Sociology 181B Sociology of Contemporary China (UCLA Spring 2013) Announcement

I will teach my upper-division undergraduate lecture course on Chinese society (Sociology 181b) again in Spring quarter 2013.  The course is currently scheduled for Mondays and Wednesdays, 10am to noon.  As was the case in spring 2012, the emphasis will be on family, population, and stratification/inequality.  Readings will consist primarily of research articles on these topics in major journals, plus some books.  I am still finalizing the syllabus.  In the meantime, you can view last spring’s syllabus here.  The entry at the Registrar’s website is here.

I hope to adjust the mix of readings somewhat to address very recent social change, especially in the areas of relationships, marriage, and sexuality.   I may make some adjustments as well to the coverage of education, to focus more on higher education and elite education, and some very recent developments, like the increasing popularity of going to college abroad.

Course policies will be broadly similar.  One key difference is that I will make use of i>clicker, as I have been doing this quarter in Sociology 116.

181B may be taken independently of 181A.  In other words, 181A is not a prerequisite for 181B.  In 181A and 181B, Ching-Kwan Lee and I each focus on our respective areas of expertise and interest.  Of course, any student who does complete both quarters will receive a very complete and multi-faceted picture of contemporary Chinese society.

According to the Sociology department website, 181B has now been included as one of the courses in the “Institutions and Social Processes” core:

The course is open to students from outside Sociology.  While students majoring in International Development, East Asian Studies, and Asian Studies are especially welcome to enroll, previous course in the social sciences or area studies is not required.

Meritocracy in Imperial China: a reflection on Mark Elliott’s Op-Ed in the New York Times

Mark Elliott, a Qing (1644-1911) historian at Harvard, achieved something incredible:  he published an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times devoted almost entirely to processes of elite recruitment in imperial Chinese history.  He shared his views on the question of whether the selection of officials in Qing China was meritocratic, and introduces readers to excellent relevant research by Ben Elman and others.  It wouldn’t surprise me if this were the first New York Times Op-Ed ever that went into such detail about empirical results on a specific feature of late imperial Chinese history, in this case, the procedures for selecting officials.

I hope that Mark’s piece sets a precedent that will allow me and my collaborators to publish Op-Ed pieces about Qing history.

In the meantime, I was inspired to write a response here on my blog.

I’ll begin by putting Mark’s piece in context.  There is actually a  longstanding debate in Chinese historical studies about the issues raised in Mark’s piece, and I’ll introduce some of the relevant work, some of it by me and my collaborators.  Mark’s piece is itself a contribution to a debate over meritocracy in contemporary China triggered by some rather controversial claims by Daniel Bell and Zhang Weiwei that the current system for appointing and promoting officials in China is meritocratic.  China Digital Times has a nice summary of the debate, with links to various pieces.  Bell, Zhang and others have invoked the examination system in imperial China as a precedent for the current system, and Mark is offering an important and needed corrective to some of the overheated claims made about the virtues of examination system.

I will offer my own take on the issue, which is that we need to think about the issues involved in a comparative fashion.  Rather than assessing whether China was a meritocracy by comparing it to what Weber referred to as an ideal type, that is a hypothetical society that might exist only in Plato’s world of forms or a Star Trek episode, assessment has to be made by comparison to other societies.  I’ll identify what I think the relevant dimensions are for comparison between China and other societies.  I’ll conclude with some comments about Chinese studies and stratification research.

I originally intended this to be a short piece inspired by Mark’s Op-Ed that would focus on my favorite subject: me.  Or rather, my published collaborative work.  As I began writing, though, this evolved into a larger meditation on what I think the appropriate approach is to addressing the issues raised in Mark’s Op-Ed, and the work he is responding to.  At some point I wondered if perhaps I should spend a few weeks to turn it into a formal academic essay, and publish it.  The problem with that is that I would spend a lot of time on it, it would take a year or two to appear, and then only five people would ever read it, most of them friends of mine who already agreed with me, or were afraid to disagree openly with me.  Hastily posting this core dump from my brain to the web is probably not going to do much for me professionally in the bean-counting world of modern academics, but given the wider attention to processes of elite recruitment in historical China generated by Mark’s piece, I thought it was an excellent opportunity to introduce a wider, non-specialist audience to some of the issues and debates in stratification research in historical China, and perhaps attract some of them to the field.

Mark’s Op-Ed piece on meritocracy is embedded in a longstanding debate in the study of Chinese history about whether the social composition of political elites was ‘open’ or ‘closed’.  This much broader debate about whether the system was open or closed, fluid or rigid, is more important than the narrower one about whether the political appointment system was meritocratic or not, and indeed subsumes that debate.  I would argue, and I think Mark and others would agree, that the technical details of the examination and appointment system are less important than their implications for broader patterns of access and participation, and for long-term patterns of turnover among elites.

Before I proceed, I want to note that I will limit the scope of my discussion to the openness of processes for recruiting political elites in past times, and largely ignore contemporary issues, as well as other important issues in historical stratification and inequality.  Thus I’m not even going to touch Zhang Weiwei’s controversial claims about ‘meritocracy’ in the process for political appointments and promotions in contemporary China.  I think that Zhang Weiwei’s claims are dubious at best, and I may opine on them at some future point in time, but for right now, I’ll stick to what I know best, which is historical China.  I’m also going to sidestep the issue of overall social fluidity in the past, since for the most part the sorts of data we would really like to have as a basis for comparison in largely rural historical societies are still rare.

