The Sin of Words: Censorship and Self-Censorship in China during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911)

Australian Economic History Review

50 Pages Posted: 3 Feb 2022 Last revised: 22 Nov 2022

See all articles by Peiyuan Li

Peiyuan Li

University of Colorado Boulder

Date Written: February 2, 2022


This paper investigates the effect of the large-scale censorship campaign on the writings of intellectuals in Qing China from 1644 to 1911. Adopting a Difference-in-Difference design and examining 23,000 poems, I find that the frequency of censored words reduced by 1.65-1.73 standard deviations in poems whose writers were subjected to censorship. Additionally, if a word was censored a second time, the frequency of censored words decreased by 2.01-2.06 standard deviations. There was no room to circumvent censorship by adopting homophones, split-words, and variant characters. The machine learning analyses uncover some indication that the censorship campaign influenced intellectuals' writing styles, with intellectuals shifting away from the censored poetry. The censorship campaign created extreme political pressures, even inducing individuals to self-censor. However, after the censorship ceased, it had little lasting effect on word choices.

Keywords: censorship, the Literary Inquisition, poem, word choice, China.

JEL Classification: D73, D83, N45, Z1.

Suggested Citation

Li, Peiyuan, The Sin of Words: Censorship and Self-Censorship in China during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) (February 2, 2022). Australian Economic History Review, Available at SSRN: or

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