What aspect of Chinese characteristics contributed to its huge population throughout history?
Andy Lee Chaisiri, a fan of the swords
Chinese technology was 1,000+ years ahead of everyone else (in certain fields)
Like this, but with horses and rice.
Imagine if today's crops suddenly became 30x more productive, that would cause a population boom, right? Agriculture is how human populations exploded in size compared to hunter-gatherer civilizations. So let's talk about some of those tools of agriculture and how population booms were achieved in an era of horse and plow:
Seed Drill: "What if we planted the seeds under the soil?"
Seed drills are tools that bury seeds at a correct depth in a timely manner. Planting seeds at a good depth increases the chances of an individual seed sprouting, without being eaten by birds. The use of seed drills also allows for planting in nice orderly rows with good spacing so the sprouting plants have enough room to draw nutrients from the soil without mutually starving each other. Not every grain will germinate, but using seed drills to plant crops in rows increases the chances of any individual grain germinating. This allows you to eat more grains because you know only a small quantity is needed to replant fields.
Chinese were using metal multi-tubed seed drills as early as 200BCE. Seed drills make an appearance in Europe in 1566CE, about 1700 years after their appearance in China.
Timothy Chu, vegetarian, search analyst/software engineer
China's population comes from the proximity of three great river systems (Yellow, Yangtze, and Pearl), the introduction of new crops (in China's case, rice in the Song Dynasty), and a stable empire. Historians attribute these river systems and viability of agricultural land to the growth of civilization and populations around the world. And though China has a historically large population, it was comparable if not less than contemporary empires of similar size in Persia and India, from the earliest days of civilization up until the mid 20th century.
There's a curious phenomenon in Chinese population that sheds light on the factors governing China's population. You can see it in the below graph:
Noe that the Tang dynasty (one of the largest and most prosperous) has a comparable population with the Han, which preceded it by 700 years. China's population holds stable at ~49 million for a thousand years from 2 AD to 1000 AD. This occurred in spite of innumerable scientific and cultural advances (including China's Four Great Inventions). So what's the deal? China's population hit its carrying capacity in terms of arable land.
Consider the large spike in 1103. This spike is due to the spread of rice culture from Vietnam. The population surge was confined to China's wet, Southern regions where rice flourished. The decrease in the Yuan is due to the breakdown of the Song Dynasty and the devastating Mongol Wars. The rise in the Ming coincides with the spread of potatoes and other crops from the new world, which opened up previously unused land for agriculture. The increases in the Qing are due to increasing numbers of new world crops being introduced, as well as the spread of rice terracing and improved irrigation techniques.
Chinese civilization sprang up near two large river valleys, the Yellow River and the Yangtze River. The capital of every main Chinese dynasty except the Yuan and the Qing was located on one of these two rivers. These vast river systems endowed China tremendous agricultural potential., and for most of history most of China's population was concentrated in the areas surrounding these two rivers.
The introduction of new strains of rice from Vietnam caused the population to double from the ~50 million of the Han and Tang dynasties (206 BC - 195 AD and 618 AD- 907 AD respectively ) into the ~118 million of the Song dynasty in 1120 AD. Rice was able to grow in very wet regions which were previously not suited for agriculture and high caloric output. The population growth of the Song is almost entirely confined to rice growing areas, and the advent of rice shifted the Chinese population center away from the North towards the South near the Yangtze River. The introduction of crops from the New World, such as potatoes and sorghum, had a similar effect
Chinese civilization flourished under the post-Qin dynasties of China, which were by and large stable for hundreds of years. Stable institutions and functional infrastructure allowed China to achieve its full agricultural potential. Additionally, the Confucian mores of most Chinese dynasties emphasized the importance of agriculture and of benevolent policies towards farmers (in the Han dynasty around 0 AD, the emperors believed that if the government was inhumane to his people, it would cause earthquakes!). This meant the government was very concerned for the welfare of farmers, and this can be seen through the writings and transcribed political debates in the Emperor's court from the days of the early Han (~160 BC).
It is true that for many centuries, China did have some of the most advanced agricultural practices in the world for much of history; nevertheless, this was not a chief driver of population as the most upvoted answer to this question asserts.
