THROUGH an uncritical application of Malthusian principles westerners are sometimes led to assume that the population of Asia is approaching a saturation point. Actually it seems probable that establishment of peace, changes in economic organization, and improvement in sanitation will bring lower mortality, especially among infants and children. At the same time, patterns of fertility may remain unchanged for many years in most oriental families. If these conditions prevail, Asia will enter an era of rapid population increase. This prospect presents a profound challenge to the emerging world order. Not all of its implications can be foreseen, but the trend is a basic factor to be taken into account in all plans relating to the Far East. A great increase in population in the nations of the Orient does not necessarily imply that they will gain correspondingly in military strength in the years to come; in certain cases at least, the opposite is probable. But it does suggest a likelihood of mounting social unrest and political upheaval. The control of population growth is not a simple matter, but in the long run it is a primary requisite of political stability and social progress in Asia.

The Eurasian land mass now supports four-fifths of the earth's inhabitants; only 12 percent are in the Americas, 8 percent in Africa and Oceania. The distribution of population among broad regions within Eurasia is economically even more significant than the contrast between Europe and America. As of January 1, 1940, there were 380 million people in Europe west of the Soviet borders as extended in 1939 and 1940, 196 million in the Soviet Union (now larger than all North America), and about 1,190 million in non-Soviet Asia.[i] The contrast between desert regions and crowded lands in non-Soviet Asia is even more striking and significant. Southwest Asia, excluding the Soviet Transcaucasus, has more than a fifth of the land surface of Asia outside the Soviet Union, but it has only about 57 million occupants. Although there are irrigated strips with a dense farm population, there are on the average only 23 persons per square mile in this generally arid territory. Chinese Central Asia -- i.e. Tibet, Sikang, Chinghai, Sinkiang, Ningsia, the Mongolian People's Republic and Tannu Tuva -- also occupies more than one-fifth of non-Soviet Asia. It has 17 million persons, or an average of seven persons per square mile, according to the latest official Chinese estimates. Its average density of population is similar to that of the Soviet Union east of the Urals (due to the inclusion of an immense sub-Arctic territory in the latter region), but it lacks any such functional concentrations of population as have been established in Soviet Asia. North China, including the northwest provinces, the north China plain, Manchuria and Kwangtung, has about 180 million persons. This whole territory has on the average 150 persons per square mile. It includes three of the five provinces in China with more than 500 persons per square mile (Shantung, Honan and Hopei). Central and southern China have 288 million inhabitants, with an average density of 300 persons per square mile. The 12 provinces of this region are part of the great rice zone of southern and eastern Asia, extending from India and the East Indies through southern and central China into Korea and Japan. Southern and eastern Asia (including some districts where other crops are more important than rice) have about 935 million inhabitants -- 42 percent of the total population of the world. This zone is, on the whole, thickly populated: although it contains large mountain and jungle tracts in the Himalaya region, the Malay Peninsula and the Outer Indies, it has on the average about 200 persons per square mile, slightly above the average for Europe.

The pattern formed by the distribution of people among the major regions of the world still reflects in large part the capacities of different regions to support populations which were restricted to the use of non-mechanical instruments. This is especially true in Asia, where changes in this respect during the last 300 years have been relatively slight. As natural resources were improved and conserved by irrigation ditches, roads and other works and utilized for intensive agriculture in great agrarian civilizations, the soils and climate of southern and eastern Asia supported the gradual accumulation of immense populations. Any effective redistribution of population through migration is becoming increasingly difficult. On the other hand, the proportion of the world's population living in various regions may be radically changed during the next hundred years through different rates of natural increase. Unfortunately, the highest potentialities for rapid increase are now generally found in regions where there are already the greatest numbers relative to the resources necessary for modern economic activity. The similarity in the ratios of men to land in Europe and in southern and eastern Asia is doubly deceptive on this account. Europe is comparatively rich in the resources, capital equipment, and acquired skills needed for the maintenance of a large population at a high level of living, though she lags behind North America and the Soviet Union as regards the ratio of population to mineral resources. Moreover, population growth is coming to an end in Europe whereas, if our analysis is correct, Asia is just entering a stage of rapid natural increase.

The following text makes no pretense of being a full analysis of the population trends and problems in the Far East. The particular situations treated in the U.S.S.R. east of the Urals and in Manchuria, China and Japan are selected primarily to illustrate principles of general significance. The reader should note at the outset that specific questions of population conditions in India, Indonesia and other southwestern and southeastern Asiatic countries are beyond the scope of this article.


