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Demography of China

Settlement patterns

Rural areas

The vast majority of rural communities in China are characterized by large, closely-knit (nucleated) villages, with the exception of those situated in mountainous or hilly regions where such dense settlement patterns are unfeasible. The development of these rural communities is influenced by a multitude of factors, including demographic growth, a rich historical context, the availability of water resources (such as the implementation of deep well drilling techniques), and historically, the need for protection against banditry. Despite their size, with some villages housing several thousand inhabitants, they often lack any semblance of an urban environment. It is common for these large villages to engage in periodic markets, facilitating the exchange of agricultural goods among the local farming population.

In the North China Plain, villages are distributed with relative uniformity and interconnected by a network of footpaths and cartways. Residential structures are typically built in close proximity to one another, utilizing materials such as sun-dried brick or compacted earth. Defensive walls often encircle the market towns or larger villages. The number and extent of streets within these towns vary according to their size and the topographical features of the area, with some streets being no more than narrow passageways.

The rural scenery in central and southern China is predominantly shaped by expansive rice paddies. The Yangtze River delta region showcases a diverse array of human settlements, ranging from solitary farmsteads to sizeable market towns. Villages in the vicinity of Lake Tai in Jiangsu province are usually spaced 1 to 2 miles apart, and since the 1980s, many have evolved into small towns. Central China, particularly along the lower stretches of the Yangtze, is home to larger villages than those found in North China. These villages often feature a selection of shops catering to both the local inhabitants and those living in more isolated areas. Market towns, which are central to numerous villages, play a crucial role in the collection of rural produce and the distribution of manufactured goods. In these regions, waterways serve as the primary means of communication between villages, with a dense network of canals and streams being traversed predominantly by boats. Stone bridges, which are abundant and elegantly constructed, are prominent features in the landscape, often crossing over the various water channels. In the Sichuan Basin’s Chengdu Plain, a significant portion of the population resides in solitary farmsteads or dispersed hamlets, nestled amidst bamboo groves and broad-leaved trees.

Cave dwellings are a unique aspect of China’s rural topography, particularly prevalent on the Loess Plateau and in areas of northern Shaanxi, western Shanxi, and southeastern Gansu where the loess deposits are substantial and timber resources are limited. These subterranean homes offer the advantage of natural insulation, providing cooler conditions in the summer and warmth during the winter months.

The economic reforms initiated in the late 1970s have had a transformative effect on rural settlements in China. Enhanced agricultural efficiency generated a surplus of labor, leading to a migration of rural workers to urban centers in search of industrial employment. However, a considerable number remained in rural areas, contributing to the emergence of a burgeoning system of rural industrial production known as “township enterprise.” Engaging primarily in light manufacturing aimed at both domestic and international markets, these enterprises have been instrumental in transitioning thousands of villages into semi-urbanized towns, significantly elevating the living standards of millions of rural inhabitants. These newly urbanized towns have become pivotal in bridging the gap between urban and rural areas, playing a vital role in the dynamic expansion of the rural economy.

Urban areas

In the context of China, the phenomena of urbanization and industrialization have historically been interlinked. The initial significant drive towards urbanization post-1949 commenced in the mid-1950s, coinciding with the government’s concerted efforts to transform the nation into an industrial heavyweight. This trend towards urban proliferation gained further momentum from the mid-1980s onwards, as China began to assert itself as a formidable player on the international economic arena.

Consequently, the swift evolution of advanced manufacturing sectors and the enhancement of communication networks have precipitated a profound transformation within China’s urban topography. Numerous urban settlements, centered around industrial and mining activities, have emerged. In the more secluded regions, the advent of rail and road infrastructure has spurred the swift establishment of new towns, notable examples being Shihezi in northern Xinjiang and Shiquanhe in western Tibet. Among the larger urban areas, cities such as Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang, Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu, and Baotou in Inner Mongolia, have experienced particularly brisk expansion. Lanzhou is strategically positioned between the southeastern and northwestern parts of China, while Baotou has transitioned from a desolate trading outpost to a leading steel production hub.

Currently, over half of China’s populace resides in urban areas, a stark increase from the less than one-quarter figure in 1975. Although this urban-to-rural ratio is modest in comparison to more extensively industrialized nations, it nonetheless represents a staggering demographic equivalent to the entire population of North America. China boasts upwards of forty cities with populations exceeding one million, and several others with inhabitants numbering between 500,000 and one million. The spatial distribution of these populous cities reflects the broader national demographic pattern, with a pronounced concentration in the eastern coastal provinces, a substantial presence in the central provinces, and a more sparse distribution in the western regions.

Demographic trends

Population growth

Historical analyses indicate that as early as the 8th century BCE, during the early Zhou dynasty, China’s population was approximately 13.7 million. This figure increased significantly by the end of the Western Han dynasty, around 2 CE, when the population was recorded at 59.6 million. This initial census, primarily conducted to facilitate the implementation of a poll tax, faced challenges as many individuals evaded reporting, leading to centuries of unreliable demographic data. However, in 1712, Emperor Kangxi of the Qing dynasty announced that population growth would not incur additional taxation, which subsequently improved the accuracy of population records.

By the early 12th century, during the Northern Song dynasty, China’s population surpassed 100 million, reflecting the nation’s economic and cultural zenith. However, this number was impacted by continuous invasions from the north. With the establishment of the Ming dynasty and the restoration of national unity, rigorous census efforts were undertaken. The 1381 census revealed a population similar to that of 2 CE.

