong Kong. He is the author of some sixty articles and chapters in scientific works as well as the following books (author and editor):
1. Elusive Capital: Merchant Networks, Economic Institutions and Business Practices in Late China, 16th-19th, Cheltenham, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2022.
2. China’s Urban Century : Governance, Environment and Socio-Economic Imperatives, Cheltenham, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2015 (ed.).
3. Gateways to Globalisation: Asia's International Trading and Finance Hubs, Cheltenham, Edward Elgar, 2011, (ed.).
4. The Asian Mediterranean: Port-cities and Trading Networks in China, Japan and Southeast Asia, 16th-21st Century, (English translation of La Méditerranée asiatique, also tranlated in Chinese and Korean), Edward Elgar Publishing, 2011.
5. La Chine du XXIe siècle : Une nouvelle superpuissance? Paris, Armand Colin, 2005 (Francis Garnier Prize 2006). Also translated into Portuguese.


Date and Time: Monday 5 December 2022, 16:00-18:00

The Seminar will be held in a hybrid format.

Venue: National Hellenic Research Foundation (48, Vas. Konstantinou av., Athens). Groundfloor, Seminars' room. 

Zoom link:



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