This version: March 2018

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Melanie Meng Xue (薛萌)

Research statement

My research lies at the intersection of economic history and cultural economics. I focus on how culture and institutions were shaped by history and demonstrate how history advances our understanding of key puzzles of modern China.


Specially, I have worked on the transformation of gender norms and social capital. By exploiting discontinuities in economic and political conditions in 20th Century China, my work highlights the role of culture in shaping the persistence of the past.


My recent research has concerned the decoding of folklore and mythology as a new approach to cultural economics.


Current Research Papers

High-Value Work and the Rise of Women: The Cotton Revolution and Gender Equality in China

Melanie Meng Xue

Upcoming Presentation: Copenhagen 4/5

Recently presented at*: NYU Stern, Northwestern Development Lunch, Northwestern Economic History Seminar, Brown, ASSA-EHA Panel (Discussion).


Abstract: This paper studies a historical experiment: the cotton revolution in premodern China, during which the rise of women took place in a largely agrarian environment, accompanied by a fundamental change in the cultural perception of their worth. Around 1300 AD, women in parts of China began to produce highly valuable cotton textiles in large quantities. They continued to work in rural households, but generated substantial market incomes. By exploiting variation in premodern cotton textile production (1300-1840) across 1,489 counties, I establish a robust negative relationship between cotton textile production and prenatal sex selection under the one-child policy in 2000. My results are robust to instrumenting cotton weaving with a level of relative humidity at which cotton yarn can be smoothly woven into cotton cloth. I find no evidence that the rise of women corresponded with their engagement in low-value work, such as cotton cultivation. In addition, I show that as early as 1600 AD, cotton textile production already led to systematic differences in widows' choice and their ability to survive. The revolutionary changes brought by the cotton revolution were unmasked by the equalization of opportunities in labor markets during the socialist period: the cultural perception of women's worth kept shaping private decisions even when socialism leveled the field for men and women in public.


Autocratic Rule and Social Capital: Evidence from Imperial China

Melanie Meng Xue, Mark Koyama


Recently presented at*: Queens University Belfast, Higher School of Economics, CU Boulder, Stanford, NEUDC, NBER Summer Institute, UC Irvine, Wake Forest University, Williams College, Brown Growth Breakfast.

Abstract: We explore the impact of political repression under an autocratic regime on social capital. Between 1660-1788, individuals in China were persecuted for their speech and writings. A difference-in-differences approach suggests that these literary inquisitions led to a 38% decline in local charities---a key proxy of social capital. Exploiting institutional variation in 20th c. China, we find further evidence that literary inquisitions permanently reduced social capital. In affected prefectures, individuals have a lower level of generalized trust, with more political apathy and less political participation. These results indicate a vicious cycle through which autocratic rule can become self-reinforcing.


Raising Dragons

John Nye, Melanie Meng Xue


Friends from Afar: Migration, Cultural Proximity and Primary Schooling in Lower Yangzi, 1850-1949

Yu Hao, Melanie Meng Xue

Explorations in Economic History 2017, 62 (1).


Work in Progress


Stelios Michalopoulos, Melanie Meng Xue

Status: First draft completed Sept. 1, 2017.

Upcoming Presentations: Toulouse IAST 3/30, Pompeu Fabra 4/10. 

Recently presented at*: New Economic School, University of Connecticut, NBER Political Economy, New York University 


Extreme Poverty and a Culture of Violence

Melanie Meng Xue

Status: First draft in progress

Upcoming Presentation: Northwestern Economic History Lunch 5/25


The Short- and Long-Run Effects of Affirmative Action: Evidence From Imperial China

Yu Hao, Melanie Meng Xue

Status: First draft in progress

Recently presented at*: WEAI-Clio session 6/26, All-UC Economic History Conference 5/3, ASSA 1/8.


*Includes presentations by co-authors.



I am a postdoctoral fellow at the

Department of Economics and Center

for Economic History at Northwestern






Department of Economics

Northwestern University

2211 Campus Drive, #3197

Evanston, IL 60208



Curriculum Vitae