Eclipses and the Memory of Revolutions: Evidence from China
Why are certain communities more prone to anti-government protests than others? Do past rebellions lead to more protests today? We study the historical roots of social unrest using the experience of China. We document that counties with higher incidence of peasant uprisings against local government officials during the Qing dynasty period (1644-1912) also have higher incidence of anti-government protests in present-day China. To generate plausibly exogenous variation in the incidence of past protests, we exploit differences in the visibility and magnitude of solar eclipses during the Qing dynasty period. In the Confucian tradition, solar eclipses are considered a negative divine signal on the legitimacy of the ruler, facilitating the coordination of protest actions. We test this mechanism using detailed data on the timing and location of anti-government rebellions extracted from local chronicles. Counties within the totality zone of a solar eclipse were significantly more likely to experience a rebellion in the eclipse year. Leaders of early anti-Qing rebellions were recorded in popular culture and celebrated in temples, favoring the transmission of the memory of their actions across generations. The persistent effect of past protests is stronger in counties with such temples and memorials, consistent with a long-term memory of revolutions.
We received valuable comments from Daniel Mattingly (discussant), Hanming Fang, Zhiguo He, David Yang, Shang-Jin Wei, Nancy Qian, Michael Song, Mounu Prem, and seminar participants at NBER Chinese Economy Working Group Meeting, CUFE-Beijing, QCSS-NYU conference and Economic History Society annual conference. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.