I’m also going to skip the important issue of whether an examination system, or ‘meritocratic’ systems in general, are actually optimal from the perspective of recruiting a political elite that does the best possible job of governing the country.  I doubt there is a universal agreement on what the appropriate objective measure of ‘merit’ is when it comes to recruiting political elites.  It isn’t clear to me that mastery of Confucian classics was a reliable predictor of leadership ability in the past, any more than academic credentials predict leadership ability now.  Most people who hold a PhD, including myself, shouldn’t be trusted to manage a hot dog stand, let alone a country.

As Mark notes, imperial Chinese ideology was that the reliance on the examination system (keju) made for an ‘open’ system in which advancement was based on merit, not ancestry or personal connections, and in which everyone, or at least every male, had a chance to succeed.  At least in principle, the examination system selected candidates for office in an objective and meritocratic fashion, mainly based on their mastery of a set of classic texts as demonstrated in a rigorous exam.  In theory, any male who was not specifically disqualified from eligibility could sit for the exam.  Chinese history is accordingly replete with remarkable Horatio Alger stories of talented men from humble backgrounds who succeeded on the exams as a result of diligent study, and ended up attaining high office.  It is this tradition that forms the context for the contemporary emphasis on standardized exams for access to high school, college and civil service, as well as the more general concern with the accumulation of credentials such as degrees, prizes, licenses, certificates and so forth that are perceived to be awarded in an objective fashion.

One of the earliest systematic efforts to assess whether the examination system was indeed ‘open’ was Ping-ti Ho’s (何炳棣) classic The Ladder of Success in Imperial China, Aspects of Social Mobility (1962).  Inspired by his reading of studies of Western societies in the then-new study of social mobility and stratification, Ho carried out a remarkable and pioneering study of the family histories of successful exam candidates in successive dynasties.  He found that substantial proportions of successful exam takers in various dynasties were ‘new blood’ in the sense that neither their father nor their grandfather had held an exam degree.   Based on this finding, Ho argued that the openness of the system was not an illusion sustained by Horatio Alger stories of the occasional poor boy made good, but a reality, in the sense that the system was not dominated by a small number of elite families.  This is the work that was the basis of Mark’s possibly cryptic reference to “ladders of success.”

My own relevant work with James Lee (HKUST) on the transmission of status in northeast China during the Qing reached broadly similar conclusions (Campbell and Lee 2003, 2008; Lee and Campbell 1997).  Our focus was on the composition of a regional or even local political elite, not a national one.  We examined determinants of the attainment of salaried official positions in a largely rural population in part of what is now Liaoning province from the mid-eighteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century.  These are relatively mundane positions in a local administrative hierarchy, not to be confused with the sorts of national-level positions that might be attained by the successful candidates in Ho’s study.

We found that individuals who held official posts had a relatively difficult time transmitting their status to their sons.  Men whose fathers held a position certainly did enjoy an advantage, and were themselves roughly 7-10 times more likely to themselves attain a position, but the baseline chances of obtaining a position were so low than even multiplying them by 7 to 10 yielded a probability that was still quite low.  As a result, the overwhelming majority of the male offspring of men who held position did not attain positions of their own.  Conversely, something like half of men in each generation who attained position were ‘new’ in the sense that they from families in which no one had held position in recent generations.  Again, while certain families clearly had an advantage, there is little evidence of the system being monopolized by a small set of elite families, and considerable indication of social fluidity.

As an aside, the basis of our analysis was a database we constructed from household registers, and which we have now publicly released as the China Multigenerational Panel Dataset-Liaoning (CMGPD-LN).  If you are interested enough in this topic to want to carry out your own analysis, you can download the data at ICPSR and access the most up to date news and documentation via entries at my blog.  It is especially important to check my blog for the latest editions of the User’s Guide and Training Guide since updates tend to take quite a while to appear at our ICPSR site.  Our public release of these data at ICPSR was supported by NICHD R01 HD057175-01A1 “Multi-Generation Family and Life History Panel Dataset” with funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

As Mark notes, the national examination system had a variety of features that had the effect of limiting access to a relatively small segment of the late imperial Chinese population. Elman (1991), the source of one of Mark’s quotes, provides a comprehensive yet elegant review of the relevant literature while making the point that the system served the state well by creating the appearance of openness.  As in many historical societies, half the population was ineligible because of their gender.  The focus on demonstrating mastery of Confucian classics via a written essay in a standardized format further limited the pool of exam-takers to men who were lucky enough to grow up in a family or lineage that had the resources necessary to provide them with a classical education, or live somewhere where they had access to a charitable school.  Elman (2000) is a book-length study of the same topic, and commended to the attention of anyone seeking additional depth.

A specific critique of Ho’s (1962) suggestion that the large proportions of ‘new’ men in each generation were indicative of openness that has inspired some of our own recent work on this issue is the one by Robert Hymes (1986), who pointed out that many of the men who in Ho’s study appeared to be ‘new’ because neither their father nor grandfather held position, may have been from elite families, and may have had other kin who held position.  In other words, a sole focus on correspondence between son’s and father’s or grandfather’s attainment may overstate openness by obscuring the fact that disproportionate numbers of the men who made up the exam elite were from a small number of especially successful families.  Hymes’ empirical basis was a study of local elites in Fuzhou, Jiangxi during the Sung.

