The Economic History Review

The great divergence and the economics of printing†

Volume 70 Issue 1
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Pages: 30-51Authors: Luis Angeles
Published online: June 24, 2016DOI: 10.1111/ehr.12337

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While China’s invention of printing took place several centuries ahead of Europe’s, it was in Europe where the more advanced printing technology of movable type took hold and where book production reached far higher levels. This article explores the extent to which China’s complex logographic writing system explains these different outcomes. Using an economic analysis, I show how China’s preference for block printing technology over movable type can be justified as the rational choice of commercial producers. In addition to this, model simulations also predict that movable type would be used in China under some specific circumstances which closely match the historical record. On the other hand, the use of block printing would not have led to larger printing costs in China, and as such should not be regarded as the reason behind China’s modest level of book production when compared to Europe’s.