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History Assignment on Population Growth and Migration

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History Assignment on Population Growth and Migration


Unit 8


Population Growth and Migration




Learning Objectives:

The objectives of this unit are to invite you to:

  1. Explore the major causes and consequences of China’s

rapid population growth after 1700.


  1. Examine migration trends in late imperial China as responses to growing population pressure.


  1. Analyze the changing relationship between population and governance during the late imperial period


Online Reading


Miles, Steven B. Chinese Diasporas: A Social History of Global Migration. New Approaches to Asian History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. doi:10.1017/9781316841211.

*Chapters 1 (“Early Modern Patterns, 1500-1740”) and 2 (“Migration in the Prosperous Age, 1740-1840”), pp. 20-89. If you like, you can also read Chapter 3, (“The Age of Mass Migration, 1840- 1937”), pp. 90-135.












List of Topics


  1. The Scale of Population Growth in Late Imperial China and Possible Explanations


  1. How was Population Growth Sustained?


  1. Population Growth and Migration


  1. Political Consequences of Population Growth































In order to give meaning to the past, historians often divide the historical record into different periods. A conventional method of periodizing history involves identifying significant dividing lines or “turning points”: specific junctures in time which appear to mark a break from the past and the start of something new. Note that, by its very nature, this method of periodization emphasizes change and downplays the significance of continuities over time. In addition, historical turning points are typically identified with reference to major political events like revolutions, wars, elections, death or assassination of political leaders, and the like. In the case of modern Chinese history, this would include events and dates such as 1644, a watershed year marking the end of the Ming dynasty, the Manchu conquest of China, and the establishment of the Qing, China’s last imperial dynasty; and 1839, the year of the Opium War, when Britain forced China’s opening to western trade and diplomacy. The list would naturally also include the Revolution of 1911 which overthrew the Qing dynasty and established the Republic of China; and 1949, the year of the Chinese Communist Party’s victorious defeat of Nationalist Government forces and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Likewise, the death of Mao Zedong in September 1976 also constituted a watershed in China’s modern political history, as did his former rival Deng Xiaoping’s consolidation of power at the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in December 1978, which marks the beginning of the present Reform period in China.


Important as these political dates and events are for enabling us to comprehend and delineate the trajectory of China’s modern political transformations over the last four hundred years, historians have recently begun to question their value for illuminating the broader social, economic and cultural processes that lay behind these political transformations. Indeed, by observing only great political events or the rise and fall of “great” leaders, we may easily overlook or obscure the equally important significance and effects of longer term social, economic and cultural trends, such as changes in the class structure, shifts in the economic base, technological innovations, or the appearance of new cultural beliefs and practices. Recent research has shown that such longer-term trends may be unaffected or only marginally and temporarily affected by the kinds of political events described above—yet their impact on society and on people’s lives and livelihoods may be equal or even greater than the impact of passing political events. A good example from our contemporary era might be the long-term cumulative effects of digitalization on society, economy and culture compared to, say, periodic elections. 


Historians of China have recently identified a number of such long-term trends which began in the 1500s and then proceeded to significantly transform the social, cultural and economic landscape of China over the next two to four centuries. These forces included commercialization and monetization (the increased use of money), development of foreign trade, the spread of literacy, the gradual blurring of some conventional class and status distinctions, and rapid population growth. Such was the combined impact of these trends that social and cultural historians increasingly consider them as delineating a distinctive period in Chinese history, usually termed the “late imperial period” or sometimes the “early modern” period is a term derived from European historiography), which began around 1500 and lasted until the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. to 1900.


In this unit, we focus our attention on what is arguably one of the most critical long-term societal trends in Chinese history over the past six centuries, namely the growth in population. We first examine the basic dimensions of this historical trend and the methods that historians have employed to study it, and then consider some of the competing theories that have been advanced to explain population growth. Finally, we will address some of the critical consequences of rapid population growth for society, economy and politics in the late imperial period.


Topic 1


The Scale of Population Growth in Late Imperial China and Possible Explanations


1400s > : The Beginning of Rapid and Sustained Population Growth


As the figures below indicate, China’s population remained relatively stable at around 60-80 million for approximately eight centuries from 100 CE to 900 CE. Thereafter, population increased gradually over the course of the next five centuries, from around 80 million in 900 to 110 million in 1400. Beginning around 1400, however, and especially after 1700, China’s population entered a period of rapid and sustained increase, to the extent that population doubled within the course of a century from 1700 to 1800.


