Today China is a juggernaut that looks set to snatch the mantle of the largest economy in the world from the U.S over the next few decades. Its progress over the last 40 years has been nothing short of astonishing, with extraordinary work alleviating poverty, the development of technology and infrastructure projects that have transformed the country. But you don’t need to go that far back to find a very different kind of China.
Between 1920 and 1961, five famines ravaged either individual areas of China or the entire country, with the final, known rather ominously as the Great Chinese Famine, proving to be the most catastrophic. It’s difficult to be sure how many people died during this period, but the final five famines seen in China are thought to have caused between 40 and 65 million deaths.
The reasons behind them are wide-ranging and include environmental factors such as drought, typhoons, and floods, but also man-made catastrophes such as Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward and general pitiful regard for human life in an area where human life is really abundant. Thankfully, the threat of famine has been all but eradicated across China today, bringing to an end a steady stream of the most horrendous calamities and changing the country entirely.
A Torrid History
We’re focusing on the final five famines today because there has to be a cut-off point somewhere, but the truth is famines have been a part of Chinese history for thousands of years. Between 108 BC and 1911 AD, there were 1,828 recorded famines across China. This doesn’t necessarily mean the entire country was under famine conditions, but at least one area or another frequently suffered.
Many of the early famines are vague, to say the least, but we know considerably more about those that occurred over the last few hundred years. The Great North China Famine caused by a severe drought that began in 1876 eventually claimed up to 13 million deaths, while the Great Qing Famine of 1907 saw an astonishing 25 million die. This famine was triggered by torrential rain in 1906 which decimated the harvest and killed around 10% of those living in northern Jiangsu and parts of central China.
With such large populations combined with a heavy reliance on subsistence farming, millions of people around China constantly remained on a knife-edge and often at the mercy of the weather. Too much rain here, or too little rainfall there, could easily snowball into catastrophes that anywhere else in the world would be the worst event in living memory, but in China, it was just another chapter in this sad, sad story.
North China famine – 1920–1921
The summer of 1919 was a hot, rainless season in northern China. As the Spanish Flu was raging across the world, quite a different catastrophe was brewing in the northern provinces. That summer sparked the beginning of a drought that would stretch for a year and a half, but there were several other causes of the first famine we’re examining today.
These included extreme poverty in remote and densely populated rural areas, severely limited transport infrastructure, a weak and cash-poor central government, and an ecologically battered, flood-prone landscape that limited fall-back sources of income for afflicted communities. Many of these areas had been manipulated for so long to grow rice, they were essentially useless for any other reason.
This northern area had become one of the most heavily populated areas in all of China, with a massive 2,000 people per square mile in the village districts of Zhili – which is roughly a third of modern-day London. Then there was humanity’s international pastime, war, which saw three political factions battling each other during the ten-day Zhili-Anhui war, resulting in disrupted supply routes across the North, destroyed crops, and looting in a dozen districts just south of Beijing.
Despite the unfolding calamity, the response was impressive, particularly from the International community, perhaps still basking in the positive afterglow of the end of the Great War. Soup kitchens were set up across the affected regions, with one serving as many as 25,000 people a day in Anyang, Henan. Relief grain, both from the central government and charity organisations, was distributed throughout the area and managed to keep the death count relatively low compared to what had come before. Now, I say relatively low, but half a million people still died in this specific famine. As you’ll see as we move on, numbers begin to blur as they climb ever higher and it’s sometimes difficult to put it all in perspective.
The Northwest famine of 1928–1930
The relatively effective response was in stark contrast to what happened less than 10 years later. The Northwest famine that began in 1928, and lasted for almost three years, started in the coastal regions before sweeping the northwest, mainly affecting the provinces of Henan, Shaanxi and Gansu. An estimated 9.2 million acres of arable land was left barren by the disaster, which killed between 3 and 10 million people.
Once again the principal cause came from the failure of crops starting in 1928, but this was heavily exacerbated by military activity in the area as regional warlords battled one another, while often systematically stripping the local communities of grain, livestock, and farming implements. This was made even worse by demands handed down by warlords for the local people to grow opium to fund military escapades. Opium can make your boss huge amounts of money, but it certainly does very little to address famine conditions.
The wider response to the unfolding tragedy was also significantly worse than in 1920, with the central government, or at least certain officials, seemingly more preoccupied with internal conflict than with securing relief for the local people. While poor maintenance of dykes and dams in the region was yet another factor that led to a disastrous period for crops in the northwest.
This particular famine saw millions of people become refugees as they desperately sought areas of relief. Roughly 4 million people arrived in Manchuria while the coastal city of Jinan in coastal Shandong Province saw 25,000 refugees ‘existing on only one bowl of free gruel daily.’
Sichuan – 1936-1937
Despite being rich with agricultural potential, the province of Sichuan had endured a harsh period for some time. A succession of never-ending conflicts had already pushed this area well beyond the brink and high taxation on farmers often forced them to pay for years in advance. The scene was set for the next Chinese disaster.
