MCDB 150: Global Problems of Population Growth

Lecture 16

 - Population in Traditional China


China’s early demographic history is similar to that of Europe; population grows only slowly due to war, disease and Malthusian resource limitation. Later, introduction of American foods allowed cultivated land to expand, but population expanded even more rapidly, leading to an extremely dense, but poor population. During this time, female infanticide was frequent, but almost all surviving girls got married. Within marriage, their fertility rate was much lower than that of their European counterparts. This system compares to the English with a low rate of marriage, but high fertility within marriage.

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Global Problems of Population Growth

MCDB 150 - Lecture 16 - Population in Traditional China

Chapter 1. History of Population Growth in China [00:00:00]

Professor Robert Wyman: This is one family’s experience, and, as Qing said, it’s quite different for different people, but what you should realize is that this is one of 300 million such stories. The stories may be different but there’s 300 million of them. That’s what the Chinese government is now saying, that the one child policy has averted 300 million births in China. Their population, instead of being 1.3 billion now, would be 1.6 billion. 300 million people is the total population of the United States. China has, as they perceive it, as they claim, averted putting another United States worth of population into the world.

That’s the significance of spending two full lectures on China, and we could of course spend a lot more, is that China is just so big that everything that happens there has these tremendous significances, both on an individual personal level for each individual or family that experiences it, but also on the global level. One out of every five human beings lives in China, so it is very big.

We’ll talk in a later lecture explicitly about the one-child policy, but there’s information I have to give you today to understand what it’s about. Let me just say, now, that the Chinese government is of course well aware of the human and human rights sacrifices of the individual people, but they argue that the benefits outweigh the suffering. Just to give you a little hint of the way the government thinks about it, and many other people in China, that the great economic boom that China has had–most economists now around the world attribute the kick off of that to the reduction in fertility, that they didn’t have to cope with so many children and that’s the cause of their economy taking off. They perceive that the one-child policy has allowed China to emerge from this grinding poverty that they were in and become a modern–at least start to become a modern nation in the world.

Another story–another data set that I just recently came across was–had to do with carbon emissions. At a world average of carbon usage, which is probably below what China is actually using, 300 extra million people would have produced 1.5 billion, that’s billion with a “b,” tons of CO2 each year and that’s more than the total CO2 production of an industrial giant like Germany. If you’re looking at this issue from an environmental point of view, the reduction of people and their environmental impact makes, again, a huge difference. The Chinese, for instance, feel that because of the one-child policy alone, they have done more than any other country to ameliorate the environmental crisis. That’s just a hint of the very difficult things–how do you weigh the story of a family and 300 million families like you just heard against these sort of macro issues. It is not easy.

The question I want to set up today, which is to go backwards, is this kind of policy happens only in China. This kind of enormous population, as the Chinese perceive it, overpopulation, happens in China really and in India in terms of massive stuff. We’ve talked a little about India and South Asia. The question is, what’s special about China? Why did this happen in China? Why did, as they perceive it, population get so out of control that the government felt that they had to introduce such a Draconian policy as this, such a stringent kind of policy. The flip side of that coin is, why is China just now digging out from the abject poverty that the people were in when Europe and America dug out 200 years ago? I mean England started it, but all of Europe and America went through this phase 200 years ago, and why not China?

Of course this is a very, very hotly contested issue among historians. The basic set up of the story is that in about 1800, when Malthus was writing, China was very powerful, very strong, a very rich country and the West was beginning to be that way. The industrial revolution was just starting in England, and you would have seen enormous differences between China and say England or Europe in 1800, but you would not have been able to predict which model was going to take over the world, which country was going to become bigger and stronger in the future. China was a very impressive place in 1800 and Europe was beginning to be a very impressive place in 1800.

Then I may go into a little bit the history a little bit more. By 1840, when the British invaded with the opium war, the British started to addict the Chinese to opium and the Chinese government said, No. The British cried free trade and invaded to force China to accept British opium, which they got out of India. That’s a separate story which we may or may not have time for. Then in a very short period of time China goes from being one of the dominant countries in the world to being sort of the pawn in the world that the British start colonizing it, the Germans start colonizing it, the Americans take advantage, everybody starts taking advantage of China, the colonization of China starts the dismembering of China. Why did this happen is one of the major issues in world history.