The eastward movement of people across the Russian plain under the Soviet régime has not been conspicuously different in volume from that of the last two decades of the imperial régime, but it has been radically different in kind. A basic principle of Soviet economy has been the shift from an agrarian society to balanced industrial and agricultural production. The population of the Soviet Union east of the Urals rose from 35.7 million in 1926 to 45.4 million in 1939, an increase of 27 percent; only about one million persons were thereby added to the rural population of this eastern Soviet territory, but the urban population increased from 5.3 million to more than 14 million. The transformation of economic life has been even more profound than is suggested by these figures. It has been characterized by the collectivization and mechanization of agriculture, the settlement of nomads, the organization of forest and mining industries, and the building of new centers of heavy industry. Significantly, the term "Asiatic Russia" has largely dropped out of use. Although diversity of cultural life among component nationalities has been accepted and encouraged under the Soviets, outlying territories have been knit into an integrated economy and a unified society.

The extension of education and social services and the increase in literacy among the peoples of Soviet Central Asia and the Far North have been spectacular. The Soviets have dealt effectively with the problems which are in many respects similar to those with which other nations of Asia must grapple. These changes have not been achieved without tremendous cost, involving great loss of life -- especially among the previously nomadic Kazaks of the Asiatic steppes. But they have, nevertheless, provided the basis for a further rapid advancement in living standards.

The industrialization and the cultural transformation of Soviet lands in central and northern Asia will have a profound influence on the future life of all Asiatic nations. Owen Lattimore has particularly stressed the degree to which these changes attract the Mongolian and Turkic peoples of Chinese Central Asia. The formation of the Mongolian People's Republic and its seeming vitality are, in part, an expression of this attraction. Furthermore, the influence of these changes extends far beyond the inner deserts into southwestern, southern and eastern Asia.

The economic development of Manchuria, though so far limited to the production and primary processing of raw materials, has rivaled that of the Soviet Far East in tempo. Its indigenous population was drawn into China during the years of Manchu rule, but gradually replaced by Chinese migrants. It had a population of 12 to 15 million persons 30 years ago. By October 1940, it had 43.2 million inhabitants, including about a million and a half Koreans, one million Mongolians, 820,000 Japanese and somewhat fewer than 200,000 Mohammedans; most of the others were migrants or the children of migrants from the crowded north China plain. Temporary migrants, formerly attracted as seasonal workers in agriculture, have been more recently recruited as laborers in mining, manufacturing and construction. The servicing of the Japanese war economy required the construction of new transportation lines and industrial facilities in Manchuria, Korea and north China. Although the direction of these operations has remained in Japanese hands, an increasing number of peasants have been drawn into industrial operations, involving some acquisition of new skills and adaptation to the discipline of mass production.

China's ancient name, "the Middle Kingdom," well describes her present position. Here are some 470 million kindred or closely associated people. Their institutions and culture have nurtured high intelligence and fortitude. Southern China, though having a somewhat higher average productivity per farm worker than northern China, is within the grip of the inflexible rice economy of monsoon Asia. The northeast, northwest and the southwest have the most promising resources for industrial development, and also offer possibilities for the development of mechanized agriculture. Thus China shares in the diverse characteristics of southern, central and northern Asia.


The nature of the factors that have inhibited population growth in Asia may be illustrated by an analysis of the situation in one representative rural district in the Lower Yangtze Valley, Hsiao Chi. This district, which is in Kiangyin hsien, Kiangsu, happens to be the only area in China where births and deaths have been carefully recorded for several consecutive years; [ii] it is also one of the few districts in China in which there has been a careful, experimental census of the population.[iii] Forty percent of the 21,864 people in Hsiao Chi in 1932 were under 15 years of age. This proportion is identical with that in India; the corresponding percentage for Japan in 1935 was 37, and for the Soviet Union 36 (in 1939). In contrast, only 25 percent of the people in the United States and 26.6 percent of those in Europe outside the U.S.S.R. in 1940 were under 15 years of age.[iv] A high proportion of children in any population may be due to severe reduction of the adult population by mortality, an increasing number of births, or heavy out-migration -- or to any combination of these factors. Regardless of the causes, a high proportion of children provides a basis for rapid population growth if other conditions are favorable.

The number of births reported by women of various ages in Hsiao Chi during a four-year period 1932-1935 indicated that each woman who lives through the childbearing period has on the average 6.4 children. The district suffered from a general economic depression during these four years, aggravated by floods in 1931 and droughts in 1932 and 1934. Infanticide, chiefly of female infants, reaches fairly large proportions in the Lower Yangtze Valley. This probably accounts for the fact that 11.7 percent more males than females were reported born during these four years, an excess of males about twice as great as would be expected. Even so, each mother living through the childbearing period bears on the average three daughters. If there were no deaths between birth and maturity, a population with such fertility would of course increase threefold in each generation. In European countries with a high standard of living, 80 percent or more of the female infants live to the center of the reproductive period -- age 30. In Japan, 1926-1930, the percentage of such survivors is 66.2. A combination of the fertility pattern of Hsiao Chi with the Japanese mortality rates would give a net reproductive ratio of two, i.e. a trend toward the doubling of the population in each successive generation.

