Between 1250 and 1850 the population of Southwest China increased from 3 to 20 million people. In this essay, the author delineates two periods of population growth—a small one from 1250 to 1600 and a large one from 1700 to 1850—and relates their spatial and temporal characteristics to agricultural production. His conclusions challenge the popular assumption that frontier populations in China grew because of improved agricultural techniques or increased arable land. In the Southwest, between 1250 and 1600, population doubled because of the government investment in agriculture, but, between 1700 and 1850, population quadrupled because of the development of local mining industry. In Qing China, as elsewhere in the early modern world, major increases in population were often a consequence of early industrialization.

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