China and Europe: 1500-1800

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.

Population Growth Creates Ecological Changes [VIDEO]

TRANSCRIPT: As the river valleys begin to get really crowded, people begin to move up the hillsides looking for more land. Something like corn could not compete with rice in a lowland setting. Rice yields vastly more per acre. But as you start to move up into the highlands where rice won't grow, corn becomes a way of using land that was previously unusable. And, therefore, things like corn and the potato and the sweet potato, even though they never form a very large percentage of China's total food supply, are actually quite significant in helping China cope with its eighteenth-century population advance, because they help make new ecologies and new chunks of land useful that hadn't been useful before.

... The other, one of the other things that this huge population growth does is it tremendously increases demand for timber. And as people start looking for more and more timber to supply especially the booming Lower Yangzi market—because remember this isn't just a growing population; it's a growing and very prosperous population for the most part. And they're demanding furniture, they're demanding housing, so on and so forth. There's this quest for wood. Well, you've got to be able to feed your loggers.

And if you have to ship rice uphill from way down at the bottom of the mountain, your loggers are going to get awfully expensive and your wood is going to get awfully expensive. Corn turns out to be a fantastic solution from the point of view of the people doing the logging. It requires very little labor. It will grow at very high altitudes. So you cut down the first bunch of trees, you immediately throw down corn seed, and the corn seed matures in time to feed your force of loggers while they're cutting down the next set of trees and so on and so forth.

... It fits into a commercial economy in a way that contributes to its dynamism, that changes the ecology and then in the long run it actually has some fairly devastating consequences because these loggers, once they're done cutting down the trees, they don't much care about what they leave behind. So in some cases, what the corn does is it enables you to feed the loggers, but the loggers then leave a stripped hillside. The soil, no longer held in place by the trees, comes washing down the mountainside. It raises the riverbed, it increases the flood problems, it leads to some of the environmental problems that are going to be huge problems for China in the nineteenth century and that are sort of the sad end, in a way, to some of this story of dynamism.

But again, I think you can really see, this is part of a world-history story. ... China's not an isolated place. No, it's adopting new crops; it's open to new ways of doing things. Some of them turn out to be very beneficial; some of them turn out to be quite devastating in the long run. But it's part of an emerging world. It's not just a separate civilization.

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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