UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The birth of the Chinese population : a study in the history of governmental logics Thompson, Malcolm


It was only in the early twentieth century that China discovered that it had a population, at least if a population is understood not as a number of people but instead in terms of such features as relative levels of health, birth and death rates, sex ratios, and so on—that is, as an object with a specific rationality that can be managed and improved. In 1900, such a conception of the population did not exist in China; by the 1930s, it was utterly pervasive. How did this transformation take place? This dissertation argues that it occurred at the level of techniques of governing and systems of knowledge production, and explains it from the perspective of changes in the institutional and epistemological forms by which interventions into other people's activities are organized. The installation of populationist practices into China is tracked in four sites: 1. The problem of "race efficiency"—formalized in this period as the cost in "race energy" of producing a given increment to a population—and analyses of the effects of different kinds of social organization on the production of life. 2. The institutional division of population registration into censuses ("statics") and vital statistics ("dynamics")—in a word, the formation of a statistical system based on mechanics. 3. Public health, whose object of care is not patients but the collective life of the population and its conditions of existence. 4. The problem of the China's "rural surplus labour-power" in relation to the formation of a national economy. This dissertation shows how the privileged position of the population in political and economic reflection in Republican China carved out a field of governability by which it was possible to enchain a variety of previously disconnected fields of activity into a single logic, the axiom of which was the capitalist accumulation of life.

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