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New Perspectives on China’s Late Imperial Period

Why China Slept

Patrick Leung

The book offers new perspectives on the history of China’s late imperial period and presents a much-needed novel explanation for China’s stagnation and decline in recent centuries. It begins by questioning all the conventional wisdom on the factors behind China’s relative lack of progress and subsequent decline since the 15th century and follows with a fresh interpretation of China’s past. The new vantage points provide insights into China’s resurgence in recent decades and its significance for other nations. The book also makes projections on the general direction that China’s future evolution is likely to take with respect to its market economy, rule of law and representative institutions.

The author aims to deepen international understanding of China’s past and present which will hopefully facilitate the development of more productive relationships between China and other nations. The book is written so that it appeals to students, academics as well as the general public and whoever is interested in gaining a better understanding of China’s rapid rise today. The book is relevant to third and fourth year undergraduate courses in history, economics, international relations, law and political science. It can be used as a text book for upper class core or elective courses in history and economics and as a reference book for upper class courses in international relations, law and political science. It can also serve as a reference book for graduate students in the above disciplines.

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Chapter Six Why Is the Chinese Population So Large?


Why Is the Chinese Population So Large?

The English economist and demographer Thomas Malthus believed that Chinese people desired large families and failed to recognize the importance of birth and population control. He maintained that such an attitude led to an ever-rising population in China which the country’s resources eventually could not sustain.1 Malthus’ ideas heavily influenced the views of scholars in the next two centuries and the absence of population control measures in China is often presumed to be another important factor behind China’s poverty and backwardness in the 19th century.2 However, recent scholarship indicated that Chinese in the Qing era did practice some forms of population control, although the methods used were very different from those of the West. In other words, China’s huge population requires explanations other than the absence of population control measures among its people.

The first section of this chapter summarizes the population control mechanisms employed in the late imperial period. The second section examines the main factors causing the upsurge in China’s population from the Song period onwards.

According to Malthus, China’s population growth was only restrained by famines, plagues and wars—so-called “positive checks”—which kept the population ←169 | 170→size in check by raising the death rate. On the other hand, Europe’s population growth was restrained by deliberate birth control practices—so-called “preventive checks”—which kept the population size in check by lowering the birth rate.3 However, recent work by James Lee and Wang Feng,...

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