Great Chinese Famine

Last updated on 26 September 2017

The Three Years of Great Chinese Famine (simplified Chinese: 三年大饥荒; traditional Chinese: 三年大饑荒; pinyin: Sānnián dà jīhuāng), referred to by the Communist Party of China as the Three Years of Natural Disasters (simplified Chinese: 三年自然灾害; traditional Chinese: 三年自然災害; pinyin: Sānnián zìrán zāihài), the Three Years of Difficulty (simplified Chinese: 三年困难时期; traditional Chinese: 三年困難時期; pinyin: Sānnián kùnnán shíqī) or Great Leap Forward Famine, was a period in the People's Republic of China between the years 1959 and 1961 characterized by widespread famine. Drought, poor weather, and the policies of ruler Mao Zedong contributed to the famine, although the relative weights of the contributions are disputed due to the Great Leap Forward.

According to government statistics, there were 15 million excess deaths in this period. However, the Chinese government at this time was taken over by market reformers who were strongly opposed to the Great Leap Forward.[2] Unofficial estimates vary, but scholars have estimated the number of famine victims to be between 20 and 43 million.[3] Historian Frank Dikötter, having been granted special access to Chinese archival materials, estimates that there were at least 45 million premature deaths from 1958 to 1962, although far from all these deaths came about as a result of starvation.[4][5]

Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng concluded there were 36 million deaths due to starvation, while another 40 million others failed to be born, so that "China's total population loss during the Great Famine then comes to 76 million."[6] The term "Three Bitter Years" is often used by Chinese peasants to refer to this period.[7]


1957 Mao Zedong on airplane.jpg
Mao on an airplane, 1957.

The great Chinese famine was caused by a combination of adverse weather conditions, social pressure, economic mismanagement, and radical changes in agriculture imposed by government regulations.

Mao Zedong, chairman of the Chinese communist party, introduced drastic changes in farming policy which prohibited farm ownership. Failure to abide by the policies led to punishment. The social pressure imposed on the citizens in terms of farming and business, which the government controlled, led to state instability. Owing to the laws passed during the period and Great Leap Forward during 1958–1962, according to an analysis by journalist Yang Jisheng, about 36 million people died of starvation in this period.[8]

Until the early 1980s, the Chinese government's stance, reflected by the name "Three Years of Natural Disasters", was that the famine was largely a result of a series of natural disasters compounded by several planning errors. Researchers outside China argued that massive institutional and policy changes that accompanied the Great Leap Forward were the key factors in the famine, or at least worsened nature-induced disasters.[9][10] Since the 1980s there has been greater official Chinese recognition of the importance of policy mistakes in causing the disaster, claiming that the disaster was 30% due to natural causes and 70% by mismanagement.[11]

During the Great Leap Forward, farming was organized into communes and the cultivation of private plots forbidden. Iron and steel production was identified as a key requirement for economic advancement. Millions of peasants were ordered away from agricultural work to join the iron and steel production workforce.

Yang Jisheng would summarize the effect of the focus on production targets in 2008:

In Xinyang, people starved at the doors of the grain warehouses. As they died, they shouted, "Communist Party, Chairman Mao, save us". If the granaries of Henan and Hebei had been opened, no one need have died. As people were dying in large numbers around them, officials did not think to save them. Their only concern was how to fulfill the delivery of grain.[12]

Along with collectivization, the central government decreed several changes in agricultural techniques based on the ideas of Soviet pseudoscientist Trofim Lysenko.[13] One of these ideas was close planting, whereby the density of seedlings was at first tripled and then doubled again. The theory was that plants of the same species would not compete with each other. In practice they did, which stunted growth and resulted in lower yields.

Another policy (known as "deep plowing") was based on the ideas of Lysenko's colleague Terentiy Maltsev, who encouraged peasants across China to eschew normal plowing depths of 15–20 centimeters and instead plow extremely deeply into the soil (1 to 2 meters). The deep plowing theory stated that the most fertile soil was deep in the earth, and plowing unusually deep would allow extra strong root growth. However, in shallow soil, useless rocks, soil, and sand were driven up instead, burying the fertile topsoil and again severely stunting seedling growth.

