China’s Population Boom

An increase in cultivated land, new crops and agricultural technologies, humane policies toward newborns, relative peace, and political stability, as well as nascent industrialization, led to a significant increase of Chinese population in the sixteenth century.

Summary of Event

In the 1500’, China experienced a remarkable population increase. This came as a direct consequence of the policies of the Hongwu emperor, who founded the Ming Dynasty Ming Dynasty (1368-1644);population boom in 1368. At that time, China’s population consisted of approximately 60 million people. By 1600, this number stood as high as 150 million, according to contemporary historians. This tremendous boom was unprecedented in China’s history and provided both opportunities and challenges to the nation and the imperial government. Ironically, the Ming emperors of the sixteenth century themselves believed that their population was dwindling, as their subjects avoided the census to escape from paying taxes. Taxation;China
Population growth;China
Mac Dang Dung

When the Hongwu emperor came to power in 1368, he immediately implemented measures to reverse the population decline under the previous Yuan Dynasty. He launched an aggressive campaign to resettle northern China, which had been devastated by warfare and neglect. Settlers from the populous south were given start-up aid, tax relief, and free land if they moved north. Thus, more of China’s land was put to agrarian use and could sustain a larger population. The introduction of sorghum, a crop that can be dry-farmed, also aided food production in the more arid north.

Throughout his realm, the Hongwu emperor rebuilt irrigation systems such as canals, dykes, reservoirs, and terraced rice paddies. A new variety of rice, which originated in Champa (present-day central Vietnam), was promoted. The new rice took about half the time of Chinese rice to grow and yielded a larger quantity per acre. Even though Champa rice has fewer calories than the Chinese variety, the increase in yield still meant more nutrition was available.

Once irrigation systems were rebuilt, with new pumps or water wheels to aid wet farming, a sophisticated hydraulic agriculture was established. The Ming emperors ordered farmers to plant new crops and to fill the flooded rice paddies with fish. This provided a richer food harvest in two ways: The fish fertilized the soil with their waste, and they also served as a food source.

In the 1500’, the increase of cultivated land, especially in the north, and the continuous introduction of new crops meant that the land could sustain the unfolding and accelerating population boom. The European discovery of America also brought new crops to China by way of the Spanish colony of the Philippines. The Ming emperors ordered the peasants to plant these new crops, with positive results. Corn flourished in China and became part of the people’s diet. Peanuts and sweet potatoes had the additional benefit that they could be cultivated in drier areas previously left barren. These new crops also allowed for a sophisticated system of crop rotation, because the nitrogen bound in their roots served as a natural fertilizer that refurbished land exhausted by traditional crops. By rotating the plants built on arable land, Chinese farmers increased food production instead of leaving fields to lie fallow, and this increase supported a rapidly growing population. However, the basic conservatism of Ming society precluded the invention of even more high-yielding agricultural machines, and many farming techniques remained unchanged over the centuries.

The conservative approach of Ming rulers like the Jiajing emperor, who reigned until 1567, also found its expression in a humane attitude toward newborns of both genders. The Chinese were exhorted morally to care for their offspring, and infanticide was discouraged. It was considered preferable to sell young girls, even into sexual servitude, rather than kill them as infants. Even though as many as 70,000 eunuchs Eunuchs, Chinese were in attendance at imperial courts such as that of the Jiajing emperor, the population continued to increase in spite of the number of boys under ten castrated for this purpose. Similarly, the astonishingly high number of death sentences did not negatively impact population growth.

The absence of large-scale warfare during the 1500’s in China is considered another major reason for the dynamic population growth of the period. Typically, the Jiajing emperor preferred peace over foreign military expeditions. For example, in 1540, he accepted the formal submission of the Vietnamese emperor, Mac Dang Dung, rather than sending his army into Vietnam. Mongol raiders and pirates were held at bay. In the absence of major conflicts, the Chinese population during the 1500’s increased without the typical decimations associated with warfare in this era. When the Wanli emperor defended Korea Korea, Japanese invasion of from the Japanese from 1592 until 1598 (when the Japanese abandoned their invasion), the resulting stress on the Ming economy showed how, in contrast, the previous absence of much warfare had nourished population growth.

