Demographics of Dynastic China - Counting the Ancient Population

What Can 4,000-Year-Old Censuses Tell Us About Ancient China?

Terra Cotta Army Qin Dynasty in Xi'an
Terra Cotta Army Qin Dynasty in Xi'an. CC http://flickr.com/photos/galaygobi/188033274/ galaygobi at Flickr.com

As of 2016, the population of China is 1.38 billion people. That phenomenal number is matched by enormous early population figures.

Censuses were taken as a rule by ancient rulers beginning in the Zhou Dynasty, but what the rulers were counting is somewhat in doubt. Some censuses refer to the number of persons as "mouths" and the number of households as "doors". But, conflicting figures are given for the same dates; and it's possible that the numbers refer not to the total population, but taxpayers, or people who were available for either military or corvee labor duties.

By the Qing Dynasty, the government was using a '​ting' or tax-unit to count in the census, which is based on a head count of population and more on the ability of the population to support the elites.

Xia Dynasty 2070-1600 BCE

The Xia dynasty is the first known dynasty in China, but even its existence is doubted by some scholars in China and elsewhere. The first census was said by Han dynasty historians to have been taken by Yu the Great in about 2000 BCE, with a total of 13,553,923 people or possibly households. Further, the figures are likely Han Dynasty propaganda

Shang Dynasty 1600-1100 BCE

No surviving censuses.

Zhou Dynasty 1027-221 BC

Censuses became normal instruments of public administration, and several rulers ordered them at regular intervals, but the statistics are somewhat in doubt

  • 1000 BCE 13,714,923 persons
  • 680 BCE 11,841,923 persons

Qin Dynasty 221-206 BCE

The Qin Dynasty was the first time China was unified under a centralized government.

With the ending of wars, iron implements, farming techniques, and irrigation were developed. No surviving censuses.

Han Dynasty 206 BCE-220 CE

About the turn of the Common Era, population censuses in China became statistically useful for the entire united mainland. By 2 CE, censuses were taken and recorded on occasion.

  • Western Han 2 CE, persons per household 4.9
  • Eastern Han 57-156 CE, persons per household 4.9-5.8
  • 2 CE 59,594,978 persons, 12,233,062 households
  • 156 CE 56,486,856 persons, 10,677,960 households

Six Dynasties (Period of Disunity) 220-589 CE

  • Liu Sung State, 464 CE, 5.3 million persons, 900,000 households

Sui Dynasty 581-618 CE

  • 606 CE - persons per household 5.2, 46,019,956 persons, 8,907,536 households

Tang Dynasty 618-907 CE

  • 634-643, 12,000,000 persons, 2,992,779 households
  • 707-755 CE - persons per household 5.7-6.0
  • 754 CE - 52,880,488 persons, 7,662,800 tax payers
  • 755 CE - 52,919,309 persons, 8,208,321 tax payers
  • 845 CE - 4,955,151 households

Five Dynasties 907-960 CE

Song Dynasty 960-1279

  • 1006-1223, persons per household 1.4-2.6
  • 1006 - 15,280,254 persons, 7,417,507 households
  • 1063 - 26,421,651 persons, 12,462,310 households
  • 1103 - 45,981,845 persons, 20,524,065 households
  • 1160 - 19,229,008 persons, 11,575,753 households
  • 1223 - 28,320,085 persons, 12,670,801 households

Yuan Dynasty 1271-1368

  • 1290-1292, persons per houshold 4.5-4.6
  • 1290 - 58,834,711 persons, 13,196,206 households
  • 1330 - 13,400,699 households

Ming Dynasty 1368-1644 CE

  • 1381-1626 persons per hhouseolde 4.8-7.1
  • 1381 - 59,873305 persons, 10,654,362 households
  • 1450 - 53,403,954 persons, 9,588,234 households
  • 1520 - 60,606,220 persons, 9,399,979 households
  • 1620-1626 - 51,655,459 persons, 9,835,416 households

Qing Qynasty 1655-1911 CE

Sources

  • Duan C-Q, Gan X-C, Jeanny W, and Chien PK. 1998. Relocation of Civilization Centers in Ancient China: Environmental Factors. Ambio 27(7):572-575.
  • Durand JD. 1960. The Population Statistics of China, A.D. 2-1953. Population Studies 13(3):209-256.