Essays on Culture, Human Capital and Development in China

Meng Xue

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

Committee Members: Mark Koyama, Jack A. Goldstone

Carow Hall, Conference Room
April 22, 2015, 10:00 AM to 06:30 AM


Chapter 1 Textiles and the Historical Emergence of Gender Equality in China

This paper seeks to better understand the historical determinants of son preference among Han Chinese. I test the hypothesis that historical textile production led to a decline in son preference. I exploit exogenous variation in historical textile production at the county level to casually identify the effect of textiles on son preference, following a technology shock in late 13th Century. I find that historical textile production is positively correlated with female labor participation, and negatively correlated with sex ratio imbalances and sex-specific parental investment. My results are robust to various robustness checks, micro-level analyses, and an instrumental variable estimation. I identify cultural transmission as a possible channel of the persistence effect of historical textile production on today's son preference and gender norms.


Chapter 2 The Literary Inquisition: The Persecution of Intellectuals and Human Capital Accumulation in China

Imperial China used an empire-wide system of examinations to select civil servants. Using a semiparametric matching-based difference-in-differences estimator, I show that the persecution of scholar-officials led to a decline in the number of examinees at the provincial and prefectural level. To explore the long-run impact of literary inquisitions I employ a model to show that persecutions could reduce the provision of basic education and have a lasting effect on human capital accumulation. Using the 1982 census I find that literary inquisitions reduced literacy by between 2.25 and 4 percentage points at a prefectural level in the early 20th century. This corresponds to a 69% increase in the probability of an individual being illiterate. Prefectures affected by the literary inquisition had a higher proportion of workers in agriculture until the 1990s.


Chapter 3 Raising Dragons


I study why China suddenly exhibited a large surge in births -- a 50% increase in 2000 relative to 1999 -- in the 2000 Year of the Dragon by disaggregating birth rates at the city level. I define the dragon effect as a relative jump in birth rates compared to the trend. Prior to 2000, Asian nations with large numbers of ethnic Chinese -- but not China -- exhibited strong dragon year effects. I exploit the uneven economic growth of regions in China to understand the emergence of the dragon effect. I find that the dragon effect was most pronounced in rapidly developing cities having higher incomes, higher average education, and greater employment prospects as proxied by the share of non-local residents. My main findings at the city level are supported by our micro-level analysis, where I show the dragon effect to be strongly correlated with educational attainment of family members and membership in a multi-generational household.