There’s many, many different points of view on this, there’s ten major theories or something. In this class, I just have time to unwind one thread–one version of the story and only one thread of that story and that’s the relationship between the population of China, the wealth of China, and the poverty of China. This particular thread about population was obvious to Europeans visiting China, even in the European Middle Ages. Marco Polo visited China in the 1200s, and he described China’s cultivation, how every little bit of land was under very intense cultivation already, populousness, that the population was already incredibly dense as viewed through European eyes of the same time. And industry, the people worked very hard and whatever they did they were very productive at it. The stories of Kublai Khan and all that were from Marco Polo that he sort of idolized China as this incredibly rich but very, very crowded place.

Adam Smith, in the seventeenth century, the guy who started modern economics, said “China has long been one of the richest, most fertile, best cultivated, and most industrious and most populous countries in the world” so Adam Smith was aware of it. All of these great scholars of the late 1700s were looking around the world finally. There was enough seafaring; they could go around the world and compare different things, and try to figure out what was the best system for people to live under.

A few years after Adam Smith, Malthus writes and he quotes the information that Europeans were getting were mostly from Jesuit priests who had gone over to China to try to convert the population. He quotes one rather well known Jesuit priest then, China is “The richest and most flourishing empire in the world,” but the priest goes on, but, because of overpopulation, the people are ‘the poorest and most miserable of all.’” Right from way, way back, people are aware that China was basically a very rich country, but because of the huge population, the individual families were often in abject poverty. While if you looked at the emperor and the nobles, of course, they had enormous wealth.

These early observers were certainly correct about the population issue there. We have data from, say 1750, and China had 500 people per cultivated square kilometer. At the same time Europe had about 70 people per the square kilometer, so China had to, on the same farmland, had to support seven times as many people. Of course, the numbers are from 1750, so don’t take them as any kind of exact numbers.

Chapter 2. Demographic Data for China [00:09:33]

Up to today, China has something like 20% of the world’s population. Because of the one child policy, the ratio was higher, they had more than 20% but now it’s down to about 20% because India is still coming up. A lot of the world is still coming up and China, the population is still increasing but increasing at a rather slow rate. It has now 20% of the world’s population but only 6% to 7% of the arable land, the farmable land in the world. The amount of farmland per person is 0.2 acres per person, ten times less than the United States has. There’s a real problem with China’s population and the question is why did China’s population press up against their resources and riches of the land so much more so than in say Europe?

For most of history, China’s population does not look terribly different–you can see this, that in the Han Dynasty, which was the first unifying dynasty of China, very much the same time as the Roman Empire. It had a population of 50 or 60 million, then according to this reconstruction of China’s history, and all these reconstructions are very iffy, you notice the population stays stable for 1000 years. Then, during the Song Dynasty, which is one of the very most important dynasties in China, very successful, population rises and then it falls back down again. Yuan, which are the Mongol invasions, this decline is probably very much characterized by the Mongol invasions. The particular dates here are dates when we have censuses, when the various emperors took censuses, and in between we really don’t know what’s happening, and you’re also not sure how complete these censuses are.

Anyway, the Mongol invasion. Then it stays constant, and then sometime in this period, probably there’s no census really, they don’t have any data between 1400 and 1750 so this curve in here is guesswork, but sometime in the 1700s, as in Europe, the population takes off. Something like this doesn’t look wildly, in shape, in magnitude it’s different, but in shape it doesn’t look very different than Europe. In the Han Dynasty 60 million Chinese–1,400 years later in 1393 they counted 60.5 million people and in between the population went as low as 37 million. Then as I said the Mongol invasions decimated the population and then just–before the European Black Death but decimation the same sense as the European Black Death and then it took a long time for China’s population to come back up. By the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, one of the also very flourishing periods in Chinese history, China had maybe 75 million people, up from 60 million. Then it starts doubling, in the next 200 years it doubles and continues on up.

As in Europe there were major epidemics. In the 1640s there was some major epidemic that we can liken to plague, but people really don’t know what kind of disease it was. A Chinese scholar wrote in 1642, “The pestilence,” we don’t know what, “The pestilence arose again on a large scale affecting eight or nine of every ten households. In a household of ten or 20 people all would be afflicted and often all would die. At first the bodies were buried in coffins and next in grasses, but finally they were just left in the places where they died.” In one big city in 1643 there were few–there was basically no signs of human life in the streets, “only the buzzing of flies broke the silence.” Those are quotes from Chinese observers.

Very interestingly, it was at this time in the 1640s that the Chinese, having experienced this massive disease, developed a new medical theory of disease and epidemics based on Chi, and you’ve all heard of Chi, which is supposedly sort of the life force that’s involved in acupuncture and everything. Their view was that there was this sort of non-material substance, force, kind of like phlogiston in the West and it had to be in balance, and when the Chi on heaven and earth, there was Chi in heaven and Chi on earth, got disrupted then plague–then chaos broke out on earth and people started dying of various diseases.

