Why China should celebrate Columbus Day

Here’s some data on China’s population:

China’s population has been between 15-60M most of the time in history, until late Ming dynasty. Whenever there is a war, the population decreases significantly, but peak population has seldomly passed 60M for the 2000 years before late Ming.  .  .  .

Because Chinese dynasties tax on land size, headcount and household numbers, it is likely that the total populations are understated due to tax evasion (some scholars estimated that population reached 100m around late Song, so official stats could be 30-40% below real figures) .  .  .

  • Official population passed 100M around 1720, 200M in 1764, 300M around 1790, 400M around 1834, due mainly to higher food yield, with introduction of new world plants such as corn, potatos, etc.
  • Virtually no growth between 1840 to 1900, when western powers invaded China and Taiping Rebellion took away 20-30M lives
  • From 1900-1947 the growth was slow, from 430M to 460M, with a peak of 470M around 1928 when civil war lessened but then the Japanese invasion took 20-30M lives

This stunned me.  I had thought China’s population grew gradually over time.  In fact, they had two great growth spurts.  The first was triggered by the introduction of better farming, partly due to crops from the New World.  And of course the second was caused by the technological advances of modern times, which greatly increased the population after 1960.

How many Chinese were alive in 1834, who would not have been alive had Columbus not discovered America?  Recall that in 1834 China had virtually no modern technology, no modern medicine.  The Qing Dynasty population surge was caused by higher food output.

Meanwhile Columbus caused a big demographic decline in the Americas, by introducing smallpox, etc.  But there doesn’t seem to be any agreement as to how big.  This link suggests the Americas had less than 20 million people when Columbus arrived, mostly in Mexico and Peru.

Suppose you are a utilitarian, should you view the discovery of America as a good or bad thing?  By the way, India’s population also began growing fast at roughly the same time as China’s (although not as fast.)  Even more oddly, the growth suddenly stopped around 1860, at roughly the same time as China’s growth stopped.  And then picked up again well into the 20th century, just like China.  Is there some deep logic to world population, which can connect all these coincidences?

Here’s the world population distribution at the time of Columbus:

China traditionally has about 1/4 of the world population, but the growth spurt took it up to 35% in the early 1800s.  (It will fall below 10% in this century.)  It should be said that new world crops weren’t the only factor, new strains of rice allowed for double cropping.  But it seems to have been a big part of the story.

And of course Columbus is only a symbol.  It was the Portuguese who opened up the world, by discovering the South Atlantic, then the south Indian Ocean, and then crossing the Pacific.  It was a quirk of history that Columbus sailed under a Spanish flag (the Portuguese turned him down.)  Henry the Navigator started the ball rolling in the early 1400s and that was the change that transformed the world.  Change started with the New World, but eventually the changes in Asia were far more important.  So maybe the Chinese should celebrate March 4th, the birthday of Henry the Navigator.

P.S.  Of course today is the actual Columbus Day (October 12.)

HT:  J.V. Dubois



19 Responses to “Why China should celebrate Columbus Day”

  1. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    12. October 2012 at 19:06

    Why we (the US) should NOT celebrate Columbus Day:


    We’re down to 18th with no end in sight.

  2. Gravatar of Zhipeng Zhipeng
    12. October 2012 at 19:42

    Just for fun, Chinese dynasties didn’t always tax on land size, headcount and household numbers. They first tax on headcounts, and from Ming Dynasty they began to tax on land size, we call it “one whip law”

  3. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    12. October 2012 at 22:30

    Having never been to China, I don’t know if they eat much potatoes.

    Here in Thailand, potatoes are a small part of the diet, and corn too. Rice is still king.

    What is thought-provoking as that chilies are a New World spice. The Thai cannot live without chiles.

    Peanuts came from the New World too. Tobacco.

    New World populations before 1500 may have been larger than thought until recently. The New World may have suffered wholesale population losses after introduction of Old World Diseases, on the order of 90 percent. Whole cultures and nations may have been wiped out, unable to continue traditions and law under such huge losses.

  4. Gravatar of Doug M Doug M
    12. October 2012 at 22:59

    You can thank Norman Borlaug for the population growth post 1960.

    European agricultural yields and population growth rates took of after the discovery of America and the indroduction of new crops.

  5. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    13. October 2012 at 03:00

    Scott, you really need a better platform for posting images.

    More than utilitarianism, your attitude here reminds me of Caplanian natalism (“We should have more kids, as they’d be grateful”). I didn’t think there was a version of utilitarianism that assigned utilities to hypothetical beings…

  6. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    13. October 2012 at 03:01

    Scott, you really need a better platform for posting images.

    More than utilitarianism, your attitude here reminds me of Caplanian natalism (“We should have more kids, as they’d be grateful to be alive”). I didn’t think there was a version of utilitarianism that assigned utilities to hypothetical beings…

  7. Gravatar of J.V. Dubois J.V. Dubois
    13. October 2012 at 04:10

    Yes, this is all very interesting story. Just a few notes:

    It was Spanish who were the first to cross Pacific. Or to be more precise, it was Portuguese Fernão de Magalhães serving the Spanish crown who were sent to reach South India via Pacific ocean. The reason was that the famous Pope bull “inter cartea” divided the world into two halves – and Spanish wanted to have access to spices in southeast asia spices via different route, not the traditional one around Africa controlled by Portuguese.

    Interestingly enough for various reasons (mostly because nobody wanted to cross the “Pacific” again risking yet another period of windlessness and prospect of slow death by starvation and dehydration) Magalhães had to return to Spain using the route around Africa. This not only made him the first man to sail around the world, but the large load of spices he brought back as a proof of his voyage made him and few members of his crew who made it home incredibly rich.

