Contextualizing Numbers: A Study of Grain Prices in Yuan Dynasty China

Visiting Scholar Talks

Mar 1, 2023 | 11:00 AM

Common Room (#136), 2 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge, MA,


Li Chunyuan | Associate Professor, Department of History, Xiamen University; HYI Visiting Scholar, 2022-23


David Yang | Professor of Economics, Harvard University

Seating is limited. Masks are required for all in-person audience members.

Co-sponsored with the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies

Economic history requires the use of numbers and units. Nevertheless, numbers and units themselves as recorded in Chinese historical sources could be problematic, due to misprints and copyists’ errors, variations in weights and measures, different institutional settings, as well as others. A universal solution in theory is very likely to be improbable if not impossible. This talk, studying grain prices in the Yuan dynasty China, roughly from 1260 to 1350, intends to approach these challenges in a pragmatic and practical way. By contextualizing price numbers in multiple dimensions, I hope that the degree of consistency among numbers could be at least partially clarified, and that relatively more acceptable data series could be built. This talk will first give a brief introduction to the primary sources, then devote length to discussions on three key common issues: (1) institutional settings of original numbers, (2) official and local units of capacity, and (3) types and varieties of grain. After that, an overall presentation of price data will be given with some supplementary remarks. In conclusion, I will briefly outline some implications of the newly developed data series for further studies.