Demography of Qing China
Demography of Qing China
- Shuang ChenShuang ChenUniversity of Iowa
The Qing dynasty (1644–1912) experienced one of the fastest population growth rates of the premodern world. The total population grew from well over 100 million in the late 17th century to 430 million in the mid-19th century. This rapid population growth was produced by the proactive response of Chinese families to new and improved economic opportunities after an initial period of war and chaos, especially the recovery and development of agriculture and increased food productivity and living standards from the end of the 17th to the mid-19th century.
The social and cultural systems of Qing China were characterized by distinctive patterns of mortality, marriage, and fertility. In terms of mortality, improved living standards and health intervention in the Qing enabled some populations to enjoy a life expectancy comparable to their European counterparts. At the same time, in a largely patriarchal society, families practiced sex-selective infanticide, especially targeting girls, to control family size. Sex-selective infanticide resulted in a skewed sex ratio, which in turn led to a shortage of marriageable women. Therefore, while women married early and universally, a significant proportion of men remained unmarried. Moreover, since marriage in late imperial China was characterized by female hypergamy and male hypogamy, eventually, men with lower socioeconomic status fared poorly on the marriage market. In terms of fertility, historical data show that marital fertility among some Qing populations was low, and families practiced deliberate birth control to achieve a desired number and sex combination of children.
Other than regulating their demographic behaviors, families also proactively used strategies such as adoption and migration to keep a balance between family size and resources. Low marital fertility, high infant and child mortality, and the practice of infanticide left some people without a male heir. Childless and especially sonless couples responded by male adoption to continue their family lines. Adoption, especially the adoption of sons, was a prevalent and integral part of the Chinese demographic system during the Qing and functioned to counteract the negative effects of low marital fertility and infanticide. In addition, migration was increasingly common in the Qing dynasty and helped ease regional population pressure on economic resources, thereby making sustained population growth possible.
Finally, in the Qing demographic system, gender, socioeconomic status, and family hierarchy significantly affected individuals’ demographic outcomes: the likelihood of dying, being married, and having more children. Gender often had opposite effects on men and women. While household socioeconomic status had significant effects, an individual’s position in the hierarchy within each household was also important in influencing her or his demographic outcomes. This is because the household constituted the basic unit of production and consumption. Often, the household head did not equally allocate resources among all members but instead favored the priority group within the household.