“Often there are multiple communities facing the same potential grievances against the government,” he says Jacopo Ponticelli, associate professor of economics at Kellogg. “In some of these communities, that resentment is being acted upon. And not to others.”
Ponticelli and a colleague, Meng Miao at Renmin University, wondered whether a community’s history of protests made a difference. If a place was known for emergence in the past, even decades or centuries ago, would that tradition influence modern citizens’ decisions to take action?
The researchers tested their hypothesis in China, studying rebellions during the Qing dynasty from the 17th to the early 20th century, as well as those occurring today.
They devised a clever method to determine which areas of the country had a history of activism, based on records of solar eclipses and their connection to protests. During the Qing Dynasty, people believed that eclipses were a sign from heaven that showed displeasure with a ruler. The team found that being in the path of an eclipse is associated with a higher likelihood of rioting — and counties with a history of these eclipse-triggered riots were more likely to protest today. The pattern was particularly pronounced in places that honored old rebel leaders with temples and legends.
“This historical tradition of anti-government protest can really influence the reaction centuries later,” says Ponticelli.
Places that commemorate historic protests can be fertile ground for leaders of social justice movements to move people to action. But the dark side of this persistence is that it can also prolong the life of less noble beliefs. For example, if a community has an unpleasant history of anti-democratic ideas, broadcasting that history and celebrating past leaders “can be very dangerous,” Ponticelli says. “These traditions can last a long time.”
Blackening the Sun
Protests have long been associated with voting behavior and policy change. For example, attendance at the Tea Party protests in 2009 was higher is associated with higher voting rates for Republican candidates in next year’s midterm elections. And in areas with larger protests, incumbents were more likely to take conservative positions on the House bills.
But figuring out what factors make people protest isn’t simple. If one community demands change and another does not, the two parties probably have many differences between them. One may be rural, another urban. One may have higher unemployment. One may have a larger minority population. and so on.
Similarly, testing the idea that a place’s history influences a community’s propensity to protest has been difficult. If Ponticelli and Miao had simply compared places with more versus fewer previous uprisings, they would not have been able to convincingly argue that historical uprisings caused a difference in modern protests. Other unknown factors, such as economic or social conditions, could drive both past and current rebellions.
The ideal method would be to conduct a rigorous experiment in which the team magically made protests happen in random communities in the past, then followed them years later to see if those places were more likely to protest again in the present. This was obviously not possible.
But eclipses could perform a similar function. It was an external phenomenon, unrelated to any economic or social factors on Earth. And it was a plausible driver of revolts: People in China interpreted the eclipses as doubts about the legitimacy of an emperor. If the peasants were already unhappy with their living conditions, an eclipse might motivate them to rise up together.
The team could then test whether the “extra” riots caused by the eclipses were associated with more protests in the present. This methodology is “at the heart of the problem,” says Ponticelli. “Otherwise, we’re comparing apples and oranges.”
From the past to the present
First, the researchers tested whether blackouts were associated with other factors that might influence the tendency to protest. They obtained historical data from NASA on eclipses from 1644 to 1912. Counties in China that were in the zone of totality—where the moon completely blocked the sun—were also more likely to be farther east, closer to the coast, and closer to the capital Beijing. So the team controlled for these factors in the rest of the study. (Other geographic and socioeconomic factors, such as terrain roughness, county population size, and farm tax levels, were unrelated to eclipses.)
They then looked at data on 1,806 peasant uprisings in China during the same period, which were documented in a book called A Chronology of War in Dynastic China. Counties in the totality zone of an eclipse were 18 percent more likely to have an uprising that year, the team found.
Ponticelli and Miao were unsure whether the influence of these revolts would remain centuries later. People may have simply forgotten the past. And many Chinese had moved from rural to urban areas in recent decades, perhaps leaving such memories behind.
To find out, the researchers turned to data on protests in China from 2001 to 2013, recorded by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. They then determined whether the additional historical protests associated with eclipses seemed to cause more protests during this modern period. The answer was yes: An additional eclipse-triggered riot increased a county’s odds of a protest over the 13-year modern period by 10 percent.
Why would these earlier rebellions continue to exert significant influence? The researchers wondered if the phenomenon was caused by shared memories preserved by temples celebrating the leaders of these movements, as well as by stories of their exploits in local chronicles. A historical anecdote suggests that the revolutionaries themselves were inspired by heroes of the past: a leader of the revolution from the early 1900s was apparently fascinated as a child by stories of another revolutionary half a century ago.
Ponticelli and Miao searched local chronicles for information about temples, monuments, and legends of people who had fought the Qing invasion from 1644 to 1664. And indeed, they found that the influence of eclipse-driven rebellions on modern protests it was especially strong in places that celebrated those historical leaders.
It’s too early to tell whether the study’s findings in China extend to other countries, such as the United States. But Ponticelli says it’s plausible that memorials elsewhere also help transmit memories and fuel a trend of protest.
In addition to encouraging people to rise up against injustice, however, these monuments could perpetuate beliefs that are now widely considered repugnant.
Consider the debate over whether you should remove Confederate statues in the American South. While many communities insist that these are simply ways to remember a particular moment in history, this research suggests that remembering forms associated with slavery could potentially perpetuate racist views.
Memorials that celebrate these past leaders can “enhance the long-term impact of memory in a particular community,” he says. “They can be very powerful in transmitting ideas over time.”