The occupational structure of the Yangtze Valley in the twentieth century

June 23, 2022 | Blog
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by Ying Dai (University of Cambridge)

This blog is based on a paper presented at the 2022 Economic History Society Annual Conference in the session NRIF (Wages and Labour Markets).


China’s spectacular economic development since Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in 1978 has encouraged scholars to investigate the origins of China’s transition to a modern economy.  Academic opinion differs, mainly because China’s twentieth-century economic trajectory has not been described with reliable and consistent data. Such data are unlikely to have been produced by the state because, during the twentieth-century, China witnessed three distinct political regimes and endured fierce military activity. Nonetheless, clans bonded by paternal lineage and marriage—once the fundamental grass-root organization units of Chinese society—persisted, and produced reliable and consistent occupational data in jiapu: Chinese genealogies.

My PhD project identified jiapu as a new, reliable, and consistent source for researching China’s occupational structure. Jiapu record clans’ history, which are reconstructed from routine registration and the memory of surviving clan members. They start from a founding ancestral couple and then follow the paternal lineage to the offspring, recording information for each clan member.

This study created a dataset which contains 208,130 occupational observations for the Yangtze Valley—the Yangtze Jiapu dataset. For this dataset, 212 high-quality jiapu have been identified from more than ten thousand located in fourteen institutions. They were transcribed, anonymized, and standardized. Each observation includes eleven pieces of coded information: birth year, death year, sex, occupation, education, counties of birth, death, residence, work, clan’s founding county, and the jiapu’s publication year. The broad geographical and regionally-varied temporal coverage of the Yangtze Jiapu dataset are shown below; see figure 1.


Figure 1.   Geographical and temporal coverage of the Yangtze Jiapu dataset

Source: The author.


This study marks the first use of jiapu data to quantitatively estimate China’s twentieth-century occupational structure before 1982, when the first national census with reliable occupational data was conducted. These new estimates suggest that industrialization, defined as an increase in the secondary sector’s share of the labour force, started before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949; see figure 2.


Figure 2.   The occupational structure of the macro-regions in the Yangtze Valley, 1920-2015

Source: The author.


Comparing the occupational and GDP structure of the Yangtze Valley between 1952 and 2015, the development of the Yangtze Valley does not conform to Kuznets’ model, which suggests that the onset of modern economic growth is associated with major structural changes in output and the sectoral composition of the labour force. From 1952-82, the secondary sector’s share in GDP increased radically, but its share of the labour force  increased modestly. When the employment share of the secondary sector increased significantly from 1990 onwards, the respective output share was stable and even decreased after 2010. China’s experience echoes that of Britain: the reallocation of the labour force from agriculture to the secondary sector preceded the onset of modern economic growth (after 1830) by well over a century; see Figure 3.


Figure 3.   Comparison of occupational structure and GDP composition in the Yangtze Valley, 1952-2015

Source: The author. GDP data are obtained from the National Bureau of Statistics.


This study utilizes compositional regression techniques to explore the relationship between occupational structure and various natural and socio-economic factors, with particular reference to the treaty ports. Seventeen treaty ports were set up in the Yangtze Valley after the Nanjing Treaty of 1842. They were initially established for foreign trade, but, after 1895, foreign industrial investment was also formally permitted. Recent quantitative studies suggest China’s economic development was significantly and positively influenced by the treaty port system. However, the regression results in this study suggest there was no significant relationship between the treaty ports and occupational structure. The secondary sector’s employment shares in the prefectures with treaty ports were not significantly larger than in other prefectures. In contrast, provincial/national capital cities with stronger domestic political forces played a more critical role in accelerating industrialization. These findings raise doubts about the impact of the treaty ports: their long-term influence could have arisen because of their overlap with the capital cities and possibly other regions with special institutional arrangements. Omitting such factors could lead to an overstatement of the past treaty port system’s economic legacies.



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