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

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. 


  1. An interesting idea. Unfortunately the China figure is quite close to that of the Kingdom of Naples in 1811, which an excellent example of a society dominated by an often absentee landowning elite which extracts large amounts of wealth from the rural population, which does raise some questio ns.
    Similarly, the highly regulated and ideosyncratic nature of property ownership and wealth in colonial latin america makes it something of a quique case.

  2. The 1880s would seem to be a pretty lousy choice for a representative sample of Chinese economic structures. Aside from the fact that economic distributions vary widely geographically, the disruptions of the 1840s-1870s did an awful lot of downward redistribution….

    I really am having trouble figuring out what the point of comparing all these different societies at different times. I just don’t get it, and the problems with data quality?

  3. Jonathan,

    I’m not sure how useful it is either, but they are at least playing with the idea that what matters (in the sense of creating unrest) is not inequality as such but the amount of possible inequality that is being turned into real inequality. They are a bit too social-science-y for me in their apparent assumption that you can draw a straight line from economic inequality to unrest. Still, it does seem to be a confirmation that Chinese state attempts to avoid emergence of a hyper-rich elite were working. Of course that might go away with better data, but given that the authors are all people at institutions with way more money than mine maybe they will keep up with this and end up with something good.

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