Hoskin, Keith and Macve, Richard (2012) Contesting the indigenous development of “Chinese double-entry bookkeeping” and its significance in China’s economic institutions and business organization before c.1850. Economic History Working Papers, 160/12. London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK.
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The recent rapid growth of China’s economy has reopened historical debate about the extent to which it prospered during the Míng and Qīng dynasties (1368-1911) through developing a significant market orientation on the base of its underlying agricultural bureaucratic feudalism. As a contribution to this debate, we question here the extent to which there is justification for claims concerning the development of a concomitant and indigenous Chinese form of double-entry bookkeeping (CDEB)—seen as having developed among bankers, merchants and proto-industrialists—and for its significance within such a market economy. Given that discussion on post-medieval European accounting history indicates that there is not necessarily a direct and positive connection between the development of Italian double-entry bookkeeping (DEB) and associated practices of entity accounting, and the development from the sixteenth century of Western capitalism, we argue that caution should be exercised in drawing any analogous connection in the Chinese context. But equally we wish to raise a more foundational issue concerning the similarities and differences between the knowledge worlds within which DEB and CDEB emerged, as a means to better reading the specific historical practices and discourses of each. We therefore review the invention and dissemination of western DEB as a technology emerging within a textually and semiotically changing knowledge world in the Latin West from the twelfth century AD, and consider how the evidence for the development and use of CDEB may then be reviewed in the context of the Chinese knowledge world. As part of such a reading, we focus on tracing possible intercultural linkages between the Western and Chinese developments across the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries. In this way we seek to problematise conventional formulations of the respective significance of both DEB and CDEB, while acknowledging that, at the current moment of such transcultural historical study, the mechanisms of translation and diffusion of practices and discourses generally remain obscure and inconclusive until the era of the transformation of China’s modern economy in recent decades. There remains a clear need for further research utilising primary archival sources to test the arguments developed in the existing research literatures, and here.
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