With the fighting between the Chinese Communists and Chinese Nationalists now nearly 10 years old, the strain it was having on the country was beginning to show. Notably, both sides used this famine as a rather clumsy way of winning hearts and minds, with many of Chiang Kaishek’s provisional government said to donate to a relief fund, with those above Major-General giving 20%, above Lieutenant-Colonel 10%, lower ranks 3-5% and soldiers 10 cents. How much of this actually happened, and how much was just to try and paint a better image than the Communists, it’s impossible to say.
It’s thought that 30-50 million were affected, mostly in Sichuan, but also in Gansu. Riots occurred across the region as desperate people vented their fury and attacked food relief vehicles, sometimes leading to hundreds of deaths. There were also plenty of beyond horrific stories emerging from the region, with tales of children being kidnapped to sell on to buy food or parents simply killing their children as the most horrific form of relief we can imagine. There were stories of cannibalism, people eating bark or grass and even digging down into the mud to find clay to eat.
Things stabilized in 1937 and led to calls for a sweeping modernisation of an area that had been plagued by instability for years. Chiang Kaishek nobly promised infrastructure projects, such as railways, roads and dams to fix the issues as well as ridding the region of opium cultivation and the oppressive taxes that had kept its people in poverty for as long as anybody could remember. Needless to say, very little of this actually happened. It’s not entirely clear how many people died in the particular famine, with some estimates going as high as 5 million. It’s clear that with the country now caught between the Nationalists and the Communists, the cause, blame and death count, was far from clear-cut.
The Henan Famine – 1942 – 1943
The famine that began in Henan Province in 1942 is often referred to as China’s Forgotten Famine, for the simple reason that China was also fighting off the invading Japanese army at the time. Not that that should detract from a catastrophe that claimed between 2 and 5 million lives, but as I said earlier, famine had become such a frequent part of Chinese life, disasters had a habit of blurring together.
The real start of this tragedy came in 1938 when the Nationalist army took the drastic decision to flood the Yellow River in an attempt to slow the Japanese forces pouring through the country in what is still considered the largest act of environmental warfare in history. On 7th June 1938, Nationalist forces destroyed the Huayuankou dyke which sent water cascading across thousands of square kilometres of farmland and villages.
The result was so dramatic, it shifted the path of the Yellow River several hundred kilometres south. Nobody is quite sure how many people died as result, with Japanese troops and Chinese civilians paying a hefty price. The Chinese initially claimed the breach had occurred because of Japanese bombing, but eventually had to concede it was by their own hand. It’s thought that 12 million people were directly affected by the flooding, many of whom had to flee their homes, with anywhere between 400,000 and 800,000 people dying as a result of the flood.
This set things up for the further horrors that were to come. The flood left a devastated, scarred land that took years to recover and the province of Henan became the epicentre of a perfect storm of hell.
When the rain failed in the summer and spring of 1942, Henan was a divided province, with the Chinese occupying the western half and the Japanese the eastern. On top of the drought caused by the lack of rain, harvests were also hit by locusts which devastated much of what had survived. And on top of that, both Chinese and Japanese soldiers continued to demand a high rice quota to feed their hungry troops, with little to no compassion for those these quotas left with absolutely nothing.
As with other famines, conditions quickly became horrendous and cannibalism was said to be rife, while desperate parents started selling their children. Hunger was not the only factor in the death count, as disease quickly spread through Hennan as the region began to sag under appalling conditions. Blame was thrown around left, right and centre. Some argued it was the central Nationalist government’s fault, while others pointed the finger at local officials who were reported to be still frequently feasting on the kind of food you’d expect to see on a western dinner table in the 21st Century. The Communists of course blamed the Nationalists, while both also pointed to the invading Japanese force as the causes of it all. If this had been the first time famine had hit China, it might well have been successfully blamed on the foreigners, but as we’ve seen, this was far from an isolated incident.
The Great Leap
And so we come to the nadir of hell – the catastrophe to end all catastrophes – the piece de resistance of calamitous human activity. The Great Chinese Famine that rocked the country between 1959 and 1961 is widely considered the worst famine of all time and was a direct result of one of the largest (and worst) economic and social campaigns in history, known as the Great Leap Forward.
Like many disastrous economic initiatives, the Great Leap Forward at least came with good, albeit horribly implemented, intentions. The concept, not surprising considering the word leap is in the title, was to essentially vault the economy forward. Unlike the Soviet model which focused on the development of heavy machinery, the Chinese chose to focus their efforts on human power, rather than mechanical. With a mammoth 660 million people in the country in 1958, it’s perhaps not difficult to see why this decision was made.