The Chinese population boom of the 1500’s was aided also by the beginning of industrialization. Based on a stable agricultural sector, industrial enterprises were born and flourished. Among these were the paper, porcelain, and textile industries.

The manufacture of paper, for example, rose in response to the large state bureaucracy and an increasingly literate population. Paper factories employed and fed thousands of workers who did not depend on tilling the land for their subsistence.

A domestic and international demand for porcelain Porcelain, Ming Dynasty led to the establishment of industrial-sized kiln combines, sustaining, for example, the one million inhabitants of Jingdezhen. Ironically, the Ming porcelain industry also points at typical limitations hampering further growth that could have sustained an even larger population. For instance, the kilns at Jingdezhen were not perfected further, and profits were often consumed rather than reinvested.

The large-scale cultivation of cotton created a textile industry that rivaled that of the silk industry. At Songjiang, people earned their livelihoods weaving cotton at 100,000 operational looms, while Hangzhou and Suzhou produced their famous silks. Again, however, in these textile industries, further inventions did not materialize that could have matched the pace of industrialization with that of the population growth.

The Wanli emperor did not know it and believed the contrary, but in reality he ruled over an empire with a booming population. Almost three times as many Chinese lived under his reign than under the Hongwu emperor. Increased agricultural production freed people to work in trade and the nascent industries, and even the catastrophic earthquake of 1556, which killed approximately 800,000 people, did not halt the population boom. Relative peace, focus on agricultural production, introduction of new crops from the south and the Americas, and modest application of technological innovations in agriculture and manufacturing gave Ming China a material base for the amazing population boom in the 1500’.


The enormous increase in Chinese population in the 1500’s created a nation of approximately 150 million inhabitants, nearly tripling the number of people in less than 250 years. For this age, the increase was remarkable. Population increase meant that more people than ever required sustenance. Because their flawed census did not reveal the situation to the emperors, they could neither take advantage of the growing population nor adequately serve its needs and sustain this growth. As a result, hardships developed.

In the north, taxation and a rise of banditry made farming increasingly difficult and prompted people to leave the land. Even in the fertile and prosperous south, food shortages developed because of the imperial government’s failure to recognize the needs of the steadily growing population. Industrial profits were often spent on consumption or taxes, leaving insufficient capital to sustain growth. State interference in the economy, as well as an official distaste for nonagrarian production and trade, also began to strangle growth. When the Wanli and other Ming emperors failed to recognize and meet the needs of his people, Chinese emigration to Southeast Asia became one of the consequences.

For all these reasons, and sadly for the Chinese people, the population boom of the late Ming Dynasty proved unsustainable. When the Ming Dynasty fell in 1644, warfare again devastated an already endangered north, and famines spread. Scholars estimate that by 1685 the Chinese population had been decimated by one-third, standing now at only 100 million rather than the estimated height of 150 million during the Ming Dynasty. Nevertheless, the next recovery would take less time than the Ming population expansion, and by 1749 there were 178 million people living in China.

Further Reading

  • Brook, Timothy. The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Focus on the cultural feeling of the era that brings to life an expanding society and shows the effect of the population boom on Chinese society, particular the upper classes. Bibliography, index.
  • Huang, Ray. China: A Macro History. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1997. Argues that while population boomed during the Ming Dynasty, the conservative political system caused economic and technological stagnation, which left China behind the European level of development. Illustrations, bibliography, index.
  • Spence, Jonathan. In Search for Modern China. New York: Norton, 1990. The first chapter illustrates life during the Ming Dynasty, showing how an expanding population first invigorated and later put pressure on the empire. Still a standard, widely available text. Illustrations, maps, tables.

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1505-1521: Reign of Zhengde and Liu Jin

1514-1598: Portuguese Reach China

1521-1567: Reign of Jiajing

Spring, 1523: Ōuchi Family Monopolizes Trade with China

1550-1571: Mongols Raid Beijing

Jan. 23, 1556: Earthquake in China Kills Thousands

1573-1620: Reign of Wanli

1592-1599: Japan Invades Korea