180            60 million

875           80 million

1200         110 million

1400         110 million

1700        150 million

1800        300 million

1900         450 million


The year 1400 thus marked the beginning of a fundamental increase in China’s population over the next five centuries. It is important for us to recognize that the phenomenon of rapid population growth was by no means unique to China; indeed, a similar population explosion also occurred in Europe around this time. The major difference lies in the relative scale of the increase. Since China had a much bigger population than Europe to begin with, the size of the increase was correspondingly larger. Using 1800 as a benchmark, China’s population was approximately 300 million compared to only 11 million in England and 40 million in Russia. Moreover, while population figures for Europe around this time are likely fairly accurate, the figures for China are more likely to be an underestimate. This was due to the different methods and motives in record keeping. In Europe, local church parishes kept meticulous records of births, deaths and marriage (even today these parish registers remain a critical source for social historians and demographers). China did not have any equivalent of the detailed parish registers kept in Europe. Moreover, the population figures that were collected in late imperial China were gathered by local officials for purposes of taxation and corvee (compulsory labour). Since many localities sought to shield population increases in order to evade taxes and compulsory labour, it is safe to say that the Chinese population figures cited above likely fall short of the true figure. This is especially true for the period after 1700, when the efficiency of local government began a steep decline.



Global Warming; Malthusian theory; prosperity vs poverty as potential drivers of population growth


 Historians do not yet fully understand the complex reasons behind the rapid population growth in China after 1400. Some explanations emphasize the role of universal factors affecting global changes in population, while others stress the significance of conditions and circumstances specific to China. The French historian Fernand Braudel posited the existence of a global warming trend that began around 1450 and which everywhere had the effect of lengthening the growing season and thereby increasing the available food supply. However, Braudel was unable to offer any scientific evidence to support this theory; he simply hypothesized that the existence of such a trend might explain why population began to grow rapidly in many different parts of the world after the mid-1400s.


Another explanation that has been cited for China’s rapid population growth relates to the theory of population developed by the influential British economist and philosopher, Thomas Malthus (1766-1834). In his 1798 work, An Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus proposed a general theory of population growth and its relationship to the economy. Malthus believed that population will naturally increase up to the limits of subsistence. Net increases in a given population over time were the result of either increased fertility (an expanding birth rate) or a decrease in mortality (a falling death rate) or a combination of both. In times of peace and plenty, Malthus argued, there will be increased food supply and better nutrition, leading to more births and fewer people dying prematurely from disease and disaster. Malthus also postulated that population grows exponentially (1>2>4>8>16), while food supply grows only sequentially (1>2>3>4>5). Hence, he claimed, periodic crises of overpopulation are inevitable, because the rate of population growth always outstrips the growth in the food supply. The only guard against overpopulation, said Malthus, were periodic checks on population growth in the form of famine, war and natural disasters.


Some have suggested that China’s population growth after 1400, and especially in the two centuries from 1650-1850, appears to fit the Malthusian pattern. Following the Manchu conquest of 1644, China entered a prolonged period of peace, prosperity and stability that lasted  approximately two centuries until the outbreak of the massive Taiping Rebellion in 1850, which claimed more than 20 million lives in less than fifteen years. During these two centuries, there were no major wars, famines or other political or natural disasters within China “proper” (that is to say, excluding the frontier regions which were the focus of expansionist Qing military campaigns). At the same time, this period also saw several important medical advances, including the discovery of a small pox vaccine in the 15th century (more than two hundred years before the first smallpox vaccine was developed in Europe). Prolonged peace combined with critical medical advances likely resulted in a reduced death rate. Likewise, political stability and economic prosperity may have contributed to an improved food supply as well as the economic means by which to sustain larger families. Some scholars have also speculated that the unprecedented prosperity of the late imperial period contributed to an increase in fertility by enabling more families to realize the Confucian cultural ideal of a large family with many sons.


The above explanation regards economic prosperity as a key factor contributing to China’s rapid population growth during the late imperial period. There is also an alternative explanation, however, which emphasizes the role of poverty. This argument is based on the premise that peasant families in the late imperial period wanted children for utilitarian reasons as well as for cultural and emotional ones. The two most important utilitarian reasons for peasant households to want to increase family size, especially sons, were labour power and insurance in old age. In late imperial China, without modern-type senior citizen’s homes or state-run social welfare services for the elderly, and where cultural norms stressed the importance of filial piety and respect and care for elders, parents naturally regarded sons as the best guarantee for maintaining their security and well-being in old age (not daughters, as they were expected to marry out and leave their natal family). Moreover, since infant mortality was high, peasant households would often strive to have many children, in the assumption that only a few would reach adulthood and be in a position to care for their aging parents.


