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The Great Chinese Famine ( ), officially referred to as the Three Years of Natural Disasters ( ), was the period in the People's Republic of Chinamarker between 1958 and 1961 characterized by widespread famine. According to government statistics, there were 15 million excess deaths in this period. Unofficial estimates vary, but are often considerably higher. Yang Jisheng, a former Xinhua News Agencymarker reporter who spent over ten years gathering information available to no other scholars, estimates a toll of 36 million.

The phrases "Three Years of Economic Difficulty" and "Three Bitter Years" are also used by Chinese officials to describe this period.


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 some planning errors. Researchers outside China, however, generally agree that massive institutional and policy changes which accompanied the Great Leap Forward were the key factors in the famine. 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.

During the Great Leap Forward, farming was organized into communes and the cultivation of private plots forbidden. This forced collectivisation substantially reduced the incentives for peasants to work well. 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 Henanmarker and Hebeimarker 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 fulfil the delivery of grain.

Along with collectivisation, the central Government decreed several changes in agricultural techniques based on the ideas of later-discredited Russian agronomist Trofim Lysenko. 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 was based on the ideas of Lysenko's colleague Teventy Maltsev, who encouraged peasants across China to plow deeply into the soil (up to 1 or 2 meters). They believed the most fertile soil was deep in the earth, allowing extra strong root growth. However, useless rocks, soil, and sand were driven up instead, burying the topsoil.

These radical changes in farming organization coincided with adverse weather patterns including droughts and floods. In July 1959, the Yellow Rivermarker flooded in East China. According to the Disaster Center, it 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. It is ranked as the 7th deadliest natural disaster in the 20th century.

In 1960, at least some degree of drought and other bad weather affected 55 percent of cultivated land , while an estimated 60% of agricultural land received no rain at all. The Encyclopædia Britannica yearbooks from 1958 to 1962 also reported abnormal weather, followed by droughts and floods. This included of rain in Hong Kong across five days in June 1959, part of a pattern that hit all of Southern China.

As a result of these factors, year over year grain production in China dropped 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.

According to the work of Nobel prize winning economist and expert on famines Amartya Sen, most famines do not result just 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. In the case of these Chinese famines, the urban population had protected legal rights for certain amounts of grain consumption. 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 and thus local peasants were left with a much reduced residue.


According to 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 average population of about 70 million during 1958-1961, one death in every seven persons. 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 implies 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 Xinyangmarker 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.

Experts widely believe 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 Luoshanmarker 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, Guangshanmarker, 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?

Several professors and scholars have estimated that the number of "abnormal deaths" ranged from 17 million to 50 million. Some Western analysts such as Patricia Buckley Ebrey estimate that about 20-40 million people had died of starvation caused by bad government policy and natural disasters. J. Banister estimates 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 17 million. Cao Shuji estimated 32.5 million.

The estimations vary largely because of inaccurate data, thanks to the efforts of the government to hide the actual situation (all the related data was classified as extremely confidential until their disclosure after 1983). Due to the unpleasant political implications, some people deny the validity of any of these estimates on the ground of "the absence of reliable country-wide population census." As Wim F Wertheim, emeritus professor from the University of Amsterdam, put it in the article "Wild Swans and Mao's Agrarian Strategy";
Often it is argued that at the censuses of the 1960s "between 17 and 29 millions of Chinese" appeared to be missing, in comparison with the official census figures from the 1950s.
But these calculations are lacking any semblance of is hard to believe that suddenly, within a rather short period (1953-1960), the total population of China had risen from 450 [million] to 600 million.

The claim, however, does not mention the fact that the Chinese government had made death count and disclosed the numbers 20 years later.

See also


  1. "A hunger for the truth: A new book, banned on the mainland, is becoming the definitive account of the Great Famine.",, 7 July 2008
  2. China: A Century of Revolution. Narr. Will Lyman. Ed. Howard Sharp. and Sue Williams Dir. (WinStar Home Entertainment, 1997); Demeny, Paul and Geoffrey McNicoll, Eds. "Famine in China". Encyclopedia of Population. vol. 1 (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2003) p. 388-390
  3. Translation from "A hunger for the truth: A new book, banned on the mainland, is becoming the definitive account of the Great Famine.",, 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
  4. The People's Republic of China 1949-76, second edition, Michael Lynch (London: Hodder Education, 2008), p. 57
  5. 100 top disasters of the 20th century
  6. Asia times online


  • Ashton, Basil, Kenneth Hill, Alan Piazza, Robin Zeitz, "Famine in China, 1958-61", Population and Development Review, Vol. 10, No. 4. (Dec., 1984), pp. 613-645.
  • Banister, J. "Analysis of recent data on the population of China", Population and Development, Vol.10, No.2, 1984.
  • Cao Shuji, The deaths of China's population and its contributing factors during 1959-1961. China's Population Science (Jan.2005) (In Chinese)
  • China Statistical Yearbook (1984), edited by State Statistical Bureau. China Statistical Publishing House, 1984.Page 83,141,190
  • China Statistical Yearbook (1991), edited by State Statistical Bureau. China Statistical Publishing House, 1991.
  • China Population Statistical Yearbook (1985), edited by State Statistical Bureau. China Statistical Bureau Publishing House, 1985.
  • Coale, Ansley J., Rapid population change in China, 1952-1982, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1984.
  • Li Chengrui(李成瑞): Population Change Caused by The Great Leap Movement, Demographic Study, No.1, 1998 pp. 97-111
  • Jiang Zhenghua(蒋正华),Method and Result of China Population Dynamic Estimation, Academic Report of Xi'an University, 1986(3). pp46,84
  • 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
  • Yang, Dali. Calamity and Reform in China: State, Rural Society and Institutional Change since the Great Leap Famine. Stanford University Press, 1996.
  • Official Chinese statistics, shown as a graph.
  • Death rates in several Asian nations, 1960 to 1994.

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