Skip to main content

30% Off New Releases: Explore the List

Harvard University Press - home
One Quarter of Humanity

One Quarter of Humanity

Malthusian Mythology and Chinese Realities, 1700–2000

James Z. Lee, Wang Feng

ISBN 9780674007093

Publication date: 12/21/2001

This book presents evidence about historical and contemporary Chinese population behavior that overturns much of the received wisdom about the differences between China and the West first voiced by Malthus. Malthus described a China in which early and universal marriage ensured high fertility and therefore high mortality. He contrasted this with Western Europe, where marriage occurred late and was far from universal, resulting in lower fertility and higher demographic responsiveness to economic circumstances. The result in China was thought to be mass misery as part of the population teetered on the brink of a Malthusian precipice, whereas in the West conditions were less severe.

In reality, James Lee and Wang Feng argue, there has been effective regulation of population growth in China through a variety of practices that depressed marital fertility to levels far below European standards, and through the widespread practices of infanticide and abortion. Moreover, in China, population behavior has long been primarily a consequence of collective intervention. This collective culture underlies four distinctive features of the Chinese demographic pattern—high rates of female infanticide, low rates of male marriage, low rates of marital fertility, and high rates of adoption—that Lee and Wang trace from 1700 to today. These and other distinctive features of the Chinese demographic and social system, they argue, led to a different demographic transition in China from the one that took place in the West.


  • I congratulate the authors for daring to use their careful quantative work to expres bold, provocative theses about Chinese society, past and present. This is one of the best contributions to Chinese social and economic history we have seen in a long time.

    —Peter C. Perdue, Journal of Asian Studies


  • 2000, Winner of the Allan Sharlin Memorial Award


  • James Z. Lee is Associate Professor of Chinese History at the California Institute of Technology.
  • Wang Feng is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine.

Book Details

  • 268 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press