Topic 2


How was Population Growth Sustained?


Whatever the exact reasons China’s rapid population growth after 1400—and historians may never be able to identify these with certainty—there is also the related question of how the increase in population was sustained over time. Did the food supply manage to keep pace with population growth? On the basis of the limited evidence available, historians such as Dwight Perkins have come to the conclusion that in the six centuries between 1400 and 1900, China’s food supply did expand sufficiently to keep pace with population growth—defying the Malthusian proposition described above.


The increase in food supply appears to have been accomplished by two means, with roughly half the increase attributable to an expansion in the amount of cultivated acreage, and the rest the result of improvements in productivity using traditional methods. Expansion of the amount of cultivated land was made possible by the opening up of new and previously marginal lands to cultivation. The Chinese empire doubled in size during the course of the eighteenth century, as a result of expansionist military campaigns in the far west. Colonization of previously unsettled land was also made possible by the appearance, from the early 1500s, of new food crops from the Americas, particularly maize, sweet potatoes and peanuts. Not only did these new crops thrive in previously uncultivable areas like sandy soils and hillsides, but they were also sources of energy rich in carbohydrates, which quickly made them daily staples of the poor.


The other source of increased food supply, enhanced productivity, was achieved without a fundamental change in traditional production technologies. Chinese farmers relied on the intensification of existing methods of cultivation to increase yields and sustain a growing population. For instance, it is estimated that the amount of irrigated land approximately tripled between 1400-1900. In addition, there was a significant increase in the use of fertilizer, especially “night soil” or human waste—which was itself made possible by the increase in population. Land productivity also benefitted from the diffusion of superior seed varieties, including new forms of disease-resistant and early ripening rice. The imperial state also took active measures to encourage the spread of superior and early ripening seed varieties across different regions of the empire. 

Topic 3


Population Growth and Migration


What were the economic, social and political consequences of the rapid expansion of population? Not a few historians believe that many of the most important economic, social and political changes of the late imperial period were directly or indirectly related to the demographic explosion that  occurred after 1400. The economy as a whole expanded greatly. It also grew more diversified and commercialized, as farmers began to specialize production to take advantage of emerging and growing markets. Urbanization accelerated dramatically, as great commercial cities grew up and prospered by serving as hubs for rapidly expanding regional and inter-regional trade. Many Chinese people, rural as well as urban dwellers, experienced unprecedented prosperity as population growth created new wealth-making opportunities. Population growth was a major factor contributing to the buoyancy of economic life in late imperial China. 


In this context, population growth also led to an unprecedented surge in migration. Late imperial China was a society on the move, in which huge numbers of people from all social classes left their villages for cities, frontier regions and overseas destinations in search of livelihood and opportunity. The period 1400-1900 witnessed a number of vast, internal migrations from the long settled plains and river valleys to previously unsettled highland areas (especially the Han river highlands, the hills above the Yangzi River, and the mountain ranges bordering Hunan and Jiangxi), as well as to recently depopulated areas such as Sichuan, whose population had been devastated by the wars accompanying the Ming-Qing transition, and later, at the end of the nineteenth century, to the lower Yangzi provinces whose populations had been decimated by the Taiping and Nian rebellions. Migrants also flocked to frontier regions in western and southwestern China, Manchuria (which the Qing rulers attempted, with limited success, to preserve as an exclusive Manchu homeland until the late 1800s), and the offshore island province of Taiwan.


In some cases, the Qing government actively encouraged internal migration by offering migrants material incentives in the form of free land and seeds, land tax exemptions, etc. This was the case, for example, when the dynasty sought to encourage Han Chinese settlement in strategic border areas, such as the southwest (Yunnan), west (Xinjiang) and areas along the Great Wall.


More often, however, migration in the late imperial period was the result of private initiative. The main destinations for voluntary migrants included cities, frontier regions and overseas. Chinese cities grew rapidly after 1400, becoming home to various kinds of short term and long-term sojourners, among whom merchants came to occupy a particularly important role. Rural residents moved in increasing numbers to cities in search of wealth-making opportunities and basic livelihoods, as well as to sparsely populated upland and peripheral regions of the empire. The result was the emergence by the eighteenth century of distinctive “frontier societies” with their own unique social, economic, cultural and political characteristics.