Our own recent work with the Liaoning household registers confirms Hymes’ suggestion that shifting the focus from the individual or father-son dyad to the larger kin network or lineage reveals a deep, persistent, kin-based structure that is invisible in an analysis of correlations between father’s and son’s outcomes (Campbell and Lee 2011).  We found evidence of subtle and systematic differences between descent groups in the chances that members would attain official position.  These patterns were distinct from the father-son correlations we reported in Campbell and Lee (2008).  That said, these differences were not so pronounced as to suggest that certain descent groups monopolized opportunities, and that others were shut out.  We also found that the relative standing of descent groups was remarkably stable, in the sense that rankings of descent groups according to their success in obtaining position were highly correlated from the eighteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century.  Even more intriguingly, we reported evidence based on contemporary follow-up of a small subset of the historical descent groups that the relative status of the descent group in the eighteenth and nineteenth century was associated with descent group status in the late nineteenth century.

Another serious critique of Ho (1962) that Mark mentions is that success on the exams qualified a candidate for appointment to office, but did not by itself guarantee an appointment.  Since there were more successful candidates than there were offices, the process of deciding which of the successful candidates would be appointed to an office was much more vulnerable to the sordid or at least tawdry manipulations that complicate the selection of individuals to appoint to potentially lucrative or at least powerful positions in most societies, historical or modern.  The work by Lawrence Zhang that Mark cites sounds intriguing, and I look forward to reading it.  I don’t have expertise in this area so don’t have much to say about it.

My own take on the overall debate is that as is often the case in the humanities and social sciences, the underlying empirical facts are not in dispute, and what is contested is their interpretation.  The empirical findings of Ho, James Lee and myself, Elman, and others do not necessarily contradict each other because each one individually is one facet of a much larger and more complex process which is difficult to discern or comprehend in its entirety.  As James Lee and myself have shown in our analysis of northeast Chinese data, there is evidence both of weak father-son correlations suggestive of considerable openness consistent with Ho (1962), and strong intra-lineage correlations consistent with the suggestions in Hymes (1986).  Arguably, the debate is at heart a ‘glass half-full/glass half-empty’ debate or perhaps more charitably ‘tastes great/less filling’ debate in which all the participants have different interpretations of the implications of the same underlying body of facts.

The appropriate question, therefore, is how do we move forward, and avoid an endless back and forth that is little more than a repeated and contentious restatement of specific positions?

One problem with the current debate is that it occurs in a vacuum.  The participants, including me, justify interpretations of empirical results on China by explicit or more likely implicit reference to a society imagined from a Weberian ideal type, without comparison to actual societies.  Claims of openness by Ho and others, including myself, seem entirely reasonable if the reference for comparison is a hereditary aristocracy, or caste-based society with rigid, hereditary status distinctions.  There was clearly much more upward and downward mobility among the elites generated by the examination system than would be expected in a system where elite status was explicitly hereditary, or formal restrictions limited eligibility for office to only a tiny segment of the population that was defined by ancestry.

Conversely, claims of rigidity by Elman and others are compelling if the reference is the other extreme: a society in which the criteria for selection do not explicitly or implicitly limit the pool of eligible candidates based on their heredity or other characteristics, and where the distribution of wealth and parental education is sufficiently egalitarian that all families have the means to equip their children to compete.  While a few contemporary societies might come close to this ideal, few historical societies did.  Neither of these idealized frames of reference is entirely plausible as a basis for comparison or interpretation of results from historical societies, and the debate is unlikely to be settled if everyone involved continues to make use of them.

A more useful approach would be to anchor the interpretation of empirical results in detailed comparisons of quantitative or qualitative dimensions of recruitment into political elites across historical societies.  Instead of debating whether historical China conformed to one favorite ideal type or another, it would be useful to specify multiple meaningful and historically metrics of openness and access for different historical societies, and compare them.  While it is highly unlikely that China and other societies could be arrayed on a single, agreed-upon dimension of ‘openness’ or ‘meritocracy’ and then ranked to produce a conclusive result, it is more plausible that several relevant dimensions could be identified, and meaningful comparisons made.

I’ll try to get the ball rolling by identifying some basic dimensions for historical comparison of based on the criteria apparent in the work by Elman, myself and Lee, Hymes, and others.  In my somewhat open-ended and rambling specification of criteria, some possibly qualitative, I am departing from what seems to be the reigning orthodoxy in contemporary stratification research, according to which it sometimes seems that all meaningful variation in social openness can be reduced to parameters from a log-linear model, or coefficients from a regression of child’s attainment on parental characteristics.

The first would be the share of the population explicitly excluded from participation solely on the basis of what stratification researchers call ascribed characteristics: gender, race, ethnicity, caste, and other dimensions that individuals have little control over, but are the basis for labeling and categorization by others.  Almost every historical society was characterized by such formal restrictions based on heredity or other ascribed characteristics, though the size of the affected population varied.  One might imagine arraying societies on a spectrum ranging from monarchies governed by a hereditary aristocracy and/or nobility, to some contemporary developed societies in which there are no criteria for entry into the elite that are explicitly based on an inherited or other ascribed status.

The second would be the share of the population that was implicitly excluded from participation because the process by which political or other elites were recruited in each generation favored the offspring of families that had the resources necessary to invest in education or other activities that increase children’s chances of success.  Again, one might think of arraying societies on a spectrum that ranged from an imagined perfectly egalitarian society in which the resources that prepared candidates for an examination or other meritocratic selection process were equally distributed, to a perfectly unequal society where only one family had the resources needed to prepare children for the otherwise meritocratic selection process.

