Which was ironic, because Chinese history very clearly shows the link between population growth and historical cycles: it would go through periods of rapid advancement, bump against a cultural ceiling, and then disintegrate politically, socially and economically. After a long period of stagnation and population decline (often due to incomprehensibly horrific famines), society would once again tentatively advance to the next plateau, only to experience another decline when the lands filled up again. The Chinese were among the first to recognize this pattern. According to Wikipedia:
"According to [Dynastic Cycles] theory, each dynasty rises to a political, cultural, and economic peak and then, because of moral corruption, declines, loses the Mandate of Heaven, and falls, only to be replaced by a new dynasty. The cycle then repeats under a surface pattern of repetitive motifs. This theory sees a continuity in Chinese history from early times to the present by looking at the succession of empires or dynasties, implying that there is little basic development or change in social or economic. structures."The plateaus that China reached, were, in fact, some of the most advanced anywhere in the world. What do we mean by advanced? In his book attempting to document differing rates of civilizational development between China and Europe, Why the West Rules for Now, Ian Morris lists five major criteria (following the UN development goals): (1) energy use per capita, (2) urbanization, (3) military capacity, and (4) information technology. These provide a useful metric to define how "advanced" ancient civilizations were relative to our own.
By these criteria, China was significantly more advanced at a relatively late stage in history than was Western Europe:
In the Tang Dynasty years before and the Sung Dynasty years after the year 1000, China had been the most progressive and innovative civilization in the world: innovative technologically, organizationally, and militarily. Its population—-60 million? 80 million? 100 million?—-was one of the most rapidly growing and best-fed populations in the world, thanks to the development of strains of rice that could be wet-planted, irrigated, and produce three crops a year in the fertile soil of China from the Yangtze basin south. China then led the world in non-agricultural technologies as well. At the start of the seventeenth century the British savant, politician, and bureaucrat Francis Bacon had marvelled at three inventions that he said had utterly transformed Europe: gunpowder, printing, and the compass. China had developed all three, and had developed all three before 1000.
China in the twelfth century at its pre-industrial relative apogee produced more iron and saw a greater share of agricultural production sold on markets than Britain would produce and market in the eighteenth. Zheng He's mid-fifteenth century voyages of exploration sailed four times as far with twenty times as many sailors as Columbus, and could land ten times as many soldiers at Dar es Salaam and Trincomalee as Cortez would land at Vera Cruz. China had long had the capability of launching its own “voyages of discovery.” Its governments had chosen not to, with that one exception. Zheng He’s fleet reached Zanzibar, and touched Africa, bringing back a giraffe. Annoyed at their treatment by a Sri Lankan king, they captured him and brought him back to China to make his apology to the emperor. But the political balance in the Ming court changed, the follow-up expeditions were cancelled, and the exploration program abandoned.
China led the world in political organization as well. No other ruler's writ ran a third as far or has even a third as large a chance of being obeyed as that of China's emperor. Tang Dynasty cavalry skirmished with Persians on the shores of the Aral Sea. The Sung Dynasty river navy was the only military force to even temporarily stymie Chingis Khan's Mongols, before his descendants took to fighting each other rather than expanding the empire. No pre-industrial central government anywhere ever managed to match the reach, extent, and power of the landlord-scholar-bureaucracy mode of domination invented under the Tang and developed under the Sung. The Sung Dynasty capital, Hangzhou, was before the Mongol conquest the largest city in the world—-larger than Baghdad or Constantinople or Cordova or Delhi—-with perhaps half a million inhabitants: the closest thing to an economic, cultural, and political capital the twelfth-century world had.Where Was China?: Why the Twentieth-Century Was Not a Chinese Century (Brad DeLong)
What happened? That question, why the West and not China?, has obsessed historians for generations. The first British scholar to extensively study Chinese history, Joseph Needham, realized just how much more advanced Chinese technology and political organization was. The "Needham Question" has occupied historians ever since, including Ian Morris, cited above. Why Britain was the site of the Industrial Revolution, and not China (or Japan) is a question that may never be satisfactorily answered.
In the field of manufacturing textiles, Joseph Needham wrote that the Chinese invented the quilling-wheel by the 12th century, and wrote the mechanical belt drive was known since the 11th century...In ancient China, the sluice gate, the canal lock, and flash lock had been known since at least the 1st century BCE (as sources then alluded that they were not new innovations), during the ancient Han dynasty. During the Song dynasty that the pound lock was first invented in 984.
