Historical traumas, revolution, participation, and state-building

April 12, 2021 | Blog
Home > Historical traumas, revolution, participation, and state-building

This blog is based on the author’s presentation to the Economic History Society’s annual conference, 2021 (session NRIIIG)

by Peiyuan Li (University of Colorado Boulder)


Britannica, Qing Dynasty. Available at <https://www.britannica.com/topic/Qing-dynasty>


A growing literature argues that social conflicts have deep historical roots.  Using China as a case study, I study how revolutionary propagandists adopted historical traumas in the mid-seventeenth century to mobilize revolution in the early twentieth century.

The Manchu’s conquest and ruling of China between 1644 and 1911, brought massive traumas to the Han Chinese, the major ethnic group in East Asia.  As an alien race, the Manchus lacked legitimacy when they invaded China in 1644.  Contemporaneous with their military campaign, the Manchu troops carried out several massacres to punish and terrify the residents who resisted Manchu’s ruling.  Following its military conquest,  the Manchu-led government pursued a Literary Inquisition to punish people who questioned its legitimacy.  The Han Chinese organized resistance in an attempt to restore the Ming dynasty, but when this failed many scholar-officials fled to the mountains, or fled to Japan and Korea, to avoid serving under a ‘barbarian’ Manchu-led regime.

Throughout the Manchu-led Qing dynasty, the historical trauma of being subject to conquest faded from popular consciousness because the Manchu government prohibited popular discussion of this topic.  However, in the early twentieth century, when the government gradually lost its control over society, social elites re-discovered the truth underlying these historical traumas.

In the early twentieth century, revolutionary propagandists used evidence on  historical trauma to question the Manchu government’s legitimacy. By reading approximately 10,000 newspaper articles and using deep learning to analyze one-third of a million newspaper article titles, I produce two indices which measure anti-Manchu sentiment.  Adopting a difference-in-difference design, I find that prefectures with historical traumas responded more actively to anti-Manchu propaganda and facilitated the creation of more revolutionaries.  The result was that the revolutionary propagandists fitted historical traumas into the propaganda surrounding growing nationalism, thereby securing their goal of mobilizing the revolution.

Recently,  a debate has emerged on the origins of the 1911 revolution which terminated China’s imperial system.   For example, the revolution was a product of abolishing the exam system, which provided a mechanism for social mobility; or that local elites used nationalism to mobilize anti-foreign protests and to found nationalist political organizations.  While these factors, and others,  contributed to the revolution in the early twentieth century, the literature has tended to neglect anti-Manchu propaganda.   This oversight is surprising because the Chinese Revolutionary Alliance adopted the slogan: ‘To expel the barbaric Manchus, To revive China’.

This paper contributes to the small but growing literature on how the media and propaganda mobilize social conflicts.  Unlike, the current literature, which only utilizes  the location of radio stations,  I exploit more detailed variation of propaganda content by analyzing millions of newspaper article titles. I show that historical violence stimulated political identity under specific circumstances; in turn, this political identity caused social conflicts or revolution.

This paper is also related to extensive literature concerning the persistent influence of culture and politics. For example, during the Euro crisis, sales of German cars declined more rapidly in areas where the German army carried out massacres during the Second World War.  Or that  Japan’s invasion of China between 1937 and 1945 had a long-term impact on cross-border trade and investment. Similarly, it has been claimed that the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment and far-right voting in Austria resulted from battles with the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century.

My research also contributes the literature on state-building. Specifically, revolutionaries who were mobilized by nationalism in the early twentieth century  played crucial roles in building  the political system in modern China.


To contact the author: Peiyuan.Li@colorado.edu