Adam Smith observed in The Wealth of Nations (1776):
China has been long one of the richest—i.e. one of the most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious, and most populous—countries in the world. But it seems to have been long stationary. Marco Polo, who visited it more than 500 years ago, describes its cultivation, industry, and populousness in almost the same terms in which they are described by travellers today. It had, perhaps even long before his time, acquired the full complement of riches which the nature of its laws and institutions permits it to acquire.
The accounts of all travellers, though inconsistent in many other respects, agree on the low wages of labour and on how hard it is for a labourer to bring up a family in China.
If by digging the ground for a whole day he can get what will purchase a small quantity of rice in the evening, he is contented. The condition of skilled workmen is perhaps even worse. Instead of waiting patiently in their workshops for the calls of their customers, as in Europe, they are continually running about the streets with the tools of their respective trades, offering their services—begging for employment.
The poverty of the lower ranks of people in China is far worse than that of the most beggarly nations in Europe. It is commonly said that in the neighbourhood of Canton many hundreds or even thousands of families have no home on the land, but live permanently in little fishing-boats on the rivers and canals. The subsistence they find there is so scanty that they are eager to fish up the nastiest garbage thrown overboard from any European ship.
Marriage is encouraged in China not by the profitableness of children but by the liberty of destroying them. Every night in all large towns several babies are exposed in the street or drowned like puppies in the water. The performance of this nasty task is even said to be the avowed business by which some people earn their subsistence.
However, although China may be standing still it does not seem to go backwards. Its towns are nowhere deserted by their inhabitants. The lands which have been cultivated are nowhere neglected. So just about the same annual labour must continue to be performed, and the funds for maintaining it must not be noticeably diminished. So the lowest class of labourers, despite their scanty subsistence, must somehow find ways to continue their race far enough to keep up their usual numbers.