The Birth of the Chinese Population


A review of The Birth of the Chinese Population: A Study in the History of Governmental Logics by Malcolm Thompson.

One is tempted to describe Malcolm Thompson’s dissertation as he himself often describes the shifting and “transcendent” object of his inquiry—population—that is, starting from what it is not. This dissertation is not, or at least it is not only, a history of demographic practices in Republican China, or a history of public health techniques and their effects; it is not even an intellectual history of “population” as a concept, in the form of begriffsgeschichte. Rather, following—at a distance—the Foucauldian method of The Order of Things, Thompson traces the epistemological transformations that, through the late Qing and the Republican period, produced the notion and the problem of population (renkou wenti). Because, as Thompson shows, an understanding of “population” did not emerge in the Republican era solely as a consequence of social-economic changes nor was it imported as a ready-made idea. “Population” instead was the name given to a new thing, a new problem whose newly recorded existence was visible not so much as a clearly defined space of inquiry but only through of the effects its presence produced, and which were registered specifically “at the level of techniques of governing and the systems of knowledge production that accompany them.” (p. 16) As such, this dissertation is a history of “population” as the focal point of logics of government, as a field of governability.

This problem of population is not, Thompson explains, ultimately one of numbers, rather this new field of governability was produced in China only when population came to identify a set of complex relationships between demography, family, social structure, national economy, etc., and when these relationships became the object of management and governing with the ultimate goal of economic growth. “Population,” then, made its first historical appearance in China only within capitalist governmentality, as the material bearer of labor-power. In that, population is an abstraction which exists only “in virtue of a given form of practice and knowledge” but that is essential for the process of accumulation. By showing the connection between capitalism and this new field of governability, Thompson provides a crucial contribution to the historical debate on the relationship between modernity and capitalism: “capital exists as the modern,” he argues, “[t]he modern is the form of life that results from the forms of social organization having been recoded as elements in a process of accumulation, from their being made tendentially to approximate to the optimal conditions for the accumulation of capital.” (p. 32)

After laying out the scope and the stake of the main argument in the Introduction, in Chapter 2, “Race Efficiency,” Thompson analyzes how biopolitical techniques of “populationism” allowed Chinese theorists in the early 1930s to synthesize the entire scope of natural and social phenomena. Focusing in particular on the work of Xu Shilian, this chapter describes the problem of “race efficiency” and the formulations that condensed it to a simple mathematical relationships between expenditures of vitality or energy on the one hand and economic costs or social progress on the other. Xu and the other theorists reduced every aspect of social life in terms of vitality so that vitality became the property defining population. That provided them with a measure to evaluate the effects of any social practice whatsoever. In turn, by making vitality an all-encompassing category, these theorists were able to assess the Chinese population under the same forms of any other population, as the variable applied to measure them was identical.

Chapter 3 brings us back in time through an analysis of Ming and Qing population registration. Thompson convincingly argues that population—as the field of governability—did not and could not exist in the Late Imperial era precisely because population then was measured only as a static datum in order to assess the potential for taxation and the need for support (in terms of grain holdings). It is only in the Republican era that a dynamic vector of population registration appears, when “vital statistics”—rates of birth, death, marriages, disease, etc.—are introduced and new institutions, such as the Nanjing Municipal Vital Statistic Coordinated Office, are created with the specific task of measuring them. By comparing the logic governing population with the one that was used to justify the establishment and functioning of the Chinese Central Bank, Thompson shows the isomorphic structure of populationism and capitalism. In capitalist governmentality, vitality is connected to the population’s ability to produce, which is the real object of intervention and management.

Chapter 4 tackles public health as the field where all the social and natural phenomena are linked together as the condition of existence of a population. Thompson looks at the pulmonary plague epidemic of 1911 in Manchuria and focuses on the role of techniques of public health in defining as their object the preservation of life itself. And what becomes apparent from this analysis is that this object—life—is a virtual reality in that it exists only as the product of the operation of governing apparatuses. In Chapter 5, Thompson presents another quite astonishing form of rationalization, this time one applied specifically to the rural population during the rural reconstruction movement. In the work of John Lossing Buck and others, labor-power—population—was placed at the center of the rural problem. This was achieved by an incredible reduction of the complexities of rural life and work (which was not yet homogenized by proletarianization) into Man-Work Unit, a concept developed in the US in the 1910s. Only then the problem of the excess of rural population could be named and quantified.

The Conclusion reconnects the logic of government behind the reform-era one-child policy to its prehistory in the republican period and describes the “rebirth of the Chinese population” taking place after the interlude of the Maoist period, which, Thompson argues, functioned under a different form of governmentality.

I hope that this dissertation gets revised and published soon. In many ways, its potential as a contribution to the field lies in its eccentricity, in the sense of being “out of center” within any specific realm of investigation. It does not belong to the history of science or intellectual history; it is not a history of health, nor a conceptual history, yet it intersects all these fields and others. Precisely because of that, Thompson’s book, when published, will be incredibly useful to many of us working in adjacent but diverse areas. This dissertation draws original connections in forms and content. It unsettles our assumptions and, because of that, it is an incredibly interesting read.

Fabio Lanza
Departments of History and East Asian Studies

Primary Sources

Being a history of an “epistemic shift,” this impressively sourced dissertation relies mostly on work published throughout the Republican period, both articles and volumes. Here is a (very partial) list of categories and sample works:

Documents of the Nanjing Municipal Vital Statistics Coordinated Office, (Nanjing shi shengming tongji lianhe banshichu 南京市生命統計聯合辦事處), 1931-35.
Studies on population and demography: Xu, Shilian 許仕廉 (Leonard S. Hsu). 1930. Zhongguo renkou wenti 中國人口問題 (Population Problems in China). Shanghai: Commercial Press, Ltd.
Texts on the functioning and structure of central banking. Chen Tianbiao陳天表. 1934. Zhongyang yinhang zhi lilun yu shiwu 中央銀行之理論與實務 (The Theory and Practice of Central Banking). Shanghai: Zhonghua shuju.
Studies and surveys of rural economy and population. Feng Hefa馮和法. 1933. Zhongguo nongcun jingji ziliao 中國農村經濟資料 (Materials on the Chinese Rural Economy). Shanghai: Liming shuju.

Dissertation Information

University of British Columbia. 2013. 323pp. Primary Advisor: Timothy Brook.

Image: Chinese babies lying in wooden cradles, China, ca. 1918-1938. Wikimedia.

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  1. Thomas Bartlett

    The means for maintaining a large, sufficiently fed and minimally content population, has been a primary concern of Chinese thinkers since antiquity, in pursuit of the perennial goal of “enriching the state and (thus) strengthening the army”. Sunzi (in an archaeologically discovered text dated to the late 6th century BC) wrote about military strategy to avoid destructive direct conflict by, among other things, the capability to mobilize superior forces. In the next century Mozi’s writings provide a ten-point program for organizing such a population.

    Somewhere in the first or second volume of Needham’s Science & Civilization series is a quoted comment by a Cambridge (or was it Oxford?) undergraduate, that Chinese public works were done by “a million men with teaspoons”. Whether under “feudal bureaucracy”, “capitalism”, or “maoist/market socialism”, the notion, that China’s overwhelming population is both agent and proof of China’s superiority, has pervaded Chinese thought for over two millennia, still flourishes in many people’s minds, although it may yet be China’s undoing.

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