In This Article Population Structure and Dynamics since 1949

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Regular Reports, Synopses, and News
  • Journals

Chinese Studies Population Structure and Dynamics since 1949
Thomas Scharping
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0107


Studies of population dynamics are the domain of demography, a joint enterprise of social and biological sciences that, since its beginnings in the 17th century, has developed into a highly mathematized subject. Statistics and precision are essential in the field, especially in the Chinese case, where minuscule discrepancies of rates translate into huge differences in absolute amounts, with widely differing per capita indicators for one-fifth of the world population following. At its best, demography offers empirical substance, methodological stringency, and representative findings that are often missing in the more freewheeling contributions of other disciplines; at its worst, it becomes immersed in mechanical number-crunching in which the social and cultural, and political and economic, meaning of data evaporates. In China, population has been a topic for rulers, bureaucrats, and philosophers of statecraft for nearly three thousand years. As a modern discipline, however, demography had to await importation from the West in 1918. During the Mao era it first became a forbidden bourgeois subject, then made a brief comeback in the mid-1950s, was banned again until 1973, and existed in the shadows up to 1977. Population figures and other statistical data were nonexistent or inaccessible after the Great Leap Forward of 1958–1960. When they became available again, the leadership’s alarm over high population numbers led to tightened birth policies and turned demography from a proscribed into a prescribed subject. Because of the crucial importance of demographic information for public policy and development planning in post-Mao China, population studies has evolved into a key discipline of Chinese social sciences. Since the 1980s there has been an unprecedented growth of such studies, and the mass of statistics and research dwarfs information from other parts of the world. At the same time, their academic standards have been raised to international levels. These developments have revived Western studies on Chinese population dynamics, which were languishing for a long time. Since China’s 1982 census, studies on the three main components of demographic change—mortality, fertility and migration—and on related topics, have thrived. Most survey-based investigations, analyses, and concomitant debates have appeared in demographic publications, but less so in Chinese Studies. Work focuses on the analysis of population size and composition, growth dynamics, and data relationships. Fruitful extensions follow, once deeper questions of cause and effect are raised. Population studies then become linked to both Chinese Studies and disciplines such as sociology, economics and political science, anthropology, history, and geography, which provide indispensable interpretative background. However, the complex interdependencies in population development have notoriously resisted theoretical generalization.

General Overviews

Chinese population dynamics are intimately related to population policy, which will only be intermittently touched upon here, since it will receive fuller treatment in an article on China’s one-child policy. The following general overviews are selected for comprehensiveness in terms of the aspects and the span of time covered. All of them have been published in the reform era. Due to the limited demographic information available before this period, prior work has become largely outdated. The earliest study listed here is Liu, et al. 1981, published three years after China’s revived population studies went public. Although it has become superseded by recent work, it heralds the tenets and basic beliefs of the one-child campaign in condensed form. As such, it still makes worthwhile reading. All the other books cited here were written after the results of China’s third population census of July 1982 and the first national fertility survey two months later became available. Both counts broke with the former secretiveness and sought cooperation from foreign specialists, including Ansley Coale from Princeton University. His short report, Coale 1984, offers a succinct and still valid review of major results from both counts. It confirms the high quality of the first three Chinese censuses, but it also reveals large undercounts in intercensal vital rates from the household-registration system. Banister 1987 is a comprehensive and landmark study that still serves as standard literature for the period until 1984. Later collections such as Peng and Guo 2000, Attané 2002, or Zhao and Guo 2007 carry population developments forward to 2000 and beyond. They also show the increasing specialization and variety of topics within the field. Scharping 2003 provides the first full-scale account of Chinese birth-planning policies and practices, as well as their demographic repercussions, since the founding of the People’s Republic. This study can be compared with the later notable work Greenhalgh and Winckler 2005 (cited under Population, Political, Cultural, and Socioeconomic Change), which offers less demographic and more discourse analysis. Finally, Lee and Wang 1999 connects past, present, and future demographic developments in a provocative statement on Chineseness in population matters.

  • Attané, Isabelle, ed. La Chine au seuil du XXIe siècle: Questions de population, questions de societé. Paris: Institut National d’Etudes Démographiques, 2002.

    E-mail Citation »

    Besides analyses of post-1949 population developments in the narrow sense, this collective work also presents articles from French and Chinese specialists on related social issues such as morbidity and health, the situation of peasant families, education, employment, and food supply.

  • Banister, Judith. China’s Changing Population. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987.

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    This standard work offers in-depth analysis of fertility and mortality developments, with revised life tables and a disputed adjustment of the defective vital rates from official sources for the period 1949–1984. There is also discussion of population distribution, migration streams, and ethnic structure.

  • Coale, Ansley J., ed. Rapid Population Change in China, 1952–1982. Committee on Population and Demography Report 27. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1984.

    E-mail Citation »

    Prepared by the noted Princeton demographer Ansley Coale, this technical report discusses marriage, childbearing, and mortality. It assesses the quality of census and survey data and proposes an adjustment of intercensal vital rates coming from household registration. Rival adjustments were submitted in Banister 1987, by Gérard Calot and Jiang Zhenghua.

  • Lee, James Z., and Wang Feng. One Quarter of Humanity: Malthusian Mythology and Chinese Realities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

    E-mail Citation »

    This short, pathbreaking, and highly controversial work links present population changes with past demo-economic developments and posits rising standards of life since 1700. It suggests a Chinese demographic regime marked by collective family control of marriages, births and deaths via universal female marriage, widespread bachelorhood, low marital fertility, and female infanticide.

  • Liu Zheng, Song Jian, et al. China’s Population: Problems and Prospects. Beijing: New World Press, 1981.

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    This slim, controversial volume from promoters of the one-child campaign is one of the earliest publications of Chinese population studies since their revival in 1973. It discusses causal relations in population growth, the reasoning behind birth-planning and late-marriage policies, plus population distribution and demographic changes in Shanghai, Anhui, and Sichuan.

  • Peng Xizhe, and Guo Zhigang, eds. The Changing Population of China. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

    E-mail Citation »

    Contributions in this comprehensive volume come from distinguished Chinese demographers. They give compact overviews of developments in fertility and mortality, marriage, family, age, and sex structure, plus connected social issues such as health, education, urbanization, and employment. The role of political campaigns and government intervention in demographic change is understated.

  • Scharping, Thomas. Birth Control in China 1949–2000: Population Policy and Demographic Development. London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    Focusing on goals and policy formulation, normative issues, and implementation problems of state birth planning, this book also contains extensive discussion of effects in regard to marriage trends, contraception and abortion, fertility levels, age structure, sex ratio, and future population trends. Deviance, family-size preferences, and data quality are likewise covered.

  • Zhao, Zhongwei, and Fei Guo, eds. Transition and Challenge: China’s Population at the Beginning of the 21st Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199299294.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    This conference volume collects contributions from Chinese and international specialists on China’s (including Taiwan’s and Hong Kong’s) demographic record during the reform period, in particular since the 1990s. It offers census- and survey-based analyses of recent trends in fertility, mortality, and migration. Several articles also discuss data problems and adjustment issues.

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