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What Were There Unique Aspects Of European Society That Had Demographic Effects Notes

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Jonathan Lindsell


What were there unique aspects of European society that had demographic effects?
If so how did they influence economic performance?
Can demographic models explain the emergence of modern economic growth?
Can Malthusian theory adequately explain Chinese demographic history?

Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus and the majority of eighteenth and nineteenth century Europeans imagined China to be a vast land in a state of perpetual poverty, the majority of its people barely living on the subsistence level, ravaged by famines and rebellions all too frequently. Wong and Lavely challenge this preconception of Chinese living standards, accepting that poverty existed in the country, but to a much lesser extent than commonly imagined. They point to foreign observers' differing tastes as an explanation of their hyperbolic accounts of the Chinese eating "putrid dog"1. Further, they highlight Scottish traveller Robert Fortune's own firsthand memory of China, who claims "in no country in the world is there less real misery and want than in China"2. What all this seems to suggest is that the paradigm of Chinese poverty as the diametric opposite to Western European affluence is, to a significant level, fictional. It is nonetheless true that in terms of national wealth and growth, there was a divergence between Europe and China in the period, and this essay will examine how demographic approaches can explain this phenomenon. The basic contention of economic historians in the Malthusian tradition is that whilst Europeans exercised preventive checks on population, thus allowing a degree of stability and leeway for growth and profit, China had no such checks and its population thus fluctuated massively, growing until the land could not longer sustain it and its people were decimated by crises, the so-called 'positive checks'. J. Hajnal explains the distinct European Marriage Pattern (EMP), unique to Western Europe, that facilitated preventive checks on population and thus fostered economic prosperity. He identifies 1) a high age at marriage and 2) a high proportion of people who never marry at all as the features of EMP, and backs up his claims with comparisons - in the 20-24 age bracket, 75% of Western European women were still single, whilst the same percentage in Eastern Europe and beyond were married. Of those over 50, 15% in the West were still unmarried, and could thus be counted as never marrying, whilst in non-European societies, this figure was as low as 2%. In China itself, the figure was virtually zero. Late marriage, or complete abstention, are explicitly Malthusian preventive checks, coming under his umbrella term "moral restraint". Clearly, this marriage pattern would lower the birth rate (and hence the mortality rate), Hajnal suggesting that in Europe the crude birth rate was below 38 whilst in the wider world it was over 40, often over 45. He specifically contrasts Crulai in France with Hungary from 1770-1800, showing that Hungary's birth rate was 52 /1000 and mortality 48/1000, very significantly higher than France's 31 and 28 respectively. De Moor and van Zanden examine the underlying causes of Europe's singular demographic, suggesting that the combination of the Catholic marriage doctrine, the West European system of inheritance and the growth of wage labour markets caused the EMP to arise. In theory, according to Catholic edict marriage in Europe rested upon the mutual consent of both spouses, and the parents could neither block nor force marriages. This freedom to choose a partner suited to oneself caused later 1

Revising the Malthusian Narrative: The Comparative Study of Population Dynamics in Late Imperial China, William Lavely and R. Bin. Wong, p.730 2 Idem


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