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Survival of the literati: Social status and reproduction in Ming–Qing China

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Abstract

This study uses the genealogical records of 36,456 men from six Chinese lineages to test one of the fundamental assumptions of the Malthusian model: Did higher living standards result in increased reproduction? An empirical investigation of China between 1350 and 1920 finds a positive relationship between social status and net reproduction. Degree and office holders, or the literati, produced more than twice as many surviving sons as non-degree holders. The analysis explores the impact of social status on both the intensive and extensive margins of fertility—namely, reduction in child mortality and better access to marriages. The high income and strong kin network of the literati greatly contributed to their reproductive success.

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Fig. 1
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Source: The lineage sample

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Source: The lineage sample

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Data availability

The genealogical data used in this study were manually collected by the author. The data generated and analysed in this study are not publicly available because they constitute an excerpt of a research in progress but are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

Notes

  1. See the following examples for pre-industrial England: Boberg-Fazlic et al. (2011), Clark and Cummins (2015), Clark and Hamilton (2006), and de la Croix et al. (2019); for rural France: Cummins (2020) and Weir (1995); for Sweden, before the fertility transition: Bengtsson and Dribe (2014) and Dribe and Scalone (2014); and for colonial India: Bandyopadhyay and Green (2013).

  2. For the 1–1500 CE period, the globe remained largely the same. However, beyond 1500, England had already transformed into a post-Malthusian regime and witnessed a cointegration between vital rates and living standards in the mid-sixteenth century (Møller and Sharp 2014).

  3. Both Harrell (1995) and Telford (1995) suggest an infant death rate of 250 deaths per 1,000 births in South China in the Qing dynasty. Considering the high infant mortality rate in pre-modern society, the key in testing the Malthusian mechanism in this era is establishing the relationship between social status and net reproduction, not gross reproduction.

  4. The socioeconomic gradients in fertility have also changed over history (Cummins 2009; Livi-Bacci 1986; Skirbekk 2008). For instance, Clark and Cummins (2015) reveal that the higher net fertility of the rich did not remain stable over the entire pre-transitional period: a rapid decline in net fertility occurred first in the middle and upper classes as early as 1780. This finding is also supported by that of Dribe et al. (2014) and Dribe et al. (2017) for five populations in Europe and North America during the period of fertility transition.

  5. This great turnover in elite status could be demonstrated by a famous story about Fan Jin, a man who lived in Ming China. After receiving a juren degree, Fan was immediately offered large houses and lands by local officials and merchants who wished to gain his protection (Ho 1962, pp.42–43).

  6. The original Chinese text of this sentence is, “不孝有三, 无后为大”. The English translation is quoted from the Chinese Text Project. URL: https://ctext.org/text.pl?node=1696&if=en.

  7. See Online Appendix A.1 for a brief introduction to the practice of keeping genealogies in Imperial China.

  8. I-Chin Yuan (1931) is the earliest demographic study using Chinese genealogies. See Harrell and Pullum (1995); Lee et al. (1993; 1994); Peng and Hou (1996); Telford (1986; 1990; 1992), and Ts'ui-jung Liu (1981; 1985; 1992; 1995) for earlier genealogical studies. Three recent works by Shiue (20162017; 2019) also set an example to economists through her use of Chinese genealogies.

  9. See Online Appendix A.2 and Online Appendix Table A3 for an introduction to the distinction between the three common lineages and the three elite lineages.

  10. Haining was under the jurisdiction of Hangzhou in the Ming–Qing period, and moved to Jiaxing after 1949.

  11. The six counties are Taicang, Changshu, Chongming, Kunshan, Wushan, and Wuxi.

  12. See Online Appendix Table A2 for details.

  13. Considering the ritual significance of sons, would the number of sons be exaggerated? This was not the case either. In a man’s mini-biography, the number of sons, the names of his sons, and each son’s birth order were all recorded. The names and birth order of the 36,456 males in the sample used in this study who appeared in their fathers’ mini-biographies are all matched with their names and birth orders mentioned in their own mini-biographies. Finding any evidence indicating that there were “fake” sons is difficult. Moreover, the targeted readers of genealogical books were the lineage’s own family members, and the main objectives of keeping genealogies were reminding them of the family history and teaching them to venerate their ancestors; considering these points, fabricating information about sons in the genealogical books was pointless for the compilers.

