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If their growth rate was comparable to the rest of the world over the past several millenia, then was it only a matter of having a "head start"? (If so, then how did this initial condition come to be?)

If their growth rate was higher than the rest of the world at times, in which periods were this the case, and for what attributable reasons, if any?

In particular, I'm curious about the role of sanitation, hygiene, and medical culture and technology, e.g. Eastern medicine and practices.

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I'm not sure that sanitation, hygiene, and medical culture was the cause at all. According to Geroffry Blainy, in his book A Very Short History Of the World, The black death of 1348 was not unique. It must have struck centuries earlier in Asia or Africa, but it left behind no detailed record of it's casualties." Blainy, though I cannot find it, also mentions a huge Chinese city hit by a plague, and lost much of it's population. –  Russell Aug 17 '12 at 8:46
I would be more interested in food supply. Food is how all other animals spread --surely it must apply to us too. Unless a mass epidemic strikes a population hygiene does not become a deciding factor. Researching my books to confirm. –  Monster Truck Aug 17 '12 at 14:16
You didn't mention it, but I can't imagine answering this without taking into account China's "One Child Policy" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One-child_policy –  T.E.D. Aug 17 '12 at 14:50
@T.E.D. - I didn't mention the policy because it was a relatively recent development; the population in China was ahead for a much longer time period. –  Andrew Cheong Aug 17 '12 at 15:40
Welcome to the site. An upvote to get you going. –  Tom Au Aug 17 '12 at 19:15

4 Answers 4

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Expanding on @MonsterTruck's comment above, China (especially the east part) is really good for food production. According to Wikipedia's list of countries by agricultural output China has 17 per cent of global agricultural production today, compared to around 7 for the European Union, 7 for India and 4 for the United States. I would expect the construction of those numbers to be a bit dubious (I did not check Wikipedia's source), and technological change means they certainly were not exactly the same even 50 years ago, much less 5000 years ago, but they give a picture that points towards the importance of food production for population density. Of course, we must add in the fact that China has been "civilized" for several thousand years, with sophisticated infrastructure construction and division of labor, but the fact remains that cultivating rice (might be some relevant info in Wikipedia article - did not read through it, but check "comparisons to other staple foods" and the history section) is one of the most effective way to get maximum calories out of a given piece of land.

Some context: a population density map showing that China and India really lead the world in terms of population density: Population density in various parts of the world (from Wikipedia)

Rice yield (also from Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:RiceYield.png

Of course, the maps do not prove cause and effect (areas with high population are likely to produce more rice, even if it is exported). But it at least hints at the importance of rice for population density

(edited 20 August: added rice density map)

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Ideally I'd like to see their two major agricultural river valleys (Yellow and Yangtse) called out by name here, but +1. Note that the other dense areas on your map here clearly show the outline of the lower Nile, the Ganges basin, the Indus, the Rhine, and it almost looks like I can see the Euphrates if I squint at it a bit. –  T.E.D. Aug 17 '12 at 21:48
Interesting to note that California supplies almost half the United State's produce but, its large population centers are near not in the central valley where the agricultural production is. –  Frank Aug 18 '12 at 6:39
@Frank - That isn't because California is a particularly fertile area. Its because it is one of the few areas in the country with a "mediterranian" climate suitable for growing produce, and because a rediculous amount of water is repurposed there to make it work. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mediterranean_climate –  T.E.D. Aug 21 '12 at 16:15

China is the world's third largest country in size, after Russia and Canada. The latter two are further north, much colder, and less hospitable to population growth.

China is one of the world's oldest civilizations. Others, such as Egypt, Babylon, and even India are much smaller in size.

The combination of large land area (in a mostly temperate climate) and old civilization has helped make China the world's most populous country. Only the United States and Brazil have similar advantages of temperate climates and continental size, and they are much younger countries that have been "settled" for far less time. You might also put Australia in this category as well.

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Third largest geographically. They are of course the largest in terms of population (unless India has caught up. They probably will quite soon). –  T.E.D. Aug 17 '12 at 21:37
@T.E.D.: Added "in size" to clarify your point. –  Tom Au Aug 17 '12 at 21:53
Couldn't that still be interpreted as "population size"? (sorry to be Nanny Nitpick here). –  T.E.D. Aug 17 '12 at 21:59
The US is the third largest nation by land mass. China is fourth. –  Razie Mah Nov 28 at 19:03

I could add a few

Farming technology. Ancient chinese farming technology is about as advance as post industrial revolution in Europe. Chinese farm all years. Europeans do not have good irrigation system.

Ancient chinese cultures measure prosperity by population growth. The idea is if you govern well, people will come to you (like people flocking US and capital flocking Asia).

This measurement of prosperity is actually quite natural. Ask any biologist what success means for an organism and it'll say something along reproductive success.

Kong Fu Chu beliefs that having children and grand children is good. In fact, it's something along obligation. Your parents create you so you create grand children for that.

Not much sexual restriction. Concubinage is okay. Prostitution is okay. Polygamy is okay. In western civilization, no matter how rich you are you only have 2.5 children.

In China the rich have as many children as they can afford.

Unlike Arab with strong anti sex outside marriage laws, getting mates and producing offspring may be relatively more peaceful and apolitical in China. It's more economical rather than political.

Just get rich, and grab concubines/wives. That's the chinese way to reproductive success it seems. No monogamy terms. No religion telling you it's wrong.

In Arab, you got to fight first and control the religion before you can enjoy such package. If you're a member of minority religion like Christianity, then tough. Sex is too politicized in both Arab and in Europe. In China, reproductive success is pretty much market based.

So in China people can produce more offspring by getting rich. That tend to match number of offspring with food that leads to higher number of children reaching reproductive age that leads to more population.

In europe, the poorest actually make more children and that is something I am still puzzled till now.

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I think you make some good points. However, I am also puzzled why in Europe the religion would develop in such a way so as to discourage even the rich from reproducing excessively. Maybe because it was clear there was little space available, so this ties it with some other answers about China having ample space and the necessary climate for food production. –  grasshopper May 13 at 9:18
I think it's envy against the rich. In Europe, due to democracy, the poor, which are larger in number, rules. Those in power tend to produce more children. Deep inside all living things have strong instinct to reproduce. The dumber (IQ wise) and poorer a person, the more likely he follow his instinct and became more successful in the genepool. Also smarter females have lower effective fertility than dumber males in, and only in western civilization (or westernized civilization) –  Jim Thio May 13 at 10:55

Rice is three to five times more productive than wheat. The land can sustain two or three crops of rice annually, while wheat is limited to one. So, all factors combined, rice can be up to 15 times more productive. The same quantity of land can produce up to 15 times more rice than wheat.

It is worth remembering that in early China, the available primitive strain of rice wasn't so different in terms of productivity to wheat. Chen-tsung (968-1022), a Song emperor, ordered a new strain of rice from Cambodia and Vietnam, called Champa, be brought in. It shortened the ripening cycle from 180 days to 100, and later selective breeding further lowered this to a mere 60 days. A highly disciplined bureaucracy made possible distributing didactic pamphlets to the peasants, which ensured they understood the new agricultural practice.

Li-Yuan (566-635), one of the greatest of the Tang emperors, is also credited with bringing in a new, more productive, strain of rice, as well as with an agrarian reform that redistributed land to peasants equitably. The Tangs also profited very much from the Grand Canal, built by the last emperors of the Sui dynasty, which contributed to food security in mainland China. At 1000 miles, it is the largest human-made waterway in history.

It is estimated that between 600 and 1200, China's population rose from 45 million to 115 million. It is worth mentioning that none of these policies would have been possible if China did not have a huge and centralized state.

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