These newly formed frontier societies departed significantly from the usual patterns found in the long established, agriculturally-based peasant communities of the North China plain and of the river valleys and lowlands areas of South China. The latter were normally characterized by a high degree of ethnic (Han) homogeneity, the prominence of the Confucian scholar-gentry class, and by family-centred institutions governing social and economic life. By contrast, frontier societies tended to be made up of diverse, rootless and highly mobile populations. Their members were typically drawn from multiple localities, spoke different dialects and followed different cultural practices and values. In addition, frontier societies were often also distinguished by their highly skewed sex ratios, with a preponderance of young, single males in search of economic opportunities. Family and kinship, traditionally the central organizing principles of social, economic and cultural life in Chinese peasant communities, were relatively weak institutions in frontier societies. In the absence of the usual networks of family and kin, frontier societies were more often organized around solidarities based on dialect, native place, surname, fictive kinship and other forms of voluntary association. Not surprisingly, given their rootless and transient populations, frontier societies were also fertile recruitment grounds for secret societies, popular religious sects and other popular movements, which mutual help, fraternity and a sense of belonging to rootless individuals who lacked the usual support networks of family and kin.


Owing to their recent settlement and diverse origins, frontier societies were also characterized by the absence of the traditional local elite or gentry class consisting of degree-holders, scholars, retired officials, and established landlord families—those who traditionally exercised social and political leadership in local society. In many cases, the presence of the imperial state was also weak or even non-existent, since frontier communities were often located outside the formal jurisdiction or physical reach of local magistrates. Frontier societies were often distinguished, in other words, by the absence of firmly constituted political or moral authority. They tended to be relatively lawless communities, prone to violent group conflicts over competition for resources. Often, such conflicts were between new immigrants and indigenous peoples (such as the conflict which broke out in the eighteenth century between Han settlers and Miao aborigines in southwestern China over control of land and natural resources) or between rival groups of settlers over control of water and other natural resources. Maintenance of irrigation, for example, was a crucial component in the economic welfare of agricultural communities, and was dependent upon a high degree of mutual trust and cooperation among community members. In most parts of rural China, local irrigation facilities were organized by local officials and managed by local elites, who ensured their physical maintenance, regulated access to water among households, mediated disputes, and so on. In the case of irrigation disputes in frontier regions, however, there was often no legal or moral authority to which complainants could turn for redress, and therefore no alternative but violent confrontation.


Finally, the economies of frontier societies was often based, not on permanent cultivation, such as was the case in China’s lowland and plains regions, but on shifting cultivation and the extraction of natural resources (timber, minerals, furs, forest produce). Owing to the low soil productivity in many frontier regions, agriculture was often based on the slash and burn method, whereby the existing ground cover was removed and crops planted on a temporary basis until soil depletion forced relocation to a new area where the pattern was repeated. As a result, environmental degradation in frontier societies was often severe, involving deforestation, soil erosion, and flooding.


The third major destination for migrants in the late imperial period after cities and frontier regions was overseas. Permanent communities of Chinese migrants, comprised mainly of traders and drawn mainly from the two southeastern coastal provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, had existed in peninsular and island southeast Asia since at least the 1500s. Overseas migration from southeastern China increased dramatically in the nineteenth century as the result of a combination of “push” and “pull” factors. On the “push” side, population pressure and political crisis were major factors. Southeastern China was among the most densely populated regions of the empire. The Taiping rebellion of 1850-64, which originated in Guangdong and eventually engulfed all of south China, devastated the economies and societies of much of the region. On the “pull” side, from the early 1800s European colonial powers embarked upon a deliberate and large-scale effort to recruit cheap Chinese labour for their rapidly expanding plantation economies and mining industries around the globe. The infamous “coolie” or “pig” trade fostered an unprecedented mass migration of Chinese peasant labourers from the villages of southeastern China to Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, South America and Africa. Large numbers of Chinese labourers were also recruited to construct the transcontinental railroads in Canada and the U.S., where they laboured under harsh conditions for menial wages.