The per capita iron output rose sixfold between 806 and 1078, and by 1078 Song China was producing 127,000,000 kg (125,000 long tons; 127,000 t) in weight of iron per year...In the smelting process of using huge bellows driven by hydraulics (i.e. large waterwheels), massive amounts of charcoal were used in the production process, leading to a wide range of deforestation in northern China. However, by the end of the 11th century the Chinese discovered that using bituminous coke could replace the role of charcoal, hence many acres of forested land and prime timber in northern China were spared by the steel and iron industry with this switch of resources to coal.
This massive increase in output of the iron and steel industry in China was the result of the Song dynasty's needs for military expansion, private commercial demands for metal products such as cooking utensils found in the market and a wide variety of agricultural tools, and by new canals linking major centers of iron and steel production to the capital city's bustling market. The many uses for manufactured iron products in the Song period included iron for weapons, implements, coins,architectural elements, musical bells, artistic statues, and components for machinery such as the hydraulic-powered trip hammer, which had been known since the 1st century BCE during the ancient Han dynasty, and used extensively during the Song.
Due to the enormous amount of production, the economic historian Robert Hartwell noted that Chinese iron and coal production in the following 12th century was equal to if not greater than England's iron and coal production in the early phase of the Industrial Revolution during the late 18th century. However, the Chinese of the Song period did not harness the energy potential of coal in ways that would generate power mechanically, as in the later Industrial Revolution that would originate in the West...
Printing technology in the form of movable type was invented by Bi Sheng in the 11th century. ... Movable type, alongside woodblock printing, increased literacy with the mass production of printed materials. This meant that parents could encourage sons to learn to read and write and therefore be able to take the imperial examination and become part of the growing learned bureaucracy...
For printing, the mass production of paper for writing was already well established in China. The papermaking process had been perfected and standardized by the Han dynasty court eunuch Cai Lun in 105, and was in widespread use for writing even by the 3rd century.The Song dynasty was the world's first government in history to issue paper-printed money—the banknote. ...During the Song dynasty, independent and government sponsored industries were developed to meet the needs of a growing population that had reached over 100 million...Science and Technology of the Song Dynasty (Wikipedia)
The major takeaway here is that it takes much more than simply "technological innovation" to escape the Malthusian trap. According to economists, who chalk everything up to "technology schedules" and "innovation" as the magic elixir to escape the Malthusian Trap, it should have been China, and not the West, that did so. But it was not.
What happened? Well, population growth certainly seems to be a culprit:
By the second half of the nineteenth century China’s relative apogee was three-quarters of a millennium past, and the government and the people were in crisis. The people were in crisis because they were more than three times as numerous as their predecessors at the pre-industrial apogee, because they were ruled by a rapacious landed aristocracy, and because progress in agriculture and industry to counterbalance rising population had been nearly absent for most of the second millennium.
In 1100 the Chinese people were rich, or at least as rich as pre-industrial peasant societies get. At the start of the second millennium development of new types of crops and new strains of rice had greatly boosted agricultural productivity and triggered the centuries-long spread of China’s heartland from the Yellow River to the Yangtze and further south, to Hunan and Guangzhou.
But by the second half of the nineteenth century Malthus was having his revenge. China had filled up, with more than 300 million people, which left average farm size less than third of what they had been three quarters of a millennium before, the bulk of peasant families were close to the edge. It is virtually certain that the average Chinese peasant family in the second half of the nineteenth century had less food than its predecessors in the twelfth: think of 1300 calories per person per day as a rough guess.
The technological dynamism and organizational relative edge that China had possessed in the twelfth century was gone as well. Chinese producers still had substantial technological edges in limited industrial segments: high end silk textiles, high-end porcelain, tea. But there had been little internally-driven technological progress in any industry for more than half a millennium. And the bureaucracy that in 1150 had looked efficient and powerful compared to a Europe—a place where no king would even think of asking an Earl of Pembroke to explain anything—by 1870 looked corrupt and incapable.
