Home Economy China’s 2,000-year path to the top of the economic heap, in one chart

China’s 2,000-year path to the top of the economic heap, in one chart

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         China’s 2,000-year path to the top of the economic heap, in one chart

The United States, in the eyes of some of its key allies around the world, doesn’t enjoy the economic heft it once did. In fact, according to a recent Pew study, seven out of 10 European Union nations, including Germany, Spain and the U.K., consider China to be the true leading economic power.

The trend, as you can see from this illustration going back some 2,000 years, supports this notion of a changing of the guard.


         China’s 2,000-year path to the top of the economic heap, in one chart

Jeff Desjardins of the Visual Capitalist blog created the chart by updating a previous version originally published by J.P. Morgan. He explained that the data comes from the late Angus Maddison, “a famous economic historian that published estimates on population, GDP, and other figures going back to Roman times.”

Desjardins pointed out that chart wonks might take issue with the fact that the time periods on the x-axis aren’t equal — a big no-no in data visualization.

“While we completely agree, we have a made an exception in this case,” he said in the post. “Why? Because getting good economic data from the early 20th century is already difficult enough — and so trying to find data in regular intervals before then seems like a fool’s errand.”

X-axis issues aside, the chart, which was mentioned in our daily “Need to Know” column, highlights several historical point, such as the massive impact of the Industrial Revolution and the momentum behind the re-emergence of Asia.

Desjardins added another chart he says ties it all together by showing “the exponential rate of human economic growth” in the past century.


         China’s 2,000-year path to the top of the economic heap, in one chart

“For thousands of years, economic progress was largely linear and linked to population growth. Without machines or technological innovations, one person could only produce so much with their time and resources,” he said. “More recently, innovations in technology and energy allowed the ‘hockey stick’ effect to come into play.”

That growth surge happened initially in Western Europe and North America, and now the rest of the world is catching up, Desjardins said.

“As this technological playing field evens, economies like China and India – traditionally some of the largest economies throughout history – are now making their big comeback,” he wrote.

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