The climate–population relationship has long been conceived. Although the topic has been repeatedly investigated, most of the related works are Eurocentric or qualitative. Consequently, the relationship between climate and population remains ambiguous. In this study, fine-grained temperature reconstructions and historical population data sets have been employed to statistically test a hypothesized relationship between temperature change and population growth (i.e., cooling associated with below average population growth) in China over the past millennium. The important results were: (1) Long-term temperature change significantly determined the population growth dynamics of China. However, spatial variation existed, whilst population growth in Central China was shown to be responsive to both long- and short-term temperature changes; in marginal areas, population growth was only sensitive to short-term temperature fluctuations. (2) Temporally, the temperature–population relationship was obscured in some periods, which was attributable to the factors of drought and social buffers. In summary, a temperature–population relationship was mediated by geographic factors, the aridity threshold, and social factors. Given the upcoming threat posed by climate change to human societies, this study seeks to improve our knowledge and understanding of the climate–society relationship. © Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007.