Whatever the cause, the result was China's extraordinary relative stagnation through much of the second millennium. The country and region that had been the world's leader—-culturally, economically, organizationally—-in 1200 was poor, economically backward, and organizationally decrepit by 1870.Where Was China?: Why the Twentieth-Century Was Not a Chinese Century (Brad DeLong)
There are any number of factors put forward to explain this situation. But in the view of the ecological hypothesis, it is difficult not to see population growth as the central driving factor explaining this situation, something noted even by the classical economists during the Industrial Revolution:
[Adam] Smith had a theory as to why the China he saw in his day—the late eighteenth century—had become poor. Because China would not trade with outsiders and so learn and adapt their ideas, it was bound to stagnate: “a country which neglects or despises foreign commerce... cannot transact the... business which it might do with different laws and institutions.” A stagnant economy, Smith thought, was headed for desperate poverty through a Malthusian population crisis. Population would continue to grow while the economy did not. Without technological progress and with increasing population “competition... would soon reduce [wages] to this lowest rate which is consistent with common humanity.” At that lowest rate of wages, children would be so malnourished as to be easy prey to disease and women's body fat levels would be so low that ovulation was hit-or-miss.
By 1870 it looked like that Malthusian crisis had arrived. The more than 300 million people of late nineteenth-century China had no mechanized farm machinery and no industry-produced nitrogen fertilizers. They were crowded into the wet, arable eastern slice of what is “China” on today's maps, with the median family of 6 farming perhaps 4 acres at a time when the Radical Republicans were still hoping to somehow find 40 acres plus a mule for each family of American ex-slaves. Average adult height was, we think, significantly under five feet.And when a population is pushing up the Malthusian limits of carrying capacity, as we learned from Secular Cycles, state breakdown and political unrest follows. It can't be overstated that the Chinese were an inward-looking people, and thus the standard responses proposed by Colinvaux were not available:
Migration and starting colonies abroad was not an option. Mass emigration to "empty" spaces as employed by all the nations of Western Europe, Britain especially, could not happen, since the Chinese missed hitting North America first. China was circumscribed by deserts, mountains, rain forests, and the ocean since their earliest history. Chinese diaspora communities would have to wait until well after the country was opened up by the West.
Foreign trade was not an option. The Chinese were famously uninterested in the "inferior" goods which came from the West; Britain had to basically become a drug dealer in order to have product to sell to the Chinese. Thus, while importing silks, porcelain, tea and spices became a booming trade in Early Modern Europe (leading to stock exchanges, banking and the like, along with better sailing and military technology), it simply wasn't an option in China. Merchants were always regarded with suspicion and reined in by a jealous bureaucracy. Note that Adam Smith above acknowledges the role of trade in making prosperous societies. What he neglected was that "trade" by Europeans was often looting the rest of the world for raw materials.
Aggressive war against weaker neighbors wasn't an option either, because there weren't any. China was a massive state that had become one of largest, most unified empires on earth long before the West. The arable lands that could support population had long been unified into Chinese states, and there was literally nowhere else to go--just the vast pacific Ocean to the east and the deserts and mountains to the west. All that could happen was internal wars (The "Warring States") against kingdoms at relatively the same state of technological development. Thus dissolution and breakup was the only option. And political dissolution usually meant takeover by tough steppe nomads with higher asabiyyah and better fighting techniques.
Paradoxically, China's very power and technological sophistication may have contributed to its stagnation. If you are already the greatest empire on earth, and you know it, why develop anything new? If you have already unified "all under heaven," where is the upstart to challenge you? If you are confident in your rule and no one can challenge you, where is the motivation to try new forms of social organization? There are as Morris terms it, "the advantages of backwardness." China is reaping these benefits now by adopting the West's manufacturing technology.
What was left was caste systems and bureaucracy, and China had that in spades. The Chinese emperors were more suspicious of threats from inside than from outside, and engaged in repression, including of the military and merchant castes. There were few places for dissenters and alternative thinkers to hide. Making your way in the caste system meant studying the Confucian classics, rather than studying science or engaging in adventurous foreign trade. Since it is merchant empires that develop superior techniques in war according to Colinvaux, it makes sense that Western Europe would develop the devastating weapons and military techniques (based around China's invention of gunpowder) allowing them to dominate China rather than the other way around.
...in two essays Needham does address the question of why modern science did not develop in China. These two essays are reprinted in Needham’s book The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West (Chapters 5 and 6). Needham’s argument, in part, is as follows: there is an “antagonism between manual and mental work which has run through all ages and all civilizations” which has prevented the rise of modern science. Only the merchant class can bring together this Greek praxis and theoria, or the corresponding Chinese shu and hsueh.Why Didn’t Science Rise in China? (New York Review of Books)
In traditional Chinese society, “the merchants were supposed to be socially the lowest” of the four ranks.
"Wealth as such was not valued. It had no spiritual power. It could give comfort but not wisdom, and in China affluence carried comparatively little prestige. The one idea of every merchant’s son was to become a scholar, to enter the imperial examination and to rise high in the bureaucracy."
