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Income Inequality around the Year Zero: Quantitative Insights from Chinese Literary Sources

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Today long-run inequality trends are a well-established, central research topic of academic research. A truly long-run perspective, however, was only recently achieved, when late medieval and early modern times were added to the picture through intense archival research. Estimates for earlier periods are inherently “shakier”, with wider margins of error resulting from the reliance on archaeological proxies and mixed literary sources.

I construct estimates of income inequality for Han-dynasty China at its demographic peak (ca. 2 CE), which official sources described as severely unequal. In fact, those sources, when combined with comparative evidence, allow to infer that inequality extraction was unexceptional in late Former Han times – at least, by pre-industrial standards. The quantitative methods employed here are similar to those underlying the most recent estimates for the early Roman Empire. However, I take steps to account for regional variation within the Han Empire, which is absent in widely accepted figures for Rome and, I argue, is essential for long-run, comparative debates on inequality in human polities.

This talk is part of the Graduate Workshop in Economic and Social History series.

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