Famine Decimates China Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Chinese government policies, including a plan to modernize the mainly agrarian Chinese economy and society to one that was communist and based on industry, coupled with a few years of severe drought and flooding that reduced harvests, led to widespread famine and the death of thirty million or more rural Chinese people.

Summary of Event

From 1958 to 1961 the people of China endured one of the most devastating famines in modern history. Although no official figures are available, an estimated thirty million Chinese perished. The famine was fueled by a policy that believed population-control programs were sinister capitalist ploys and by the belief that Communist nations would always enjoy an abundance of food. All doubters in China were assailed as misguided disciples of Thomas Robert Malthus. The famine had three distinct characteristics. First, it went almost unmentioned in China and was unnoticed worldwide. Second, the causes of the famine rested squarely on the wrongheaded agricultural policies of the Communists. Third, uncertainty persists about who should bear responsibility for causing and prolonging this human-made disaster. Famine;China China;famine Hunger;Chinese famine Modernization Economic policy;China Agricultural policy;China [kw]Famine Decimates China (1959-1961) [kw]China, Famine Decimates (1959-1961) Famine;China China;famine Hu nger;Chinese famine Modernization Economic policy;China Agricultural policy;China [g]Asia;1959-1961: Famine Decimates China[06020] [g]China;1959-1961: Famine Decimates China[06020] [c]Disasters;1959-1961: Famine Decimates China[06020] [c]Agriculture;1959-1961: Famine Decimates China[06020] [c]Government and politics;1959-1961: Famine Decimates China[06020] [c]Environmental issues;1959-1961: Famine Decimates China[06020] Mao Zedong Lin Biao Peng Dehuai

In the early 1950’s, China had well-trained scientists knowledgeable in soil science and agriculture, but two trends combined to erode this reality: the Anti-rightist Campaign Anti-rightist Campaign, Chinese (1957-1958)[Antirightist Campaign, Chinese] of 1957-1958 and a growing fondness for Russian Communist pseudoscience among Communist leader Mao Zedong and his entourage. By 1957, Mao was convinced that many intellectuals secretly withheld support for the regime and its goals. He unleashed a torrent of press harangues, show trials, struggle sessions, and mandatory self-criticism to expose and demoralize intellectuals and scientists. The result was an almost universal reluctance to criticize party policies. Joseph Stalin Stalin, Joseph [p]Stalin, Joseph;science and technology in Russia had been a patron of pseudoscience, and Mao emulated that practice.

Stalin had supported scientific quacks who claimed to be experts, but Mao went a step further and claimed that peasant knowledge was superior to that of trained experts. As a result, outlandish experiments of all types were deemed successful and then promoted throughout China.

The first blow to Chinese agriculture began with the promotion of backyard steel furnaces. Mao proclaimed that China could quickly match, then surpass, British steel production Steel industry;China . Steel furnaces were inadequate to reach quotas, so the Chinese constructed low-quality backyard steel furnaces and urged people to drop their everyday tasks and smelt steel, diverting peasants from the harvest. Because wood powered most of the furnaces, the backyard steel-furnace campaign also contributed to widespread deforestation. Even in those areas where the campaign did not disrupt the harvest, it still managed to block the transport of crops to areas where food was in short supply.

In 1959, the hardship intensified as agricultural methods conformed to the reckless urgency of the mentality of the Great Leap Forward Great Leap Forward China;Great Leap Forward (1958-1962), a plan by the Chinese Communist Party radically to alter the country’s agrarian economy of peasant farmers with modern industry and a communist society. The worst policies were close planting, deep plowing, inadequate fertilizers, pest control, irrigation, and new tools, breeds, seeds, and farm-management methods. The close-planting techniques inevitably killed the seedlings, regardless of the crop. Hard soil was loosened with dynamite to prepare it for the deep-plowing techniques copied from Russian agriculture. In some regions in China the fields were excavated to a depth of 13 feet. This procedure continued for years despite crop yields failing to improve, and soil fertility suffered in many regions.

Furthermore, chemical fertilizers were seldom used. Instead, the Chinese followed the advice of Russian biologist and agronomist Trofim D. Lysenko Lysenko, Trofim D. , who believed that a mixture of one part manure and nine parts soil was as good as pure manure. The diluted manure failed, contributing to poor harvests. Irrigation Irrigation projects of this period frequently did more harm than good. With very little equipment to employ, the dams and canals were built by unskilled laborers, including thousands of students who left school to work. Peasant “engineers,” who had no specialized training, replaced durable and expensive materials with flimsy alternatives. As a result, many of the dams collapsed after a short time, creating additional hardship.