The Eurasian tree sparrow was the most notable target of the Four Pests Campaign.

Additionally, in the Great sparrow campaign, citizens were called upon to destroy sparrows and other wild birds that ate crop seeds, in order to protect fields. Pest birds were shot down or scared from landing until dropping in exhaustion. This resulted in an explosion of the vermin (especially crop-eating insects) population, which had no predators to thin it down.

These radically harmful changes in farming organization coincided with adverse weather patterns, including droughts and floods. In July 1959, the Yellow River flooded in East China. According to the Disaster Center, the flood directly killed, either through starvation from crop failure or drowning, an estimated 2 million people, while other areas were affected in other ways as well.[14] Frank Dikötter argues that most floods were not due to unusual weather, but to massive, poorly planned and poorly executed irrigation works which were part of the Great Leap Forward.[5]

In 1960, an estimated 60% of agricultural land in northern China received no rain at all.[15] The Encyclopædia Britannica yearbooks from 1958 to 1962 also reported abnormal weather, followed by droughts and floods based on Chinese government sources. This included 760 millimetres (30 in) of rain in Hong Kong across five days in June 1959, part of a pattern that hit all of Southern China.[16]

As a result of these factors, year over year grain production dropped in China. The harvest was down by 15% in 1959. By 1960, it was at 70% of its 1958 level. There was no recovery until 1962, after the Great Leap Forward ended.[17]

Government distribution policies

According to the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist and expert on famines Amartya Sen, most famines do not result only from lower food production, but also from an inappropriate or inefficient distribution of the food, often compounded by lack of information and indeed misinformation as to the extent of the problem.[18] In the case of these Chinese famines, the urban population (under the dictates of Maoism) had protected legal rights for certain amounts of grain consumption, whereas the rural peasantry were given no such rights and were subject to non-negotiable production quotas, the surplus of which they were to survive on.

As local officials in the countryside competed to over-report the levels of production that their communes had achieved in response to the new economic organisation, local peasants were left with a vastly decreased surplus in order to meet their quotas, and then no surplus at all. When they eventually failed to produce enough crops even to meet the quotas to feed the cities, peasant farmers were unfairly accused of hoarding, profiteering, and other counter-revolutionary activities by Chinese Communist Party officials, who cited the massively inflated production estimates of the local party leaders as evidence.

As the famine worsened, these accusations prompted widespread atrocities (including massive grain confiscations, leaving millions of peasants to starve) by Maoist party officials, who sought to direct blame away from the harmful changes in agriculture policy and the massive overestimation of grain yields. At the time, the famine was almost exclusively blamed on a conspiracy by "enemies of the people" and "unreformed kulak elements" among the peasant farmers, who starved at a rate nearly three times that of the urban Chinese population.

Cover ups

Local party leaders, for their part, conspired to cover up shortfalls and reassign blame in order to protect their own lives and positions. In one famous example, Mao Zedong was scheduled to tour a local agricultural commune in Shaanxi province during the heart of the famine in order to assess the conditions for himself; in preparation for his visit, local party officials ordered hundreds of starving peasants to carefully uproot and transplant hundreds of thousands of grain stalks by hand from nearby farms into one "model field", which was then shown to Mao as proof that the crops had not failed.

In a similar manner to the massive Soviet-created famine in Ukraine (the Holodomor), doctors were prohibited from listing "starvation" as a cause of death on death certificates. This kind of deception was far from uncommon; a famous propaganda picture from the famine shows Chinese children from Shandong province ostensibly standing atop a field of wheat, so densely grown that it could apparently support their weight. In reality, they were standing on a bench concealed beneath the plants, and the "field" was again entirely composed of individually transplanted stalks.

