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Asian Topics in World History Asia for Educators Columbia University
China and Europe, 1500–2000 and Beyond: What is Modern?
Was China More Productive Than Europe?, Part 1
Was China More Productive Than Europe?, Part 2
China: An "Early Modern" Society, Part 1
China: An "Early Modern" Society, Part 2
China: An "Early Modern" Society, Part 3
The Silver Trade, Part 1
The Silver Trade, Part 2
Population Growth:
  Myth of the Big Chinese Family
Emperors and Reign Periods (PDF)
Timeline of Chinese Inventions (PDF)
China's Gifts to the West (PDF)
Chinese Ideas in the West (PDF)
Excerpts of Interest
China and Europe: 1500–1800
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  Population Growth

 
One of the real signs of the tremendous success of the Qing dynasty in the eighteenth century in what historians like to call the High Qing (1680 to about 1830 or so) was the enormous increase in population. Looking back from the year 2004, we tend to think of population growth as not such a great thing, but at the time, it was really looked on as a sign that the regime was doing its job. It enabled more people to come into the world, to have the satisfactions of being alive, and to live something vaguely approximating the Confucian good life.

The Qing were able to preside over a rough tripling of the Chinese population between about 1680 and maybe 1820. This growth was achieved without a decrease in the standard of living, thanks to the increasing sophistication of the economy, to state efforts to shore up regions that couldn't produce enough food for themselves, or through such areas being able to produce some other commodity that they could trade for food.

Also the population grew because of various technological changes, mostly in agriculture. The Qing were very good at taxing relatively lightly in this period while providing order and making sure that very basic survival services—such as flood control— were provided, whether by the government or by private parties encouraged by the government.

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Population Growth Creates Ecological Changes
This population growth, in some cases, eventually became a problem. In the eighteenth century, however, it was still overwhelmingly seen as a blessing. It happened very differently in different parts of the country. The Yangzi delta, the richest part of the country, had almost zero population growth between about 1770 and 1850 for a number of reasons, including the conscious use of various methods of birth control

Read an excerpt from the Far Eastern Economic Review on the New World crops and population growth in China.





  The Myth of the Big Chinese Family  
   
One of the great myths about China is that of the Chinese family that so desperately wants a son that they have as many kids as possible and end up having enormous families. Although Chinese families did very much want sons, they were also perfectly conscious of the fact that their ability to support children was limited and that, in the long run, they didn't improve their odds by simply having the maximum number of births. And, in fact, births per woman in late imperial China are actually, on average, probably somewhat lower than in early modern Europe.

There are various theories as to what kinds of birth control were practiced during this time. This is actually quite controversial and hard to reconstruct, but we do know that one way or another, they seemed to keep births down. This is very different from the traditional image of China as this land of Malthusian horror where, because they couldn't restrain their population, it was only kept in check by floods and famines.

That's not the story at all. And it's again a good example of how we find the things we're trained to find. Western-trained demographers understood that in Europe, population control worked as people delayed marriage in hard times. They assumed that this was the main mechanism for fertility control available to premodern societies, so it didn't even occur to them when they looked at societies like China to think about the possibility that there might be effective birth control within marriage. Therefore, when they looked at China, they saw that access to marriage wasn't economically regulated the way it was in Europe—the average age at marriage doesn't seem to get older at hard times, women marry young anyway—and they said, "Aha, society with no control on fertility. Therefore, if fertility is unchecked, they must have had all these enormous problems of overpopulation."

It turns out the Chinese found ways to control fertility within marriage, which many scholars thought simply did not happen before modern chemical and mechanical contraception. Population growth was concentrated not in the advanced regions of the coast, which were running out of land and realized it, but out on the frontier.

 

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