Of course you know Americans have recently become wildly infatuated with Chinese medicine and the Chi theory of things and acupuncture, and we can talk a lot about that privately if you wish but the point is it did not help the Chinese at all. You can see the birth–the medical statistics, again as far as we have them, and up until recent times from the practice of acupuncture you don’t see any form of disease lessened at all and the only thing you see in China, and Japan also, is a tremendous rise in hepatitis because of the transmission from the needles because they didn’t understand anything about sterilization.

Then these plagues caused enormous political changes just as in Europe. The Ming Dynasty, for instance, fell, possibly as a result of the depopulation and chaos of the plague and that allowed the Mongol’s to come in and set up their own dynasty. I’m sorry the Manchu from Manchuria, the Manchu to come in and set up the Qing Dynasty. Similarly to Europe, after one of these decimations of the population, good land became available and people moved into the good land and they had a blossoming of wealth and culture even for the peasants. It’s a cycle not very different than what Malthus talked about, balancing the relationship between the number of people and the amount of land available.

Throughout this whole period, life expectancy was very poor. We have scattered statistics, so a village in the 1790s showed that one-third of male children died in their first year of life and half of them died before they were 20, and the female situation was comparable but probably worse because of infanticide, so they’re probably counting only those that got through the period of infanticide. Life expectancy was 32 in this particular village and only 4% of the population lived past 65. Again, it’s not terribly different than what we saw in the statistic–the graph for CisAlpine Gall, where about a third of the women are dead before they start their reproductive life.

When the Ming came to power there was still land–unoccupied land available. As Malthus said, the best land was already used for agriculture but there was less good land still available. Under the Ming the population grew, we’re talking 1600s into 1700s, the Ming–I’m sorry that ends in 1650 or so. The population grew, what did the people do? They moved onto the marginal land and that meant higher into the mountains on steeper–trying to farm on steeper slopes. They cleared forested areas, they moved into dry areas, and the result of all this was enormous soil erosion, especially on the mountainsides in the dry areas.

The productivity dropped because this land is just not good and the erosion–the forest couldn’t hold the water anymore. The period of China–China’s always had floods, it’s a big part of the Chinese history, but these really massive, massive uncontrollable floods date from this period where the people–the population increased and people started going into areas where it’s ecologically very unstable, cutting down the forests and then when it rains you get these enormous floods. The floods not only–they devastated the agriculture in the lowlands so you not only had a poorer agriculture per capita in the highlands, but you also reduced the per capita farming in the lowlands.

Again, population growth can make it difficult for everybody. Again, like Europe and like Africa, American foods, when they were discovered, went into China because they, as I said, have something like twice the caloric content of anything except rice. If you can grow rice, rice is as good as potatoes or just about as good. China picked up sweet potatoes especially, peanuts especially, some white potatoes, and they doubled food production. Guess what happened? The population doubled, so again, the introduction of these foods and the tremendous improvement in agriculture didn’t help the per capita eating, the per capita amount of food for individuals.

During this same period, as people increased, one farmer could grow more food, but the people that could eat needed more land for themselves, so they moved farther out and the land under cultivation increased by a factor of 4.5 times. But, again, during this sort of second round of population growth, one is–when the Ming take over and one is after American foods are introduced, the erosion becomes extreme. It’s so extreme that, by 1978, about one-third of all arable land in China had to be abandoned because of erosion. So, it’s an enormous problem in China.

Chapter 3. Why Did China Have High Population Growth? [00:20:18]

This is really–China experienced Malthus, what I call Malthus with a vengeance, so this is the cultivated land and you can see that here 1700 or so basically American foods come in and you can plant stuff everywhere, and the amount of land under cultivation goes up like crazy. Some of this decline is very recent, is industrialization, cities growing, and some of it is erosion. The land thing looks like an enormous increase in the amount of land available for farming but here is the per capita amount of land, the cultivated land hectares per capita, where this is simple hectares and it grows, then it crashes, probably again to do with the Mongol invasions so just fewer people. I’m sorry I’ve got this backwards, it rises here the land per capita because you just get rid of the people and then, in the modern population growth, the land per capita just crashes down.

