In light of the emergent “history of capitalism” field in Euro-American history, this article reviews and critically situates how the category “capitalism” has been debated within the historiographies of China and South Asia. In discussions paralleling European historiography, Sinologists and Indologists explored whether the “prime mover” of capitalism was changes in production or in circulation. The example of South Asian studies shows how, from the 1960s through the 1980s, the dominant production-centered approach—drawing upon Marxist theory—produced stories of economic “failure” in Asia. The example of Chinese history since the 1990s points to the resurgence of a Smithian circulation-centered approach that challenges the Eurocentric story of failure. Each of these approaches emerged out of distinct eras of capital accumulation in the twentieth century: mid-century state-supported industrialization and late-century deregulated globalization. The tension between these approaches points towards a more integrative reinterpretation that sees the core dynamics of capitalism as a cyclical process of “capital accumulation,” one that integrates both production and circulation-centered approaches and also challenges Eurocentric histories of capitalism. This article's conclusion provides speculative thoughts on writing the histories of capitalism for China and South Asia today.

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