The emperor did care about the well-being of the peasants

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:52 pm

From Oddnumbers1 a post on historical income inequality, which is based on this paper

One of the things that they conclude is that China in the 188o’s was the second most egalitarian society in their sample, coming out with a Gini coefficient that is just behind that of modern Denmark


This is not actually all that surprising. As the authors point out hunter-gatherer societies are by their nature almost completely egalitarian. In the case of China the lack of a hereditary land-holding aristocracy would apparently make reduce the possibility of radical inequality like you find in Nueva Espana.2 The authors, however, are more interested in their new concept of inequality extraction ratio. Basically, they want to figure out what amount of the total surplus is in fact being extracted from those at the bottom. As societies get richer there is more surplus that could be extracted.  They hint that raw inequality is not as likely to create social unrest as a rising ratio, i.e. if the elite is taking a bigger cut of the possible pie. China seems to be very low on its possible ratio, and thus the elite was taking as small an amount of surplus as could be imagined.

Given that their only source on China is Chang Chung-li’s work from the early 60’s I suspect that they might get very different results with better data. Still, I find this interesting. They seem to assume that states are controlled by the elite and are machines for extracting wealth from the bottom classes. This seems to be at least some confirmation that Confucian rhetoric about caring about the well-being of the peasants had at least some effect on society.

  1. via Matthew Yglesias []
  2. I have problems with the ‘social tables’ they use for their pre-modern data, but I think I agree that differences between classes are more important than those within classes. The authors themselves point out that the data on China is taken from studies of the Chinese “gentry” a massive 2% of the population, unlike other places were work is done on real aristocrats. []



Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 4:08 pm

One of the many, many cool things about Madeleine Zelin’s new book The Merchants of Zigong: Industrial Entrepreneurship in Early Modern China is its discussion of guanyun, or official shipping. The book as a whole is about the evolution of the salt trade in Zigong, Sichuan in the Late Qing and Republic. Salt was of course a major industry in Qing China, and as in many other places in the world of great interest to the state, as it was easily taxed. Therefore sources are abundant, and Zelin has written one of the best recent books on Chinese business history. Nobody working on the Chinese economy today still accepts the old position that the Chinese economy was run by glorified peddlers who lived in terror of offending the dreaded Mandarins, but at the same time there have been very few detailed studies of the development of Chinese economic organizations and businesses.

Of the many things that I like about this book the treatment of Ding Baozhen’s 1877 proposal for a system of state-run wholesale shipping of salt. Salt smuggling was an endemic problem for Chinese states, and of course those best placed to smuggle salt were the official salt merchants, who had the capital, transport, and knowledge of the market to be really effective at large-scale smuggling. The official transport system aimed at curbing smuggling by having wholesale salt shipments be made by the state, rather than licensing merchants to buy salt from the yards then trusting them to ship and sell it appropriately. This was a system with many annoying features for salt producers and merchants. The state preferred to deal with the larger producers and to buy salt evaporated with natural gas rather than coal, which tended to drive out small producers. Producers could no longer wrap and brand their own salt, and the state set prices. Vertically integrated salt firms became almost impossible to maintain.

The reason I find all this interesting, is that the Qing and Republican states followed almost the same pattern, for pretty much the same reasons, with the opium trade.  Of course there the fact that state policy was retarding the growth of business would have been regarded as a plus. Still, it is interesting to see that the state was developing a set of policies that it applied to a multiple trades.


Take grain as the key link

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:01 am

Securing grain supplies and providing food security for the peasants was always one of the main duties of the Chinese state, partly because of their deep concern for the well-being of the peasants and partly because they wanted to prevent rebellions. I always teach my students that in a modern market economy secure supplies of staples like grain are less of a concern for the state, and in any case the prices of these things are low enough that most consumers pay little attention.

In China the old level of concern with basic commodity prices stuck around a lot longer. One of my friends spent a winter at a Beijing university in the 80’s, and when she arrived the director of the program assembled the incoming foreign students and said that they had no doubt heard about the poor harvests in the area and were worried about the food supply. She of course had not heard about the poor harvests, and as an American would not have cared, since she was not used to living in a society where her personal food supply was connected to local harvests. The director assured them that things would be fine, because while harvests of almost everything else had been awful, the cabbage harvest had been excellent, and they could be assured of a plentiful supply of cabbage all winter long.