Now it’s–this is 0.2 hectares now were 0.1 hectare per person, which is like a quarter of an acre, a very small amount of land per person. Of course the Chinese realized this, as well as anybody, and it was a matter of official concern during the Ming and the Qing dynasties. In 1790, just before Malthus wrote, a Chinese scholar and high government official, Hong Liang-ji, he started warning the Chinese about the difficulties that unchecked population would cause as it outraced Chinese productive capacity, that’s the way he phrased it. It’s clear that the original understanding of China, that its population was pressing really severely against its resources, was accurate but it still doesn’t explain why was it in China that you got these incredibly dense populations. Why didn’t that happen elsewhere say in China or England?

What jumps to your mind? Probably a very high fertility, they had no–in England we talked about the late marriage system and everything which kept fertility down. Americans generally have the image and Westerners generally have the image that the Chinese reproduce–have a lot of children all the time; it’s like your grandparents or something. This makes good sense in the Chinese culture. The principal goal of life was to produce sons, as you’ve heard over and over again, and this origin of ancestor worship I think as you just said, goes back at least to the second and third millennia B.C., so 5000 years, what Qing said is the scholarly number.

They did all kinds of things to get a son, adoption was very, very common, you’ll read about that in the reading if you haven’t already, James Lee talks about very high rates of adoption, people who didn’t have a son would get an adoption. The filial piety that they had, a Confucian system, which I’ll talk about in a moment, where the older–the younger brothers for instance had to pay absolute obedience to the older brothers and they all had to pay absolute obedience to the father. If a younger brother had a son and the older brother didn’t, the younger brother had to give that son to the older brother. By modern times that was the same situation in Qing’s family, of course that Confucian, that strict Confucian thing doesn’t exist anymore, but in the old days it would always be the younger son’s no matter what the biological story was it would always be the younger sons that did not have male children.

In China, everyone was expected to marry, and they married very young in order to secure a bride because, as I mentioned to you, I think with respect to the sex selective abortion, traditionally China has always done away with 10% to 25% of its females, so there was always–not always but as much as we have data, and so there’s always been an excess of males and a lot of–they can’t get married so they did all kinds of things to secure a bride for a son and that included getting betrothed very, very young and starting reproduction as puberty allowed. It was made worse by the fact that it was quite acceptable for males to take second wives, or third wives, or fourth wives down into concubines and every time one male had more than one wife then some other male got no wife at all.

Let’s look–so one of the possibilities is the obvious one, is China had very high fertility, and we’ll see if that’s true. Here’s a bunch of data, and what this is, is the age of the woman and they don’t have much reproduction beyond age 40 in this sample, although modernly we would have; the age of the woman and what her rate is per–I guess per 1000 women. You can see–women start out at age 20 with a very high rate and all these curves with a high rate of reproduction. It either goes down a little bit by age 25 or in some places increases a little bit by age 25, and then as the woman gets older fertility drops off, there’s fewer and fewer children per year. Forty year olds just have fewer children then 20 or 25 year olds, that’s a very obvious kind of thing.

Now these are two different sets of population and this is data from one area of the world, data from another area of the world. One area is all the data from China with one line from Japan and the other set of data is Europe, and various European countries. Guess which is which? Some hands; a big difference in fertility.

Student: Is China the one on the bottom?

Professor Robert Wyman: You think China’s the one at the bottom.

Student: One of the articles they’re talking about how a lot–like some of these families actually have low fertility because of marital restraint.

Professor Robert Wyman: That’s right, that’s the Lee article. We’re one lecture behind as you’ve probably realized already, and so the reading that you should do tonight actually gave away the answer. Yes, this is the European population, this is the Chinese population. The Chinese, once married, within marriage, and in both places extramarital fertility is not a big deal so this is–you can take this as general reproduction but within marriage the Europeans had a much higher rate of childbearing then the Chinese did. In fact, it’s almost a factor of two, from 200 to 300, from 400 to 500 that it was a lot. The Europeans, once married once having access to sex really had children uncontrollably as one says, whereas, the Chinese were doing something to control their births.

That was a shocker when this data came out, it’s fairly recent data, because the presumption, from at least Malthus’ time, was that the Chinese just reproduced like flies or something and that the Europeans had this wonderful restraint and it turns out that’s just the opposite of what it is true. It’s very surprising given the cultural emphasis on reproduction by the Chinese. One of the big issues now under discussion is whether this is a sign whether the Chinese were consciously doing some kind of birth control, they were consciously trying to limit their families, or whether it was one of these cultural things where the culture in some sense stumbles onto a practice and it makes that culture successful, even though the people have no idea what the purpose of it is. It may just be sort of an artifact of culture and they will think, the population will think this is due to their following God’s rules or proper decorum, or various cultural reasons, they will give you cultural reasons why they have few children, and not understand that that’s what makes the whole society survive.

