Journal of Economic Growth

, Volume 21, Issue 1, pp 71–99 | Cite as

Of maize and men: the effect of a New World crop on population and economic growth in China

  • Shuo Chen
  • James Kai-sing KungEmail author


We examine the question of whether China was trapped within a Malthusian regime at a time when Western Europe had all but emerged from it. By applying a difference-in-differences analysis to maize adoption in China from 1600 to 1910, we find that cultivation of this New World crop failed to raise per capita income. While maize accounted for a nearly 19 % increase in the Chinese population during 1776–1910, its effect on urbanization and real wages was not pronounced. Our results are robust to different sample selection procedures, to the control of variables pertinent to Malthusian “positive checks”, to different measures of economic growth and to data modifications. Our study thus provides rich empirical support to the claim that under the conditions in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century China, new agricultural technologies led to the Malthusian outcome of population growth without wage increases and urbanization.


Malthus New World crops Maize Population density Economic growth China 

JEL Classification

J1 N5 O11 



We are most grateful to four anonymous referees of this journal whose insightful suggestions have helped improve this paper tremendously. We also thank Oded Galor, Paola Giuliano, Debin Ma, Robert Margo, Nathan Nunn, Kaixiang Peng, Dwight Perkins, Louis Putterman, Nancy Qian, Tom Rawski, David Weil, Nico Voigtländer, Romain Wacziarg, Jeffrey Williamson, Noam Yuchtman and seminar participants at Brown University, UCLA, and Xiamen University for helpful comments and suggestions, and to Yiming Cao and Zhitao Zhu for excellent research assistance. We alone are responsible for any remaining errors. James Kung acknowledges the financial support of a GRF grant (642711) and from the Yan Ai Foundation.

Supplementary material

10887_2016_9125_MOESM1_ESM.docx (426 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (docx 426 KB)


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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of EconomicsFudan UniversityShanghaiChina
  2. 2.Division of Social ScienceHong Kong University of Science and TechnologyHong Kong SARChina

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