The third would be the extent to which parental status predicted child success in the population that remained after imposing the previous criteria.  This is essentially what most contemporary studies of inter-generational mobility focus on: statistical associations in parent and child outcomes as a measure of social openness.  Again, one could imagine arraying societies on a spectrum that ranged from one extreme in which all eligible adults had equal chances of being selected into a political elite, to another imagined extreme where only the children of elite were themselves able to enter the elite.

Right now we don’t have the quantitative data that would allow a rigorous comparison between China and other historical societies on these dimensions, but at least in my opinion, a casual comparison of qualitative features of the processes for elite recruitment in the past  suggest that China would come out looking reasonably well.

On the first criteria, the share of the population that was explicitly forbidden from participating, I speculate that China would come out of a comparison reasonably favorably.  As Mark notes there were periods when specific categories of people were excluded from eligibility for the exams, for example children from merchant were excluded during the Ming, and prostitutes, singers, entertainers and other “degraded” or “mean” occupations were excluded from eligibility during other periods.  For better or worse, Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Al Franken all would have been forbidden from holding office in imperial China, at least in certain eras.  And of course each dynasty was ruled by an Emperor drawn from the imperial family.

The question is not whether privileged or excluded categories existed in China, but rather how their share of the population contrasted with the shares of the population accounted for by excluded groups in other societies.  I suspect it was overall much smaller, especially later in the Qing after the last remaining hereditary degraded statuses were largely abolished.   Most other historical societies were characterized by systems in which membership in the political elite was explicitly hereditary, and/or very large segments of the population were assigned to hereditary status categories that not only precluded participation in the competition to join the political elite, but also precluded participation of any sort.

On the second criteria, the implicit exclusion of individuals because their family circumstances didn’t allow for the investments in education necessary to make someone a viable candidate for recruitment into the political elite, I doubt China was much different from other societies.  Literacy and numeracy were formal or at least practical prerequisites for high office in most historical societies.  Before the advent of public education in the West in the nineteenth century, only a small proportion of families had the wherewithal to endow their children with the education necessary to prepare them for high government office, let alone fairly mundane office.  China may not have stood out in this regard, but it is unlikely that did especially poorly.

On the third criteria, the association between parent’s status and children’s outcomes in the population that was not explicitly excluded by virtue of membership in a particular category, or implicitly excluded by lack of resources, my own take based on Ho (1962) and my own work with James Lee on Liaoning is that China probably did reasonably well.  In Campbell and Lee (2003) we compared the associations we observed in Liaoning with ones we calculated from published results for Western populations, mainly urban, and found that the associations in Liaoning were much weaker.  Similarly, while Ho’s (1962) calculations are difficult to convert into a metric that would allow direct comparison with the West, I would speculate that the proportions of successful exam candidates from undistinguished families who went on to attain office were still higher than the proportions of children of modest origins who went on to hold important political office in the West.  Again, this is an empirical question.

What’s my conclusion?

While the recruitment of political elites in China may have had all of the problems that Mark identifies, it isn’t at all clear to me that it was any worse than any other society, and it certainly isn’t clear to me that empirical results justify Mark’s rather harsh judgment that ‘…among much of Chinese society before the 20th century the belief prevailed that “anyone could make it,” and the state connived at this; but literary sources make it clear that only the naïve clung to such a fantasy.’

First of all, it isn’t clear to me that non-literary sources confirm that the belief that “anyone could make it” was more of a fantasy in China than it was in the West, or anywhere else in the world.  It might have been more of a fantasy in China than in some imagined perfect society that exists only in Star Trek episodes in which everyone had equal chances of joining the political elite, but I’m not sure I understand the value of comparison with ideal types, or societies that only exist in Plato’s world of forms.  The same logic of comparisons to ideal types that is used to show that China was not a meritocracy could be used to show that the most Western countries are not democracies or even capitalist, and that the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China were not communist, or even socialist.

Indeed, much of the non-literary and even literary evidence suggests the possibility that the system was at least as open in China than it was in the West, if not more so.  If we look at Western literary evidence, the assumption that social status depended heavily or almost entirely on ancestry is pretty clear in almost all of Western literature until the late nineteenth century.   I haven’t read Jane Austen for a while, but I don’t remember any characters not born into the gentry being described in particularly appealing terms.

In my own opinion, according to Rawlsian criteria, “behind the veil of ignorance”, an individual who had the choice of being born in China or the West before the nineteenth century but didn’t know what status he or she would have been born into, but who sought membership in the political elite, might have been indifferent between born in China or the West.

What are my conclusions?

The first is that to the extent the study of Chinese history wants to move beyond historiography and description, it has to be comparative.  It simply isn’t sufficient to assemble a collection of empirical facts about a society, and then based on those facts, make some general assessment of the properties of that society, for example, assess whether it was a meritocracy, or a democracy, or a theocracy, or a plutocracy, or some other -cracy.  To make such a statement in the absence of comparisons with other societies is an exercise in comparison with ideal types, and while intellectually stimulating, unlikely to resolve any debates.

The appropriate question isn’t whether China was a meritocracy overall, but whether the system for the recruitment of political elites was more or less meritocratic than other historical societies.  By that standard, China was probably comparable to other societies, and certainly not much worse.  The fact of the matter is that no society before the last half of the eighteen century was meritocratic by the high standards implied in Mark’s piece.  By the standards suggested in Mark’s piece, it isn’t even clear to me that most Western democracies would be considered meritocracies.  China probably deserves some credit for at least having articulated a ideology of meritocracy well before the West was even aware of the concept.