To make this great leap, party officials settled on a plan that called for the creation of rural communes around the country that would collectivise crop production while also often including small-scale steel furnaces that Mao hoped would kick-start rural industrialisation. Private farming was effectively prohibited and party affiliation and communist vigour were placed above technical knowledge and know-how. Within these communes, everybody toiled in the fields or the heat of the furnaces for the greater good, but like most things surrounding Communism, it all sounded much better on paper than in reality.
Disastrous isn’t enough of a word for what came next. With unreasonable crop quotas placed upon the population, which were then raised, coupled with staggering governmental incompetence and sprinkled with some good old fashioned natural disasters, the years between 1959 and 1961 in China were tragic for many millions of people.
The Great Famine
Nobody is entirely sure how many people died in the Great Famine. It’s generally accepted that 20 million is the minimum number for those who died, while the maximum usually tops out around 55 million. It’s worth remembering that during this period, doctors were specifically barred from entering ‘starvation’ as a cause of death, because, well, it doesn’t look very good does it and tends to paint a rather grim picture of socialism. In short, we will never fully know how many people died during these three horrifying years. 40 million seems to be a number used by many – which is the entire population of Iraq, the 36th most populated country in the world.
The Great Famine saw a collision of factors that killed an unbelievable number of people in an unbelievably short space of time, but arguments over which factor was worst continues to this day. It’s easy to just point the finger at the new communes and the collectivisation, but in truth, it was usually the tragically inept local officials who did the most damage. Many officials wanted to prove themselves within a system where even the slightest hint of disagreement or questioning was quickly labelled as conservative rightism, and which would typically lead to you losing your job and perhaps even your life.
These officials often fabricated crop yield numbers to such an extent that they began to skew the overall picture in a truly disastrous way. Leaders at the top became convinced that there was a superabundance of grain, when in fact there was a huge deficit. There were even stories of Mao visiting rural areas and witnessing farmers picking crops in specially created fields that were designed to give the impression of abundance. People were terrified of reporting anything negative and so painted increasingly wild works of absolute bullshit.
Some areas did better than others and this was often down to the level of competency within local officials. In Jiangxi for example, officials had been firmly against the Great Leap Forward all along and purposely dragged their feet when implementing it and saw a considerably lower number of deaths than in other parts of China.
Other human factors included the widespread targeting of birds to prevent them from eating the new seeds, which resulted in a huge increase in the vermin population – and guess what vermin like to eat. Then there was the encouragement to grow crops much closer to each other, and further down, in the absurd belief that the same species of plants wouldn’t compete with one another. As any keen horticulturalists will tell you, this is absolutely bonkers. Even the same crops need a certain amount of space and the decision to oversow fields proved disastrous.
Then there were the natural causes that began with the worst flood the Yellow River had seen since the 1930s in 1958, affecting over half a million acres of cultivated land. The government valiantly recruited 2 million farmworkers to participate in redirecting the flood water into the Bohai Sea, which consequently meant that 2 million people were not in the fields desperately trying to make up their insane quota numbers, which led to vast amounts of crops simply rotting.
The result of all of this was suffering on a level even China had not experienced. Whole communes perished as people begged local officials for food, efforts that were more often than not either outright refused or much worse. Stories of torture, cannibalism, murder – you name it – everything was going on around this time as humanity battled to save itself in the face of utter horror.
When the level of carnage did finally become apparent, Mao stepped aside from much of the decision making and allowed Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping to instigate a series of reforms that brought the famine under control by 1962. But Mao wasn’t quite done yet, no doubt bitter that his supposed Great Leap Forward had resulted in millions of deaths with next to no actual economic leap taken, Mao stewed for a few years as the criticism of his policies mounted, before launching his Cultural Revolution aka, the Great Chinese Communist purge of anybody who wasn’t left enough, in 1968 – another insane policy that led to millions of deaths, and one that would probably deserve an entire video in its own right.
The Great Famine has, at the very least, led to significant changes in policy meaning that China hasn’t experienced a widespread famine since 1962. Not that not having any famines should be anything to be congratulated about, especially in a modern superpower in a waiting country like China, but does give you an idea of the changes that have been made.
Say what you will about China – and no doubt the comment section will do just that – but the country has lifted an extraordinary number out of poverty in the last 30 years, with less than 0.5% of the population (7.2 million people) now living on less than $1.90 a day – down from 750 million in 1990. To give you another large-scale comparison, around 22% of the Indian population still live under the poverty line.
What happened during the 20th Century in China was shocking, to say the least, and highlighted a lack of regard for human life that had sadly been well ingrained for as long as anybody could remember. Yes, there were times where natural disasters played a key role, but more often than not, it was human incompetence, infighting and callous attitudes that led to so many deaths.
Discussing the Great Famine in China is still taboo today and as far as the glorious annals of Communist China go, these were three years with some difficulties and some bad weather, but very little mention of the horror that played out. China may have corrected the massive problems behind the scenes and have lifted a huge number of people out of poverty, but the worst famine in human history remains an event so terrible and so closely linked to the ruling party, people still fear to talk about it.