Julien Benney, studied at RMIT University
Essentially, the factor that causes China’s huge population is a combination of three factors that rarely meet:
1.sizeable areas of extremely fertile soils that could support rural population densities higher than many cities in Australia and the United States
2.these fertile soils occurring in a climate with a hot and humid period that allowed for very high-yielding cereals
3.the existence of mammals with strong enough herd structures for domestication to allow for easy plowing
These two factors are a direct result of the continuing uplift and erosion by ice of the Himalayas, which has created via cycles of loess deposition and erosion the extremely fertile soils of Northern China.
Whereas the median level of available phosphorus in soils throughout geological history has been around 5 parts per million, the average in Northern China is twenty to thirty times that level (one hundred to 150 parts per million). The figures are similar for key chalcophile nutrients like zinc and copper (except in dry areas where they become less available but still abundant). As a result, nutritious plants could be grown to very high yields highly sustainably for virtually no chemical inputs (aside from animal waste) as the soils renew themselves so consistently.
Limbourg Brothers for the Duc de Berry (ca. 1415) 'Les Tres Riches Heures
Imagine a plough. You'd probably think of something made out of metal (perhaps with a wedge) right? Well, plows weren't always like that. The earliest ploughs in human history were basically a plank of wood that you knifed into the ground. Around 300BCE, Chinese started using plows that were shaped in a way that they simultaneously cut into the earth and turned it too by 100CE, they were made entirely out of iron. Turning the earth is important for getting more nutrients out of your land, and can even turn 'barren' land fertile.
Around 400CE, a similar mouldboard plow appears in the Roman empire, but widespread adoption is delayed with the fall of the empire. In 1700CE Dutch traders brought Chinese iron mouldboard plows back to Europe, and an agricultural revolution soon followed. Now, what was plowing like without an iron mouldboard plough?
A painting from the 16th century showing a farmer at work, by Pieter Brugel
That is a piece of wood being used to slice into the ground. Because that wooden plough doesn't have a mouldboard the cut soil needs to be tilled through further labor. Iron was expensive and labor intensive to produce, so at best you would have a thin sheet of iron covering the edge of your mostly wooden plough.
So, why did Chinese have all of these iron agricultural tools centuries earlier than Europeans? Because their methods of iron (& steel) production were also centuries ahead.
Blast Furnace: "Like baking a sponge cake made of iron"
The Iron Age is considered to have begun around 1700-1500BC. To extract iron from an ore of iron oxide, the iron has to be separated from oxygen and other impurities in a high temperature process which takes carbon to extract the oxygen out of the ore as carbon dioxide. This is called 'smelting'.
The earliest smelting of iron ore was done at temperatures below the melting point of iron. This left a spongy mass of iron that needed to be shaped by hammering, a very work intensive process.
But some time around 600BCE, Chinese developed a furnace that could create a heat intense enough to melt iron, the blast furnace. Once liquified, iron could be poured into casts already in the shape of tools that were needed. The iron casting industry was officially supported by dynastic governments, leading to widespread adoption of iron tools made to a standard.
Now a special note about the difference between iron and steel. Cast iron is very high in carbon content, making it hard but brittle. Steel is iron that has a perfect balance of carbon to retain an edge but also maintain just enough flexibility to avoid brittleness. Around 200BCE, Chinese learned that if air was blown over iron as it was being cast the carbon content could be reduced and what you wound up with was steel. Around 600CE steel tools began to widely replace iron ones.
The earliest evidence of blast furnaces in Europe is 1100CE, with widespread adoption occuring in 1400CE. The process of creating steel I described above first appears in the western world in 1855CE, and there's some contention that the 'inventor' may have actually gotten the idea from Chinese workers in the US.
As another illustration of the difference in iron production, by 1078CE the foundries of northern China could produce 114,000 tons of iron a year. In 1788CE, England produced about 50,000 tons of iron.
Horse Collar: "Over 1,000 years of choking horses"
Imagine a horse pulling a plough. Now, how did you imagine that plough being attached to the horse, with a horse collar, right? Unfortunately for horses, before the collar was invented there was the throat girth harness, which sounds as awful as it is. A plough (or any other load) attached by a throat-girth harness means that a horse is basically pulling with a noose around his trachea. Around 300BCE, someone in China thought "What if the horse pulled with its chest instead of its throat?" and so the breast-strap harness was born and horses across China breathed a sigh of relief. This was improved on in 500CE with the horse collar as we know it.