Amartya Sen puts this famine in a global context, arguing that lack of democracy is the major culprit: "Indeed, no substantial famine has ever occurred in a democratic country—no matter how poor." He adds that it is "hard to imagine that anything like this could have happened in a country that goes to the polls regularly and that has an independent press. During that terrible calamity the government faced no pressure from newspapers, which were controlled, and none from opposition parties, which were absent."[19]

On the other hand, Sen points out that in India the numbers of "excess mortality" regularly surpass those of China during 1958–1961.[20] This is consistent with the accompanying graph which shows that the Chinese Death rate fell sharply after the establishment of the People's Republic of China, so the spike in 1958–1961 was from a much reduced base.


Birth rate in China.svg
China's birth and death rate.
Chinese population pyramid from 1982, displaying a huge shortage of people born in 1959–61, reflecting the high infant mortality and low birth rate during the period.

According to the China Statistical Yearbook (1984), crop production decreased from 200 million tons (1958) to 143.5 million tons (1960). Due to lack of food and incentive to marry at that point in time, the population was about 658,590,000 in 1961, about 13,480,000 less than the population of 1959. Birth rate decreased from 2.922% (1958) to 2.086% (1960) and death rate increased from 1.198% (1958) to 2.543% (1960), while the average numbers for 1962–1965 are about 4% and 1%, respectively.

The officially reported death rates show much more dramatic increases in a number of provinces and counties. In Sichuan province, the most populous province in China, for example, the government reported 11 million deaths out of the total population of about 700 million during 1958–1961, which is equal to eleven deaths out of every seven hundred people. In Huaibin County, Henan province, the government reported 102 thousand deaths out of a population of 378 thousand in 1960. On the national level, the official statistics imply about 15 million so-called "excess deaths" or "abnormal deaths", most of them resulting from starvation.

Yu Dehong, the secretary of a party official in Xinyang in 1959 and 1960, stated,

I went to one village and saw 100 corpses, then another village and another 100 corpses. No one paid attention to them. People said that dogs were eating the bodies. Not true, I said. The dogs had long ago been eaten by the people.[12]

It is widely believed that the government seriously under-reported death tolls: Lu Baoguo, a Xinhua reporter in Xinyang, told Yang Jisheng of why he never reported on his experience:

In the second half of 1959, I took a long-distance bus from Xinyang to Luoshan and Gushi. Out of the window, I saw one corpse after another in the ditches. On the bus, no one dared to mention the dead. In one county, Guangshan, one-third of the people had died. Although there were dead people everywhere, the local leaders enjoyed good meals and fine liquor. ... I had seen people who had told the truth being destroyed. Did I dare to write it?[12]

Some Western analysts, such as Patricia Buckley Ebrey, estimate that about 20–40 million people had died of starvation caused by bad government policies and natural disasters. J. Banister estimates that this number is about 23 million. Li Chengrui, a former minister of the National Bureau of Statistics of China, estimated 22 million (1998). His estimation was based on Ansley J. Coale and Jiang Zhenghua's estimation of 27 million. Cao Shuji estimated 32.5 million. The aforementioned Yang Jisheng (2008) estimated the death toll at 36 million.[21]

Hong Kong-based historian Frank Dikötter (2010) estimates that, at minimum, 45 million people died from starvation, overwork and state violence during the Great Leap, claiming his findings to be based on access to recently opened local and provincial party archives.[5] However, his approach to the documents, as well as his claim to be the first author to use them, have been questioned by other scholars.[22] Dikötter's study also stresses that state violence exacerbated the death toll. Dikötter claims that at least 2.5 million of the victims were beaten or tortured to death.[23] He provides a graphic example of what happened to a family after one member was caught stealing some food:

Liu Desheng, guilty of poaching a sweet potato, was covered in urine ... He, his wife, and his son were also forced into a heap of excrement. Then tongs were used to prise his mouth open after he refused to swallow excrement. He died three weeks later.[24]

There are widespread oral reports, and some official documentation, of cannibalism being practiced in various forms, as a result of the famine.[25][26][27] Due to the scale of the famine, the resulting cannibalism has been described as "on a scale unprecedented in the history of the 20th century".[25][26]

Political movement

The Great Leap Forward was initiated in 1958, after the First Five Year Plan had been declared successfully completed. One point of the Great Leap was starting to set up People's Communes in the countryside. However, the Party had optimistically over-estimated the country's productivity during the First Five Year Plan. In reality, farming activity had gone down due to the All-Canteen.