  14. The preface to the Zha genealogies states that if a female is betrothed to a male family member, married or not, divorced or remarried, and whether as wife or concubine, she should be recorded in the relevant male’s entry.

  15. A common practice in traditional China is adoption. An heirless man was allowed to adopt a son from his brothers or male cousins as his own heir to continue his bloodline. Because this study focuses on comparing fertility returns to status, I focus only on biological sons.

  16. Clark and Cummins (2015) apply this net fertility measure when they use English men’s wills to analyse fertility.

  17. This proportion of remarriage is comparable to the findings from previous genealogical studies. Liu (1995, p. 105) reports the percentage of remarried men in her sample, which ranged from 8.4 to 26.1 per cent. In Telford (1992, p.27, Table 2), 580 (6.99 per cent) of the sample had more than one wife.

  18. Such “demographic privilege” enjoyed by the first-born has been demonstrated before in China (Lee and Campbell 1997).

  19. Many of these men could have had un-recorded daughters, indicating that the proportion of childless men who reached adulthood would have been much lower than 39 per cent.

  20. This proportion of the unmarried is also comparable with those reported in other genealogical research. Telford (1995, pp. 76–77) notes the percentage of those unmarried in 41 lineages in Tongcheng, which ranged from 8.09 to 38.06 per cent, 22.10 per cent on average.

  21. Chinese genealogical books record only legitimate births, but illegitimate births (out-of-wedlock births) were rare in China. Lee and Wang (1999) mention that in the historical population of China the share of illegitimate births was nearly zero. Bastardy existed, as demonstrated in Sommer (2015), but only among extremely poor people.

  22. The percentage of married males without an heir shown in Telford (1995, pp. 76–77) and in Liu (1995, pp. 102–105) are both around 20 per cent.

  23. Additionally, I run the regression under the OLS regression (Online Appendix Table A6); the results are comparable to the negative binomial estimates.

  24. In the full sample, 20,327 males had records of sons who survived infancy. Overall, 17,468 fathers (85.9 per cent) had no records stating that their sons died in childhood. Although the number of sons who survived infancy was recorded completely, the number of sons who did not survive childhood might not have been. As the upper-class and the prolific men would be more likely to be recorded with the information, examining the full sample could lead to spurious coefficients. Thus, to avoid the potential biases, I primarily examine child mortality based on the sub-sample of fathers who had such records.

  25. Park (1983) finds that family size would significantly affect the sex ratio of siblings in Korea, and Biggar et al. (1999) suggest the same for Denmark. Hence, in the model, I condition on the number of children a father had.

  26. Previous works on socioeconomic status and child mortality in historical European societies suggest that the social gradients in mortality emerged relatively late after the nineteenth century (see, for example, Bengtsson et al. 2020), and the socioeconomic differentials in child mortality were also trivial and non-linear (Jaadla et al. 2020). However, as also suggested by Bengtsson (2004), short-term economic variations affected child mortality. By contrast, in the six Chinese lineages from 1350 to 1900, the upper class had greater advantages in resisting Malthusian positive checks than the lower class, and their advantages were particularly evident during turbulent times. Online Appendix Figure A1 shows the changing proportion of sons dying before adulthood by social status for this period. Non-degree holders always had a higher proportion of non-surviving sons than the degree and office holders had. In particular, for the 1800–1900 cohort, because of the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864), an upheaval that seriously damaged the Lower Yangtze region, the non-degree holders had the highest rate of non-surviving sons, while the rate for the degree holders and officials remain unchanged.

  27. The mean number of wives for polygynous men in the six lineages is 2.2, and the number barely changes over the entire period from 1350 to 1900.

  28. This may largely account for the universality of adoption in pre-modern China mentioned in Lee and Wang (1999). Numerous males with no heir could not afford to remarry; therefore, to continue their own family lines, they would have chosen to adopt a brother’s son.

  29. The integrity allowance was several times greater than the regulated salary. A governor of Jiangsu (a second-ranking local official) could receive an allowance as high as 12,000 silver taels, and a seventh-ranking local official in Zhejiang could receive an allowance somewhere between 500 and 1,800 taels (Chang 1962, pp.12–13).