Apparently something similar is happening in Taiwan. Michael Turton reports that wheat prices are going up across Asia, and that Taiwan in particular is feeling the crunch. His sources blame bad harvests, but I suspect that at least part of the problem is that American demand for ethanol is pushing American farmers away from wheat and into corn. I already knew that American SUV’s were destroying the rainforest, but I did not know that they were also depleting the world supply of baozi.


Was China stagnant for 700 years?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:12 am

Brad DeLong has a long post up on the economic history of China. It’s not all that good, but as he is asking for comments people might want to go and give some. Can anyone think of a good passage by someone more current on the literature that covers the Late Imperial period better?


Actually the post and the comments (on the main page) are a treasure trove of the type of zombie errors that crop up in my classes all the time. “Confucianism” retarded trade. The Chinese economy was stagnant after the Song. The Chinese had a printing press but never printed many books. If you want a nice picture of the general state of knowledge of Chinese history among those who are smart and well-informed but don’t know much about China, this is the place to go.

(I sometimes ask students what they know about China on the first day of class but I never formalize it into essays, since a long boring assignment that makes them feel stupid does not strike me as a good way to start off class. Now if I just assume that my incoming freshmen know about as much about China as Brad Delong (and his commentors) my questions about their knowledge-base are answered.)


China’s Traditional, right?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:04 am

Cultural Revolution? Yan’an Purge?

It’s an ugly campaign season, a mix of talent show, debate, old-fashioned politicking and dirty tricks. It’s part “American Idol,” part “Survivor.” Cheng Cheng urges his supporters to mock Xiaofei so unmercifully she can hardly make it through her first speech. Then, in an appalling act of hypocrisy, he denounces his own thugs, who are brought weeping to justice. The battle is quickly reduced to a contest between the boys, Luo Lei and Cheng Cheng, whose debate is an eerily scripted exchange of Orwellian platitudes. Luo Lei must resort to graft …



Who lives in a Pineapple under the Sea of Japan…?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 3:45 pm

From Inside Asia I learn that China has created regulations to increase the number of domestic cartoons shown in China. This is a fairly standard bit of cultural protectionism, and Canada and France have done similar things. What I find interesting is Inside Asia leads with a picture of the Simpsons. This rule clearly is protectionist, but it is protecting China against Japan, not Sponge Bob. Japan is of course the world-wide cartoon king, and they are taking over the minds of Chinese children just as they are American children and Swedish children. Of course the American cartoon industry is also being damaged by Japanese competition, but there are not a lot of calls for protectionism here. I suspect that part of the reason is that Americans want to protect jobs in steel mills and stuff like that. The Chinese government seems to fairly hip to the role of animation and exporting cool in Japanese soft power. Like some of the Chinese interviewed for the article, I am not sure that protectionism will really lead to improvement in the Chinese product. What is the Chinese counterpart to Naruto? Even more to the point, will Japanese producers start making more Pan-Asian type stuff that can be accepted everywhere? Or are they doing so already?


Has anyone seen the scissors?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:07 pm

Tang-dynasty scissors, via wikipedia


Perhaps they are not as interesting as pigs, but I had a question about scissors. I was reading the 海王 chapter of Guanzi in the Rickett translation, Guan Zhong is advising Duke Huan. The Duke is in favor of raising revenues by increasing taxes. Guang Zhong says that instead the king should rely on controlling the trades in salt and iron as in effect an indirect tax. (This section seems to date from the Han, far later than the actual time of Guan Zhong). In discussing the need for iron he says

“Each woman must have a needle and scissors before she can carry on her work. Each person who cultivates the soil must have a digging fork, a plow and a hoe before he can carry on his work. Each person who builds and maintains hand carts and small and large horse-drawn wagons must have an axe, a saw, an awl, and a chisel before he can carry on his work.”