While historians frequently point to the positive economic effects of population growth in the late imperial period, the rise of mass migration, both domestic and external, suggests that, at least for some sectors of the population, the conditions of daily life were becoming more, not less, difficult. Indeed, it appears that at some point, probably by the late 1700s, the benefits of rapid population growth began to be outweighed by the mounting negative effects. Evidence for this is anecdotal, but in the late 1700s Chinese scholars and officials began commenting on the emergence of what we might today describe as a “dog-eat-dog” society, in which people competed ever more ruthlessly with one another for increasingly scarce opportunities and resources. To be sure, the huge increase in population intensified the competition for land, resources and jobs. As the population-land ratio worsened, the average size of land-holdings began to shrink. And as arable land grew increasingly scarce, it also became increasingly valued as a commodity, so that those with means acquired more of it, while those without means slid ever easier and more quickly into tenancy, debt, and landlessness. As the number of civil service positions failed to keep pace with the increase in population, competition in the imperial civil service examinations intensified and the number of frustrated unemployed and underemployed examination graduates multiplied. Over the longer period, population pressure created a growing underclass of disadvantaged and dispossessed persons. It was precisely this increasing social dislocation and rising social tension that lay behind the rising incidence of banditry and rebellion from the late eighteenth century, as well as the proliferation of secret societies and popular religious sects.


Topic 4


Political Consequences of Population Growth


One of the most significant long-term political consequences of rapid population growth in the late imperial period was a decline in the imperial state’s capacity to govern effectively. We noted above that while population continued to grow in the late imperial period, the number of civil service positions and size of the imperial bureaucracy remained relatively stable. Why was this the case? Today we live in an era of big government, in which the size of bureaucracy is seemingly always expanding. The situation and attitude toward government in late imperial China was decidedly different, however. In the first place, Confucian statecraft advocated a principle of minimalist government. While the state upheld a theoretical claim to jurisdiction over all areas of life with a social component, it also, at the same time, enshrined a principle of light government, which held that rulers should not weigh heavily on the backs of the people. As the ancient Daoist philosopher Laozi is reputed to have said: “Govern a big country as you would cook a small fish—don’t overcook it!”. The ideal was a largely self-regulating society organized around family institutions and values, in which there was little need for the state to intervene, save for collecting taxes and maintaining law and order. A second reason for the continued small size of government relative to an ever- expanding population may have been related to more generic problems of control and communication in a premodern polity: that is, the bigger government got, the more unwieldy it became. In other words, the absence of modern technological means of control and communication may have imposed a natural limit on the size of government.


Perhaps the most important reason for the small size of government, however, was that dynasties in general, and the Qing in particular, feared giving too much power to the bureaucracy, which they regarded as a potential threat. The Chinese dynastic political system was characterized by a permanent tension between the throne, on the one hand, and the bureaucracy, on the other, which governed the huge empire. The bureaucracy could easily strive to evade, deflect or ignore the demands of the throne or the central state, putting its own interests first. Imperial fear and distrust of the bureaucracy was exacerbated in the case of the Qing dynasty because the Manchus were foreign rulers, while the bureaucracy was overwhelmingly Han Chinese. As alien rulers ever vigilant to internal challenges to their security and rule, the Manchus were even more determined to keep the Han Chinese bureaucracy as small as possible, the better to control it.


Meanwhile, however, the empire’s population continued to swell. As a consequence, the quality and efficiency of local government declined markedly over time. We can see this clearly reflected in the increasingly heavy administrative burden which fell on Qing county magistrates during the course of the dynasty. At the beginning of the Qing dynasty, in the mid-1600s, county magistrates were responsible for governing an average county population of 100,00-150,000 persons. By the late 1800s, the same county magistrates ruled over average county populations of 350,000-450,000. Two important consequences flowed from this trend. First, as noted, the quality and efficiency of local government deteriorated significantly over the course of the Qing period. Second, as the size of government failed to keep pace with population, more and more of the functions of local government—like tax collection and policing—were  perforce turned over to non-governmental local elites, who expanded their power and influence in local society at the expense of the imperial government. Both of these developments were to have important implications for the China’s political and social trajectory in the twentieth century.


Discussion Questions


  1. Are there any similarities or differences between the factors that drove migration, both domestic as well as external, in the late imperial period compared to those that drive Chinese migration, domestic and overseas, in the contemporary period?


  1. Which of the explanations for population growth cited in this unit do you find most persuasive and why? Are there any other possible explanations?


  1. Is there such a thing as “overpopulation?” If so, how would you define it and what does it actually mean? How do you know when it’s been reached?



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