The Chinese empire has a place in the history of mankind as one of the most stable and long-lasting civilisations. It had the potential of experiencing an industrial revolution several centuries before it occurred in the West. Yet such possibilities were never exploited. The history of the empire from the fourteenth century to its final collapse in 1911 is one of slow change in a context of social and technological stability (Riskin 1987:11n.). The social structure of imperial society is the most important factor in explaining this combination of stability and lack of developmental dynamics:
The intelligentsia, members of the state bureaucracy and land-owners formed a close-knit social class known as the gentry, which exercised a strong hegemony over all important levels of economic, political and social power ... They controlled land, wealth, political power and officially defined knowledge. They also controlled social status through the reproduction of Confucian culture (which exalted them over the peasantry), control over kinship organisations (which bound peasants of the same lineage to them, in a subordinate position, of course), and manipulation of a myriad of local cultural symbols. Their domination over the peasantry was total (Blecher 1986:6,8).
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