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Studies on the Population of China

January 29, 2010

Ho Ping-ti. Studies on the Population of China, 1368-1953. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1959.

Zhou Guanghui (2000)

The huge and ever expanding population made known by the 1953 census caused hot debate on population policies in China. Population problem was not only related closely to the possibility of the native development of capitalism in late imperial China, a topic greatly interested the Chinese Marxist scholars, it was also related to current politics concerning socialist construction. At least Mao Zedong’s optimism about population growth decisively shaped the way to modernize China – to achieve rapid economic development by using cheap and massive population. This finally led to almost disastrous Great Leap Forward. Interestingly, while Ho Ping-ti later became a famous Maoist during the Cultural Revolution, at least in the late 1950s he would certainly not agree with Mao. And perhaps this is one of the motives that urged Ho to undertake the task to study population problems from a historical perspective.

In this soundly based and richly detailed study on Chinese population, Ho argues that since the founding of Ming dynasty, the population movement in China has changed from previously a cyclic pattern to a continual and perhaps linear pattern of growth. Especially from 1650 to 1850, China experienced “a unique chapter of population growth” (pp. 266-67) due to the unusually favorable material conditions and the benevolent despotism of the early Manchu rulers. However, the rapid population expansion in the absence of a major technological revolution in modern times created an enduring and increasingly intense tension between population and economic resources. Quoting a Qing scholar Ho claims that the ills of nineteenth-century China were due neither to misgovernment nor to the nation’s lack of ingenuity and diligence, but primarily to an increasing disproportion between population and economy. (p. 274) In short, serious population problems to a great extent account for the economic difficulties of modern China.

Although there are many data concerning population available in Chinese history, they turn out to be of little use for quantitative research on historical changes in population. One of the greatest merits of Ho’s studies is that perhaps for the first time he makes sense of these data that have been misread by other scholars for a long time. In Part One he examines in their institutional contexts the nature of the official population records available for the various historical periods from Ming to PRC. His analyses of the key term of “ting” reveal that in the past the prevailing purpose of population recording was fiscal rather than demographic. Consequently the result has been a low estimate of actual population, because the belief in fixed tax quota, corruption, and tax evasion effectively kept the government from increasing taxes according to the expanding population.

Lacking usable data for quantitative demographic studies, in Part Two Ho instead focuses on a broad range of factors that influenced population growth either favorably or adversely. In particular he goes into a vast and relatively unexplored world of the Chinese local gazetteers in his discussion of land data, inter-regional migration, food production, commercial development, institutional changes, and catastrophic determinants. Based on his insightful and rigorous studies, Ho finally concludes by offering a quite convincing demonstration of certain general population trends and a suggestion of new methods for reconstructing China’s historical population data. And the figures concerning population growth he gives in this book, I believe, are still the best estimations available today despite the need for minor revisions.

In the last analysis, Ho’s treatment of the population problem is obviously different from other research projects of the period that strongly favor political, diplomatic and intellectual history from a top-down perspective. It is really amazing that he deals with various important issues in a single book, including day-to-day operations of local government, the non-Han minorities, the Taiping rebellion, social control under the Guomindang, migration, crops and land utilization, and so on. His broad concerns make this book a significant contribution not only to demographic studies, but to social and economic history as well.

© Copyright 2000. All rights reserved.

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