Land and Peasants in Late Imperial China: An Economic Analysis

Helen Yang

Advisor: John V.C. Nye, PhD, Department of Economics

Committee Members: Alexander Tabarrok, Carlos Ramirez, Hilton Root, Colin Lixin Xu

Carow Hall, Lecture Hall
April 24, 2013, 10:30 AM to 07:30 AM


The dissertation consists of three chapters that investigate the following questions: 1) How did the structure of land tax determine landownership? 2) How did land tenure evolve in response to external changes in agricultural technology? 3) How did the competition for corvée labor between local governments and private landlords shape serfdom? The first and the second chapters take a new institutional economic approach. The third chapter takes a public choice approach.

In the first chapter, I study the persistence of dual landownership in late Imperial China. I hypothesize that dual ownership acted as a tax shelter for heavily taxed peasants who colluded with lightly taxed gentry to maximize the value of land. I show empirically that as gentry's tax privilege declined after the tax reform, peasants started to consolidate landownership. The chapter proposes a political economy theory of agricultural land tenancy by studying the role of taxation in determining land tenancy.

In the second chapter, I study the impact of changing agricultural technology on land tenancy in late Imperial China. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, fixed-rent tenancy gradually replaced sharecropping as the dominant form of land tenancy in China. I argue that the shift in land tenancy was generated by the technological movement from annual cropping to multiple cropping. To test the hypothesis I exploit a dataset constructed from the rent collection archives of Confucius's Lineage in the Qing Dynasty. I find that double cropped plots were 30% more likely to use fixed-rent contracts compared with annually cropped plots.

In the third chapter, I study serfdom in late Imperial China: Burdened by the official corvée obligation imposed by the government, peasants surrendered to powerful landlords for protection and thereby became serfs. I propose a political economy theory on serfdom from the public finance perspective. The basic framework is a Tiebout model that characterizes the competition for tax revenue and corvée labor between a local government (the official sector) and a powerful landlord (the unofficial sector). I argue that peasants would escape from the official sector and work as serfs in the unofficial sector when the government-imposed corvée was heavy and local public goods provided by the government were inadequate.