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One Quarter of Humanity: Malthusian mythology and Chinese realities. (Reviews).

One Quarter of Humanity: Malthusian Mythology and Chinese Realities. By James Z. Lee and Wang Feng (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999. xii plus 248 pp.).

In One Quarter of Humanity James Lee and Wang Feng present an overview of China's demographic history over the last three centuries that is both sweeping and revisionist. They challenge Malthus' characterization of the Chinese population as one of universal marriage and high fertility, held in check only by high mortality (the positive check), and replace it with a model that emphasizes instead the role of Chinese collectivities (the family and the state) in regulating both fertility and mortality, and maintaining the balance of population and resources. Their work builds on recent publications in Chinese economic and demographic history, including the authors' own important contributions to population history through studies of the Chinese imperial lineage and the banner populations of Northeast China.

Despite almost uninterrupted growth since the eighteenth century, the devastating subsistence crises predicted by the Malthusian model have not acted to limit the Chinese population. Lee and Wang argue not only that productivity and technological improvement have kept food supplies in pace with demand, but that institutional mechanisms have limited growth to maintain an overall balance between population and resources. Their argument that these institutional mechanisms constitute a preventive check that limited growth, in contrast to the Malthusian assumption of unrestrained fertility, is both innovative and controversial. In a series of chapters in the core of the book the authors lay out four key mechanisms that operated as a preventive check: female infanticide, male celibacy and minor marriage, marital restraint, and adoption. All of these reflect aspects of the culture of the Chinese family that contrast with that of the European family and marriage system, and shape Chinese demographic behavior in disti nctive ways.

The first mechanism, female infanticide, reflects the son preference of the Chinese patrilineal family. High rates of female infanticide have two important demographic consequences. First, by reducing the size of the female population reaching reproductive age, they limit the population's growth potential. Secondly, by creating a shortage of brides, compared to the number of grooms reaching marriage age, they ensure that marriage for females is both early and universal while forcing many Chinese men to forego marriage. In addition to male celibacy, the shortage of brides induces Chinese parents to arrange marriages for their sons by adopting and raising young girls as daughters-in-law; this is important to the authors' model as these 'minor' marriages have been shown by Arthur Wolf to depress marital fertility.

The authors' case for the third mechanism, 'marital restraint', will prove by far the most controversial part of the book. (1) In contrast to the Malthusian assumption of uncontrolled fertility within marriage, Lee and Wang marshal evidence that the fertility of Chinese marriages was lower than that of European marriages before the demographic transition. They interpret this lower fertility as the result of factors which the authors argue were at least in part under conscious control. They argue that arranged marriages between strangers and a tradition of 'carnal restraint' lowered coital frequency; and this along with prolonged breastfeeding lengthened birth intervals. Long birth intervals combined with early stopping led to lower overall marital fertility (around 6 births per married woman). The fourth mechanism, the adoption of both male and female children, gave Chinese families dealing with limited fertility and unpredictable mortality, additional flexibility in shaping offspring sets to fit family goals .

The authors see all four of the preventive check mechanisms implemented through conscious decisions taken on a collective basis. Decisions regarding marriage, childbearing, infanticide and adoption were made not by individuals or even couples but by joint households including the senior generation. Lee and Wang argue that this tradition of collective decision making in family planning is a point of strong continuity between the extended family and the modem socialist state and its birth control policies.

Lee and Wang support their arguments for the impact of each of the four institutional mechanisms by presenting demographic measures culled from a variety of recent studies. Given their enthusiasm for the preventive check mechanisms, they seek to minimize the role of mortality and health-related factors that previous analysts have emphasized. At times the arguments seem to go beyond the evidence, e.g., the claim on page 52 that a "rapid reduction in infanticide explains much of the decline in Chinese infant mortality," when the data presented in the table on page 56 show that patterns of decline for males and females were quite similar, although males were never the target of infanticide and neglect to the degree that females were. The authors rarely consider alternative interpretations for the data they present. Could lengthy first birth intervals be the result of early age at marriage for brides combined with late age at menarche and adolescent infertility, rather than 'carnal restraint'? Could lower marital fertility be due to higher rates of sterility and poor maternal health as well as prolonged breastfeeding, rather than conscious restraint? Could the increase in fertility in the 1950's be the result of improved nutrition and health rather than the breakdown of collective household controls?

Lee and Wang have made a landmark contribution to comparative historical demography by laying out their case against the Malthusian model of high fertility restrained only by high mortality for the Chinese population. No future student of Chinese population will be able to take that model for granted. Their sensitivity to cultural factors flowing from the Chinese family system, and their own industrious plumbing of the new historical data are both to be applauded. Whether subsequent analysts agree with their conclusions or not, we can be sure that the model of the Chinese demographic regime presented in this work will define the contours of the debate for years to come.


(1.) See Arthur P. Wolf "Is There Evidence of Birth Control in Late Imperial China?", Population and Development Review (March 2001) 27.1: 133-154.
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Author:Shepherd, John R.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2001
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