The Demographics of Dynastic China

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 was 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 BCE

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 CE: 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

After the fall of the Tang dynasty, China was split into several states and consistent population data for the entire county is not available.

Song Dynasty 960–1279 CE

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

Yuan Dynasty 1271–1368 CE

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

Ming Dynasty 1368–1644 CE

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

Qing Dynasty 1655–1911 CE

In 1740, the Qing dynasty emperor ordered that population statistics be compiled annually, a system known as "pao-chia," which required each household to keep a tablet by their door with a list of all the members of the household. Later those tablets were kept in regional offices.

  • 1751 CE: 207 million persons
  • 1781 CE: 270 million persons
  • 1791 CE: 294 million persons
  • 1811 CE: 347 million persons
  • 1821 CE: 344 million persons
  • 1831 CE: 383 million persons
  • 1841 CE: 400 million persons
  • 1851 CE: 417 million persons

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.
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Gill, N.S. "The Demographics of Dynastic China." ThoughtCo, Aug. 18, 2017, thoughtco.com/demographics-of-ancient-china-117655. Gill, N.S. (2017, August 18). The Demographics of Dynastic China. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/demographics-of-ancient-china-117655 Gill, N.S. "The Demographics of Dynastic China." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/demographics-of-ancient-china-117655 (accessed December 13, 2017).