A related concern I have is that in this important discussion of the social origins of elites, sociologists who engage in quantitative studies of stratification are AWOL.  Stratification researchers appear to have become so fixated on applying log-linear models or estimation regressions on population-representative survey data in which substantively important but numerical few elites account for a small proportion of the sample that it seems to have abandoned interest in understanding the social origins of the people in the top tail of the distribution.   This is unfortunate.  Now, more than ever, it is urgent to understand the processes the lead to the formation of the elites whose decisions have a disproportionate impact on social organization, yet there are relatively few such studies.

I am grateful to Mark not only for bringing attention to the important work by Elman and others to the attention of a much wider audience, but also throwing some cold water on the extravagant claims about the system for the recruitment of political elites in historical China made by various parties.  I would suggest that in some ways access to entrance into the political elite in historical China was as open or perhaps more open than in the historical West, but that is a long way from concluding as some have that the system was an ideal or even an attractive one for selecting and promoting officials.  Whether the system actually worked as claimed and produced a talented and effective bureaucratic elite that governed effectively is an entirely different question from the one I am addressing here.

Campbell, Cameron and James Lee. 2003. “Social mobility from a kinship perspective: Rural Liaoning, 1789-1909.” International Review of Social History.  47:1-26. [LINK]  doi:10.1017/S0268416098003063

Campbell, Cameron and James Lee.  2008.  “Kinship, Employment and Marriage: The Importance of Kin Networks for Young Adult Males in Qing Liaoning.”  Social Science History.  32(2):175-214.  [LINK]

Campbell, Cameron and James Z. Lee.  2011.  “Kinship and the Long-Term Persistence of Inequality in Liaoning, China, 1749-2005.”  Chinese Sociological Review.  44(1):71-104. Pubmed[/a]

Elman,Benjamin A.  1991.  “Political, Social, and Cultural Reproduction via Civil Service Examinations in Late Imperial China.”  Journal of Asian Studies.  50(1): 7-28

Elman, Benjamin A.  2000.  A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial
China.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ho Ping-ti.  1962.  The Ladder of Success in Imperial China, Aspects of Social Mobility 1368-1911.

Hymes, Robert P. 1986.  Statesmen and gentlemen: The elite of Fu-chou, Chiang-hsi, in Northern and Southern Sung. Cambridge University Press.

Lee, James and Cameron Campbell. 1997.  Fate and Fortune in Rural China: Social Organization and Population Behavior in Liaoning, 1774-1873.  Cambridge University Press. [Link]

李中清 (Lee, James) and 康文林 (Campbell, Cameron).  2008. “中国农村传统社会的延续 – 辽宁(1749-2005)的阶层化对革命的挑战 (The Persistence and Challenges of Rural Social Stratification in Liaoning 1749-2005)”  清华大学学报哲学社会科学版  (Journal of Tsinghua University: Philosophy and Social Sciences).  23(4):26-34.

Sociology 285A Contemporary Chinese Society (W13) Course Description

I am preparing to teach a graduate seminar on contemporary Chinese society in the winter 2013 quarter.  This will be the first graduate seminar on China that I have had an opportunity to teach in years.  It will cover roughly the same topics as my upper division undergraduate lecture course on Chinese society, but of course at a much more advanced level, and via discussion as opposed to lecture.  The focus will be on 1) inequality and stratification, especially the inter-generational transmission of status, 2) family and household, and 3) population.

Here is the description I submitted for upload to the UCLA registrar’s site:

This class will survey changes in Chinese society from the middle of the twentieth century to the present, focusing on family and household, population, social mobility and inequality. The discussion of population will focus on the causes and long-term consequences of recent low levels of fertility. The discussion of social mobility and inequality will emphasize the intergenerational transmission of status, and interpret current trends and patterns into a long-term historical context.  Discussion family and household and population will on the interactions with economic and political context. Major themes of the class will be contrasts and similarities between Chinese and Western society, sources and methods for the quantitative study of Chinese society, and the place of China in the social sciences.

To facilitate discussion during class, students will post a short written response to a prompt every week.  They will also complete and present a final project.  Given the foci of the class, the ideal final project would be a quantitative analysis of a contemporary or historical dataset for China.  Of course, I am open to other modalities, including qualitative research, or a detailed literature review in an area close to the student’s interests.

I am still working on the schedule and readings.  In the meantime, the list of weekly readings for my spring 2012 upper division undergraduate Chinese society class 181B provides some sense of what the class will look like, and the specific topics to be covered:

The course number is 747508200.  Here is the entry at the registrar’s Schedule of Classes:

Graduate students from outside sociology are welcome to enroll.  The course would be enriched by the presence of students from different disciplines.  Even though much of the assigned reading is quantitative, no prior training in quantitative or demographic methods is necessary.

How much do we learn about public opinion in China from Weibo posts?

It seems like every piece of reporting on China these days cites as evidence of the import of some event some kind of reference to a particular Weibo post, usually one that included a photo or video of an incident, and then a count of how many times it was forwarded or commented on.  And for evidence on the public reaction to said event, it now seems de rigeur to translate observations and comments made by Weibo users.

As much as I like finding out what is on Weibo, I can’t help wonder whether we really learn much about public opinion from counts of the number of times a post was forwarded, or translations of comments made by occasional users.

