China and India Account for 36% of the World’s Population
As of 2021, the world population almost reached 7.9 billion, spreading over 195 countries. China has the largest population, more than 1.4 billion, and India follows China with a population of just below 1.4 billion. In other words, 36% of the world’s population live in two countries: China and India. For your reference, the landmass of the two accounts for only 9% of the total area of the Earth. Then why are they so populous?
History Shows China and India Have Been Always Populous
To find clues about this population distribution, it would be useful if we looked at historical records. Statistics of The World Economy, 1 – 2000 AD estimate that in 1 AD, China held a share of 25.8% of the overall global population. Surprisingly, the population of India at the time was equivalent to 32.5% of the total world population. It seems like that populations of these areas already had grown by the Classical Era. Thus, part of the reasons for growth may lie in geographical/climatic factors.
Where There Was a River, There Was an Ancient Civilization
One of the first topics in history class is about the four ancient civilization: Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Ancient China, and Ancient India. It cannot be just a coincidence that two of the ancient civilizations emerged in today’s most populous countries, China and India. These civilizations emerged in the banks of rivers: Mesopotamia on the Tigris-Euphrates rivers, Egypt on the Nile, China on Huang He river and India on the Indus. Rivers played a great role in these early settlement. They provided these places with fertile soil to cultivate crops. Additionally, rivers also provided these people with means of transportation to trade and spread their settlements.
River Systems in Hospitable Climate Supported Agricultural Development
Then, why aren’t present-day Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Kuwait and Egypt that populous? Probably, the locations of China and India worked in their favor. They are located in more hospitable regions for human habitation with multiple river systems to feed larger population, unlike the other two where the weather is much drier and hotter. In fact, China and India together hold about 20% of the world’s arable land within hospitable climate range.
Their abundant water and hospitable climate allowed them to develop agriculture. The development of agriculture stabilized the supply of staple food. This further supported population growth. Today, China and India together produce more than 50% of global rice production and 30% of global wheat production.
The More the Population, the More the Survivals in Epidemics
By the Middle Ages, the two regions had increased their populations, when epidemics hit the world. Places such as the Mediterranean Basin, Europe, and the Near East lost a large number of their population by the Plague of Justinian (541–549 AD). Then again in the Late Middle Ages, another deadly pandemic, so-called the Black Death(1346–1353), hit Europe and North Africa. These outbreaks brought about a devastating death toll in those regions. However, China and India kept their death rate relatively lower mainly because their population was large enough to sustain and recover.
Political Unification Helped Maintain the Growth
As much as geography shaped their demographics, political factors must have influenced their population growth. Historically, the two regions were more politically unified and hence organized than the others. They both were to some extent under one regime for a considerable amount of time since around 200 BC when Qin Dynasty unified China and Ashoka unified India. Having massive territories under unified dynasties would have created a more stable environment for them to support population growth.