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.
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. ↩