I’ve been thinking about this for the last couple years as I have spent more time in China, and had more opportunity to talk to people who aren’t academics.  People certainly have lots of concerns, and strong general opinions about issues like pollution, food safety, corruption, and so forth, but what I find striking is the disconnect between the level of intensity of reactions to specific events suggested by reliance on evidence from Weibo and other social media sources, and what I see in day to day conversation.  Whereas over the last few years we have had one incident after another presented to us as transfixing the Chinese public and having tremendous import and significance, always with Weibo or social media traffic as evidence, in my own experience people are aware of these incidents, and may even be somewhat interested, but don’t seem to obsess about any one them the way that studying social media traffic would suggest.

One issue is whether Weibo users who post on current events are representative of China’s population, or even Weibo users overall.  From Weibo traffic, I suppose we learn something about the opinions of Weibo users who are active and who like to post about current events, but I don’t know if they are any more representative of the population at large in China than the people who comment anonymously on news articles at the New York Times are representative of the U.S. population.

Weibo users may be better off, or at least better educated, than China’s population.  I actually wonder if that gives the appearance of more bifurcation in the population than there actually is.  In my experience in China, my experience is that the better off or at least better educated articulate more views on most subjects that are more extreme in one direction or another than the people I run into who are not doing as well.  Perhaps the fact that they are doing well and in some extreme cases completely disconnected from the realities of day to day life allows them more opportunity to think abstractly and see the world in black and white.  Such abstraction isn’t unique to China, of course.  Here in the United States, my own observation is that the people who tend to spout the nuttiest and unrealistic political views, whether on the  left or right, tend to be people whose situation insulates from contact with people who think differently form themselves, and presents the fewest challenges to a neat and tidy view of the world as a Manichean struggle between the forces of dark and light.

Weibo users who post on current events may not be representative of Weibo users overall.  They may be braver, more engaged, or simply more rash and foolhardy, than most Weibo users.  Of the Weibo posts I see, the overwhelming majority seem to cover the same territory as Facebook status updates: complaints about how busy or tiring their day was, reposts of quotes, links to odd bits of news, commentaries on celebrities, cars and gadgets, and of course, pictures of cats, flowers, sunsets, people at tourist sites smiling and flashing V signs, and so forth.  The people who routinely post on serious subjects seem to be a distinct minority.

A specific concern I have about counts of Weibo reposts as evidence of the attention paid to an event is the lack of a basis for comparison.  When I see a statement that a post about some misbehaving official was reposted 500 times, I don’t know if 500 is a lot, or a few.  Recitation of counts of the number of times a post was reposted are almost never accompanied by any background on how many posts each day are forwarded even more times.  Nothing I have posted on Weibo, has ever been posted more than a few times, so at first glance 500 seems like a lot to me, but then again I don’t have many followers, and most of what I post is mind-numbingly boring.  If pictures of unusually fat, fluffy cats sprawled on their backs are routinely forwarded 50,000 times, then 500 seems like a very small number for something that is being presented as being of social significance.  One of these days, I’d actually like to see a distribution of counts of reposts that would tell me if 500, 5000 or even 50,000 is really an unusually large number of reposts.  Maybe such a tabulation exists somewhere, but I haven’t seen it yet.

I find the presentation of translations of posts by specific users as evidence even more questionable.  I don’t know what the views of a single user tell us, even if whatever they say is presented as being ‘typical’ of Weibo users.  I certainly wouldn’t rely on comments on articles at the New York Times or Washington Post as evidence about public opinion in the United States, unless I thought the United States was made up of ungrammatical, tin-foil hat wearing nuts who have their CAP LOCK key glued down.

Where does this leave me?  I actually do enjoy following Weibo, and I like hearing about what happens to be trending there.  The counts of reposts are interesting, and I like to see examples of what people are posting.  But I am wary of inferring much about Chinese society in general from Weibo or other social media.

I guess I wish we applied the same level of skepticism to interpreting trends on Weibo that we apply to trends on Twitter, Google+ Facebook.  It certainly is fun to see what is trending in social media, and always entertaining to see clever posts that individuals have come up with, but I don’t think we learn much that is deep or profound about the United States from whatever happens to be a popular topic of discussion on social media.  Media here generally don’t bother summarizing trends in Twitter or Facebook traffic when they’re reporting on public reaction to major events.  If they do, they present the results as more of a curiosity than anything else.

I’m not suggesting that Weibo and social media be ignored.  They’re fun and interesting.  And given the difficulties of reporting in China, and the probable impossibility of carrying out surveys on reactions to sensitive subjects, it is certainly true that there aren’t many alternatives for gauging public opinion.  But I’d like to see presentations of evidence from Weibo or other social media accompanied by some caveats about possible problems with representativeness.

Slides introducing use of STATA to organize and analyze CMGPD-LN data


UPDATE: This post is out of date. The most recent CMGPD-LN Documentation is available at the ICPSR study site: The slides referred to here have been added to the Training Guide available there (2016 October 18).

I have posted the slides from my methodological lectures at the CMGPD short course that I taught in July at Shanghai Jiaotong University.  These slides introduce many of the STATA operations necessary to carry out advanced operations with the data, most importantly using bysort, merge and certain other commands to construct complex household, life course and kinship variables.  The slides also introduce the basic ‘pre-packaged’ outcome variables and the social status variables.  They also provide examples of using STATA to produce descriptive tables and figures using the data.