So far so good. But scissors? In the Han? I found out from wikipedia that scissors were known in Egypt as early as 1500 B.C. But in 汉语大词典 the earliest reference to scissors (剪子) is from the Tang. The actual quote from Guanzi, as least as I found it on-line, is 一女必有一鍼一刀 ,
which I would translate as knife rather than scissors. So is Rickett wrong, or did 刀 once mean scissors? When did the Chinese start using them?


Getting the Chinese to work hard

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:05 pm

NYT has an article on American firms’ opposition to new Chinese labor laws. China has been pushing unionization of foreign firms, forcing even Wal-mart to accept unions. In particular the All Chinese Federation of Trade Unions has been trying to organize migrant workers. The basic complaint of the foreign firms is that it will be hard to get workers to work hard enough if you are forced to coddle them. The laws themselves are apparently not all that big a change, but the impression seems to be that these laws may actually be enforced. “If you really abide by the Chinese labor laws,” said Anita Chan, an expert on labor issues in this country and a visiting fellow at the Australian National University, “migrant-worker wages would go up by 50 percent or more.”
Labor groups have always been fairly critical of the ACFTU, for the obvious reason that they are not going to be mistaken for the IWW any time soon. I suspect that these laws will not represent a change in the nature of Chinese unions and that these will continue to be “enterprise” unions. Probably one reason for this push for unionization is simply a desire to have more state control over things. On the other hand, state unions would not have to do much to make the situation of Chinese workers considerably better, as this interview shows

Li Qiang: How is the method to count piecework? Do you know your pay rate?
Worker: The pay rate is different for different products.
Li Qiang: Can you give me an example for the pay rate?
Worker: Such as changing color dolls…
Li Qiang: What is the brand of it?
Worker: Disney.
Li Qiang: What is the piecework rate for it?
Worker: It used to be 11.20 Yuan for 100 pieces, or 0.112 Yuan each.
Li Qiang: How many people are needed to work it out?
Worker: Eight people.
Li Qiang: That is eight people work on the doll, getting 11.20 for 100 pieces.
Worker: But the rate is lowered to 7.80 Yuan.
Li Qiang: Why?
Worker: Because some workers would get over 1000 Yuan monthly if calculated by 11.20. The factory administration lowered the pay rate to reduce cost.

So this is not really hourly work, nor is it peicework. Workers get 1000 Yuan a month period. This is exactly the type of thing unions are supposed to fight for. Not just the right to bargin for a particular wage, but the right to have a wage at all. There are all sorts of things reported in the press, late payment of wages, strange living charges etc., that add up to not just a bad deal for labor but no deal at all. Making even the most marginal effort to improve the position of workers would be popular, make the government look good, and not really cost anything. I have doubts much will happen, and no illusions that gains will happen everywhere in China, but there is at least a possibility that things will improve. If nothing else, there are limits to the number of poor workers even in China, and eventually firms are going to have to bargin with their workers. Even the most limited set of legal rights would help.


Electrons, the ultimate export

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:48 pm

Preview of a documentary on gold-mining in China


I hope my son never sees this post, which suggests that you really can make a living playing video games. I suspect I will end up showing it to my students as an example of the new Chinese economy.

The comments also show a nice divide between those who think the movie is about the exploitation of Chinese labor and those who think its about those awful Chinese ruining games


The more things change

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:44 am

An article by Teh-Wei Hu on the politics of smoking in China. This is a subject I have some interest in, and I was not surprised to see that very little has changed in the politics of smoking in China. The Chinese government wishes the people would smoke less, for reasons of public health. (I also wish Chinese people would smoke less, for reasons of personal health.) One way to get them to smoke less is to raise taxes on smoking, which will both reduce use and raise money. This used to be called  寓禁於征Suppression through taxation.

As in the past there are different parts of the government with different views on this. In particular we get some parts of the state pointing out the damage this will do to the peasants who raise the crop, who are of course just honest sons of the soil trying to make a living. We even get a repeat of the questionable claim that peasants are forced to grow this crop by local governments.
There are some changes, of course. Now they are smoking tobacco instead of opium, and the worry about provincial  governments challenging the center due to the financial independence provided by drug  sales is not there. Still, if history is not repeating itself it is at least rhyming.

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