From the 15th century onwards, China’s population saw a steady increase, although this growth was periodically disrupted by conflicts and natural calamities, particularly in the mid-17th century, and by domestic and foreign turmoil prior to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The 18th century was marked by sustained peace and prosperity, with the population reaching over 200 million by 1762 and doubling by 1834, despite the static amount of arable land, which led to increasing land scarcity.

Post-1949, advancements in sanitation and healthcare, along with improved public hygiene, led to a decline in mortality rates that outpaced the decrease in birth rates, resulting in a heightened population growth rate. By the early 1980s, China’s population had reached 1 billion and exceeded 1.3 billion in the early 21st century.

The burgeoning population presented significant challenges for the government. In response, a major birth control initiative was launched between 1955 and 1958 to address food shortages and elevate living standards. A second campaign commenced in 1962, emphasizing delayed marriages and contraceptive use. The Cultural Revolution temporarily halted these efforts, but in 1970, a more stringent policy was introduced, eventually leading to the one-child policy in 1979.

The population growth rate was also influenced by other factors, notably the catastrophic consequences of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1960, which resulted in a severe famine and a population decline. Recovery began in 1963, and despite the ongoing birth control campaign, the birth rate soared, leading to an unprecedented growth rate of over 3 percent annually.

Since the 1970s, state-led family planning initiatives have been more successful. China’s population growth rate is now among the lowest for developing countries, yet due to its vast population size, the annual net increase remains significant. Approximately one-sixth of the population is under 15 years of age. The one-child policy was phased out in 2016 to encourage a higher birth rate.

Population distribution

The diverse and intricate natural landscapes of China have given rise to a population distribution that is markedly uneven. There is a pronounced disparity in population density across the country, with the most significant contrast observed between the densely populated eastern regions and the sparsely inhabited western and northwestern territories. Regions such as the Yangtze River Delta, the Pearl River Delta, and the Chengdu Plain in the Sichuan Basin’s western area exhibit exceptionally high population densities. These densely populated zones generally align with fertile alluvial plains that support intensive agricultural activities.

On the other hand, the expansive and remote western frontier areas of China, which individually exceed the size of any European nation, are characterized by their sparse population. These vast stretches of uninhabited land encompass the extremely elevated northern Tibetan regions, the arid expanses of the central Tarim and eastern Junggar basins in Xinjiang, and the desolate desert and mountainous terrain to the east of Lop Nur.

In the 1950s, the Chinese government recognized the strategic significance of these frontier regions and initiated a campaign encouraging former military personnel and educated youth to settle in these areas. The construction of new railways and highways was undertaken to penetrate these underpopulated expanses, which consequently stimulated demographic growth and the emergence of several small-scale mining and industrial settlements.

Internal migration

Throughout the annals of Chinese history, significant migratory patterns have been a consistent feature, often triggered by catastrophic events such as famines or political turmoil. These events would typically lead to the depopulation of heavily cultivated areas, prompting individuals from densely populated neighboring regions to relocate and inhabit the vacated lands. For instance, the peasant uprising in Sichuan during the 1640s resulted in substantial loss of life, which led to an influx of people from Hubei and Shaanxi provinces. This migratory trend persisted into the 19th century. The Taiping Rebellion, occurring three centuries later, similarly disrupted population dynamics, with mass casualties in the lower Yangtze valley and subsequent starvation among survivors. Post-rebellion, people from Hubei, Hunan, and Henan provinces resettled in the deserted farmlands of Jiangsu, Anhui, and Zhejiang. Other notable disturbances include the Nian Rebellion in the 1850s and ’60s, the Muslim uprisings in Shaanxi and Gansu in the 1860s and ’70s, and the severe famine in Shaanxi and Shanxi during 1877–78.

The most profound internal migration in modern Chinese history involved the relocation of Han Chinese to Manchuria, now referred to as the Northeast. Prior to the establishment of the Qing dynasty in 1644, Manchu military incursions into North China resulted in the capture and forced settlement of Han laborers in Manchuria. Despite an imperial edict in 1668 that sought to halt further Han migration, enforcement was lax. By the mid-19th century, Han settlers had become the predominant demographic in Manchuria. The prohibition on migration was eventually lifted in 1878, with active encouragement for settlement only commencing after 1900.

Post-1923, Manchuria experienced a notable surge in population as farmers cultivated previously untouched grasslands. Approximately two-thirds of these migrants arrived by sea, with the remainder traveling overland. Initially, migration was seasonal due to harsh winter conditions, but as Manchuria transformed into a key industrial hub, urbanization altered the nature of migration to a more permanent rural-to-urban shift.

Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the government’s strategic migration policies significantly impacted the demographic composition of interior and border regions. By 1980, it is estimated that recent migrants constituted between one-fourth and one-third of the population in areas such as Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Heilongjiang, and Qinghai, with the Han population in Xinjiang rising to about 40%. Post-Great Leap Forward, efforts to manage urban population growth led to the relocation of approximately 20 million city dwellers to rural areas, and a similar number of urban-educated youths were “rusticated” after 1968, though many later returned to urban centers.

Economic reforms initiated in the late 1970s have catalyzed a significant shift in migration patterns, with a pronounced rural-to-urban and west-to-east movement, reversing the trends of the preceding thirty years. This has exacerbated the uneven population distribution, with substantial migration to the eastern urban centers and depopulation in the western regions. Many rural migrants periodically return to their hometowns throughout the year. These individuals often form community groups based on their place of origin for mutual support, akin to ethnic enclaves in global cities. However, the unregulated influx of migrants has placed considerable pressure on urban infrastructure, environmental sustainability, and public safety in the host cities.

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