Population Explosion: The Strain on the Imperial Economy

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Fall and Rise of China

By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles

A number of factors began to converge in the 18th century that were disastrous for China. Apart from the self-imposed isolation of the Chinese empire, at least two other forces were at work: population explosion, and the rise of European mercantilism.

The panorama painting "Departure Herald", painted during the reign of the Xuande Emperor.
Early in the 18th century, the population of China saw explosive growth. (Image: National Palace Museum/ Public domain)

The Empire’s Population Explosion

Early in the 18th century, around 1710, China’s population, which had been relatively stable at between 50 and 100 million for almost a thousand years, suddenly started surging. Within 75 years the population doubled, from 116 million to 242 million. In the century that followed, it doubled yet again.

The origins of this extraordinary population surge can be traced to three interconnected factors. First was the extended period of international peace that followed the Manchu (or Qing) conquest of China in 1644. With the country basically at peace, there was a clear decline in domestic mortality rates. Second, the new Manchu regime repaired long-neglected dykes and irrigation works along the Yellow and Yangzi rivers.

The subsequent improvement in water management resulted in fewer fatalities from flood, draught, water-borne disease and malnutrition. Finally, there was a significant rise in female fertility, resulting in a substantial and prolonged baby boom.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

A Looming Agrarian Crisis in the Empire

This prolonged population explosion eventually resulted in a Malthusian crisis, as population pressures began to strain the carrying capacity of a traditional agrarian economy. While population grew dramatically in the 18th and 19th centuries, there was no corresponding increase in total crop acreage under cultivation.

Because of a severe shortage of arable virgin farmland outside of China’s major river valleys, the 18th century demographic explosion resulted in a sharp increase in rural population density, and a corresponding reduction, over time, in the amount of land cultivated by the average Chinese farm family. From the beginning of the 18th century to its end, the average farm shrank in size from about 10 acres to less than 6 acres.

Learn more about the splendor that was China, 600-1700.

Agricultural Technological Complacency

This problem of rising population density was further compounded by the absence of significant innovation in agricultural technology. Because traditional Chinese agricultural and water management techniques, perfected a thousand years earlier, were extremely well suited to China’s monsoon climate and riverine ecosystem, a relatively large and stable core population had been sustained from the Tang dynasty right through the early years of Manchu rule.

But, as so often happens in human history, success breeds complacency, while also serving to impede innovation and introspection.

Consequently, throughout this extended period of ecological and demographic stability, there were few major technological advances either in production and marketing techniques or in water conservation and management. Consequently few improvements were achieved in the productivity of farms or in the efficiency of farmers.

The Equilibrium Trap

With a rural population that was rapidly expanding with no new agrarian technologies available to raise farm productivity and with few virgin lands available to lure struggling families to move to greener pastures, Chinese farmers in the late 18th century faced a classic Malthusian dilemma.

Chinese farm landscape watercolor
As the population of China exploded, the farm holdings became smaller and smaller, creating a crisis of agriculture. (Image: baoyan/Shutterstock)

This happened because the rapidly growing population first caught up with, and then gradually outstripped, the carrying capacity of the land.

The historian Mark Elvin has called this situation a “high-level equilibrium trap”. This situation is characterized by too many people eking out a living on too little land, using traditional means of production and having no place else to go.

As farms grew smaller and more and more rural families drifted to the edge of subsistence, grain surpluses vanished and agricultural taxes—which were the main source of imperial revenue—went uncollected. Almost unnoticed outside the hard-pressed Chinese countryside, the once mighty Manchu dynasty thus began to slip slowly into fiscal decline.

The Arrival of Western Merchants in China

When Western merchants first arrived in force in the late 1700s, rising Chinese commercial profits and customs revenue helped to mask the Empire’s fiscal decline from diminished world taxes. With Chinese teas, silks, spices, and porcelains in high demand in Europe, a very favorable Chinese balance of commodity trade helped offset the decline in farm revenues.

By the end of the 18th century, however, a few enterprising British merchants had come up with an ingenious way to obtain the precious Chinese products they needed to satisfy their customers, and to do so without having to expend valuable silver specie in the process. The key to this magical amplification of British profit was opium.

Opium was not entirely unknown in China before 1800. In the declining decades of the Ming dynasty, in the early 1600s, Portuguese traders had brought small quantities of opium paste from Thailand as tribute to the Chinese emperor. Also, a certain amount had also been brought in overland from Turkey via the Silk Road.

Learn more about the opium trade in China.

Upsetting the Balance of Trade in China

But when British merchants began smuggling opium in industrial quantities from India to China in the late 1700s, the effects were dramatic. From a mere 200 chests of opium in 1729 (that is, roughly 15 tons of processed opium), imports rose to 75 tons in 1767. By the 1810s annual imports averaged 340 tons, rising to around 750 tons in the 1820s. In 1839, a total of 3,000 tons of opium (or 6 million pounds) were imported into China.

Demand for the drug was high, and British smugglers and their Chinese middlemen profited handsomely from the growing opium trade. But China’s fast-rising addiction to opium had a strongly negative impact on the Manchu dynasty’s precarious fiscal stability. With the bulk of the profits from illicit opium trade going to line the pockets of foreign traffickers rather than the treasury of Beijing, China’s favorable trade balance began to shrink.

Common Questions about the Population Explosion in the Chinese Empire

Q: What were the causes of the population explosion in the Chinese empire?

There were three causes of the population explosion in the Chinese empire. First, there was a clear decline in domestic mortality rates because of the peace after the Manchu conquest of China. Second, the Manchu’s repair of dykes and irrigation works along the Yellow and Yangzi rivers, resulted in fewer fatalities from flood, drought, water-borne disease and malnutrition. Finally, there was a significant rise in female fertility, resulting in a substantial and prolonged baby boom.

Q: How did the population explosion affect the agricultural economy in China?

While population grew dramatically, there was no increase in acreage under cultivation, because of a shortage of arable farmland in China. This resulted in a reduction, over time, in the amount of land cultivated by the average family, from about 10 acres to less than 6acres.

Q: What helped to offset the decline in the agrarian economy in the Chinese empire?

After Western merchants arrived in the late 1700s, rising Chinese commercial profits and customs revenue helped to mask the empire’s fiscal decline. Chinese teas, silks, spices, and porcelains were in high demand in Europe, so a very favorable balance of commodity trade helped offset the decline in Chinese farm revenues.

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