Frequency of Intercourse in China and Its Implications for Historical Fertility

William Lavely, University of Washington

There is wide agreement that marital fertility in late imperial China was low compared to that in historical Europe, but the explanation for this difference has set off a sharp debate in the field of Chinese historical demography, pitting proponents of intentional fertility control against proponents of a natural fertility regime. Using data from major surveys, this paper demonstrates that Chinese coital frequency is low in international comparative perspective, and it argues that general trends in health, economy, family, ideology, and contraceptive use make it unlikely that coital frequency has declined over time. On the assumption that low coital frequency typified Chinese marriage in earlier times, we apply a model of the proximate determinants of fertility to estimate the mean expected birth interval. The results suggest that frequency of intercourse and breastfeeding customs are together sufficient to explain the low marital fertility observed in the late imperial period.

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Presented in Session 67: Dynamics and Patterns of Sexual Behavior in China