  8. Gravatar of Benny Lava Benny Lava
    13. October 2012 at 05:29

    Adam Smith’s observations on China’s population is an interesting historical note.

  9. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    13. October 2012 at 05:30

    Everyone, Thanks for the info.

    Saturos, I asked the question about utilitarianism, I didn’t answer it. You’ve given me Caplan’s answer. However it does seem logical that if roughly 100,000,000 Chinese were alive in 1830, who would not have been alive w/o Columbus, then Columbus had a major positive impact on their lives.

    J.V. Didn’t Magalhaes die half way around, and thus was unable to complete the journey?

  10. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    13. October 2012 at 05:31

    Benny, Didn’t he say China was richer than Europe, but growing slower?

  11. Gravatar of Becky Hargrove Becky Hargrove
    13. October 2012 at 05:31

    The discovery of America was not so much good or bad as inevitable, and it seems that in earlier times both the New World and the Old World had their own reasons to erase earlier recorded histories as documented in the books 1421 and 1491. I just finished the first and am halfway through the latter.

    While he was apparently widely discredited, Gavin Menzies’ “1421: The Year China Discovered the World” was quite interesting. Charles C. Mann wrote “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus”. While it is far more grounded there is still plenty of dispute as to actual population sizes in earlier times, not to mention when civilizations actually arose. This paragraph echoes your thoughts as to agriculture:

    “Mesoamerica would deserve its place in the human pantheon if its inhabitants had only created maize, in terms of harvest weight the world’s most important crop. But the innhabitants of Mexico and northern Central America also developed tomatoes, now basic to Italian cuisine; peppers, essential to Thai and Indian food; all the world’s squashes (except a few domesticated in the United States); and many of the beans on dinner plates around the world. One writer has estimated that Indians developed three-fifths of the crops now in cultivation, most of them in Mesoamerica. Having secured their food supply, Mesoamerican societies turned to intellectual pursuits. In a millennium or less, a comparatively short time, they invented their own writing, astronomy, and mathmatics, including the zero.”

  12. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    13. October 2012 at 05:44

    Becky, Good point. So maybe the Chinese should celebrate the Mayan Indians, not Columbus.

  13. Gravatar of J.V. Dubois J.V. Dubois
    13. October 2012 at 05:54

    Scott: Actually yes he died. Next time I had better to check some sources before posting something from my faulty memory 😀

  14. Gravatar of Richard W Richard W
    13. October 2012 at 19:35

    The 1834 date and subsequent decline of population is interesting because the peak of China’s share of world GDP at 33% was in 1820. Considering their current share of global GDP is only 15%, it would be more accurate for people to call them a reemerging market than an emerging market. The US, UK, Western Europe, Japan, Canada and Australia combined were only 28% of world GDP in 1820. The China share of global GDP was down to to 17% by 1870, and reached a trough as low as 2% in the 1970s. I doubt that they will ever reach 33% again but 25-27% does not seem unreasonable.

  15. Gravatar of Benny Lava Benny Lava
    14. October 2012 at 05:49


    Something like that, yes. He said:

    “China has been long one of the richest, that is, one of the most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious, and most populous, countries in the world. It seems, however, to have been long stationary. Marco Polo, who visited it more than five hundred years ago, describes its cultivation, industry, and populousness, almost in the same terms in which they are described by travellers in the present times. It had, perhaps, even long before his time, acquired that full complement of riches which the nature of its laws and institutions permits it to acquire. The accounts of all travellers, inconsistent in many other respects, agree in the low wages of labour, and in the difficulty which a labourer finds in bringing up a family in China. If by digging the ground a whole day he can get what will purchase a small quantity of rice in the evening, he is contented. The condition of artificers is, if possible, still worse. Instead of waiting indolently in their work-houses for the calls of their customers, as in Europe, they are continually running about the streets with the tools of their respective trades, offering their services, and, as it were, begging employment. The poverty of the lower ranks of people in China far surpasses that of the most beggarly nations in Europe. In the neighbourhood of Canton, many hundred, it is commonly said, many thousand families have no habitation on the land, but live constantly in little fishing-boats upon the rivers and canals. The subsistence which they find there is so scanty, that they are eager to fish up the nastiest garbage thrown overboard from any European ship. Any carrion, the carcase of a dead dog or cat, for example, though half putrid and stinking, is as welcome to them as the most wholesome food to the people of other countries. Marriage is encouraged in China, not by the profitableness of children, but by the liberty of destroying them. In all great towns, several are every night exposed in the street, or drowned like puppies in the water. The performance of this horrid office is even said to be the avowed business by which some people earn their subsistence.”

    I am not a Smith fanatic, of course he gets many things very wrong (he thought that wealth robbed a woman of her reproductive power and didn’t seem to see labor as a market). But it is interesting none the less.

  16. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    14. October 2012 at 13:17

    Benny, Thanks for that quotation.

  17. Gravatar of Arthur Arthur
    15. October 2012 at 05:52

    “Deus quere, o homem sonha, a obra nasce.
    Deus quiz que a terra fosse toda uma,
    Que o mar unisse, já não separasse.”

  18. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    17. October 2012 at 20:32

    China are not the only ones who should be grateful: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2012/10/the-origins-of-kimchi-in-korea.html

  19. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    20. October 2012 at 04:18

    Not that anyone really should be celebrating Columbus Day: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2006/10/columbus_the_fa.html

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