Needham concludes that “there cannot be much doubt that the failure of the rise of the merchant class to power in the State lies at the basis of the inhibition of the rise of modern science in Chinese society.”
Thus, we see how that the ecological hypothesis played out in China very differently than anywhere else. In the end, the lack of spaces in the higher niches due to population pressure, combined with outside influences, led to political conflict:
Compared to the aftermath of the great wave of agricultural technological development nearly a millennium before, the threefold growth in population meant that yields per person low, farms small, and peasants poor—hence malnourished, and with relatively little energy. Population growth also meant larger clans of landlords to be fed off the rents. Combined with an alien ruling dynasty that feels weak and threatened by its own upper class and tells its bureaucrats that it is justice when the landlords win, this means that the peasants have very little to lose. Thus peasant revolts—like those that everyone remembered had brought down dynasties before—burned through China in the mid-nineteenth century.
The greatest was the Taiping Rebellion of 1850-1864 that ravaged central China for fifteen years, aided by the fact that the imperial court feared successful generals (as potential usurpers) at least as much as it feared the rebels. There were enough landless and other desperate peasants that perhaps ten million joined Hong Xiuquan, who had hoped to become a bureaucrat-scholar-landlord but failed the shengyan examinations several times. He then visions that convinced him that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ. The Manchu banner-armies proved useless when Hong proclaimed the “Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace,” and promised his followers not only the Kingdom of Heaven in the hereafter (where he would reign alongside his elder brother Jesus Christ) but that land would be equally divided after all the landlords were killed down here—-meaning a roughly fifty percent increase in median peasant standards of living. And Hong Xiuquan supplemented his brand of theocratic landlord-free authoritarian communism with anti-Manchu nationalism: "Ever since the Manchus poisoned China... the poison of corruption has defiled the emperor's throne...” 2600 calories per day versus 1800 plus God on your side plus revenge against the oppressive landlords plus the expulsion of the barbarian Manchus made for a convincing argument.
The fifteen-year march of the Taiping through south-central China and reign from Nanjing had echoes not just of previous peasant rebellions (like the one that had given the Manchus their opening in the 1640s at the end of the Ming dynasty) but of what Mao Zedong and company would do from 1925 to 1945:
The Taiping prohibited opium, foot-binding, prostitution, and female servitude. They instituted equal shares for all, vaccination, low taxes, and encouraged tea and silk exports. Hugh Deane quotes American missionary E.C. Bridgeman's report that the Taiping "appear[ed] like a new race of warriors... well-clad, well-fed, and well-provided for... content and in high spirits, as if sure of success," and asserts that twentieth century Communist leaders like Mao Zedong, Zhu Te, and Peng Dehaui drew inspiration from the stories of the Taiping heroes that they had grown up with in Hunan, Sichuan, and Nanjing.
- Move into a village,
- Get the peasants' hands dirty by having them kill a couple of landlords,
- Divide up the land so all the small peasants are much richer,
- Point out that if the landlord-backed authorities return with the cousins of those they executed then they will all be in big trouble, and
- Ask for volunteers to join the army and come along to the next village.
Outside observers like Karl Marx were impressed enough that they thought that the World Revolution was starting in the late 1850s in China, and that the last moments of the Chinese empire had come. What would have happened had the Taiping won is not something that I can calculate.
But they did not win...So we see in this quick sketch of China's economic history many of the same factors at work- population growth leads to pinched living standards. Landholdings become smaller and smaller. Foreign trade, colonization, and expansive war are not options. Caste systems and bureaucracy become extreme. Corruption takes over and governments fall, wiping out previous levels of growth. Population increases eat up the surplus caused by new technology and stable government (stability is destabilizing). People desirous of the broad niches lead rebellions - note the leader of the Taiping rebellion is a frustrated aspirant to the upper classes.
In fact, the Chinese would realize many of the social dynamics even before Thomas Malthus. Here is Charles Mann writing in 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created about Hong Liangji, possibly the first Malthusian (pp.177-180):
Hong Liangji was born in 1746 near the mouth of the Yangzi, into a family that slowly went on the skids after the unexpected death of his father...Sometime in 1793 Hong Liangji thought of an idea that may never have occured to anyone else before.
