Research | The Historic Huizhou Housing Market

In the summer of 2017, I traveled back to my hometown in China and visited friends who were preparing for an exhibition of documents from the historical Huizhou prefecture, an area currently in southern Anhui Province. Glancing through the piles of yellowed papers waiting to be framed, a house transaction record caught my eye. This was a handwritten document recorded by a third party stating that a homeowner was selling his house to his cousin, with information on price, location, house structure and a rough measure of the size, dated 1911. I then visited local archive offices in the Huizhou area and have so far collected more than 1000 pre-mordern housing transaction records with the earliest one dated 1575, along with other supplemental documents.

A land transaction document from She County, Huizhou, dated 1940. Source: 《中国徽州文书(民国编)》,黄山学院编,清华大学出版社,2010.
Chengkan Village, a well-preserved typical Huizhou village, is now a popular tourist attraction. Copyright © Shangwei Wu

A house price index from 1570 to 1949

The abundance of these records provides a rare opportunity to study economic life in late imperial China on a micro level. My first research project with these records focuses on using house and land transactions to develop price indices that cover the late Ming Dynasty, the Qing Dynasty and the Republic of China (1575-1949), using a hedonic regression model. The results show that house and land prices are correlated with the home’s layout, relationship between sellers and buyers, location of the house, and seller’s gender. The price indices also respond strongly to major historic events, such as wars or currency reforms.

Historic shocks and the institutional function of lineage in economic activities

Another project that I am currently working on aims to examine the effect of historic shocks, such as natural disasters and political turmoil, on the short and long run performance of lineages in the Huizhou area, and understand how idiosyncrasies in lineage affect responses to these shocks. The outcome variables that describe lineage performance include wealth, the imperial civil examination results, and labor market achievements of each lineage. The price indices that I am developing in the aforementioned project will serve as a foundation for measuring wealth. Additional information will be obtained from the genealogies of Huizhou Families.

An ancestral hall of the Luo lineage in Chengkan. Ancestral halls served as public spaces in which most important decisions regarding the whole lineage were made. Copyright © Shangwei Wu

Looking forward: insights on the "silver crisis" and international tea trade

This is merely the beginning of a long research path. Historians debate over whether the “silver crisis” in China during the mid-19th century was caused by the importation of opium, and alleviated by the exportation of tea and silk. This debate so far has only been supported by data collected at ports of entry and silver prices at the national level. Huizhou was a major producer of tea leaves and one of the financial centers of late imperial China. By investigating tea production on the local level and using my housing transactions data to estimate the price of silver, I will be able to add evidence to the discussion. I am also excited by the possibility of combining tea prices sold to Europe and local economic activities in Huizhou to trace out a global economic connection. In addition, with more modern data, I would like to explore individual-level path dependence on various outcomes for people living today, including education, labor and political preferences.