Thomas Robert Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1798/1803) is in the process of being thoroughly re-thought. The famous book was a universal history, a world history which sought to demonstrate the principle at work in all places and all times. In this lecture, Malthus’s work on China is analysed: the claims he made, the Jesuit sources he used, and the significance of China’s great population for his principle. China was the counter example to America, I argue. Malthus’s views on China are significant in two current contexts: first, the enduring and difficult relationship between Malthusian ideas and Chinese policy on population; and second, the historiographical conversation on an English-Chinese ‘great divergence’. Assessing China circa 1800, Malthus sat, unwittingly, at the temporal and geographical point of divergence.
Alison Bashford is Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History, University of Cambridge, and Fellow of Jesus College. She is author most recently of Global Population: History, Geopolitics and Life on Earth (Columbia, 2014) and The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus: Re-reading the Principle of Population (Princeton, 2016), co-authored with Joyce E. Chaplin. She is also series editor of Cambridge Oceanic Histories, with David Armitage and Sujit Sivasundaram.