After finally winning a place in the Qing bureaucracy at the age of forty-four--Hong had failed the civil service exam four times--he was sent as an education inspector to Guizhou Province, in the southwestern hinterland. Essentially a sloping, heavily eroded limestone shelf, the province is a humid jumble of steep gorges, protuberant hills, and long caverns. It was another target for Qing occupation, thronged with migrants from central China who were pushing out its original inhabitants, the Miao. The newcomers were climbing up the hills, planting maize, and beginning families. Hong wondered how long the boom could last.
"Today's population is five times as large as that of thirty years ago," he wrote, with perhaps pardonable exaggeration, "ten times as large as that of sixty years ago." He imagined a man with "a ten-room house and 100 mu [about seventeen acres] of farmland." If the man married and had three adult sons, then eight people--the four men and their wives--would live on the parents' farm.
Eight people would require the help of hired servants; there would be, say, ten people in the household. With the ten-room house and the 100 mu of farmland, I believe they would have just enough space to live in and food to eat, although barely enough. In time, however, there will be grandsons who, in turn, will marry. the aged members of the household will pass away, but there could still be more than twenty people in the family. With more than twenty people sharing a house and working 100 mu of farmland, I am sure that even if they eat very frugally and live in crowded quarters, their needs will not be met.
Hong conceded that the Qing had opened up new land to support China's population, But the amount of farmland had only doubled or, at the most, increased three to five times, while the population has grown ten to twenty times. thus farmland and houses are always in short supply, while there is always a surplus of households and population...
Question: Do Heaven-and-earth have a way of dealing with this situation? Answer: Heaven-and-earth's way of making adjustments lies in flood, drought, and plagues.
Five years later, in England, a similar notion came to another man: Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus. A shy, kindly fellow with a slight harelip, Malthus was the first person to hold a university position in economics--that is, the first professional economist--in Britain, and probably the world. He was impelled to think about population growth after a disagreement with his father, a well-heeled eccentric in the English style. The argument was over whether the human race could transform the world into a paradise. Malthus thought not, and said so at length--55,000 words, published as an unsigned broadside in 1798. Several longer version followed. these were signed; Malthus had become more confident.
"The power of population," Malthus proclaimed, "is indefinitely greater than the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man."...Every effort to increase the food supply, Malthus argued, will only lead to an increase in population that will more than cancel out the increase in the food supply--as state of affairs today known as a Malthusian trap.
Forget Utopia, Malthus said. Humanity is doomed to exist, now and forever, at the edge of starvation. Forget charity too: helping the poor only leads to more babies, which in turn produces increased hardship down the road. No matter how big the banquet grows, there will always be too many hungry people wanting a seat at the table. The Malthusian trap cannot be escaped.
The reaction was explosive...Hong, by contrast, was ignored. Unlike Malthus, he never developed his thoughts systematically, in part because he devoted his energy to criticizing the corrupt officials whom he believed were looting the Qing state. Appalled at the government's brutal, incompetent reaction to a rebellion by starving peasants in Sichuan and Shaanxi, Hong quit his job in 1799. On his way out, he shot off a rambling but remarkably blunt letter to the crown prince, who passed it to the Jiaqing emperor. The angered emperor sentenced Hong to life in exile, silencing him.
The lack of recognition was unmerited; Hong apparently captured the workings of the Malthusian trap better than Malthus (I use the hedge word "apparently" because he never worked out the details.) The Englishman's theory made a simple prediction: more food would lead to more mouths would lead to more misery. In fact, though, the world's farmers have more than kept pace. Between 1961 and 2007 humankind's number doubled, roughly speaking, while global harvest of wheat, rice and maize tripled. As population has soared, in fact, the percentage of chronically malnourished has fallen-contrary to Malthus's prediction. Hunger still exists, to be sure, but the chance that any given child will be malnourished has steadily, hearteningly declined.
Hong, by contrast, pointed to a related but more complex prospect. The continual need to increase yields, Hong presciently suggested, would lead to an ecological catastrophe, which would cause social dysfunction--and with it massive human suffering.
Exactly this process is what researchers today mean when they talk about the Malthusian trap. Indeed, once way to summarize today's environmental disputes is to say that almost all boil down to the question of whether humankind will continue to accumulate wealth and knowledge, as has been the case since the Industrial Revolution, or whether the environmental impacts of that accumulation--soil degradation, loss of biodiversity, consumption of groundwater supplies, climate change--will snap shut the jaws of the Malthusian trap, returning the earth to pre-industrial wretchedness.
China provides an example of the latter, at least in part. In the decades after American crops swept into the highlands, the richest society in the world was convulsed by a struggle with its own environment--a struggle it decisively lost.