Some activists went against the Great Leap Forward movement, but they were seen as the opponents of Mao and were silenced in the purges of the following "Anti-Rightist Movement".

After the Famine, then-Chairman of the People's Republic of China Liu Shaoqi concluded that the reason for the calamity was "30% natural disaster, 70% policy". In the later Cultural Revolution, Liu was denounced as a traitor and an enemy agent going against the Three Red Banners.

See also



  1. ^ Holmes, Leslie. Communism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press 2009). ISBN 978-0-19-955154-5. p. 32 "Most estimates of the number of Chinese dead are in the range of 15 to 30 million."
  2. ^ Ó Gráda, Famine: A Short History, p. 95
  3. ^ Peng Xizhe (彭希哲), "Demographic Consequences of the Great Leap Forward in China's Provinces," Population and Development Review 13, no. 4 (1987), 639–70.
    For a summary of other estimates, please refer to Necrometrics [1]
  4. ^ Akbar, Arifa (17 September 2010). "Mao's Great Leap Forward 'killed 45 million in four years'". The Independent. London. Retrieved 20 September 2010.
  5. ^ a b c Dikötter, Frank. Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62. Walker & Company, 2010. p. 333. ISBN 0-8027-7768-6
  6. ^ Mirsky, Jonathan (December 9, 2012). "Unnatural Disaster: 'Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962,' by Yang Jisheng". The New York Times Sunday Book Review. p. BR22. Retrieved December 7, 2012.
  7. ^ "Different Life of Scientist Yuan Longping" (in Chinese). Guangming Daily. 22 May 2007. Retrieved 16 March 2012.
  8. ^ Jisheng, Yang "Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962". Book Review. New York Times. Dec, 2012. March 3, 2013.
  9. ^ Sue Williams (director), Howard Sharp (editor), Will Lyman (narrator) (1997). China: A Century of Revolution. WinStar Home Entertainment.
  10. ^ Demeny, Paul; McNicoll, Geoffrey, eds. (2003), "Famine in China", Encyclopedia of Population, 1, New York: Macmillan Reference, pp. 388–390
  11. ^ Yang, Jisheng, Edward Friedman, Jian Guo, and Stacy Mosher. Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. Print. pp. 452–53
  12. ^ a b c Translation from "A hunger for the truth: A new book, banned on the mainland, is becoming the definitive account of the Great Famine." Archived 10 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine.,, 7 July 2008 of content from Yang Jisheng, 墓碑 --中國六十年代大饑荒紀實 (Mu Bei – Zhong Guo Liu Shi Nian Dai Da Ji Huang Ji Shi), Hong Kong: Cosmos Books (Tian Di Tu Shu), 2008, ISBN 9789882119093 (in Chinese)
  13. ^ Lynch, Michael (2008). The People's Republic of China, 1949–76 (second ed.). London: Hodder Education. p. 57.
  14. ^ "The Most Deadly 100 Natural Disasters of the 20th Century".
  15. ^ Liu, Henry C K (1 April 2004). "Part 2: The Great Leap Forward not all bad". Asia Times online.
  16. ^ Fred Harding (2006). Breast Cancer: Cause, Prevention, Cure. Tekline Publishing. p. 381. ISBN 978-0-9554221-0-2.
  17. ^ Lin, Justin Yifu; Yang, Dennis Tao (2000). "Food Availability, Entitlements and the Chinese Famine of 1959–61". The Economic Journal. Royal Economic Society. 110 (460): 143. doi:10.1111/1468-0297.00494.
  18. ^ Sen, Amartya (1982). Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford New York: Clarendon Press Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198284635.
  19. ^ Amartya Kumar Sen (1999). Development as freedom. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-289330-7. Retrieved 14 April 2011.
  20. ^ Wiener, Jon. "How We Forgot the Cold War. A Historical Journey across America" University of California Press, 2012, p. 38.
  21. ^ "A hunger for the truth: A new book, banned on the mainland, is becoming the definitive account of the Great Famine.",, 7 July 2008 Archived 10 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine.
  22. ^ Dillon, Michael. "Collective Responsibility" The Times Literary Supplement January 7 (2011), p. 13.
  23. ^ Dikötter, Frank. Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62. Walker & Company, 2010. p. 298. ISBN 0-8027-7768-6
  24. ^ Issac Stone Fish. Greeting Misery With Violence. Newsweek. 26 September 2010.
  25. ^ a b Bernstein, Richard (February 5, 1997). "Horror of a Hidden Chinese Famine". New York Times.
  26. ^ a b Becker, Jasper (1997). Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine. Free Press. p. 352. ISBN 978-0-68483457-3, title is a reference to Hungry ghosts in Chinese religion
  27. ^ Dikötter, Frank (2010). "36. Cannibalism". Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–1962. pp. 320–323. ISBN 978-0-80277768-3.