Actually the reproductive trend of the Hsiao Chi population during this period was cut to a much lower point by disease. Dysentery and malaria broke out violently after the great flood in 1931, and recurred periodically during the following years. There was a cholera epidemic in 1932, followed by outbreaks of diphtheria, typhoid, meningitis and measles. Death rates fluctuated widely from season to season. These fluctuations may be attributed in part to the small size of the population under observation, but they also reflect economic instability and lack of modern sanitation. The reported death rates are astonishingly high, especially for females at early ages. According to the average rates for the whole period, slightly more than half the girls die within ten years after birth, and only 26 percent of those born alive live to be 30 years old. The net reproduction ratio indicated by these statistics -- 1.08 -- testifies to a precarious balance between very high fertility and very high mortality, with only a slight excess of births over deaths.

The fertility pattern of peasant communities is rooted in ways of living which change very slowly. But epidemics can to a very considerable extent be wiped out by sanitary engineering, inoculations and public health programs which do not require any radical change in traditional attitudes. Even the economic effects of floods and droughts can be mitigated through planned economic developments. Progress along these lines can be expected in China in the postwar years, and the result will inevitably be an increase in population.

Such an upsurge of population growth is already apparent in other Asiatic countries. For example, the average annual rates of increase per thousand of population between the last two censuses (where the results are not appreciably influenced by emigration or by immigration) are 14.1 in India, 21 in the Netherlands East Indies, 22.2 in the Philippine Islands and 24.6 in Formosa (excluding Japanese residents). An even higher rate of increase was reported for Thailand, but this rate is inflated by an improvement in census enumerations. Such rates indicate a trend toward populations twice as large as the present ones by the end of the twentieth century. The figure for Formosa is particularly interesting, since it shows the demographic behavior of a Chinese population under an established political régime which has stimulated increased crop production and sanitation. This finding is confirmed by a net reproduction ratio of more than two, derived from age distribution data and life tables for the non-Japanese population of Formosa.[v]

The rate of population growth in Japan rose gradually during six decades after the Meiji restoration in 1868 and continued at a high level through 1937. Industrial and commercial expansion, facilitated by the conquest and exploitation of neighboring territories, first stimulated this increase, then began to induce a decline in fertility; in the late prewar years the decline in fertility exceeded the decline in mortality. This emerging trend toward the slowing down of population growth was temporarily masked by changes in age composition which tended to raise the ratio of births to deaths; if this factor is discounted, it appears that the birth rate declined from 37.6 in 1925 to 31.7 in 1937, while the death rate declined from 20.9 to 17.3. The intrinsic rate of natural increase therefore fell during the same period from 16.7 to 14.4 per year.[vi]

The decline in fertility in Japan has been due in part to a trend toward later ages at marriage in both urban and rural districts, which in turn reflects the spread of education and apparently some improvement in the status of women. The apparent decline in fertility for the nation as a whole was also due in large part to the movement of people from rural districts where birth rates are high to cities where birth rates have always been relatively low. In 1940, 50 percent of the Japanese people were living in places with 10,000 or more inhabitants, and more than one-half of these were in large cities with more than 100,000 population. A recent official projection of the Japanese population, assuming continued declines in both fertility and mortality, gives an expected increase -- though at a declining rate -- from 73 million persons in 1940 to 123 million persons 60 years hence.[vii] Such long-term population projections may be profoundly modified by later events. The population of Japan will, of course, be reduced by war losses; but these will not necessarily affect its upward trend.


In general, it can be assumed that increase of population in western and central European countries, where output of industrial goods per capita of total population is generally high, would tend to increase the military power of those nations (except perhaps in Italy where the number of people is already excessive in relation to industrial resources). In most Asiatic countries, where energies must be channeled in large part into the production of food and other supplies to meet elemental human needs, further population increase will tend to reduce potential military power. There is little possibility that, unless population growth is checked, any nation in southern or eastern Asia, with the exception of Japan, will have sufficient strength to constitute a military threat to the peace of the world within the visible future. Japan's capacity to dominate eastern Asia and build a great war machine will, we trust, be eliminated by the course of the war and the conditions of peace. An increase in the military power of most Asiatic nations, which would improve their capacity for selfdefense, would presumably contribute to the stability of international relations. Measures that checked population growth and accelerated the pace of industrialization would contribute to this end.

