Matthew Noellert

Major Research Themes


When Confucius went to the state of Wei, Zan You was his driver.
Confucius remarked, "How numerous are the people!"
You said, "Since they are numerous, what more can be done?"
"Enrich them," was the reply.
"Once they have been enriched, what more can be done?"
"Teach them."
                                    --The Analects, Zilu

1. Global transformation of rural society.
Broadly speaking, I am interested in the mid-twentieth century global transformation of human society from family farms to industrial organizations, one of the most profound and rapid shifts in social organization in recorded history. I study from a comparative perspective both how this transformation shaped social behavior/organization and how the preexisting organization of agrarian societies shaped this transformation.

2. China’s rural revolution.
My understanding of the above global transformation grows out of my research on China’s rural revolution, which spanned most of the twentieth century. My first book, Power over Property: The Political Economy of Communist Land Reform in China (University of Michigan Press, 2020), examines the patterns and practices of an egalitarian reallocation of property and power in over 500 village communities in a single county. The main finding of this book, based on the analysis of an original database of tens of thousands of events of property confiscation, violence, and redistribution (the CRRD-LR), is that in rural China in the first half of the twentieth century relations to people (power) were more important than relations to economic resources (property).

3. Social stratification in a socialist society.
Beginning in 2014, I joined the Shanxi University Research Center for Chinese Social History as a postdoctoral fellow to collaborate on the construction of a new database of class status registration forms recorded during the Socialist Education Campaign in the mid-1960s (the CRRD-SQ). These forms are the products of a novel attempt to measure the stratification of a socialist (post-capitalist) society and thus contain detailed individual and household-level social-demographic, economic, and political histories documenting the ascribed and achieved traits of individuals over the first half of the twentieth century. Together with collaborators we have used these data to explore assortative marriage and kinship, status and mobility, the distributions of property and income, etc. in rural China.

4. Quantitative history methods.
As a member of the Lee-Campbell Research Group, my research uses large quantities of individual-level, historical demographic and economic data to reconstruct social processes from the bottom up. This bottom-up, inductive approach makes it possible to create new knowledge that can move beyond existing social theories based on top-down, deductive interpretations of the past.


Today we have many new things like internet, smartphones, and AI, but we also have many old problems, like social inequality, scarce resources, and autocracy. This means that we can still learn a lot from past experiences to help us build a better future. Confucius, Neo-Confucianism, European Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers, and Meiji reformers, to name a few, all sought to learn from the past, and this is the overarching goal of all my teaching, too.

In particular, I emphasize data-driven and comparative approaches to understanding the past. This means exposing students to primary historical data and helping them think critically about what we can and cannot know about past peoples and places. History is also fundamentally comparative because any person who thinks about the past does so from the perspective of the present. I encourage students to make such comparisons explicit and then use comparisons across both time and space to develop deeper understandings of basic social and economic issues.

Courses at Hitotsubashi
Introduction to Economic History: The goal of this undergraduate lecture course is to learn how to see our present world as just one of many social possibilities. From a historical perspective, the modern world of capitalism and democracy as we know it is short-lived and currently undergoing fundamental change. By learning about past and non-European societies (e.g. China), students will gain a more open-minded perspective on the future.

Economic History B: The goal of this 300-level undergraduate course is to understand the social and economic development of modern China from the perspective of rural society, which until recently comprised over 4/5 of the population. Course themes explore not just how modern development changed rural society, but how rural society shaped this development. The primary reading is Perkins 1969, Agricultural Development in China, 1368-1968.

Special Issues in Economic History: The goal of this 400-level undergraduate course is to learn how to construct and analyze original databases of historical microdata. Students with no experience in history, microdata, and/or data analysis are welcome to learn how these methods and tools can provide new perspectives on their research interests.

Asian Economic History: The goal of this graduate course is to transcend the European-based social theories that have defined the past two centuries of human history and begin to build better and more inclusive social theory for the twenty-first century. Course readings and discussions survey traditional Chinese theories of political economy from the perspective of current global issues. Primary readings from previous years include Piketty 2020, Capital and Ideology; Du Halde, P.J.B 1738, A Description of the Empire of China and Chinese-Tartary; and de Bary et al. 1999-2000, Sources of Chinese Tradition (two volumes).

Comparative Economic History II: In this team-taught undergraduate/graduate course students gain hands-on experience in academic research and learn two basic tasks of a professional historian: evaluating previous scholarship and discovering and analyzing primary archival sources. By focusing on a single theme, students are encouraged to integrate existing knowledge with new historical facts.

Undergraduate Seminar: In this two-year Asian Economic History seminar students learn how to read classical Chinese as a foundation for exploring the world's largest corpus of human social and economic theory. In the first year, students will practice reading classical Chinese and learn the basics of Chinese political economy. In the second year, student will learn how to conduct historical analysis and write an academic thesis.

Graduate Seminar: The goal of this seminar is to produce a substantive research paper or dissertation based on primary sources. To this end, students learn how to develop their own independent research projects; identify, engage, and analyze historical data; and create new knowledge and effectively communicate it in writing. The seminar fosters collaborative and comparative research through regular progress reports and open discussion.

Personal Website
https://shss.hkust.edu.hk/lee-campbell-group/people-overview/matthew-noellert/ (Chinese)