CCHU9069 Arts and Humanities
Economic Logic of Civilizations: How Human Societies have Innovated to Deal with Risk

This course is under the thematic cluster(s) of:

  • Sustaining Cities, Cultures, and the Earth (SCCE)

Course Description

Humans have become increasingly more civilized. But, why has violence declined substantially in the last two millennia? Are we really better species than before, or something else has happened? How have human societies innovated and developed increasingly better ways to deal with the challenges of risk events such as natural disasters, climate shocks, epidemic virus, and wars? And how can financial knowledge help us understand the relationship between socio-economic history and the history of civilizations? This course addresses these global questions with an interdisciplinary historical approach, developing a risk-mitigation perspective on the evolution of human civilizations so that we can better understand how civilizations have evolved and how we, as potential investors and professionals, can better foresee future growth areas in frontier, emerging, and developed markets. The course explores a number of human innovations, including mythology or magic and supernatural beliefs, technologies, social structures, cultural norms, religions, financial markets, and the welfare state. This broad scope of knowledge on the historical evolution of risk-sharing arrangements allows us to appreciate that cultures and institutions have each evolved historically as a way to maximize the probability of human survival, which in turn allows us to see where they will go as better risk-mitigating tools become available due to technological and financial progress.

Course Learning Outcomes

On completing the course, students will be able to:

    1. Describe and explain the relationship between social/economic innovations and the history of civilizations.
    2. Apply financial/economic analytical frameworks to understand history, business, culture and society.
    3. Develop leadership skills.
    4. Develop global outlook and analytical thinking.
    5. Develop research training and presentation skills.

Offer Semester and Day of Teaching

Second semester (Wed)


Study Load

Activities Number of hours
Lectures 26
Tutorials 11
Reading / Self-study / Homework 56
Assessment: Essay / Report writing 30
Assessment: Presentation (incl preparation) 7
Assessment: Quiz 2
Total: 132

Assessment: 100% coursework

Assessment Tasks Weighting
Individual assignments 40
In-class participation and discussions 20
Group project 20
In-class quizzes 20

Required Reading

Topic 1: Risk, violence, and early innovations in technology

  • Bai, Y., & Kung, J. (2011). Climate shocks and Sino-nomadic conflict. Review of Economics and Statistics, 93(3), 970-81.
  • Diamond, J. (May 1, 1999). The worst mistake in the history of the human race. Discover Magazine.
  • Jia, R. (2014). Weather shocks, sweet potatoes and peasant revolts in historical China. Economic Journal, 124(575), 92-118.
  • Matranga, A. (2014). Climate-driven technical change: Seasonality and the innovation of agriculture. Job Market Paper.
  • Pinker, S. (2012). The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. New York: Penguin Books. [Chaps. 1, 2 and 3]  

Topic 2: Risk and supernatural beliefs: do they work as a response to risk and uncertainty?

  • Miguel, E. (2005). Poverty and witch killing. Review of Economic Studies, 72(4), 1153-1172.
  • Oster, E. (2004). Witchcraft, weather and economic growth in Renaissance Europe. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 18(1), 215-228.
  • Torgler, B. (2007). Determinants of superstition. The Journal of Socio-Economics, 36, 713–733.
  • Tsang, E. (2004). Toward a scientific inquiry into superstitious business decision-making. Organization Studies, 25(6), 923–946.

Topic 3: Marriage, family and social structure/cultural norms: do they work as a response to risk and uncertainty?

  • Alesina, A., & Giuliano, P. (2010). The power of the family. Journal of Economic Growth, 15, 93-125.
  • Chen, Z., He, S., Lin, Z., & Peng, K. (2014). Women as insurance assets: A study of bride-price in 18th and 19th century China. Working Paper.
  • Cheung, S. N. S. (1972). The enforcement of property rights in children, and the marriage contract. The Economic Journal, 82(326), 641-657.
  • Kung, J., & Ma, C. (2014). Can cultural norms reduce conflicts? Confucianism and peasant rebellions in Qing China. Journal of Development Economics, 111(C), 132-149.
  • Low, B. (1990). Marriage system and pathogen stress in human societies. American Zoological Review, 30, 325-339.
  • Rosenzweig, M. R., & Stark, O. (1989). Consumption smoothing, migration, and marriage: Evidence from rural India. Journal of Political Economy, 97(4), 905-926.

Topic 4: Financial markets, religion, and the welfare state: do they supplement, or compete with, each other as responses to risk and uncertainty?

  • Chen, D. (2010). Club goods and group identity: Evidence from Islamic resurgence during the Indonesian financial crisis. Journal of Political Economy, 118(2), 300-54.
  • Dehejia, R., Deleire, T., & Luttmer, E. (2007). Insuring consumption and happiness through religious organizations. Journal of Public Economics, 91(1-2), 259-279.
  • Morse, A. (2011). Payday lenders: Heroes or villains? Journal of Financial Economics, 102(1), 28-44.
  • Scheve, K., & Stasavage, D. (2006). Religion and preferences for social insurance. Quarterly Journal of Political Science, 1(3), 255-286.
  • Scheve, K., & Stasavage, D. (2006). The political economy of religion and social insurance in the United States, 1910–1939. Studies in American Political Development, 20(Fall 2006), 132–159.

Topic 5: Finance as risk tools for national survival and the rise of the fiscal state: historical lessons for national financial strategies

  • Chen, Z. (2011). Financial strategies for nation building. Working Paper.
  • Mcdonald, J. (2006). A free nation deep in debt: The financial roots of democracy. Princeton University Press. [Chaps. 1, 3 & 8]
  • Shiue, C. H. (2004). Local granaries and central government disaster relief: Moral hazard and intergovernmental finance in eighteenth and nineteenth-century China. The Journal of Economic History, 64(1).

Additional Resources

Quantitative History Webinar Series (convened by Professor Zhiwu Chen and Dr. Chicheng Ma of HKU Business School) offers useful resources on the latest research related to the history of human societies for students interested in pursuing more advanced studies in the field.  More details are available on the Series website at https://www.asiaglobalinstitute.hku.hk/event-category/agifbe_hku-quantitative-history-webinar-series.


Course Co-ordinator and Teacher(s)

Course Co-ordinator Contact
Professor Z. Chen
Asia Global Institute and Faculty of Business and Economics (Finance)
Tel: 3917 1271
Email: zhiwu.chen@hku.hk
Teacher(s) Contact
Professor Z. Chen
Asia Global Institute and Faculty of Business and Economics (Finance)
Tel: 3917 1271
Email: zhiwu.chen@hku.hk