The breast strap harness appears in Russia in 700CE, and shows up further west in Norway around 800CE. The horse collar appears a bit later in 900CE, with widespread adoption by 1200CE.
The difference between China and Europe's population levels throughout history is the difference between their agricultural technology.
Balaji Viswanathan, Knowledge lover.
1.Water: China has a number of major river basins at the right latitude.
2.Land: Although Earth is huge, less than 5% of area is actually suitable for dense settlement. Eastern China accounts for a sizable chunk of this. Tropic of Cancer is among places to start a civilization as equatorial regions have too dense rain forests, temperate zone is too cold & infertile and a lot around Tropic of Capricorn is occupied by water and deserts. Around the tropic of cancer was found all the major world civilizations.
3.Food: 1 and 2 means that there was a lot of food to produce. Throughout history, China and India were the leading producers of food and that continues to this day, despite US springboarding with their tech in the past century.
4.Stability: China has had stable kingdoms for about 4000 years. Only a few other regions of the world had this long a stability. Other than the Mongols, China has had no other enemy to fight (guarded by the Pacific, Siberia, Central Asian deserts and Tibetan plateau). Even the Mongols got assimilated quite quickly (as Yuan dynasty). In rest of the world (such as Baghdad) they were terrible.
5.Disease: Europe has had bubonic plagues that would wipe half the population in a single go. Native Americans were almost wiped by Smallpox on a single go. Africans had to content with Malaria & other tropical diseases. China has not had such major outbreaks that would wipe quarter or more of the population (although there were a few Influenza & plague attacks that impacted 10% or more of the population).
Imperial policy was concerned with farmers' livelihood and maintaining population, sometimes including tax reduction, land ownership reform, and sponsoring settlement of new or marginal lands, as well as irrigation works and the iron tools Andy Lee Chaisiri mentioned. In the Qing this coincided with New World crops that would grow in previously nonarable hill areas.
Robin Daverman, World traveler
China was incredibly advance in farming since 3000 BCE. An acre of rice paddy will produce 5000 lbs of rice, enough to feed 10 people for a year. An acre of pasture is only sufficient to keep one cow, not even remotely enough to feed even one person. China cultivated rice and built extensive irrigation systems a couple thousands of years ahead of everybody else.
At the height of Athens around ~ 500 BCE, it had 40,000 citizens. Athens never built irrigation systems and the farming was left to the mercy of the weather. During the same period of time, China had 50 million citizens, and sophisticated man-made canals criss-cross the whole country. And the population just kept on growing...
Mervyn Locke, Enlightened laowai/Decade-long China resident/Permanent China bull
Nothing special. China’s area is vast and its population density is lower than that of Switzerland, in this respect it should not raise any eyebrows. In fact, the situation is rather the opposite - Chinese population is extremely good at keeping at childbirths in check - to a large extent thanks to Mao, who empowered women “to support half the sky”, thereby allowing them to fully control their own bodies as they please.
Leah Ma, works at Retirement
I've always thought it was because they became unified earlier than Europe. Well, actually Europe never became unified. By becoming one nation that kept wars from decimating the population, allowing it to grow larger. Also they have basically one culture, one language (sort of) and, above all, NO RELIGION! Also I think Chinese began bathing earlier than westerners who believed it spread disease and used perfume to hide body odor.
One thing - Rice.
Ok two things - rice and advanced irrigation systems.
No wait. Three things.
Rice, irrigation and administrative systems
Vic Mayten, worked at Culture of China
Chine is not over populated, it's just the biggest country in the world population wise (and it is big), and taking into account the size of China its population density is not as high as it seems.
Alec Cawley, Liberal software engineer with a physics degree
China probably has the largest area of cultivated land of any country. Therefore it is not surprising that it has a population to match.
Gwydion Madawc Williams, Read a lot about this
China occupied a fair chunk of the world's habitable land. Not so densely populated on that basis.
But historically, it was much the best-run pre-industrial society.