Please let me know if you have any comments or suggestions.  The slides are in essence a draft of the Training Guide that we will release soon.

2012 China Multigenerational Panel Data Summer Class

China Multigenerational Panel Data (CMGPD) 2012 Summer Training Workshop

Institute on the History and Society of Northeast China
School of the Humanities
Shanghai Jiaotong University
Shanghai, China

July 6, 2012 – July 20, 2012

Subject to revision.  Please check back on a regular basis for changes.


  • Attendance at all lectures and recitation sections is required.  Unexcused absences may be grounds for immediate dismissal.
  • Completion of all assignments is required.
  • Participants must bring their own laptop, and have STATA installed and the CMGPD-LN downloaded at the beginning of class.
  • If you already have experience working with a statistical package other than STATA, you may use it instead of STATA.  However, we may not be able to provide much assistance if you have difficulties.
  • Lectures will be in English.  The teaching assistants and I all speak Chinese, however.


Please read the following BEFORE class begins


These may be useful for participants who have less prior experience in demography, STATA, and other elements of the class.

(Links to shared spreadsheet with topics, assignments and readings by day)

Lectures will be in the morning. The substantive lectures will be 9:00am-10:30am. The data and methods lectures will be at 11:45am-12:15pm. Recitation will start at 1:30pm.

Apparently I’m a member of the California School (加州学派)

In a fit of narcissism, I was searching for my name in Chinese. I was pleased to find a few recent scholarly pieces in China that list me as a member of the ‘California school’ (加州学派) of economic and social historians who work on China.  I guess if I am to be listed as the member of a faction or school, better to be listed as a member of the California School than a member of the Saskatchewan, Rhode Island, or Wyoming School.  If you’re part of a named school or faction, hopefully it is named after a place that is exotic and evocative.  If you hear ‘California school’, you imagine a band of open-minded, edgy and perhaps hip professors dressed in khaki pants and white linen shirts hashing out their differences down by the beach.

That said, I’m not sure those of us who are so listed would all agree that we have enough in common to be considered a ‘school’ or academic faction.

I guess the idea on the part of those who have lumped us all together into the ‘California school’ is that we are distinguished by pursuing new approaches to the study of Chinese social and economic history, including use of new methods and data, and a perspective that is less beholden to the influence of traditional thinking associated with European or North American scholars.  The origin of the label appears to be that almost everyone involved either teaches at a university in California, or used to.

Oddly almost everyone who disagrees with the various views espoused by members of the ‘California school’ also has some kind of California connection: they either teach somewhere in California, used to teach in California, or earned their degrees.  I guess this speaks to the dominance of California universities in the English-language scholarly literature on the social and economic history of China.  Even if you violently disagree with the ‘California school’, you’re probably still connected to California.  Unfortunately within California, affiliations don’t line up neatly, so we can’t really speak of opposing ‘Northern California’ and ‘Southern California’ schools.

Anyway, here are a few of the academic essays that discuss the ‘California school’, and list me as one of its members…

Summer 2012 China Multigenerational Panel Dataset class at SJTU (English announcement)

The Shanghai Jiaotong University Center for the History and Society of Northeast China was established as a research unit by a collaboration of the Shanghai Jiaotong University (SJTU) School of the Humanities and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) School of the Humanities and Social Sciences. The Center’s second summer school will be held from July 6 to July 20. The class will focus on the use of the China Multigenerational Panel Datasets – Liaoning (CMGPD-LN) in the study demography, stratification, and social and family history. It will also preview a new dataset, the China Multigenerational Panel Dataset – Shuangcheng (CMGPD-SC) that we plan to release in 2013. HKUST Distinguished Professor and Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences advises on the organization and content course. UCLA Professor of Sociology Cameron Campbell will lecture.  If any non-Chinese speakers enroll, the lectures will be in English, otherwise lectures may be in Chinese.

These datasets are complex in many ways: longitudinal, multi-generational, and structured at multiple levels, including the individual, the household, the kin group, the community, the administrative unit, and the region.  Fully exploiting the potential offered by these data requires application of sophisticated techniques in STATA or other statistical packages to manage the data, create variables, and carry out analysis.

This class is intended to introduce students to advanced techniques required to manage and analyse the CMGPD datasets, thereby equipping them to make use of the CMGPD-LN and CMGPD-SC in their own research.


China Multigenerational Panel Dataset – Liaoning (CMGPD-LN)

The CMGPD-LN is an important dataset for the study of China’s family, social and demographic history, and for the study of demography and stratification more generally. The dataset is suitable for application of a wide variety of statistical techniques that are commonly used in social demography for the analysis of longitudinal, individual-level data, and available in the most popular statistical software packages. The dataset is distinguished by its size, temporal depth, and richness of detail on family, household and kinship context.

The materials from which the dataset was constructed are Shengjing Imperial Household Agency household registers held in the Liaoning Provincial Archives. The registers are triennial. Altogether there are 3600 of them. We transcribed a subset of them to produce the CMGPD-LN, which spans 160 years from 1749 to 1909. At present, the dataset comprises 29 register series, and consists of 1,500,000 records that describe 260000 individuals over seven generations. The CMGPD-LN is accordingly an important resource for the study of historical demography, sociology, economics, and other fields.