James Lee, who is definitely the world’s foremost demographer of China, he has no doubt, even though the data’s not as solid as one would like, he has no doubt that it was infrequent sexual activity that led to the low birthrate, as a cultural thing not as a conscious way of reducing fertility. He describes a story where a young couple gets married and they’re in the–what we perceive as the height of sexual desire and–but their sleeping arrangements are they have–there’s a double-decker bed and they’re married–the young married couple sleeps above and the grandmother is in the bed below, and the grandmother–carries her cane to bed and whenever upstairs she hears things starting to go on bang, bang, bang, cut it out and so that kind of thing that the old people didn’t go along with this.

The reason for this, as the Chinese would see it, is that the Confucian ethic, they don’t have–it’s not a religious thing at all, there’s no sense of a deity or anything supernatural going on, but personal relationships are what’s important. They are a set of unequal personal relationship; a subject has to give absolute deference to the ruler, the emperor. Children have to give absolute deference to the parents and to elders. Women have to give absolute deference first to her brothers and then to her husband, women to men. Younger brothers have to give absolute deference to their older brothers.

Of these, the only relationship that’s equal is friend/friend relationship, that’s the fifth relationship, so you can be buddies with your friend but you must be superior to your wife, and your wife must be inferior to you, and so you cannot be friends with them. Love or passion between a married couple not only didn’t happen, it was not approved of, it was like being–you’re being bad if you love your wife, if you have passion for your wife, that was not a good thing. Husband and wife did not relate to each other as lovers or even as friends.

And there’s a very famous Chinese story where a young man had been married some years, is walking with a friend–with another male friend with whom he can befriend and converse and he’s bemoaning his fate that here, he loves his wife so extremely but he can’t have a–he can’t express his love for her to her, he can’t have walks in the moonlight like he’s having with his male friend, he can’t have this kind of a chat with her because that is against the morality and ethics of the system.

These cultural things, which I think no Chinese of the time would describe as ‘that’s the way we keep our population down,’ is what’s the explanation for this, rather than some kind of conscious effort. Another factor that is not a conscious sort of thing is the Chinese married younger then Europeans. When you do an age adjusted thing, by 20 they had been married for several years, and there’s what called the boredom factor going on, that no matter what age couples marry at they have sex a lot in the beginning and so–if they’re not protecting themselves they have a high birthrate and then it falls down. Some fraction of this difference here may just be due to the age of marriage.

Student: So then why is that Chinese population is so much more dense?

Professor Robert Wyman: Yeah, we’re going to get to that. Actually we may not get to it until next time but that’s still, again we’re pushing–we still haven’t explained why the population is more dense–it’s getting time–let me just finish saying something about this 10% to 25% getting rid of the females, which again, would reduce the population would lead you to not think there was such a density.

In the seventeenth century, again this is from Jesuit missionaries to China, reporting back to Europe, they were horrified to find that in Beijing along, Peking at the time, several thousand babies, almost exclusively females, were thrown into the streets like refuse to be collected each morning by carriers who dumped them into huge pits outside the city. It sounds very much like Europe of the similar time. What’s interesting is that, right now, China is approaching pretty much the same female, with the sex selective infanticide, pretty the same female deficit that’s been as far as we can tell a traditional level of it, but now there’s all this moaning and groaning about all these unmarried males and how it will utterly disrupt Chinese society and it’s a horrible sort of thing.

Also, I think I mentioned this before, as you’ve seen in Europe rather than 10% to 25% of the males not being able to get married because of the deficit of females, 40%, 50%, and 60% of the males did not get married in Europe. I showed you the graphs of that when we discussed Europe.

The Chinese system, fertility system, which keeps their population manageable, not small but manageable, is moderately early, not extremely early, moderately early and nearly universal marriage of surviving females. In 1998, for instance, only 1% of Chinese women were unmarried by age 30, whereas, in the west in that year 15% were unmarried 15 times as much, even by age 40 in the west. The European system was that only about half of everybody got married, but once married they had births at about twice the rate of Chinese and Chinese all the women got married, but within marriage they had a low rate of fertility.

You have to–you cut your fertility down by half either by the European thing of less than complete marriage or by the Chinese thing of less than complete fertility. It looks like that fertility, the total fertility rates should be more or less the same between China and Europe, but by essentially opposite kinds of fertility systems. We’ll see–I’m sorry next time we’ll continue and we’ll see what is one of the theories for why China got into the difficulties, it was not just uncontrolled reproduction.

[end of transcript]

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