  30. The results of having multiple wives and concubines in Table 9, together with those in Tables 5 and 6, all suggest that polygyny in the six lineages in the Ming–Qing period did not negatively impact human capital formation, measured by child mortality and a son’s social outcome. This finding, to some degree, differs from the findings in previous empirical works focusing on African economies (see e.g., Arthi and Fenske 2018; Tertilt 2005; Wagner and Rieger 2015). However, the primary difference between the Chinese and African contexts lies in the fact that in historical China, polygamy was not prevalent in poor, but only in rich, families. Therefore, the usual mechanisms through which polygamy would negatively impact human capital and wealth accumulation, including resource dilution and crowding, might not work in the traditional Chinese context.

  31. Li and Lin (2015) suggest that the total population lost in China may have been more than 70 million.

  32. Overall, 11,344 males have age records, 238 of whom died before reaching 15 years of age.

  33. Shiue (2017) finds that, in Tongcheng County, the child quantity–quality trade-off existed in the early half of the Qing dynasty, but the effect disappeared after 1800.

  34. In traditional China, the rich would also purchase the degrees. Online Appendix A.3 shows additional evidence on the purchased-degree holders.

  35. McCloskey (2010, pp. 163) points out, “Education can make people spiritually free…without making people rich…[E]ducation without the new bourgeois rhetoric is merely a desirable human ornament, not the way to human riches.” Education based on Confucian morals cannot even make people “spiritually free”, let alone “rich”.

  36. Per Elman (1993, p. 112), “[t]he emperor (or the bureaucracy that spoke for him), not the philosopher, had the final say on how Confucian concepts, arguments, and beliefs were put into educational practice via examinations.”.

  37. The large stock of scientists in the Tang–Song period (618–1279) and the relatively small stock in the Yuan–Ming–Qing period (1271–1911) clearly demonstrate the famous “Needham question” (Needham 1969), “[w]hy did the Chinese society in the eighth century A.D. favour sciences as compared with Western society, and that of the eighteenth century A.D. inhibit it?”.

  38. The data on the number of technicians at the prefecture level in the Ming–Qing period are collected from Wang (2021). The original data are derived from The Twenty-Five Official Dynastic Histories (二十五史), which are the orthodox histories written and edited by the official establishment of each imperial dynasty in traditional China. Professor Jue Wang from Renmin University of China and her team have constructed the ASTOR dataset, which contains all the technicians recorded in The Twenty-Five Official Dynastic Histories.

  39. As Mokyr (2016, p. 300) once commented, “European advances in science did filter into China through the activity of the Jesuits, but apart from recalibrating their calendars and predicting eclipses, their impact was highly selective and not dramatic.”.

  40. For further empirical results on the insufficient scientific pursuits and limited effects on industrial development, see Tables 8 and 9 in Ma (2021).

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Acknowledgements

I am grateful to editor Oded Galor and four anonymous referees for their insightful comments and suggestions. I am grateful to Shuji Cao and Qin Jiang for kindly sharing the original digitalised genealogies of Zhou, Que, and Huang lineages with me, and Familysearch.org for providing researchers access to the digital images of the genealogical records of the Gu, Zha, and Zhuang lineages. Furthermore, I thank Jue Wang and Qing Wang for sharing the ASTOR dataset. I acknowledge the research assistance of Rongyu Jian.

I am especially grateful to Neil Cummins, Debin Ma, Eric Schneider, James Kai-sing Kung, and Noam Yuchtman. Additionally, I thank James Fenske, William Guanglin Liu, Gregory Clark, Alice Reid, Joan Rosés, Zhiwu Chen, Nan Li, and Zhan Lin for their extensive feedback, as well as participants of the London School of Economics (LSE) Graduate Economic History Seminar, Oxford, Warwick and LSE Workshop in Economic History, Economic History Society Annual Conference 2019, Seventh International Symposium on Quantitative History, European Historical Economics Society Annual Congress 2019, and Cambridge Graduate Economic and Social History Seminar. Any errors are my own.

Funding

The author acknowledges the financial support of the National Natural Science Foundation of China (No.72203224).

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Hu, S. Survival of the literati: Social status and reproduction in Ming–Qing China. J Popul Econ 36, 2025–2070 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00148-023-00960-2

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