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China’s urban population has experienced rapid fertility decline over the past six decades. This drastic change will have a significant impact on China’s demographic, social and economic future. However, the patterns and characteristics of urban China’s fertility decline have not been systematically examined. This study analyses the trends and age patterns of fertility in urban China since the 1950s, and summarizes the major characteristics of reproductive behaviours into four ‘lows’: extremely ‘low’ level of fertility; ‘low’ proportion of two and higher parity births; ‘low’ mean age at birth; and ‘low’ level of childlessness. The paper argues that the highly homogenous reproductive behaviours found in China’s now near 800 million urban population have been in part shaped by the country’s unprecedented government intervention in family planning. The ‘later, longer, fewer’ campaign in the 1970s and the ‘one-child’ policy, in particular, have left clear imprints on China’s reproductive norms and fertility patterns. The government-led family planning programme, however, has not been the only driving force of fertility decline. A wide range of social, economic, political and cultural changes have also affected the transition in family formation, reproductive behaviour and fertility patterns, and this has become increasingly prominent in the past two decades.
Thanks to the progress that has been made in the study of population history, it has been gradually accepted that fertility in historical China was only moderate in comparison with the recorded high fertility. However, scholars still disagree on whether the Chinese could have intentionally controlled their family size. This article first summarizes recent findings about fertility patterns in historical China. Then the author provides further evidence of people limiting their family size in the past, before discussing the impact of traditional beliefs on people's fertility behaviour and summarizing the antinatalist ideas and suggestions put forwarded by Chinese officials and intellectuals over China's long history. This evidence is then used to comment on a number of suggestions that have been made about China's traditional reproductive behaviour and culture. The article challenges the views that people's reproductive strategies aimed in the past to maximize the number of surviving offspring and that the demand for children (or sons) was always high in historical China.