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  • Becker, Jasper (1998). Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine. Holt Paperbacks. ISBN 0-8050-5668-8
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  • Dikötter, Frank. Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62. Walker & Company, 2010. ISBN 0-8027-7768-6.
  • Gao. Mobo (2007). Gao Village: Rural Life in Modern China. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 978-0-8248-3192-9.
  • Gao. Mobo (2008). The Battle for China's Past. Pluto Press. ISBN 978-0-7453-2780-8.
  • Jiang Zhenghua (蔣正華), "Method and Result of China Population Dynamic Estimation", Academic Report of Xi'a University, 1986(3). pp. 46, 84.
  • Li Chengrui(李成瑞): Population Change Caused by The Great Leap Movement, Demographic Study, No.1, 1998 pp. 97–111
  • Li. Minqi (2008). The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy. Monthly Review Press. ISBN 978-1-58367-182-5
  • Peng Xizhe, "Demographic Consequences of the Great Leap Forward in China's Provinces", Population and Development Review, Vol. 13, No. 4. (Dec., 1987), pp. 639–670
  • Thaxton. Ralph A. Jr (2008). Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China: Mao's Great Leap Forward Famine and the Origins of Righteous Resistance in Da Fo Village. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-72230-6
  • Yang, Dali. Calamity and Reform in China: State, Rural Society and Institutional Change since the Great Leap Famine. Stanford University Press, 1996.
  • Yang Jisheng. Tombstone (Mu Bei – Zhong Guo Liu Shi Nian Dai Da Ji Huang Ji Shi). Cosmos Books (Tian Di Tu Shu), Hong Kong 2008.
  • Yang Jisheng. "Tombstone: An Account of Chinese Famine in the 1960s" (墓碑 - 中國六十年代大饑荒紀實 (Mubei – Zhongguo Liushi Niandai Da Jihuang Jishi), Hong Kong: Cosmos Books (Tiandi Tushu), 2008, ISBN 978-988-211-909-3 (in Chinese). By 2010, it was appearing under the title: 墓碑: 一九五八-一九六二年中國大饑荒紀實 (Mubei: Yi Jiu Wu Ba – Yi Jiu Liu Er Nian Zhongguo Da Jihuang Shiji) ("Tombstone: An Account of Chinese Famine From 1958–1962").
  • Yang Jisheng. Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao's Great Famine, Yang Jisheng, Translators: Stacy Mosher, Guo Jian, Publisher: Allen Lane (30 Oct 2012), ISBN 978-184-614-518-6 (English translation of the above work)
    • Translated into English and abridged. Yang Jisheng, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (October 30, 2012), hardcover, 656 pp., ISBN 0374277931, ISBN 978-0374277932
  • Official Chinese statistics, shown as a graph. "Data – Population Growth", Land Use Systems Group (LUC), Austria: International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), archived from the original on 4 September 2005

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