The trend toward rapid population growth in Asia does indeed offer a threat to world peace, but the danger lies in the intensification of poverty and hence in the frustration and political chaos which this can create. The population of Europe more than doubled from 1800 to 1900, and the demographic prospect in Asia today resembles that of Europe 150 years ago. It is important to bear in mind that poverty tends to perpetuate rather than to diminish high rates of natural increase. The possibility that the size of the population will tend to increase faster than food production in Asia cannot be lightly dismissed. The authors of the most exhaustive study of this subject conclude that the production of rice, on which the peoples of southern and eastern Asia are dependent, did not keep pace with the increase in numbers during the inter-war period.[viii] However, yields in most of these countries are far below recent yields in Japan, Korea and Formosa, where production has been notably augmented by greater use of fertilizers, selection of better seeds, and improved systems of irrigation and cultivation. Some expansion of acreage in cereals and further extension of double-cropping systems are possible. In Thailand, the Philippines and outer islands of the Netherlands East Indies there are still considerable tracts of unused land that can be brought into cultivation, if sufficient capital and labor are invested in this work.

It is likely that improvements in agriculture will provide enough food to maintain an increasing number of people in most southern and eastern Asiatic countries at or near their present low nutritive levels, at least through several decades. But though there may not be outright starvation on a mass scale, conditions such as this can breed calamities from which no one, in this interdependent world, would be immune.


There is a clear consensus among students of population problems that industrialization, urbanization and education are the three prerequisites for a reduction in fertility. The need for industrialization in China, for example, has often been stressed. This brief survey of population trends cannot attempt to analyze the domestic and international factors which enter into this pressing and complex problem of transforming the peasant, agricultural economies of the Far East into modern economies. Sufficient to note here that the basic motivation of the practice of birth control is confidence in the possibility of economic advancement for parents and their children. The pattern of family limitation spreads in economic situations where large families mean increased expenses rather than increased earning power. It is a slow process in any society, but it may be accelerated by a ferment of democratic ideals and emancipation from traditional attitudes. It is significant that the earliest manifestations of the modern trend toward family limitation appeared in France about the time of the Revolution, and that it appeared among the democratic people of the North Atlantic American States more than half a century earlier than in northeastern and central Europe. In the initial phases of the new social order in Russia, the hopefulness and the hard times together -- plus the abortion clinics which were provided by the state -- brought a spectacular drop in the birth rate of the Soviet population, from 45 to about 30 per thousand population; but this trend has been reversed since 1935.

There has been much talk of the menace of overpopulation in the Far East, but very little hard thinking about the problem or little action taken to meet it by the governments of Asiatic nations, the great colonial Powers, or other agencies supposedly concerned. Common sense suggests that for every dollar spent to reduce mortality in Asia through programs of public health and sanitation, at least one dollar should be invested in experimental clinics, scientific research and popular education directed toward reducing fertility. Fortunately, we may also remember that the scientific attitude associated with modern health programs, and the respect for individual lives which it fosters, may contribute indirectly to the control of fertility. Elementary education along scientific lines seems to be a basic condition for the spread of family limitation.

The transition from traditional patterns of uncontrolled fertility to controlled reproduction can be effected only through democratic mass movements which carry whole peoples toward a higher level of living. So long as such mass movements are stifled, benevolent schemes for the amelioration of poverty in Asia are likely to prove futile. There is no simple solution to the problem of population pressure. What is needed is a frank recognition of the critical nature of the problem and an intelligent evaluation of every economic, political and social plan for the Far East from this angle.

[i] Based on figures in the 1941-1942 "Statistical Year-Book of the League of Nations" except those for the U.S.S.R. and for China. With the exception of Manchuria, the figures used for China are those reported by the Ministry of the Interior, 1938; figures for Manchuria are based on returns from the census of October 1940 (adjusted to January 1).

[ii] C. M. Chiao, Warren S. Thompson and D. T. Chen, "An Experiment in the Registration of Vital Statistics in China." Oxford, Ohio: Miami University, 1938.

[iii] A more extensive experimental census was carried out in 1942 in the city of Kunming and in several rural hsien in Yunnan under the direction of Professor Ta Chen. The results of this experimental census are reported in Yunan sheng hu-chi shih-fan kung-tao pao-kao (Report on the model work of the census in the Province of Yunnan). Kunming: National Tsing-hua University, 1944.

[iv] The figure for Europe is from Frank W. Notestein and Others, "The Future Population of Europe and the Soviet Union." Geneva: League of Nations, 1944.

[v] Irene B. Taeuber, "The Demographic Statistics of Southern and Eastern Asia." Journal of the American Statistical Association, March 1945.

[vi] Irene B. Taeuber and Edwin G. Beal, "The Demographic Heritage of the Japanese Empire." The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, January 1945.

[vii] Reported in Naikaku, Joho-Kyoku: Shuho, February 12, and February 19, 1941.

[viii] V. D. Wickizer and M. K. Bennett, "The Rice Economy of Monsoon Asia." Stanford University, California: Food Research Institute, 1941.

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  • FRANK LORIMER, Professor of Population Studies at American University, now on leave with the Foreign Economic Administration; joint author of "The Foundations of American Population Policy"
  • More By Frank Lorimer