CR 59:229-242 (2014)  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/cr01215

Climate-induced agricultural shrinkage and overpopulation in late imperial China

Harry F. Lee*

Department of Geography and the International Centre of China Development Studies, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, SAR
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: There is a continuing debate over whether the series of population checks in late imperial China were caused by overpopulation or not. The debate may be rooted in the absence of quantitative estimates of population pressure. In the present study, fine-grained historical socio-economic and population datasets together with statistical methods were utilized to estimate quantitatively the population pressure in China in the period 1730-1910. The possible paths through which population pressure was translated into demographic catastrophes were also examined. Statistical results show that (1) the frequency of various population checks was positively correlated with subsistence pressure, (2) food strain and its associated demographic catastrophes were driven by the synergistic work of climate-induced agricultural shrinkage and population growth, and (3) the synthesis significantly determined population growth dynamics across China at various geographic levels. To conclude, overpopulation in late imperial China is not a myth, and the series of population checks and eventually population collapse were caused by subsistence pressure during the period. When examining historical Chinese demography, the adverse effect of climatic forcing on human carrying capacity should be considered.


KEY WORDS: Climate change · Human carrying capacity · Population pressure · Overpopulation · Population checks · Demographic catastrophes · China


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Cite this article as: Lee HF (2014) Climate-induced agricultural shrinkage and overpopulation in late imperial China. Clim Res 59:229-242. https://doi.org/10.3354/cr01215

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