The CMGPD-LN and associated English-language documentation are already available for download at ICPSR, following a free registration. Please visit the website:

China Multigenerational Panel Dataset – Shuangcheng (CMGPD-SC)

The CMGPD-SC covers communities of recent settlers in Shuangcheng, Heilongjiang in the last half of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth. It contains 1.35 million records that describe 100,000 people. The registers cover descendants of urban migrants from Beijing and rural migrants from neighboring areas in northeast China who came to the area in the first half of the nineteenth century as part of a government organized effort to settle this largely vacant frontier region. One of the distinguishing features of this dataset is the availability of linked, individual-level landholding records for several points in time. The data also include a rich array of other indicators of household and family context and socioeconomic status. We anticipate formal public release of the dataset via ICPSR in 2013 or 2014. We will provide participants in the summer class with access to drafts of the release and documentation.

Topics to be Covered in Class

1. Review of relevant research in related topics in social demography

2. Results on topics in social and family demography from CMGPD-LN 
3. Advanced techniques in STATA for the management and analysis of the CMGPD-LN data.  
4. Preview of the CMGPD-SC
July 6, 2012 to July 20, 2012
Shanghai Jiaotong University School of Humanities (SJTU Minhang Campus, Shanghai)
Application deadline
April 25, 2012 (see link below for application)
Application procedure
Please send your personal statement and application form as attachments to  We will have an English language application form available soon.
Applications from faculty and graduate students are welcome.  Applications from undergraduates may be considered if they have already been accepted into a graduate program beginning fall 2012.  Students should already be able to conduct basic operations in STATA, and should also have completed a basic course in linear regression.

We anticipate being able to accommodate 25 students. 
Students will be offered free housing in dormitories at SJTU.  Students who want other accommodations will have to arrange them on their own and pay for them.  Students should bring their own computer, with STATA or another statistical package already installed.  Students already familiar with other statistical packages may use them, but we will only be able to provide support to student using STATA.  Students are responsible for travel and local expenses.

Announcement of 2012 CMGPD-LN Summer Course at SJTU

We’ve begun making our detailed plans for the 2012 CMGPD-LN Summer Course at Shanghai Jiaotong University.  The Chinese-language announcement is available at our SJTU Center website, via this link:  It will be July 6 to July 20.  Since there may be non-Chinese speaking participants this year, I will probably lecture in English.  The goal of the course is to introduce participants to management and analysis of the CMGPD-LN data, with special attention to using STATA to transform the data and create new variables as needed for different analyses.

Revising the syllabus for my Chinese society class (Sociology 181B)

I have started reworking my syllabus for my upper division Chinese society class (Sociology 181B) which I will be teaching again this spring, after a bit of a hiatus.  I have an exciting opportunity to redo the design of the class from scratch.  After C.K. Lee joined the department here, we decided to take advantage of the complementarity of our research interests to turn what had been a one-quarter course that covered everything under the sun and inevitably was a mile wide and an inch deep into a comprehensive two-quarter sequence.  In the past, when I taught the course, inevitably I emphasized topics like family, population, and inequality because they reflected my own interests.  I tried to cover social movements, politics, labor, and other topics, but I’ll be the first to admit I couldn’t really do them justice.

Now that we have a two-quarter sequence, I can devote the entire quarter to my own areas of expertise, specifically family, population, and stratification.  I have rearranged the schedule accordingly, giving entire lectures to topics that in the past I dispensed with in one-third of a lecture.  I’m also taking the opportunity to overhaul the readings since there is so much new scholarship in the last few years.  Of course, the real problem is finding readings that address the most recent social phenomena, that have not yet been subject to scholarly studies, or aren’t even amenable to the sorts of quantitative analysis that I am used to.  I’ll be poking around over the next few weeks.

For the benefit of students who are already looking around for courses for spring quarter, here is a link to the tentative syllabus:

The readings are going to change substantially, but the schedule itself should provide a pretty good idea of what topics I will cover and how much attention each will receive.

The inevitable challenge is teaching a course that introduces Chinese society, but is also sociological, in the sense of being embedded in the broader questions that are of concern to the discipline.  It would be easy to teach a Chinese society class that would be a ten week version of the country introduction in a tour guide, and was a series of sensational or at least journalistic stories and anecdotes about contemporary Chinese society.  I could teach a course like that and it would probably be lots of fun for everyone, but it would be a disservice to the students.  My approach has been to embed my discussions into broader themes related to East/West comparison, demographic theory, stratification, and so forth.  But its an ongoing effort.

Following my usual practice, I’ll also have recommended reading that is not necessarily scholarly, but vividly illustrates many of the issues covered in the lectures and formal reading.  For quite some time I required Qiu Xiaolong’s excellent Death of a Red Heroine as a sort of companion to the reading on contemporary urban China, but this time around I will try having the students read Peter Hessler’s excellent Country Driving, since that covers such a wide swath of contemporary Chinese society.

As I’ve been thinking about my reorganization of the class, I’ve also been reflecting on how fortunate my department is to have so much depth in Chinese studies.  Most of the major sociology departments in the United States have only one person whose primary research focus is China.  Obviously there are prominent exceptions like Stanford, which has Zhou Xueguang and Andy Walder.  Here at UCLA, however, we have three colleagues who work primarily on China, or have at least one major ongoing research projects in China: C.K. Lee, Min Zhou, and myself.  And of course our emeritus colleague Don Treiman remains active with various projects in China and elsewhere.  I hope that in the future, this becomes the norm as opposed to the exception, and it becomes typical for departments to have multiple colleagues carrying out research on Chinese society.  One can only hope.