The nationwide effort to kill all sparrows Ecology caught the attention of the rest of the world and symbolized the futility of Chinese Communist policies. Mao had declared that grain production was the top priority, and decreed flocks of sparrows the biggest obstacle to abundant harvests. The campaign involved millions of children, who were told to bang pots and pans near the nests of the birds so that the sparrows would fly frantically until they dropped from the air in exhaustion. The campaign achieved its goal, but with the sparrows eradicated, insect pest populations skyrocketed. Rather than admit he made a major mistake, Mao simply launched into a mass campaign against insects. The policies begun in 1958 to eradicate insects were disastrous as well. The failure to reverse these policies was tragic. Most critics were too cowed to speak out, and officials at every level turned in inflated statistics to avoid denunciation. The handful of accurate reports that made it to leaders were misinterpreted. When Mao heard of food shortages, he concluded that peasants were hoarding crops, and he ordered harsher grain collection policies that added to the hardships.

The fragmentary reports that emerged after the famine painted a relentlessly grim picture of malnutrition, disease, and hopelessness in the face of harangues to work even harder. Once starvation set in, the weakened survivors were unable to bury the dead, adding to the widespread horror. All this went unmentioned in the press, which continued to portray a land of abundance and to predict a glorious future for China. One leader, the venerable Peng Dehuai, confronted Mao. At a meeting in Lushan in 1961, Peng scolded Mao for ignoring the suffering of the peasants. After a brief period of shock, Mao counterattacked viciously, ruining the career of Peng and choosing Lin Biao to replace him, but with disastrous results.

By late 1961 the Chinese economy was in grave disarray, and Mao agreed to a modest retreat from the harmful policies. Local leaders and groups of peasants used the retreat to undo much of what had been ordered. Rural hardship did not end, but the monumental suffering of those horrific years subsided. Unlike the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976, which continues to be widely discussed in China, the famine was rarely examined, and its lessons went unlearned. Even more troubling is that Chinese environmental policies still reflect a reliance on accelerated economic development; the consequences of these policies for the environment remain afterthoughts.

Famine did not return to rural China, but widespread hardship remained. The result was a mass exodus of peasants to the cities, creating massive social dislocation. What was billed as a peasant revolution in modern China produced a society that disregards the plight of peasants and plunders nature.


For two hundred years, famines have resulted largely from human actions and not from natural causes. The famine in China from 1958 to 1961 is a glaring example of a human-made disaster. By 1958, China had been able to feed its massive population. Unwise policies and stubborn reluctance to admit blunders disrupted Chinese agriculture with horrific results.

Some evaluations of the famine portray Mao as the sole culprit. Certainly his attitudes and his demand for blind obedience played a role. Other evaluations stress near-universal attitudes that asserted that nature was expendable and that development was worth any cost. Both approaches overlook the fact that China had become a major actor on the world stage by 1958, and the Sino-Soviet split and other tumultuous events surely distracted Mao from domestic problems.

Disputes over who or what is to blame for the famine may never be solved, but much more disturbing is the dearth of contemporary reporting on the famine and the paucity of historical studies. Famine in China and worldwide remains devastating and misunderstood, a sad result of human indifference to suffering. Famine;China China;famine Hunger;Chinese famine Modernization Economic policy;China Agricultural policy;China

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Becker, Jasper. Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine. London: John Murray, 1996. Perhaps the only book-length account of the Chinese famine in English.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shapiro, Judith. Mao’s War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Two chapters of this scholarly work on Mao Zedong and the natural environment are relevant to the 1959-1961 famine.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smil, Vaclav. China’s Past, China’s Future: Energy, Food, Environment. New York: Routledge, 2004. A study of the relationship between the environment and food production in China, with a chapter on famine and a chapter titled “Can China Feed Itself?”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yang, Dali L. “Surviving the Great Leap Famine: The Struggle over Rural Policy, 1958-1962.” In New Perspectives on State Socialism in China, edited by Timothy Cheek and Tony Saich. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1997. Yang does an excellent job of placing the famine in the context of international events.

Oxford Committee for Famine Relief Is Founded

Famine Decimates Bengal

United Nations Holds Its First Conference on Food and Agriculture

Mao Zedong Proclaims a Communist People’s Republic in China

China Begins Its First Five-Year Plan

Asian Flu Pandemic Kills Millions Worldwide

Mao’s Hundred Flowers Campaign Begins

Mao’s Great Leap Forward Brings Chaos to China

Cultural Revolution Begins in China

Drought Extends the Reach of the Sahara Desert

Categories: History